Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: The Role of Feelings

One of the ways that folks become embroiled in abusive or exploitive relationships is by falling prey to concerns about the way their character-disordered partner is feeling. They almost never consider that the brandishing of anger might be a tactic that character-disturbed individuals use to manipulate and control others, as opposed to a genuine feeling.

I’ve been posting on the significant differences between individuals best described as neurotic to some degree and those best described as having a significant disturbance of character. I’ve noted how neurotics and character-disordered persons differ with respect to their levels of awareness of about their problems, their needs from a therapy or counseling experience, their self-image issues, etc. Another way that neurotics differ from character disorders has to do with the role emotions or feelings play in the creation and maintenance of their personal and interpersonal problems.

When a neurotic person seeks counseling for one reason or another, you can safely assume that there are some emotional issues that need to be attended to or resolved. Perhaps those feelings have been long repressed. Perhaps those feelings are very mixed and conflicted, in which case they are likely to be engendering a fair degree of anxiety. In any case, helping a person to more intimately connect with their feelings and sort through their troubled emotions is the hallmark of the traditional psychotherapy. Regardless of the problems he is having, therapy for the neurotic almost always involves considerable focus on feelings.

In contrast, the problems the disturbed character has functioning well in a social context are not so much a consequence of the way he feels but the way he thinks. It’s the ill-gotten attitudes, distorted thinking patterns, and dysfunctional core beliefs he has come to hold that are the main causes of problems. In recent years, awareness of this fact has spurred a revolution in therapeutic approaches. The term “cognitive-behavioral therapy” refers to an orientation founded on the principle that there is an inextricable connection between a person’s core beliefs, attitudes, and thinking patterns, and his or her behavior. For example, if a man’s core beliefs include the notions that a woman is naturally inferior to any man, is destined by nature to be submissive to males, is a rightful personal possession if she should become involved in a serious relationship with him, and has value to him primarily as an object of sexual gratification, one would not be particularly surprised to learn that this man had a history of abusive conduct with his wife or girlfriend. How we think in large measure determines how we will act. When dealing with disordered characters, the kinds of problematic thinking they habitually engage in is a much bigger issue to address as opposed to how they are feeling about anything. Once distorted thinking patterns are successfully challenged and corrected, problems might actually become resolved altogether. If there are still emotional issues to address, they certainly can be dealt with, but only after the character issues and the distorted thinking pattern responsible for them have been resolved.

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One of the ways that folks become embroiled in abusive or exploitive relationships is by falling prey to concerns about the way their character-disordered partner is feeling. For example, they might focus all too much on why their partner seems angry all the time, wondering what they might have done to engender such ire. They almost never consider that the brandishing of anger is sometimes a tactic that character-disturbed individuals use to manipulate and control others, as opposed to a genuine feeling. What’s more, they don’t consider that it’s their abuser’s attitudes toward them, value system, and distorted manner of thinking about things that is the problem. If they manage to lure their partner into counseling, and the counselor is of the traditional mindset and primarily focuses on “feelings,” things are likely to get no better, and may possibly get worse as the non-character-disordered party bares his or her soul in the counseling process and exposes even more of his or her vulnerability to the abusive party.

When I first began using more appropriate methods to counsel character-disordered persons, a frequent comment I heard from clients was “I don’t think you really care.” This kind of comment really put me on the defensive initially. After all, I was a therapist and I was supposed to be a warm, empathic person dedicated to helping alleviate human misery. It took me awhile to realize that a comment like that was really a counter-therapeutic and manipulative tactic on their part. They wanted me to see their point of view on things, to justify their conduct, and most especially to see if they could convince me that they deserved just as much sympathy as those whose lives they had wreaked havoc upon. Of course I cared. But I also came to know that if I were to care properly and therapeutically for the disordered characters I was working with, I would have to confront the real impediments to their inner psychological health and healthy interpersonal functioning. That meant calling them on their tactics and letting them know that my “caring” would be revealed in time by my unwavering dedication to challenging and helping them correct the distorted thinking patterns that had made a mess of their lives and the lives of others for too many years. The door was always open to more traditional feelings-based counseling after character issues were resolved, and many did indeed walk through that door when the time came. That made me a believer in the notion that when it comes to dealing with significant disturbances of character, focusing on feelings is not “caring” but rather enabling.

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