Character Disturbance: Too Much Anxiety, or Too Little?

Anxiety plays a central role in what we have commonly called neurosis. Anxiety plays a minimal role, however, in the problems of the disordered character.

I’ve been posting a series of articles on some of the major differences between individuals best described as neurotic to some degree and those better described as disturbed or disordered in character. Neurotics and character disordered persons differ on such things as the extent of conscience development (see “Matters of Conscience”), levels of internal discomfort with problem behaviors (see “Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Levels of Internal Discomfort”), needs in therapy (see “Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Contrasting Needs in Therapy”), etc. Another significant dimension on which the neurotic differs from the disturbed character is the level and quality of anxiety they might experience.

Anxiety has always been thought to play a central role in both the creation and maintenance of neurosis. Anxiety is that primal emotion (i.e., fear response) that we get when we feel threatened in some way. When our fear is attached to a specific, identifiable circumstance, such as being in a room filled with a lot of people, having to take a test, or coming face to face with a snake, we call it a phobia. When our apprehension does not appear connected to a specific thing or circumstance, is unidentifiable, unknown, or unconscious, we call it anxiety. Psychodynamically-oriented theorists all give preeminence to the role that anxiety plays in the creation of all types of neurosis. Individuals who are overly anxious, excessively apprehensive, inordinately fretful, or too easily unnerved can suffer several of a host of maladies that are either directly caused or exacerbated by their anxiety. The “symptoms” neurotic individuals report to a therapist, whether they be stress-related ulcers, tension headaches, fear-based avoidance of crowds or open places (i.e., agoraphobia), obsessive worry, fear of abandonment, etc., almost always have anxiety at their root. Within traditional frameworks, the “dynamics” of someone’s neurosis always center around the things the person fears, whether that fear is consciously known to them or not.

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It’s also noteworthy that whether a fear is conscious and specific (i.e., a phobia) or whether it is unconscious or unidentified, research indicates that there is a common way to get rid of it: exposure. When phobic clients undergo treatment with behavioral or cognitive-behavioral methods, they are systematically encouraged to come into increasing contact with the situations they fear, gaining an increased sense of personal empowerment and reducing their apprehension levels in the process. In traditional psychotherapy, clients gradually come into conscious contact with, and therefore “face,” their previously unconscious fears in the safe, supportive, accepting atmosphere promoted by the therapist, and their anxiety levels are eventually reduced.

Anxiety is minimally present or plays a negligible role in the problems of the disturbed character, however. In some cases, it’s absent altogether. Character-disordered individuals are notoriously nonchalant about the things that most others get upset about. Some theorists and researchers think they lack the kind of fearfulness that is very adaptive in character for most of us. As a result, disordered characters don’t get apprehensive enough about their conduct. Because they’re not apprehensive enough at the prospect of negative consequence, they readily leap into risky situations when others would hesitate. A little of the neurotic’s typical apprehension would go a long way toward helping the disturbed character be more cautious or hesitant when it comes to doing the things he does that frequently cause problems. Not only do disordered characters lack adaptive levels of anxiety, but also they especially tend to not experience apprehension in the kinds of situations that most of us do.

For several reasons that I have never fully understood, traditionally-minded therapists and relatively neurotic individuals are all too quick to ascribe fears and insecurities to disordered characters that simply don’t exist. They will frequently misinterpret the behavior and motivations of character-disordered individuals and frame things inappropriately. For example, some disordered characters have such a passion for novelty and such a craving for excitement that they constantly seek shallow, intense, and short-lived high-risk sexual involvements and other interpersonal titillations. But this characteristic thrill-seeking behavior is sometimes framed as necessarily stemming from a “fear” of intimacy or commitment. I think this mistake is often made because it’s difficult for neurotic individuals (or traditionally-minded therapists) to imagine why a person wouldn’t necessarily prefer a stable and intimate relationship over multiple risky encounters unless they were in some way “afraid” of something deeper. This kind of thinking also reflects a long-held but unproven tenet of classical psychology that everyone will naturally gravitate toward healthier life choices unless they are “hung-up” by unconscious fears born of early trauma. But it’s also possible that some therapists are so married to their traditional metaphors about the nature of human behavior that even when they encounter a square peg they try to fit it into a round hole. In my book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I make the important point that one of the principal ways people get manipulated by disturbed characters is by misframing some of their more abusive or exploitive behaviors. Some of our long-held notions about why people do the things they do have unfortunately played a role in setting folks up for victimization by those whose characters do not fit well within the framework of neurosis.

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