Understanding the Dysfunctional Tactics of Disturbed Characters

Disordered characters engage in certain behaviors that are so “automatic” that it’s tempting to think that they do them unconsciously. Besides that, on the surface, these behaviors so closely resemble defense mechanisms at times that they can easily be misinterpreted as such.

Almost everyone has heard the term “defense mechanism.” Originating in psychoanalytic theory, the term refers to a variety of intra-psychic mechanisms individuals use to defend against the experience of unbearable emotional pain and to alleviate anxiety associated with conflicts between their primal urges (id) and their consciences (superego). Such mechanisms are postulated to operate unconsciously. That is, the person doesn’t deliberately use these methods to ease emotional pain, but rather the unconscious mind employs them so that the conscious mind never has to experience the pain in the first place. But the reason individuals we sometimes label “neurotic” sometimes develop problematic symptoms is because these unconscious tools of anxiety mitigation, though powerful, are neither adequate, nor are they fully adaptive as ways to mitigate emotional pain.

Disordered characters engage in certain behaviors that are so “automatic” that it’s tempting to think that they do them unconsciously. Besides that, on the surface, these behaviors so closely resemble defense mechanisms at times that they can easily be misinterpreted as such, especially by individuals who are overly steeped in traditional paradigms or perspectives of understanding human behavior. However, on closer inspection, many of these behaviors might be more accurately labeled tactics of manipulation, impression-management, and responsibility-resistance.

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In a prior post, I noted that one of the distinguishing differences between individuals best described as “neurotic” versus those best described as disturbed in character is the role that true “defense mechanisms” play in the problems they have. I also pointed out how common it is that certain behaviors can be misinterpreted when erroneously given the same label that have traditionally been assigned to the defense mechanisms. (See “Understanding Denial as a Defense Mechanism”.)

In the next series of posts, I’ll be discussing some of the most common behaviors disturbed characters engage in that simultaneously reinforce their resistance to accepting social responsibility, manage the impressions others have of them, and manipulate others into a position of disadvantage in their relationships with them. Because the behaviors simultaneously accomplish all three of these objectives, they are powerful offensive tactics or maneuvers. Disturbed characters use these tactics often because they’re effective (at least in the short-run). And because many of them are often misinterpreted as defense mechanisms or behaviors other than the tactics they are, they are worthy of careful examination. Misinterpreting the behavior of a disordered character is the first step in the process of being victimized by them.

Some of the behaviors we’ll be discussing in the upcoming series will include rationalization (i.e., excuse-making or attempts at justification), blaming and scapegoating, playing the victim, feigning ignorance and innocence, and minimizing.

The tactics disturbed characters use that obstruct the development of social responsibility are also closely linked with the erroneous patterns of thinking that were the subjects of the last series of posts. In fact, the thinking errors and the attitudes they spawn are the precursors for many of the tactics we’ll be discussing.

The series of posts on thinking errors generated some great discussion. I hope the same will prove true for the series on the dysfunctional tactics of the disturbed character.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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