Personal Empowerment: Let Go of Harmful Misconceptions

Our conceptualizations of the situations we find ourselves in can not only place us at a disadvantage, but can literally do us harm.

I’ve been posting a series of articles on how to empower yourself in relationships, especially with persons of deficient or disordered character. Some of the “tools of personal empowerment” we’ve discussed already include accepting no excuses for inappropriate behavior, avoiding the trap of second-guessing someone’s motives, and being sure not to succumb to the notion that someone else’s problem behavior is your fault:

Perhaps no principle of self-empowerment is as critical as ridding yourself of inaccurate or even harmful conceptualizations of why people behave the way they do and what to do about it. Unfortunately, many of these misconceptions originated with theories about human behavior meant to help us understand and deal with one another. Although some of these theories continue to hold some value, some of the most essential tenets of these theories — though widely known and accepted — put us in a position to significantly misjudge situations, especially abusive situations, and end up keeping us in a one-down position when we’re trying to understand and deal with the behavior of a disturbed character.

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There are so many notions arising out of traditional psychology paradigms that we now know are without merit, some of which seem patently ludicrous to us when we think about them for a moment. For example, we know that children don’t become autistic because their mothers were “cold” and non-nurturing during their infancy. We also know that mothers who gave “mixed messages” of love and hate to their infants aren’t responsible for the disease of schizophrenia. We know that “bullies” most often aren’t really insecure cowards struggling with low self-esteem. We also know that the symptoms and strange events that some of Freud’s patients reported between themselves and their relatives were more likely red flags that they were actually sexual abuse victims as opposed to persons who simply couldn’t come to terms with their own lustful urges.

Although it seems like we’ve come a long way in our thinking, many folks still hold onto traditional notions about the reasons people do the things they do. This wouldn’t be so bad if we were only dealing with people who are best described as “neurotic” to some degree (see my various posts on neurosis vs. character disturbance, beginning with “Disturbances of Character”). But we now live in the age of character disturbance. And to be empowered in a relationship with a person of deficient or disordered character, you have to know what really makes them tick. So, when they keep making excuses, lie repeatedly about what they’ve done, or try to make you feel guilty for confronting them, you have to stop seeing them as insecure, “in denial,” or “defending” themselves. Instead, you have to recognize their determination to place themselves above the generally accepted rules or to defy them outright. In short, how we perceive what’s going on in an abusive situation will greatly influence how we respond to it. Our conceptualizations of the situations we find ourselves in can not only place us at a disadvantage, but can literally do us harm.

I’ve received hundreds of emails and testimonials over the years from people who have read my book In Sheep’s Clothing, attesting to the fact that the ultimate “light bulb moment” in a one-time abuse victim’s life came when they finally abandoned all the assumptions they had that were rooted in traditional philosophies and for the first time saw the disturbed character they were dealing with from a more accurate perspective. Their comments are always of similar character — e.g., “I see it now,” “I always felt this in my gut but didn’t want to believe it,” “Now I know I’m not crazy after all,” Yeah, his self-esteem is out of whack all right but not in the way I once thought,” etc. Adopting a new framework for understanding the character they’d been dealing with was not only eye-opening but empowering — empowering because they came to really understand the tactics of the disturbed character and how to respond to them, no longer falling into the traps to which they used to succumb.

In summary, one of the most essential tools of empowerment involves understanding the age we live in and the number one by-product of our age: character disturbance. When we stop trying to understand it through paradigms created to describe something else and adopt a more accurate framework, everything changes.

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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