Disturbances of Character: The Most Pressing Issue of Our Age?

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The most pressing socio-cultural issue of our time is not poverty, injustice, or brain biochemical imbalances. It’s character.

Almost 15 years ago, I wrote my first book In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People . I was prompted to write it because I had encountered so many instances of what I would later call “covert-aggression,” counseled so many people involved in exploitative, manipulative, and abusive relationships, and found the traditional ways I’d been taught to help people so ineffective, that I was sure there would be a market for a book that took a new, radical approach. Time has more than validated my assumption. But In Sheep’s Clothing did not go far enough in exposing and explaining what has become the most pressing psychological issue of our time — character disturbance. So, a few years ago I began writing a more comprehensive work on the subject. Although medical issues, a hectic schedule, and other factors have delayed the completion of the project, Character Disturbance will soon be in wide release.

In an upcoming series of articles, I plan to give readers a sort of “sneak peek” into Character Disturbance and to discuss the most important reasons why I believe the book is so necessary and timely. The most important reason I felt compelled to write such a book is because I am not only convinced of but also deeply concerned about the seriousness of the character crisis facing most western societies. To quote from the introduction of my new book:

Today there are many types of professionals spanning a wide variety of disciplines that deal with mental health issues and personal problems of one variety or another. Most of these professionals have never encountered — let alone treated — a case of hysterical blindness, pseudo-paralysis, or any similar phenomenon. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly rare for professionals to encounter a case of “neurosis” that is truly at a highly pathological level of intensity. Therapists rarely deal with problems that stem from a conscience so overactive or oppressive that it causes a person to develop bizarre and debilitating psychosomatic or other pathological symptoms. Instead, mental health clinicians in all disciplines increasingly find themselves intervening with individuals whose problems are related to their dysfunctional attitudes and thinking patterns, their shallow, self-centered relationships, their social immaturity and irresponsibility, and their habitual, dysfunctional behavior patterns, all of which stem from an underdeveloped conscience and reflect significant deficiencies of character.

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Traditional therapy has always been geared toward the amelioration of neurosis. And the majority of self-help psychology books over the years have been written by, for, and about neurotics. But to quote again from the book:

Highly pathological levels of neurosis…have all but completely disappeared, especially in industrialized free societies. Instead of modern culture being dominated by individuals who are overly riddled with guilt and shame (i.e. “hung-up” as children of the 60’s used to say), Western culture has produced increasing numbers of individuals who aren’t “hung-up” enough about the things they let themselves do. So, today we are facing a near epidemic of what some theorists refer to as character disturbance. Neurosis is still with us, but for the most part at functional as opposed to pathological levels. That is, most today experience just enough apprehension and internal turmoil when it comes to simply acting on their primal urges that they don’t in fact “just do it.” Instead, they experience just enough anticipatory guilt or shame that they restrain their impulses and conform their conduct to more socially acceptable standards. So, one can say that their neurosis is functional. It’s largely what makes society work.

Because neurosis is still with us, and because the overly conscientious folks among us can still become quite weary carrying their burdens of responsibility, traditional therapy has a place and can provide very much needed support. But disturbances of character are an increasing problem, and traditional helping methods are nearly useless in dealing effectively with them.

The next several posts will take a serious and in-depth look at the phenomenon of character disturbance and the social and cultural reasons for its increasing prevalence. I won’t focus so much on why traditional assumptions and interventions don’t help with the problem as I will call attention to innovative new approaches that can really help us understand and deal more effectively with it.

My main purpose in writing the series is to do my part in stemming what I believe to be the most insidious and disturbing of all the recent socio-cultural “megatrends.” That trend is the increasing burdening (through laws, regulations, taxes, and other social sanctions) of those who are already carrying the burden of responsibility quite faithfully while exculpating and, most especially, enabling those who are not behaving responsibly to be even more irresponsible. Eventually, if we raise the requirements and costs of responsible behavior high enough, even good people will stop being responsible. And if we make the cost of misbehavior almost negligible, or even “reward” it, then we take away any incentive for irresponsible people to change. This is elementary behavioral science.

We can’t solve our problems without first recognizing and acknowledging what they are. Our main societal problem is not that we don’t have enough rules (we have millions) but that there are those among us who simply won’t play by them. Although they are legitimate concerns, the most pressing socio-cultural issue of our time is not poverty, injustice, or brain biochemical imbalances. It’s character. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. And it’s been too long ignored. It can be addressed, but first we must acknowledge its presence. One only has to pay attention to the daily headlines — from Wall Street connivers who scammed millions, to the brutes who bludgeoned an honor student to death with a railroad tie while many looked on and some took pictures that ended up on YouTube — to recognize the seriousness of an issue whose time to reckon with has surely come.

I hope you’ll join me in a robust discussion of what I consider the pressing issue of our age.

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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