You might want them to see the self-defeating and other-harming consequences of their behavior, but the fact is many disturbed characters already see, they just disagree.
Because I’ve made a career of understanding and dealing with responsibility-challenged people and have written about them extensively, I get an enormous amount of mail and email from folks weary from their ordeals with the disturbed characters in their lives. And it never ceases to amaze me how often I hear these folks lament that they wish the problem character they’ve been dealing with could “see what they’re doing,” or understand how self-destructive their behavior is. The assumption is, of course, that the disturbed character lacks insight into both the nature of their behavior and the other-harming and self-defeating consequences of it.
One of the reasons I wrote my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), is because a lot of the victims in abusive relationships, especially those involved with manipulative characters, often spent inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to get the other person to “see” the dysfunctional aspects of their ways. Trying so hard to get the other person to understand led the victims to feel angry, frustrated, and ultimately depressed and defeated. All the while, they have asked themselves: “Why don’t they see what they’re doing?”
In my new book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I repeat a little rhyming phrase that I have used in numerous workshops over the years: They already see, but they disagree. By this I mean that most of the time, the disturbed characters in your life have heard the same things about their problem behaviors over and over again from a variety of sources. They often understand fully just what it is others want them to change and what standards and principles most of us would like them to adopt. The problem is not so much that they don’t see. The real problem is that they haven’t made the decision to accept and adopt the standard. So, they make excuses for the way they prefer to do things, blame others for making them do it, or use other tactics to avoid accepting the need for change, while simultaneously trying as best they can to manage the impression others have of them. This explains why disturbed and disordered personalities don’t seem to learn or profit from experience. Actually, they learn plenty. But they don’t learn what we want them to learn. We want them to learn that it’s in their long-term best interest and the interest of everyone else to abandon some of their own core beliefs and patterns of conduct and modify or replace them with the ways of thinking and behaving that many others have found the most adaptive.
Adopting a principle or standard of conduct, taking it to heart, and internalizing it is the ultimate act of submission and self-sacrifice. The various aggressive personalities, like the unbridled aggressive (antisocial), predatory aggressive (psychopathic), and the others I describe in my writings, have such an internal revulsion to any behavior that even resembles a submissive act that they simply can’t “cave in” on an issue, even when experience has taught them it would be better for all in the long run if they did. And the egotistic (i.e., narcissistic) personalities harbor such feelings of superiority and entitlement, that they see no need to subject themselves to limiting codes of conduct. So, these disturbed characters refuse to surrender their hearts and minds to the expectations most of us more willingly (although sometimes begrudgingly) accept.
The key to dealing effectively with character-deficient people is to invest your time and energy where you have power. We simply can’t control other people, places, or things. And we certainly don’t have the power to make anyone else “see.” What we can do is set our own “terms of engagement” for any dealings we have with others, including those who have a tendency to trample all over our legitimate rights and needs. We have the power to set limits, to enforce boundaries, to make clear our expectations, and above all to determine under what context we will even have dealings with others. These actions can send a message much more powerful than words. And over time, they can even break the destructive cycle of “enabling” the hurtful behavior of those who have insufficient regard for us. When this happens consistently enough over a wide variety of situations and with many different persons, even the most deeply disturbed character — who already sees, but who has long disagreed — might find some practical value in trying out some new ways of doing things.
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 Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by