Getting the Right Kind of Help With Character Disturbance

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It is extremely difficult to manage character-disturbed individuals — for those who are in relationships with them and also for therapists trying to help. This is Part 1 of a three-part series on how to get the right kind of help with character disturbance, including tips for finding therapy that works, plus red flags that indicate when it probably won’t.

Of the hundreds of emails and letters I receive each year, by far the most frequent request I get is for assistance in finding a therapist who can really help when it comes to dealing with a character-impaired individual. Often these requests come from one partner in a relationship who eagerly sought counseling in the past, either on an individual or couples basis, and experienced great disappointment because things got no better. Some thought the therapist didn’t seem to ‘get it’ with respect to the disturbed character’s behavior. Others reported feeling livid because the therapist appeared to succumb to the character-disturbed individual’s penchant for impression management, and ended up buying into manipulations ‘hook, line, and sinker.’ Here’s an example:

My now ex-spouse exhibited so many behaviors you describe in your book that it simply amazed me. It was like all the many puzzle pieces just fell right into place. I’ve experienced so much frustration over the years trying to get help, and so much damage has been done, even by those who were supposed to be helping me. First there was the counselor who seemed bowled over by my ex’s charm and was always telling me to have more empathy for his ‘needs’ and to stop saying or doing things that would ‘damage’ his self-esteem. I even went to a couple of Christian counselors, but one constantly minimized the seriousness of his behavior and the other seemed to push ‘forgiveness’ on my part over him showing any kind of real repentance and setting himself on the right track.

I’m fine now. I saw the light a few years ago, have pretty much healed, and I’m never again putting myself in the position I was once in. But it still hurts a bit to know I was wrongly judged for all those years, especially by those I went to for help but who I now realize had no real idea about what was going on.

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I also get many letters and emails from therapists, most of whom were trained in traditional perspectives but who have come to realize how ineffective those approaches are when dealing with a character-disturbed individual. Here’s just one example:

I’m a trained therapist who has practiced for over 10 years. I also consider myself a loving and caring person who is passionate about many things. I read your book and realized: “OMG I’m a real magnet for covert-aggressives. They LOVE me!” I started taking a serious look at my relationships and what it was about me that invited problem characters into my life. I really wish this book had been part of the required reading when I was in grad school. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. One of my clients actually gave it to me, and I’m so glad she did. My perspective has changed so much. My personal life is certainly better, but more than that, my counseling is better. I don’t see everyone the same way anymore. I can spot a good neurotic like me now, and know how to deal with a manipulator or other dysfunctional character much better than I used to.

With new objectivity, and the eye of a therapist, I have to say it’s pretty amazing to watch all the changes taking place in my life. What I’ll treasure most about your book is the fact that it not only helped me see things differently, but gave me the tools to change myself. As a therapist who believes in continued growth, I have my own therapist. She often commented in the past that my biggest strength and my weakness were the same (i.e. my somewhat naive and tender heart). But now I have a much deeper understanding of what she meant. I’m never going to be a cold-hearted person. That’s just not me. But I have a different vision now, and I’m not going to be taken in again.

Statements like the ones referenced above have convinced me of the importance of fashioning some posts on how to best ensure you get the right kind of help if you’re seeking someone to help you deal with a disturbed character in your life. In the next post, I’ll have some helpful tips on what to look for and things to consider when seeking help. In a subsequent post, I’ll discuss the ‘red flags’ that could indicate that the help you’re already getting might not be what you need to make things better or might possibly even make things worse.

For part 2 of this series, see: “How to Find a Therapist Who Can Help With Character Disturbance”.

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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