Disturbed Characters: Can They Ever Really Change?

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What does ‘change’ really mean? What does it take to bring about real change? How can we recognize when change is really taking place?

I get hundreds of letters, emails, and blog back-channel enquiries every year from readers of my books and other writings who still have questions about the manipulators or other problem characters in their life. Among the most frequent questions they ask is: “Can this person ever really change?” And they most often ask this question while struggling to decide whether to sever a relationship, or stick it out in the hope that change is possible.

In a sense, the question of whether a disturbed character can change is without much meaning. The simple answer to that question is: yes, manipulators, and any disturbed character for that matter, being human beings with free will, can (i.e. have the power to) change. But the more crucial and meaningful questions are: Under what circumstances are they likely to be motivated to change? Does changing their outward behavior mean they’ve really had a change of heart? and, How do you know whether a change you think you see will be genuine and lasting?

Personality styles evolve over time and, by definition, are resistant to change. So, most of the time, problem personalities won’t alter their ‘preferred style’ of relating to others unless the costs of doing things their usual way have begun to strongly outweigh the benefits. For example, manipulators may give up their tactics of control, responsibility-avoidance, and impression-management when such tactics no longer work very well. Once enough people have ‘gotten it’ with respect to the disturbed character’s behavior style and set different terms of engagement with them, a manipulator might come to believe that their former strategies simply won’t get them what they want anymore.

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Sometimes, when one problem behavior pattern is abandoned, other more problematic patterns can emerge. In my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, I classify most manipulators as “covert-aggressive” personalities. They are among those personalities who are unbalanced with respect to how often, how intensely, and how intractably they pursue a position of dominance and control. And manipulators pursue those ends most often through covert strategies. But when covert strategies don’t work anymore, they can easily turn to more overt and potentially dangerous strategies. So, just because someone has given up manipulative tactics doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve dealt with the aggressive propensities responsible for their problems.

Changing some aspect of our behavior is always the first step toward having a change of heart. Just as our way of thinking influences our behavior, so our actions and the consequences that stem from them influence how we think about things, the attitudes we harbor, and the beliefs we hold about how to get along in life. Making meaningful changes in the way we typically do things is a prerequisite for changing the kind of person we are.

The best way to tell if a disturbed character is really changing for the better is to gauge the degree to which they will acknowledge their core personality issues that are responsible for their problems in the first place. For example, once someone has admitted the fact that they have a problem with undisciplined aggression (and avid readers of my work understand here that aggression is not synonymous with violence) and that they need to modify their general approach to getting the things they want in life, things can really change. This kind of change goes deeper than merely acting differently on the surface because it looks better. Rather, it has to do with a conversion of heart and mind, and a genuine willingness to reckon with matters of character. There will be behavioral evidence of this change, for sure. And it will be revealed in consistent behavior change across a wide variety of situations.

It’s an undeniable truism that people can change. If they couldn’t — if we were all simply pre-programmed robots — then there would be no such thing as personal responsibility. So when people ask the question, it usually relates to their struggle with whether to sever a toxic or abusive relationship. Often, they want a reason to hang on even though every fiber of their being is yearning to get out. Sometimes, this is because they’ve succumbed to the “slot machine syndrome” (See “Moving On After a Toxic Relationship”), and have so much invested in a relationship that they come to believe they simply can’t afford to get out. Other times, it’s because they haven’t yet developed enough of a sense of personal empowerment to break the bonds of unhealthy dependency.

While they might take some heart in the notion that people can and do change, they need to remember that change is always the responsibility of the person with the character deficiency. Sometimes professional help is necessary. But the motivation for any change has to come from that person, arising out of their sincere desire to grow and mature in character. It’s important to find a helping professional who not only understands and appreciates this but also knows how to really aid in the process. And it’s equally important to enter the process only when the right motivation is present. Most of the time, the motivation arises only when circumstances have forced the issue (i.e. the person has lost too much, or the costs of their behavior have risen too high).

Bottom line: There’s always room for hope, but it’s absolutely essential to hold a person accountable, not only for outward behavior changes, but for the consistent and pervasive behavioral evidence that their heart and mind are changing as well.

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 Pat Orner Oliver on .

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