As we contemplate the recent Oprah-Armstrong interview, let us focus on what we can learn from it. Let us try to make good sense of it, so we can better understand ourselves and our society.
Well, he finally admitted it. In a rare and no holds barred interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong admitted he actually did use banned substances to enhance his performance, and therefore didn’t produce the “miracle” wins he claimed for years. So, we now know he lied. And what’s really disconcerting is that so many times, and over many years, he looked right into the camera, and into the eyes of many a reporter, and with a straight face, without a flinch or moment’s pause, lied over and over again. He even went so far as to berate and cast aspersions against any who expressed skepticism about his claims of innocence, and sued some who claimed to know he was lying. But he now admits it was all part of a “story” he was determined to force upon the world as reality. And in the process, he hurt and deceived many.
Now, few would rush to assert that Lance Armstrong is a psychopath. But the glib and straight-faced manner in which he ran his con is, in the eyes of most experts, the hallmark feature of those most severely disturbed characters among us. Just like Scott Peterson, who had so many of us believing that he was heartbroken over the loss of a pregnant wife whom he believed had been abducted, only to turn out to be a heartless murderer. Just like Bernie Madoff, who looked right into the eyes of sweet old pensioner ladies and cleaned them out of their life fortunes. So, does that mean Armstrong, whom we once thought a hero, really is a sociopath? And if he isn’t, how do we explain the level and intensity of his deception and the exploitative nature of his behavior?
Armstrong is just the most recent poster child for what I have been heralding for years is the defining “phenomenon of our age.” It’s been my contention that most of society’s ills — from its recent economic meltdown and resulting current malaise, to its various social problems — stem from the character crisis that has plagued much of the civilized world for the past several decades. The problem is not only significant and pervasive, but also growing more rampant and serious every day. In fact, significant impoverishment of character is quickly becoming the norm in many cultures. More and more individuals are entering adulthood as self-centered, entitled, conniving, undisciplined brutes, out for personal gain at the expense of everyone else, and leaving the few remaining conscientious individuals among us with a monumental burden to bear. And where it will stop, no one really knows. But where all the signs say it is most likely to stop makes me shudder, which is why I’ve spent so much of my professional life writing and speaking about character disturbance and its causes to anyone who will listen.
I know, I know, people will blame money, fame, prestige, and, especially, the pressure to win. People will say Armstrong really had to do it because so many others in professional sports do it nowadays and he was only trying to level the playing field. But the fact that character disturbance is commonplace or rampant is no consolation whatsoever to those of us bearing witness to the cultural chaos it has spawned. And the costs to the general social welfare (most especially to the morale and spirit of young persons in the process of forging their own character) are too numerous to count.
I first sounded the alarm about the rising tide of character disturbance over 20 years ago. And in recent years many books have been written on the topic, most of which have focused on the most extreme expression of the phenomenon: psychopathy. And many of these books seem to find psychopathy or sociopathy just about everywhere. But as I have written before, not all disturbed characters are full-blown psychopaths (see “Psychopathy: Is It Really Everywhere?”). There are seriously impaired characters among us, to be sure, but they are of many varieties and impact our daily lives in many different ways. (I’ve tried to highlight some of the major ones in “The High Cost of Character Disturbance”.)
I carefully chose the title of this article. Our times definitely have a distinctive “character.” And the character of our times differs markedly from that of the era in which most of the classical psychology paradigms were formulated. Gone are the days when large numbers of folks were so badly riddled with fears, insecurities, and unconscious “hang-ups” that they literally made themselves emotionally and physically ill from fret. Today, our socio-cultural environment is ill from our irresponsible behavior. And our unhealthy social environment is, in turn, encouraging and enabling more of us to be irresponsible. It’s a sad and dangerous vicious cycle.
The “neurotics” among us are dwindling in number, and like the mythical Atlas, they are also buckling under the strain of holding up the foundations of social order and justice. Meanwhile the ranks of the character impaired are growing, and the backbones of once great societies are coming closer than ever to the breaking point. And, as I point out in my book Character Disturbance, one of the key differences between “neurotics” and impaired characters is the level and quality of conscience (or, in psychological terms, “superego”) development. Psychopaths, the most extremely disturbed characters, are so lacking in the capacity for genuine empathy and emotional bonding with other human beings that they often have virtually no conscience at all (which some think enables them to be the only known intra-species predators). But all disturbed characters have underdeveloped consciences. It’s a matter of degree. And the personalities I call the aggressive characters are prime examples of that. All of them, not just the ones I term predatory aggressors (i.e. sociopaths and psychopaths), but also the wide variety of other aggressive characters, have conscience impairments. These are the folks who will stop at nothing to win, to plant their personal flag on the top of the mountain; they will step on or destroy anyone who dares to question, interfere, or impede. (Armstrong’s bullying of his detractors, or even his less than ardent admirers, is legendary.)
I watched the Oprah-Armstrong interview with great eagerness because I find Oprah to be one of the most knowledgeable, well-prepared, and skilled interviewers around. But impaired characters, by nature, are masters of impression management, and as prepared as Oprah might have been for her interview with Armstrong, one only has to step back a bit when contemplating the interview to recognize how much more prepared Armstrong was to engage in his unique brand of “coming clean” on some important things, while still being remarkably tactful when it came to the discussion of other issues, for which a full and honest disclosure might cause him more problems than he already faces. And it was also interesting for me (the reasons why will become clear a bit later in this piece) to take note of Oprah’s reaction to Armstrong’s disclosures and conduct during the interview. But the most remarkable thing I observed was the crash course that Armstrong gave both Oprah and her audience in what aggressive personalities (as I call them) are all about. It’s likely that Armstrong’s most honest moments were when he described himself as “a fighter” from a very early age, who was hell-bent on “controlling the outcome” of all situations. And his conduct during the interview made it clear that he had not come to the interview primarily to admit defeat, display contrition or shame, or beg indulgence, but to fight — to salvage what he possibly could of a tattered image, and minimize the negative consequences he’s likely to sustain as the result of his actions. That’s just the way it is with some personalities, especially the aggressive personalities. Fighters to the core, they change only under the weight of significant and persistent duress, as well as some highly specialized intervention.
I not only admire Oprah, but also have her to thank, in a way, for unknowingly launching my career as a writer (even though a possible bid to appear on her once outrageously popular TV show never materialized). I was watching one of her early programs (long before she had matured into the astute interviewer and observer of human nature that she is today) that featured a couple whose marriage had been scarred by years of physical abuse. The husband had actually been prosecuted and had recently completed months of court-ordered domestic violence therapy. On the program, while his wife was voicing her hesitancy to trust him again, he engaged in what I perceived to be a merciless but craftily subtle emotional assault, using every covert weapon in the book to bring his understandably reluctant mate to submission. And to my horror, neither a panel of mental health professionals seated in the front row, nor Oprah herself appeared to pick up on the nature of what was going on. What’s worse, some of the professionals even appeared to side with the aggressor over his victim when it came to “giving him a fair chance.” For me, that’s all it took to know that there were probably thousands of persons out there who would relish having their feelings validated by a professional who understood the covert nature by which some impaired characters can beat up their intended targets and bring them to submission. So I took the many examples I had come across over the years, and wrote In Sheep’s Clothing on the topics of covert-aggression and manipulation. And, as they say, the rest is history.
There’s a particular kind of sadness that comes with witnessing the tarnishing of the reputation of yet another sports figure, and a person so many regarded as a genuine hero. We still need folks to look up to. But sadly, when it comes to the win-at-all-costs big money competitions to which the aggressive personalities and other impaired characters are instinctively drawn, there are few heroes left. Where have they gone? Regretfully, far too many have gone the way of Lance Armstrong.
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