Four Steps to Character Health

Photo by foilman -

Those using these four steps find that slowly but surely, dysfunctional behaviors begin to be replaced by more functional behaviors, and they become different people.

Over my professional career, I’ve spent almost as much time helping people with significant character disturbances modify their dysfunctional ways of relating as I have helping empower those who’ve been negatively impacted by a disturbed character’s behavior. I’ve been privileged to bear witness to hundreds of individuals who used tools and methods based upon cognitive-behavioral principles to both strengthen and develop the integrity of their character. It took a while for me to find the right combination of tools, techniques, and approaches that could reliably assist those who were both willing and motivated to change and grow. Eventually I found an effective method that involves four steps, which are easy to learn and implement.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the treatment of choice when it comes to dealing with character disturbance. (For more on CBT, see “Cognitive Therapy and CBT“, “CBT and the Thinking Patterns of Disturbed Characters”, and “Cost-Benefit Analysis in CBT: An Exercise in Behavioral Economics”.) In doing clinical research for my first book In Sheep’s Clothing, I experimented with two different so-called A-B-C models of CBT. One of these models broke situational difficulties down into:

Activating events
Things that happen in our environment that invite some sort of emotional or behavioral response on our part.
The thoughts we have about what’s occurred as well as the convictions we hold that influence the interpretations we make about those events.
The way we conduct ourselves in response to the event and the interpretations we make of it.

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched

Another A-B-C model broke down problem situations into:

Stress-inducing events in our environment that precede and “trigger” certain responses in us.
The specific ways in which we respond to environmental triggers.
The effect the actions we take have upon others and, ultimately, our chances of effectively dealing with the stressors.

Both of these models had their strengths, but neither seemed comprehensive enough because there wasn’t an easy to remember strategy contained in them for quickly spotting and correcting dysfunctional patterns. They also lacked a component that might help a person acquire and maintain the motivation necessary to habitually engage in the self-monitoring and self-correction process so essential for character growth. So, I had to incorporate new elements into the A-B-C model.

I was familiar with the concepts of covert self-monitoring and covert self-reinforcement (“Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement”) long before I considered incorporating them into a self-directed program of character development. There were some distinct advantages to the covert strategy. Overt monitoring strategies usually involved tedious record keeping and regular logging of events, something a lot of folks had difficulty remembering, let alone finding time for, so they rarely did it reliably for any period of time. And overt reinforcement strategies, while more easily and reliably implemented in highly structured and controlled environments, were notoriously unreliable as self-help tools. So in designing a comprehensive method of self-directed change and growth, it seemed logical to combine covert self-monitoring and reinforcement strategies with some of the more time tested elements of the A-B-C model. What emerged as a result was a 4-step tool that has proven its value many times over:

  • Take mental note (the earlier the better) of the people, places, or things in your outer environment that evoke a response in you.
  • Be mindful of attitudes, ways of thinking, beliefs and interpretations of events that have typically led you to cope in maladaptive ways.
  • Challenge those distorted and dysfunctional thoughts and replace them with more positive and constructive ones — ones that are more likely to prompt you to respond in more socially adaptive ways.
  • Then give yourself a well deserved internal validating pat on the back for your effort (not necessarily your complete success).

That’s it! Four simple but yet powerful steps to help forge a healthier character.

Folks who used this process reliably found that two things happened: slowly but surely, their dysfunctional behaviors began to be replaced by new, more functional behaviors, which, when they became more habitual and frequent, transformed them into different people; and, they came face-to-face with their “demons.” By demons, I mean their unconscious fears, “hang-ups,” wounds from the past, etc. that might have invited some resistance to reliably employing the method. But by facing that resistance head on and reinforcing themselves for continued positive efforts, they eventually resolved all their outstanding psychological “dynamics” that shaped their former dysfunction. They didn’t have to “see” first what made them dysfunctional. Rather, they only needed to work hard at the process of change, and in the process they came to see quite clearly what had been holding them back in the past.

A young man I worked with and who had made significant progress in a relatively short period of time once remarked: “What if I were to tell you I caught myself even before I started with that old ‘stinking thinking?’ I found myself in a situation with my boss and I knew almost intuitively what thoughts I’d probably start entertaining in my mind and where it would lead, so I decided to nip things in the bud.” My response, of course, was to ask him if he gave himself double the internal pats-on-the-back he might have otherwise done — one for the effort made, and another for the quickness with which he employed the method — to reinforce his cultivation of some valuable new habits (some would call these “virtues”). And while not everyone I’ve worked with has caught on so quickly or done so well with the approach, it’s fair to say that hundreds have found a path to greater character health via four simple steps.

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 .

4 Comments (2 Discussion Threads) on “Four Steps to Character Health”

Would you like to join the discussion on “Four Steps to Character Health”?

Overseen by an international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe, provides peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2002-2023. All Rights Reserved.