The Continuum of Character Disturbance

Knowing the key aspects of a person’s character is key to appraising their overall psychological health and appraising whether a relationship holds promise or could easily end up becoming exploitative or abusive.

In recent years, professionals have come to realize that many psychological conditions we once believed could be “pigeon holed” into neat, distinct categories actually exist along a spectrum or continuum. This type of conceptualization has proven particularly helpful when it comes to the autistic disorders (see “Big Changes Coming for Psychiatric Diagnoses”). Whereas we once thought in terms of distinct conditions such as Asperger’s Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, we now recognize that Autism actually exists along a qualitative and quantitative spectrum, with certain key deficits in various areas of adaptive functioning making the difference in how fully and severely autistic an individual is. In Character Disturbance, I make the case that personality and character disturbances also exist along a continuum, one of both severity and quality. The qualitative aspect of the spectrum reflects the extent to which a person has some degree of “neurosis” as opposed to a more pure disturbance of character in their makeup, whereas the quantitative aspect of the spectrum reflects how severe the disturbance is (i.e., how much the disturbance constitutes a “disorder”).

Folks vary considerably on where they fall on the continuum of character disturbance. Very few individuals are completely devoid of any type or degree of neurosis. And relatively few character disturbed individuals are so severely disturbed in character that their disturbance represents a true disorder. (By definition, a personality or character disorder is a style of interacting that is so extreme, so ingrained and inflexible, and so deviant from socio-cultural norms that it engenders severe dysfunction in the person’s life). In recent years, researchers responsible for the official diagnostic and classification systems professionals use have called into question just how valid or useful some of our traditional personality disorder classifications are; several disorders have actually been “defrocked” over the past few decades. While it may no longer be particularly helpful or accurate to label folks with various distinctions of the personality disorders we’ve delineated in the past, there’s little doubt that many individuals these days experience big problems in their relationships and everyday functioning because of troublesome traits in their character. And because character disturbance of one type or another is the defining phenomenon of our times, posing unique challenges for professional intervention, it’s of paramount importance that we understand the nature of the character disturbance continuum.

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How amenable a person is to treatment and what kind of treatment they will likely respond to depends much on the nature and severity of their character disturbance. That’s why getting it right when it comes to assessing where someone is on the character disturbance spectrum is so crucial. It can be really tricky at times to properly assess this. I can’t tell you how often over the years someone was referred to me whom others had deemed “impossible” to work with, only to find the person to have considerable neurosis, which gave me a lot more to work with. Similarly, I’ve encountered many folks who were judged to have a full blown character disorder who were actually individuals with some definitely problematic character traits to be sure, but who were not so “disordered” that they couldn’t be helped. I’ve also seen my fair share of individuals who’d made the rounds of helping professionals and been in various treatment centers, and somehow managed to receive just about every diagnostic label imaginable, except for the severe character disturbance at the heart of their difficulties (which is likely one of the main reasons they didn’t get better). To afford someone the help they truly need, you simply have to know where they lie on the character disturbance spectrum.

Knowing where someone lies on the character disturbance spectrum isn’t just important for professionals trying to provide proper assessment and treatment. It’s also important for anyone trying to exercise sound judgment about a potential relationship partner. Unless you know what to look for and how to evaluate what you find, you necessarily run the risk of learning far too late and after a lot of unnecessary heartache how character impaired the person you became involved with really is. This is one of the reasons so many relationships run into trouble these days and also why so many marriages fail. You enter a relationship thinking you know a person, only to realize at some point down the road that you never really had a handle on their true character at all. So, in subsequent articles on this topic, I’ll be examining the spectrum of character disturbance in greater detail. I’ll focus in particular on the key traits that contribute to character disturbance and how to recognize those traits, and I’ll present vignettes designed to illustrate the behaviors, attitudes, and other warning signs that both accompany and virtually define the most problematic personality and character traits.

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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