Character Disturbance Can Be Adaptive

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Behavior theory suggests that people act in ways they have good reason to believe will pay off, and when winning is an essential prerequisite for advancing their agenda, those who are predisposed to win at all costs have a distinct advantage over those who have qualms of various sorts that may hold them back.

Many in the U.S. are nervous in the aftermath of the recent presidential election. They worry about what the current president-elect has in store for the country, and they worry about some of the things he might impetuously do. Some have even made an “armchair diagnosis” of the man, citing his apparent lack of empathy for and ruthlessness toward those who oppose or criticize him, and his apparent disdain for those he regards as inferior or at least not all they claim to be. Some have even sarcastically referred to him as the narcissist-in-chief. But longstanding categorizations of various personality types have come under tremendous scrutiny in recent years, and as I mentioned in “Rethinking Personality Disorders”, just before releasing its most recent edition of the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association seriously considered removing Narcissistic Personality Disorder as an official, specific category of character dysfunction. That’s not only because narcissism is a feature of several character styles and disturbances but also because the very definition of a “disorder” of personality or character has come into question. For years, most professionals regarded a personality style as a disorder when it was so extreme, so deviant from generally accepted cultural norms, or so maladaptive or dysfunctional in various spheres of functioning that it caused significant distress to the individual or to others. But certain personality features — especially narcissism — are no longer very deviant from the norm. On top of that, many of the ways a person chooses to deal with their environment that were once thought pathological are to some degree adaptive in today’s world. In certain endeavors and situations, such styles can prove very adaptive.

One of the most basic premises of behavior theory is that people act in ways they have good reason to believe will pay off in some way. Depending upon the kind of environment a person finds himself or herself in, it can pay off big time to behave in ways that in other situations may seem completely maladaptive. In tough, competitive, everyone-for-himself kinds of environments, for example, it really pays to have self-confidence. In fact, in some enterprises, the bigger one’s ego, the greater the chances for success. And when winning is an essential prerequisite for advancing an agenda, those who are predisposed to win at all costs — who hold nothing back and will do whatever it takes, in complete disregard of critics — have a distinct advantage over those who have qualms of various sorts that may hold them back. Because folks who exhibit these more aggressive, confident “styles” of dealing with things experience substantial success, it’s hard to convince them there’s anything wrong or unhealthy about their approach. Unfortunately, it can also be hard for them to discriminate those times and situations in which it would be better to forsake their usual ways of seeing and doing things for a more measured approach, such as in their more intimate interpersonal relations.

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Time always tells the story about how ultimately adaptive the personality characteristics of any political leader might be. Perhaps that’s one of the biggest reasons so many in the U.S. are uneasy right now. We’ve succeeded in manufacturing for ourselves a kind of cultural environment that hasn’t been seen in a long time, and in such an environment, there’s a distinct advantage to being the kind of person who’s both determined to win and to look great. Such folks often reinvent themselves as needed to suit a particular situation — but the bottom line is always to emerge from any challenge as a success. Naturally, they make mistakes. But while mistakes might not be readily acknowledged to others (for some, “image” is everything), these personalities always make mental notes and self-correct, never losing sight of their twofold goals to conquer and secure the admiration of others. As a result, many times such folks resolve to learn from their mistakes and end up doing some very impressive and positive things.

I’ve spent my professional career talking and writing about character and it’s importance and the growing prevalence of character disturbance, and it’s more than a bit disheartening to see folks becoming concerned about the problem only when they encounter egregious examples of it. We’ve become very desensitized to most character dysfunction because it’s so commonplace, but what we’ve become even more desensitized to are the insidious changes in our environment that have fostered the prevalence of that disturbance. What should make us uneasy is not so much what someone who appears to have a pathologically inflated sense of self and a bullying style might do while holding the reigns of power, but rather what we’ve allowed to happen in our socio-cultural milieu to make such a style of dealing with life so adaptive and rewarding.

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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