Whether we choose to be aware of it or not, or to accept it or not, the reality is that character matters. If there were ever a time when character really counted, especially in our leaders, it’s now, in this age of permissiveness, moral relativism, and narcissistic entitlement.
Good character is not something anyone naturally possesses, and none of us is born civilized. Our socialization and character development are part of an intricate ongoing process. (See “Disturbances of Character, Part 2: Socialization is a Process”.) It’s a process that takes a great deal of conscientious attention and which doesn’t end when we move from childhood to adulthood. Becoming all we’re capable of being is a lifelong task.
Some schools of thought proclaim we would all naturally move toward positive growth were it not for our experience of trauma. But research and my years of experience as a therapist have taught me that there are actually many more insidious ways our character growth can be arrested. Moreover, what doesn’t happen to us in the way of positive learning can be just as crucial to our character development as the bad things which do, or the negative learning that we might experience. My clients have taught me that there are several key imperatives that make all the difference, and I’ve been working on a new book that takes an in-depth look at the essential life lessons one has to master to forge sound character, lessons which I first introduced in Character Disturbance.
For years, some within the mental health field tried to convince us that most emotional and psychological problems had nothing to do with character. Indeed, some even insisted that the very concept of character was itself a false construct. Some insisted our behavior was simply determined by environment, while others insisted our behavior was more about our biochemistry and the “imbalances” that can occur through no fault of our own. Some perspectives see bad habits as expressions of “addictions” any of us can easily succumb to and retain for the rest of our lives but that we can learn to “recover” from with ongoing group support. While there’s certainly validity to all these perspectives, both experience and research has forced us to admit that many of the problems folks have today are indeed a product of their inadequate character development. And some researchers who historically were adamantly opposed to the view have recently come to echo this same sentiment, including Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in Character Strengths and Virtues :
After a detour through the hedonism of the 1960s, the narcissism of the 1970s, the materialism of the 1980s, and the apathy of the 1990s, most everyone today seems to believe that character is important after all and that the United States is facing a character crisis on many fronts, from the playground to the classroom to the sports arena to the Hollywood screen to business corporations to politics. (p. 5)
Having specialized in the treatment of character-impaired individuals and their aggrieved relationship partners for most of my professional career, my clients have taught me many things about what arrests and what promotes sound character development. I eventually came to call the most essential integrity-fostering imperatives the “10 commandments” of character development. (See “The ‘Ten Commandments’ of Character Development, Number One”.)
Hopefully, my next book, tentatively titled The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Build a Significant Life, will convey the essential character-building life lessons my clients have taught me and help those struggling to forge a healthier sense of self. The book is a collaboration between myself and Dr. Kathy Armistead, my co-author on How Did We End Up Here? — an aggrieved relationship partner’s guide to surviving and thriving in a character-disordered world. More than survival guides for toxic relationship survivors, though, we need guidebooks that can help prevent toxic relationships in the first place. I consider the upcoming offering with Dr. Armistead to be my most important work to date, and I hope for its release within the next few months. In the coming weeks, I’ll be providing glimpses into its content in a new series of articles on the ten commandments of character.
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