A Problem of Character

Recently I wrote about the difference between personality type and personality disorders. Originally called “character disorders,” a personality disorder is “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment” (from the DSM-IV). The personality disorders we recognize today are listed here.

When most people think of the word “character,” I imagine they think first of a person’s moral fiber, his ethical nature. When clinicians talk about character disorders, they refer to problems with the aggregate qualities of an individual’s personality: who is he, when we sum him up? Over the years, my observation has been that character disorders are right behind addictions for the amount of human suffering they cause. Some people’s experiences are that they may even cause more suffering, since they are not as easily identified as other mental disorders and frequently go undiagnosed. We only know that someone causes us discomfort and pain, that being around them is hard, and that we have to watch what we say and do around them. They are not safe people, even if they are predictable over time.

Many people’s childhood wounds are caused by having had a character disordered parent. Also known as neuroses, character disorders are marked by rigidity, an inability to yield when given the choice, and an almost complete blindness to the other person’s perspective, suffering, or emotions about an event, often caused by the character disordered person.

People with character disorders or neuroses (what I call “character disorder lite”)  act in ways that cause more problems than they solve–usually for other people more often than for themselves. Almost everything they do, in fact, is about them and results in their getting what they want and need, almost always at another person’s expense. Their blindness to other people’s concerns and needs is usually the result of a deeply held belief about the world, though not necessarily a conscious belief. Their belief in the world as they see it is so strong that any evidence to the contrary is discounted: this is the hallmark behavior of the personality disordered.

Character Disorders: The First Decade

During the first decade of a character disorder’s bloom, the ill individual will have many opportunities to have her flaws pointed out to her, usually first by close friends and later by relatives. This pattern occurs mainly because a personality disorder develops out of a misbegotten childhood, in which a child’s parent or parents are themselves doing a disordered dance. The parents may play good cop-bad cop, with one parent the sick one and the other the rescuer or enabler, or each parent may have his or her own obvious disorder. In spite of their problems, though, unlike those with substance-abuse, psychotic, or even mood disorders, the personality disordered manage to keep their children in school, hold down jobs, and even to achieve socially-desirable ends such as education or advanced training, all while the character disorder ticks away like a timed bomb.

Usually, close friends or romantic partners are the first to realize that the character disordered are nutty, mainly due to the disordered person’s inability to yield, compromise, or otherwise see things the other person’s way. A romantic partner who needs a nutty spouse because of having had a nutty parent can serve as a good foil for the character disordered person: the relationship just feels right.  There will be a rush of romance, an instant connection, something bigger than life and more meaningful; the two become enmeshed and appear to others like a two-headed beast. Where one goes, the other follows; everything is romance and adventure except that the two have undertaken a quest of character without actually having any personhood at all.


Within 3-5 years of entering a relationship with a character impaired person, you know it. You know something is wrong, because the first year’s excuses and apologies have worn off  and the rigidity of your partner, friend, colleague, neighbor or loved one is remarkable. They do all the taking and demanding, and very little giving or yielding (if any). The giving they do is for appearances sake and involves no real sacrifice, for there is always something better to be gotten as the result of any “sacrifice” they do make. They are like vampires, and I’ve thought for a long time that the reason why the vampire is an enduring mythical creature is that our world is full of them. They suck the life out of others while giving nothing lively themselves.

Naturally, being the host comes to be a problem for others. The host either falls ill and becomes a vampire him- or herself, or struggles for freedom. Interpersonal conflicts are inevitable whenever the disordered come into prolonged contact with healthy people. They want to play a healthy person but they never can quite pull it off, for there are no substitutes or fakeries for realness.

The inability of the character disordered to yield sacrificially, even when appealed to in the most heartfelt ways, is a hallmark of this personality. They may be aware of the problems experienced by those around them, but they cannot make a connection between these problems and their own behavior. The problems the other person experiences are not their fault; the fault is always with the other person. This is true even when the other person is a person of reputation, experience, or quality to whom the disordered formerly turned for advice or help. Clinicians have written reams about how notoriously difficult it is to treat the personality disordered. They, of all those with mental disorders, are the most likely to get just “well” enough to function again and then to terminate therapy or any healthy relationship they have.

32 responses

  1. As mentioned, I’ve experienced the negative effects of close contact with “character disordered” people myself. And, yes, I too make use of the DSM-labels, every now and then. Nevertheless, it seems of some importance to me to be aware of that these categories miss out on a crucial detail: no one does to others what hasn’t been done to them.


    • Marian, of course you’re correct… there are many dubious gifts that keep on giving, and passing on mistreatment is chief among them, I think.

    • I can see how your last statement is true.
      My mom’s brain is damaged, literally. My dad says she ran off with some guy and they did acid. My aunt, here sister, (they all went to highschool together) says that my mom ran off too and she was never the same again. She said that my mom had a fit of terror in school (after she had come back) and that she would have a lot of scary episodes or visions. My dad says that my mom was normal before she ran away and she was seriously crazy when she returned.
      My mother will make up her own wives tales and tout them as God given facts when in reality they are nothing more than superstitions. If you show her scientific evidence that it’s a superstition and that it can’t possibly be true, she will hit me or call me stupid.
      I believe that some of what she does has been done to her by her parents and other people but, most of it is seriously crazy.

    • As for my sister she has apologized to me for her role in my life. My mother takes no responsibility whatsoever for what she did to me and literally believes I put her hand to me myself, that she was righteous, and went so far to say that I am/was her victimizer even as a toddler. No sane person could go that far out of their way to not accept responsibility for their actions. I’ve apologized (with no buts) to my siblings for taking my anger out on them, for hating them, and blaming them in part for my abuse, when all along the real players were the people that had the responsibility as adults.
      I’ve come a long way from the introverted, insecure, scared, unloved person I used to be. I try not to give those dubious gifts to my son. I don’t always succeed, sometimes I get angry and don’t treat him fairly but the difference between my mother and I are that, I apologize to him and tell him that I was wrong and then I tell him how I should have responded, I also tell him in what way he was wrong and what he should have done instead. My parents never did that for me. Thanks to my loving aunts examples she gave me when raising her children, I was able to take those to heart. I hold justice dear to my heart.

  2. “Usually, close friends or romantic partners are the first to realize that the character disordered are nutty, mainly due to the disordered person’s inability to yield, compromise, or otherwise see things the other person’s way.”
    This is definitely my mother!! Completely. I was reading a book at Barnes and Noble one evening (always from the psychology section) about narcisisisistic (whatever LOL) personality disorder, and I couldn’t believe what I read, it was like I was reading a biography about my mother.

  3. DSM III-R criteria

    Sadistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of cruel, demeaning, and aggressive behavior, beginning by early adulthood, as indicated by the repeated occurrence of at least four of the following:

    * Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him/her).
    * Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others.
    * Has treated or disciplined someone under his/her control unusually harshly.
    * Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals).
    * Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal).
    * Gets other people to do what he/she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror).
    * Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teenage daughter to attend social functions.
    * Is fascinated by violence, weapons, injury, or torture.

    The behavior has not been directed toward only one person (e.g., spouse, one child) and has not been solely for the purpose of sexual arousal (as in sexual sadism).

    This was my first sibling from birth. She was mean as a new baby, she was mean as a toddler, she was mean as a child, and mean as a teen and adult. Thing is that she got away with murder when it came to me, I could not defend myself against her or I would be punished, she loved to hurt me and she loved to get me in trouble. As a toddler she would scheme against me to see me spanked and it would make her delighted and happy to watch our mother viciously spanking me. She got her share of spankings but not near what she caused me to get.

  4. Eve,

    You do not offer much hope. I don’t dispute your point that personality disordered people are hard to treat, but it’s rather discouraging. I have had such people in my life and have one pretty close to me now.

    What to do?

    • RG, I don’t have much hope right now on a scale any larger than my own self. Yet my own self is large as the universe so… maybe I do have hope.

      I observe that people only change when they desperately want to change or are compelled by suffering or huge events to change. I believe change is God’s business, and if He can’t effect it, no one can. I suspect you’ll agree.

      What’s left for us, then, when we are aware and awake, is to see other people’s suffering and our own, and to do what Job finally did: “I lay my hand upon my mouth.”

      I am about to start blogging again after a month of stewing. I’m not sure what will happen.

  5. Eve,

    I haven’t commented in a while, but I am reading. I find the topics lately fascinating. (Like most everything you write about.) Just wanted to let you know I’m quietly enjoying.

  6. Slightly tangential, but I think it points nicely to the propensity and largely inevitableness (at least in the West) of living one’s life completely unconsciously; not so much out of choice but simply because the vast majority are not aware that there is a choice or other way. That way has been lost to us, at least as a culture, and the emphasis has shifted from enlightenment/individuation as a goal to creating/enabling better, more functional neurotics, from finding a different/better boat to simply getting a more comfortable seat on the one you’re on— usually at the expense of someone else. Life is not a closed system/zero-sum game, but we live as if it were.

    “So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our own assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because the other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy.”

    –The Elegance of the Hedgehog

    • “[. . .] the emphasis has shifted from enlightenment/individuation as a goal to creating/enabling better, more functional neurotics, [. . .]”

      Brilliant. And I think true.

      I wonder if we westerners have ever had a goal, in moder times at least, of enlightenment and individuation? All our great tales of it are dead, and the last popular series heralding individuation and full of its symbols (Harry Potter) is gone, having been replaced by vampires. Which comes as no surprise to me.

    • Sometimes I want to scream at people/robots(not those who are aware/not shallow) “WAKE UP”!!!!!

  7. As someone who’s experienced the negative effects of close contact with – indeed, dependency on – “character disordered” people first hand, I’m quite fascinated by the topic.

    What I find particularly interesting is that, while I’m not sure whether I’d regard these disorders to really be disorders, or whether they maybe express perfect adjustment to our culture, the very same culture, that produces them as a reflection of itself, doesn’t hesitate to label its own reflection “disordered” – and those who struggle to free themselves from the influence of the “disorder” as “mentally ill”. “Psychotic” for instance. Amounts IMO to a double bind. Cf. Wolfgang Schmidbauer, Die hilflosen Helfer. Über die seelische Problematik der helfenden Berufe(The Helpless Helpers. On the psychological problems of the helping professions).

    • Marian, great insight. Double-bind, indeed. For readers who don’t know what a double-bind is, it is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of psychological dilemma. For example, a parent who tells her child, “If you steal, I will spank you,” but then confronts a child about missing money and demands, “You’d better tell me the truth! You stole the money, didn’t you?!” is putting the child in a double-bind. If the child stole the money and admits it (tells the truth), she will be spanked.

      Another example is when the tone of voice or body language and language used don’t match. For instance, in the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” at the end Sally says, “I hate you, Harry, I really, really hate you,” with a gentle tone and a smile on her face. He says “I know,” and the viewer understands (as does Harry) that what she means is, “I love you, Harry.” This might be a positive double bind. If he says “I hate you too,” he had better say it in the right tone of voice! Otherwise, he is in a bind.

      Wikipedia has some amusing examples, my favorite of which is the NH state slogan, “Live Free or Die.” LOL!

  8. Is politics a viable career for sane, moral person? The quick answer is yes — there are sane, moral people in Washington. And, in fact, in state capitals (where the power games aren’t so intense) or local governments its easier to not get sucked in.

    In fact, if Etheredge is right, it’s not Washington that corrupts, but either those with personality disorders as you call them are drawn to politics, or people prone to become corrupt find more opportunities and temptation to do so once they are higher in politics.

    To me, sane, moral, self-aware people are the least likely to get corrupted by, or let their lives be consumed by politics. So when students or friends think about politics as a career choice, I don’t steer them away. Yet, I do tell them what happened to me.

    I went to Washington and got a part time job as I finished my MA at a Senator’s office (my dad’s boss was a contributor — that’s how I got in). I moved up quickly, going from data processor to assistant press secretary, to legislative assistant on NATO and Indian Affairs. That included demands to work long hours, be at the beck and call of the Senator, and trips to places like Greece and Turkey (fabulous trips, to be sure). At one point as I noticed what the game was like — all about power, time and life consuming, very demanding (probably more so now), I had to make a decision.

    Do I throw myself into a game I don’t believe in? Part of me said I should — if people who aren’t in to power leave the game only to those who are driven by it, then how can anything change? But could I really compete and make a difference, would my heart be in such an effort? No.

    My second question to myself: a lot of good people who don’t like the power games find niche jobs, comfortable, close to the action, making a difference, but yet clearly not an upwardly mobile career. These people tended to spend more time with family, seemed happier, and interested in their work (e.g., I could have worked at a foreign policy think tank — I had one job offer for that). That was also tempting, but I realized one thing — I just didn’t enjoy the Washington lifestyle. The city itself is beautiful and fun, but I could not see myself feeling at home there for the long run. It just didn’t feel right.

    I never regret those three years. I learned a lot, it also helped me solidify what I wanted to do with my life. I came back and got a job as night manager at a pizzeria (shows what an MA in International Affairs gets you in Minneapolis, MN), and my dad was convinced I was insane, giving up a prestigious job with numerous connections for fast food pizza.

    So, though I chose not to go into that line of work after seeing it up close, it is possible for a sane, moral, well grounded person to go into politics and succeed. But isn’t for everyone, including people who think they are interested in politics.

  9. Eve, I am on facebook, and will be glad to deal with these questions. But now at near midnight, I’m not up to it. I will respond more later, and if you and your son friend me on facebook, I’ll confirm!

  10. Eve, this is fascinating, but it freaks me out more than the lady’s dream about eating the cat.

    So, not to be obtuse, but: what’s the difference between a “normal” person and a personality disordered person? In my experience, most people are disordered, just to different degrees.

    I don’t even know where to start. You may get me into therapy yet, m’dear. 🙂

    • Aunty, I am smiling because of course you’re right. As I read through the DSM-IV I eventually get a wry grin going, because nearly everyone I know has traits of the mentally ill to one degree or another.

      The first answer that comes to mind that I’ll offer with all seriousness is to consider Abraham Maslow’s work on the self-actualized people he studied, or Carl Rogers’ book, “On Becoming a Person,” to name only two.

      In general, the person with a robust, healthy sense of and respect for him- or herself knows the true from the false, the “fraudulent from what is genuine.” They solve problems rather than ruminate on them or obsess about them, and they are not victims. Whatever life throws their way are problems that can be solved and dealt with. They are responsible in the true sense of the word.

      Finally, they didn’t fill their lives up with many shallow occupations or so-called relationships, or “settle” for the appearance of liveliness. They were close to only a few friends, a few family members, and had deep and emotionally intimate, honest relationships with others. This was true regardless of the field they were in, their career, their brilliance or lack of brilliance, genius, etc.

      Perhaps more than any other trait, openness and flexibility are two of the hallmarks of a normal person and a disordered person. The disordered person is hell bent on having his/her way in a situation. They fume in the bank line; they have road rage when they’re cut off; they stay awake at night thinking about how to accomplish whatever end is their current aim; they will not listen to you when you plead with them.

      The normal person being true to him- or herself can be appealed to. They’ll negotiate. They will listen to the other person’s perspective and, even if they don’t decide to adopt it themselves, they can understand it. I’m not talking about subjectivism here.

      I don’t believe that most people actually are disordered when we step back and look at the world. I think post-industrial, western culture is neurotic and that those of us who live in such cultures in any part of the globe are influenced by them and have to fight the urge to become shallow and object-impressed ourselves. We have to fight to become whole perhaps more vigorously than our ancestors did, who at least knew how to sit across from one another and talk and tell stories.

      Anyway. I do tend to be an optimist and believe very deeply in the good in people and their drive toward the light, much as plants will push through the earth to grow toward whatever light they can find. I think that’s human, to grow.

      But, yeah… you’re right. There IS a lot of character disorder in the world and one reason (I think) we went from Harry Potter to the darker vampire obsession we’re having in the U.S. right now is because we didnt’ solve our orphan problem well, and the fear of becoming monsters is snapping at our heels.

      More on that tomorrow, though.

  11. Etheredge’s argument was precisely that people with these personalities are drawn to politics because of a desire to use power and/or adoration to compensate for their personality disorder (which he attributes to a real doubt about their self-worth). He uses the theory to examine whether or not governments learn from foreign policy failures, and concludes that hardball politicians tend to only learn to improve tactics, do not question their inherent goals or assumptions, and are more likely to learn if the adversary is powerful (as they respect power). This also makes certain errors, like the attribution error, more likely.

    It’s an intriguing social psychological theory on foreign policy making. Because I worked a couple years in Washington for someone who fits Etheredge’s description, and because I saw so much of that kind of thing (one reason I quit — I couldn’t take that atmosphere), his theory seemed plausible.

    • Scott, I’m interested in knowing if you think that politics in general is a viable career for a sane person. One of my sons is interested in politics and had a course mapped out for his future, but after a month in Argentina, after seeing how his friends lived, he considered how divisive politics could be to his future family life.

      Upon returning from his trip, he asked how he would find a healthy wife, where he could raise children in a decent environment, and whether he could keep from completely compromising his strong moral values if he goes into politics.

      You study this stuff, teach it, and have lived it. I’d like to know your thoughts on this.

      By the way, if you’re on Facebook I’d like to know that too. I am, and this particular son is. Someone with your knowledge could teach him a thing or two, and I’ve found him a willing learner.

  12. I’ve worked with personality disordered folk. Their pain is palpable and not mentioned here.

    The fact that most professionals write them off is also something they know, sense and feel.

    I’ve seen people get better. “They” can change.

    First they need people around them that believe that too.

    • Monica, it’s impossible to mention every nuance of every cause of every disorder in a blog (of course); but I think I made it pretty clear that most personality disordered folk got that way by having similar parents and “misbegotten childhoods.” Of course there’s pain. Yes, it’s palpable.

      Still, the empirical fact remains that of all the mental illnesses, these are the most difficult to treat because they won’t stick with it. But then neither do addicts or people with psychosis usually stay better over time.

      Why is this? Jung believed that often if not usually it was because the individual was not loved, listened to, taken seriously. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that we would not need therapists if we had good friends, loving family. I agree with him; but I also know that no matter how loving and kind and full of compassion we are, some people will stay stuck in their world views. Some people will choose the dark side. Some people prefer to escape pain rather than take responsibility for doing something about it. Some people will never get well. All of them affect the rest of us, and in this post I was focusing on the idea, again, of that unyieldingness that ill people have. They are persistent in their illness as healthy folk are at staying whole.

      Considering the pain that’s in the world, and how painful it is to be a sensitive person and live in this world, I think that escaping in one way or another is a viable choice. Sadly, it’s a choice that also hurts other people and perpetuates a dark cycle. And that’s why I wrote about it the way I did in this article. But of course you’re right: they can change, and they need people around them who believe that too.

  13. This reminds me of a theory by Lloyd Etheredge of the “Hardball Politician.”

    The HP has low self-esteem, self doubt, and a fear of genuineness, candor and self-revelation. They are secretive, put on a persona of what they want others to see, and deep down doubt their own genuine personality. Power and prestige are an ersatz for their lack of self-esteem. This leads to:
    1. Ambition — often a singleminded obsession.
    2. Deficiencies in love: Cool, cold detachment. Loyalty important. Uses people for his/her own good. Denies people independent lives, including spouses, friends, staff– molding them to live for him/her, expecting them to serve his/her ambitions.
    3. The HP also sees others like his/her self. The world is cruel, you have to win.
    4. The HP has weak ethics and disconnected moral restraint. Fear of social shame, and exposure of his/her insecurity mix to weaken moral restraint.
    5. Defective humor. Makes fun of others, doesn’t like jokes about his/herself.
    6. Cold, condescending, aggression and vanity.
    7. Mental life preoccupied with power
    8. Hyperactivity.

    • Scott, this is very good. Also a bit chilling to consider how many people in politics fit this description. I wonder if politics isn’t a magnet for people seeking to prop up their personality deficits by using this career?

      This list is so good that it would serve as a mini reality check when entering even the most casual relationship to another person.

      Some of the traits seem appropriate to people who need and use power to prop up an inferior sense of self, but other traits seem consistent across the character disorder and character disorder lite (neurotic) spectrum. For instance, hyperactivity. I was pleasantly surprised that Etheredge included it. I see endless busy-ness among people with a disturbed sense of self; also the lack of genuine humor.

    • The HP has … a fear of genuineness, candor and self-revelation. They are secretive, put on a persona of what they want others to see, and deep down doubt their own genuine personality.
      I just had to bold face this. It’s very good (but I said that already).

    • They must not see it as work. Maybe it’s part of the hyperactivity–needing something to do to avoid the anxiety of being a non-person, they just fill themselves up with activity, even if it is the work of propping up a rigid worldview that in the end hurts them.

      • I can’t recall it very clearly as it’s been some months since I worked on it, but I edited a book about people who are overly dogmatic. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it here before.

        The description of the dogmatic personality conforms exactly to what you’ve described here. Certainly they don’t perceive it as work; they are working unconsciously based on patterns developed typically in childhood. They are inherently anxious with a pervasive negative self-perception; they deny this by creating a worldview that lionizes them at the expense of all others. It must be exhausting. There is a real sense of creating a positive self-image by denigrating others as well as creating a strong sense of “that’s not me; that’s certainly not me” and taking the additional step of “that’s not me, and that’s wrong.”

        Sounds sadly like our two-party political system.

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