Monday, April 17, 2017

On character disturbance

[This OP is a review of George Simon Jr.'s Character Disturbance: The Phenomenon of Our Age (Little Rock: Parkhurst Brothers, 2011). It is cross-posted with Hit Coffee here.]

Simon's thesis

Simon wants to warn lay readers about, and advise therapists on how to treat, what he calls "character disturbance." In its more severe stages, character disturbance leads to "character disorders," among which we can see varying degrees of personality styles that in their more extreme form might include what we know as pathological narcissism, "borderline" behavior, and sociopathy and psychopathy. We can identify character disturbances by choices people make, unfettered or insufficiently fettered, by the feelings of guilt and shame that afflict the rest of us.

Simon contrasts disturbed characters with "neurotics." These are susceptible to "the conflict that rages between primal urges and qualms of conscience." (That quotation comes from a blog post Simon has written. But he says basically the same thing, if less quotably, on page 13 of his book.) The average layperson and most therapists too often treat disturbed characters as neurotics acting from neurosis-like motivations. It's more useful, however, to consider that disturbed characters simply do what they do to get what they want as soon as they can and with the least amount of work possible. We should hold them responsible for their actions, and therapists should use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (with a focus on the "behavioral") to give them the tools to change.

Character disturbance is the "phenomenon of our age" because our present-day society and culture encourage people to value their self-esteem over their self-respect. People with character disturbance already have a high self-esteem. They just don't have the self-respect necessary to feel shame at what their actions show them to be.

The myth of our disturbed age

The book's subtitle ("the phenomenon of our age"), preface, epilogue, and incidental remarks throughout all point to two questionable assumptions. The first is that character disturbance and character disorders are on the rise. The second is that the manner in which our current culture promotes and condones those ways of acting is unprecedented or somehow unique. Both assumptions imply that our current "near epidemic" [p. 14] is new and dangerous and threatens to undermine "the very foundations of our free society." [p. 19].

I defer in part and dissent in part. I defer to Simon's claims about his profession (he's a former therapist, now writer). He says that therapists in the US are generally trained in the "classical" model of neurosis, with nary a regard for treating character disturbance as a thing in itself. This classical model does a poor job of treating individuals with character disturbance so that in recent decades, therapists whose clients have character disturbances do not treat them effectively. If Simon is wrong on these points, that's something someone with more knowledge than I about the mental health professions and clinical practice can pursue.

I dissent, though, that we can know with Simon's confidence that character disturbance is more prevalent now than before and that "self-esteem culture" is somehow unique in the way it encourages character disturbance. Maybe self-esteem culture from ca. 1970 onward condones and encourages character disturbance, but other cultural trends from different eras could plausibly have done the same. I offer as one example white supremacy and the "lynch law" it inspired in the era of Jim Crow. You can probably think of other examples. I dissent also because it probably doesn't matter. Whether character disturbance is more prevalent, less prevalent, or about as prevalent as before, it is still a problem that needs to be addressed. If it is indeed a "near epidemic," then I guess we need to take more assertive measures, rethink our notions of crime and punishment, or go beyond the "political correctness...and the tendency to put personal beliefs and interests ahead of the general welfare"--all of which "impair our ability to conduct an honest discourse and debate." (p. 252).

But any "honest discourse" has to consider the limitations of what we know. One of Simon's key points of evidence--our rising prison population--could have other causes in addition to increased incidence of character disturbance. One might argue that the rising prison population represents society taking a firmer stand against character disturbance and disturbed characters are now facing their comeuppance. I don't endorse that argument, but it's consistent with Simon's evidence and yet also runs against the point he wishes to draw from that evidence.

Continuums and sharp distinctions

Simon posits a "continuum" between neurosis and character disturbance [p. 29]. Someone is neurotic to the extent that they don't have a character disturbance. Someone has a character disturbance to the extent that they are not neurotic.

Simon also notes the promise of a third way out of the continuum and toward what he calls "self-actualization altruism." Those who approach this altruism "freely and completely commit themselves to advancing the greater good. They are not neurotic because they have no driving desire to avoid guilt or shame for doing otherwise. Also, they're not out for personal glory or to be revered by society." [p. 29, italics in original] He doesn't dwell on that point. In fact, he's skeptical that there is a third way out and suggests that for practical purposes his continuum makes more sense.

But even so, I'd like to see more discussion about the continuum than Simon offers. Too quickly he jumps from discussing the continuum to distinguishing between neurotics and people with character disturbance. He does not discuss the positions on the continuum where many (most?) of us likely fall. Maybe the turn toward "self-actualization altruism" happens never or only rarely. But is there then, as an alternative, an optimal place on the continuum for us to be?

Such a discussion is probably beyond the scope of the book. Perhaps Simon needs to draw sharp distinctions because 1) his audience includes laypersons like me as well as experts like him; 2) his goal is to warn us about character disturbances and advise us on how to deal with them; and 3) you can cover only so much in any book and still have it be readable. know it when you see it?

Let's grant that for sake of readability Simon must make sharp distinctions between the character-disturbed and the rest of us, but how do we know who the character-disturbed or character-disordered are? He gives some clues, especially in Chapter 6, "Habitual Behavior Patterns Fostering and Perpetuating Character Disturbance." Most of these patterns boil down to denying or deflecting responsibility for harmful actions.

But in a broader sense, how do we know, especially in the "edge" cases where someone is character "disturbed" but not badly enough to be character "disordered"? How do we--especially the laypersons who seem to be part of Simon's target audience--discern whether someone is character disturbed as opposed to being neurotically disturbed?

Maybe if someone acts like a character disturbed person, we should treat them as such for our own self-protection and let the mental health professionals sort out the underlying causes. It's probably on balance good to learn how to call out responsibility deflection whether or not the deflector is a disturbed character or merely an anguished neurotic. In some cases, it's probably better to simply disengage regardless of where the deflector falls on the continuum.

Maybe we shouldn't seek to "know." Maybe judgment is for the Lord, and discernment is for a competent and licensed mental health professional. But that doesn't sit well with me, either. One purpose of Simon's work is to warn laypersons like me about these people. And while provisionally speaking I can learn a lot about how to respond to responsibility avoidance, part of how I respond depends on my general assessment of their character. If someone resorts to the trick of changing the subject when I bring up a problem it matters a lot to me whether that's a one-off or part of a pattern of behavior.

Maybe the trick, then, is to find patterns. But there are patterns and then patterns on the patterns. Maybe I've just been lucky, but even the people I've known who I consider "character disordered" sometimes defy their own patterns.

The problem of suffering and compassion

My concern about knowing or discerning plays into another concern. If we actually have--and can say with confidence we have--an according to Hoyle disordered person before us, what role ought our compassion toward that person play?

Simon seems to say that the first compassionate thing to do would be to empower and help the victims. The second compassionate thing would be to help disturbed/disordered characters learn how to act differently. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (with an emphasis on the "Behavioral") can help--provided the disturbed/disordered character accepts responsibility for his or her actions and actually is willing to do what is necessary to change.

What about before the magic moment(s) when the disturbed/disordered person realizes they need to change? I think Simon would say the best we can do is call them on their tactics and make them take responsibility for what they do. In those cases, "compassion" is beside the point.

But I'm left to wonder, do disturbed/disordered characters "suffer"? Simon seems to say no, at least not as "neurotics" do. Or if disturbed characters do suffer, it's only to the degree that they're also neurotic (remember the continuum above). Disturbed/disordered characters are basically out to get what they want. Simon might concede that getting everything one wishes betokens a deeper and underlying, unhappiness or suffering. But I think he would suggest that we should focus on the behaviors and bracket the other types of questions as not useful.

Parting thoughts

Neurotics come off pretty good in Simon's book. To the extent that he's targeting a lay audience, he's primarily targeting neurotics--and perhaps also  the "self-actualizing altruists"-- and not the disturbed characters qua disturbed characters. Neurotics make bad choices. But the key to helping them is work through the underlying issues, whatever those may be, in addition to introducing them to better coping behaviors.

Disturbed characters are different from you and me, especially if their disturbance is extreme enough to mark them as "disordered." There's hope for them, to be sure. At one point (I can't find the page number), he suggests that even those we'd call seriously psychopathic might ultimately attain something like redemption or rehabilitation. But he seems to want our takeaway to be that they are the bad guys (and gals). And we, who presumably fall somewhere on the "optimal" range of the "neurotic"/"disordered" continuum, are the good people just trying to survive. That bothers me, even if he's right. Especially if he's right.

There's something missing. Periodically, Simon hints that he too was once been a disturbed character, too. He refers (without specific examples) to other times of his life before he saw the light and started to change his behavior. He doesn't go into detail. And he probably shouldn't because that's not the book he's to be writing. However, if he ever chooses to write that book, I'll be sure to read it.

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