Character & Personal Responsibility
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|Sun, 10-31-2004 - 12:55pm|
THE TREATMENT OF CHARACTER DISORDERS
As a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of Character Disorders, I see many patients who are recovering from Substance Abuse and Dependency Disorders in my practice. A Character or Personality Disorder is, in fact, a common underlying diagnosis found in patients who are "recovering" from Substance Abuse or Dependency Disorders. It is only after the patient stops abusing substances that a clinician can tend to the core character issues that afflict the substance abuser. Sobriety is in no way the cure for the disorder-- it is just the beginning of a long recovery process.
The character defects in patients with personality disorders are difficult to treat: One's basic character style is established and "cemented" at a very early age, and the patterned behaviors, emotions and thoughts associated with a character disorder are woven into the fabric of a developing child's personality. While we all struggle, from time to time, with managing our character styles and how they impact our relationships with others, persons with significant character disturbance struggle on a more core level of functioning and are not likely to make major changes in their basic character style without undergoing a very intensive type of psychotherapy treatment.
I also hold an additional degree in theology and treat a number of patients of faith, including patients with strong Christian commitments. In spite of their conversion experiences, patients of faith with personality disorders continue to struggle with the same core character issues as non-faith patients, even after they undergo a meaningful religious conversion. While patients of faith may view their growth through psychotherapy as a form of spiritual healing, they usually recognize that they need professional help to make the transition into healthier, responsibility-based living.
Facing one's "demons" is the very first step in recovering from a character disorder. And the ability to face one's "demons" requires a very safe, non-judging environment of acceptance and forgiveness. If you are shamed or "demonized" for the presence of your "demons", then you will not feel safe enough to acknowledge your flaws. In addition to needing a safe environment, characterologically-flawed individuals need to develop an appreciation for the pain that drives their "flawed" existence. Forgiving yourself for your "demons" requires an understanding of your early experiences in life and how they helped to shape your feelings, thoughts and patterned behaviors in the present. This step is not about making excuses or blaming your parents, but is about understanding the "why" behind the way your mind works and the pattern of poor
choices you have made. After these two elements are in place, persons with character disorders can take responsibility for their demons and can go on to develop a healthy, mature character.
THE NEED FOR A POISON-CONTAINER:
Individuals with character disorders are not bad people, but they often engage in bad behavior. And, on a deep level, they often fear that they are bad people. As a defense against this fear of being deemed bad, they often tend to externalize blame for the bad things that they do. When such a person feels vulnerable to being demonized by a scrutinizer, s/he will push the bad traits or actions away from the self and onto a safer target, hoping to re-focus the blame to someone else. By doing so, the person is able to preserve a sense of goodness and avoid the painful experience of being devalued or demonized for their bad behavior. Unfortunately, this process of displacing blame for their behavior or judgment errors, often sets up a cycle for more bad behavior.
Characterologically-impaired individuals also tend to use simplistic models for understanding "good"and "evil" in the world (and in themselves), creating what psychologists often call "poison containers" for displacing their blame and rage, when "bad" things happen". The phenomenon of creating a "poison container" enables a person to safely store uncomfortable feelings, and provides a sense of powerfulness: If all the "bad" is stored neatly in a single container, then destroying that bad object will help the individual to feel safe again. Without neat containers for these feelings, a character-disordered person would be left holding very uncomfortable feelings of shame, insecurity and powerlessness. (Also known as scape-goating, an entire group can focus blame on another group for "bad" actions or traits, in an effort to soothe themselves that the "bad" is fully contained elsewhere, and can be controlled.)
Individuals who need a poison container to take the blame are persons who are afraid, on a very core level, of being psychologically (or politically) destroyed for possessing bad traits or for behaving badly, with no confidence that they can do bad things without being deemed a "bad person". Historically, these individuals have received very severe and overly harsh punishments for the bad things that they did as children and were "demonized" by parents with shaming punishments.