Chump Lady is very honored to interview Dr. George Simon, author of “In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People” and his new book “Character Disturbance.” (See both for sale in the right hand corner Amazon box). Dr. George Simon is a leading expert on manipulators and other disturbed characters and has studied character disturbance for over thirty years. This makes him a go-to read if you’re dealing with infidelity.
CL: I really enjoyed your books. Before I read your work, I had read several books on narcissistic personality disorder and what rang false to me, based on my personal experience, was that narcissists have low self-esteem or can’t deal with shame. Your books were so refreshing by contrast — as you argue some people are disordered, that it’s an issue of character, and that traditional therapeutic strategies aren’t very effective.
Can you speak a bit about your practice, and your experience dealing with disordered people? Are they compensating?
GS: In both my books, I try and make the distinction between people who are for the most part “neurotic” and people who are character disturbed. It’s a continuum. On the one end, we have people who in the past would have been labeled “neurotic.” These are folks who are struggling with anxieties and insecurities that are largely unconscious to them. They have “issues” that they never fully resolved. These issues cause them anxiety. Sometimes they “compensate” for underlying insecurities and they really don’t know they’re doing it. And there’s always some symptom that goes with the anxiety accompanying their neurosis — fingernail biting, difficulty meeting people, or establishing relationships, for example.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have folks who are more disturbed in character — and frankly, they’re not very neurotic at all. And they lack the anxiety neurotics have. And what’s happened in our times is that most neurotics are not pathologically dysfunctional anyway. They’re just hung up and fretful enough to have qualms about things and make society work. They’re very functional people, generally. They do not have the kind of maladies that afflicted people in the Victorian era, when Freud came up with his theories. Back then people had bizarre maladies that couldn’t be explained. This extreme neurosis is what psychologists use to treat. From that, they came to some conclusions about what makes people tick and the role of neurosis in people’s mental health.
These old models are still with us. Change is slow. Many, including therapists, still adopt traditional points of view — so when presented with someone with a character disorder, they’ll say to themselves that person is compensating for something — that deep below they must have low self-esteem or insecurities they’re struggling with.
If someone takes this approach, the character disordered person isn’t going to get much help — and it’s not likely they’re going to get any better.
CL: Chump Lady is a blog about infidelity. If someone finds themselves cheated on, and it’s a longstanding pattern of lies, deceit and living a double life, should they consider that they might be with someone character or personality disorder?
Is it a matter of degree? I wonder if anyone can act this way over a period of years and NOT be disordered.
GS: You know, everybody lies sometimes. A friend might ask you how she looks in a dress, and you may lie. But the reason that you lie usually says something about your character, and often in a good way. You don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings. So you might fudge a bit on the truth.
But the kind of lying that disordered people do is different. Not only the reason they do it, but the many crafty ways they do it. The most artful liars can lie by stating a series of perfectly true things — keeping out just one small crucial detail, which would shed an entirely new light on things. So, they lie artfully.
The other thing that distinguishes a character disordered person is why they lie. Usually, good neurotics want to understand why people lie. They want to understand the underlying motives. What would make a person act this way? We rack our brains trying to understand why we’re being duped. But the ultimate reason disordered people lie is to maintain a position of advantage over someone else. If you’re in the dark, and you don’t know that you’re being deceived, then they have the upper hand and can have their way with you.
Remember, their goal is always to keep you in the one-down position. And the ways the disordered person can lie to keep you in that position can be quite artful.
CL: If someone is engaging in an affair, the why is maintaining the secret life, the narcissistic supply of cheating. So if they’re telling lies to throw you off their cheating, (lying in a disordered way), does that make them disordered?
GS: You always have to look for the telltale signs of character disturbance, and lying is one of those signs. There are several others. In my book “Character Disturbance” I outline the other signs to look for.
We live in a character disturbed age. We have so many folks who lack character and just don’t grow up. Sometimes they grow up in their 50, 60s, or even 70s. Sometimes they never do.
When people are showing the signs of character disorder, it is important to not listen to the things that they say. I know this sounds odd, but I learned this during my research. Therapists would work with disordered clients and realize they weren’t making headway. They would listen like they were trained to listen. Therapists are trained to be warm, empathic, accommodating and trusting. Because you assume a person has come to share and get advice from you.
But that’s not true with character disorders. Usually, they’ve been dragged there by their ear by someone whose life they’re making miserable. It’s not the same thing [as coming to the therapist for advice]. So if you listen to them and take what they say at face value, you’re already likely to be taken in, but you just don’t know it yet. With character disorders, you can’t just listen to what they say — instead, you have to listen “for” the kinds of things they say — the kinds of tactics they use — and keep a watchful eye out for the signs that might suggest you’re being played.
CL: Do people with character disorders want to be better? I would think that gaming the system and getting goodies without reward is pretty hard to give up. What’s in it for them? If you had a serial cheater as a client, how would you treat them versus a traditional therapeutic approach?
GS: It’s not as simple as being neurotic versus being character disordered. There is a continuum. There’s a little bit of neurosis in just about everyone. In some people there is none. In psychopaths — these are the folks whose have ice water in their veins — they pathologically lack any adaptive anxiety. They’re not afraid of anything. This is chilling. They’re not amenable at all to traditional approaches.
But most character disturbed people have some way to reach them. And sometimes they have a degree of appreciation for not only the error of their ways, but how it could be better if they were different. Sometimes they even appreciate someone else getting it — that they need to change. So many times when they come into a traditionally minded therapist office and play their game and their therapist misperceives them. “Oh, this poor compensating, inadequate person!” the therapist is thinking. But under their breath, the disordered person is chuckling — this “shrink” is going to be a pushover.
But if somebody’s calls them on their issues, really calls them on it and asks them something like: “Have you ever experienced any kind of disaster in a relationship because of how inflated your opinion is of yourself?…. If someone dares to say something like that to them — it gets their attention. And you know what? They probably have an example! When they can share that and talk honestly with someone about how maybe this isn’t such a good thing, there’s room for discussion. You can’t ask such a question mean spiritedly. But you have to cut to the chase. And what generally happens in that moment, is that for the first time the possibility of real trust occurs. Because the person dealing with them will meet them at the plane in which they function, as opposed to playing nice, seeing things through rose-colored glasses, and sending the signal that they can be played.
CL: What would you advised someone who has been cheated on? Not to play nice because you’re going to get duped?
GS: When confronting [a character disordered person], I might ask “have you ever encountered a situation that ended badly because of the inflated way you think of yourself?” — the way it is said doesn’t have to be hostile, or uncivil. It can be perfectly benign but direct. And honest. Brutally honest, but no hostile intent.
It’s not about not playing nice, [confrontation] doesn’t have to be vindictive. Just has to be direct and completely honest.
CL: For people who are on the receiving end of bad behavior by character disordered people, is it better to constantly to be the marriage police and gently confront them when they step out of line? If you’re neurotic, you’re buying books for them on Amazon and trying to help them figure themselves out.
GS: I think that would be a total waste of time because it assumes something that is patently untrue. It assumes that what they need is insight. I make that point in my book. We live under this delusion! Therapists do this all the time! They think they are going to be the person who says just the right thing in just the right way, so that this time a light bulb is going to go off in this person’s mind and all of a sudden — they will understand and “see” the error of their ways! The problem is, they already understand!
It’s not that the cheater or disturbed character doesn’t know what they’re doing and what damage comes from it. If the wounded party is crying their heart out and is miserable, it’s not like you don’t know what you’ve done and what an effect it has had! It’s right there.
Character disordered people are not stupid people. They’re contrary people. They know what the rules are, they know what the expectations are. But they haven’t made the decision in their heart to play by the rules that you want them to play by. That’s a matter of the heart. So, like I’ve said over and over in countless workshops:
They already see but they just disagree. A little rhyming phrase I use a lot. I can’t say it enough! Therapists make the same mistake!
And they’ll change only when the cost of their behavior rises too high, the benefits of doing something different becomes more clear, that’s when they’ll change. It’s not that people can’t or won’t change. It’s under what circumstances they’ll be motivated to change. What you need to do if you’re in a relationship with someone like this is set those limits and enforce those boundaries! You must set the terms of engagement! You can’t trust them to do it. When there is a clear cost to continuing their crazy behavior, there will perhaps be some incentive to change.
You can define the terms of engagement. The problem for neurotic folks is they don’t like operating in that mode. It’s not natural for them. It feels to them like they’re being a hard [ass], like they’re being too selfish. They have all these ideas about how inappropriate it is to start calling some shots! But asserting your needs and enforcing the limits is just what you have to do.
CL: Are some people more prone to being manipulated than others? What makes people a mark?
GS: People with a conscience are especially good marks. There are certain tactics that I outline in “In Sheep’s Clothing.” Favorite [tactics] like “shaming” and “guilt-tripping” cannot possibly work on someone without a conscience or unless that conscience is pretty active. You must have the capacity to feel guilt. If you don’t feel shame, there is no way an invitation to shame or guilt can work with you. Of course there are people who are more vulnerable to manipulation — it’s the decent folks. It’s because they have a high level of conscientiousness. There are others who are vulnerable, too.
CL: What do you make of the neuroscience around NPD and sociopaths? Did you read the New York Times article on psychopaths as children and “callous unemotional” traits as being inherited? Do you think that some people are… well, neurologically handicapped to be disordered? Is it dangerous to expect them to get better and change — if they literally don’t have empathy synapses?
GS: This research is in its infancy. We just don’t know. Some folks seem to have empathy deficits built into their wiring. There is something wrong, but we don’t know enough yet. We really don’t. Just because the brains of psychopaths work differently when you study them doesn’t necessarily mean those brains were different from birth. The degree of empathy deficiency and the degree to which it is strictly part of the programming versus a developmental issue [is unclear].
Psychology has trends. Psychopathy is an old concept from several decades ago and it fell into disfavor, but now it’s back in the mainstream media because of the work by Dr. Robert Hare and his colleagues. One important point I make in my book “Character Disturbance” is that there is a vast spectrum of character disturbance, and psychopathy and sociopathy are some real severe manifestations of it. But frankly there are many more folks who have certain traits and characteristics that make them problematic characters and I would not go so far as to say they are full blown sociopaths. To say they are simply endowed by nature with some deficits that are totally insurmountable and can’t be changed? We don’t know enough to say that. And there is too much variability there. There is a continuum.
At least now we’re at least taking a serious look at [character disturbance]. We are finally getting away from the old formulations about people’s unconscious fears, their “neurosis,” the notion that that metaphor alone was adequate to explain everybody. It’s not. It’s explains the smallest subset of people — and it doesn’t even do that great of a job explaining them.