Saturday, July 29, 2006

Dealing With Destructive Personalities In Your Practice

One of Lord Byron’s many lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, described the poet as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Byron was the epitome of a personality type I describe as “destructive.” Brilliant, talented and charming, Byron nevertheless destroyed many of the people around him, leaving hundreds of broken hearts and ruined reputations in his wake. Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein, was in reality a remorseful reaction to her participation in Byron’s promiscuous lifestyle, the monster a metaphor for the many lovers she took while under Byron’s spell.

Byron is an extreme example of what I have come to describe as “Destructive Personalities.” The term “Destructive Personality” is a catch-all phrase I use to describe persons with everything from severe character failings to anti-social personality disorders whose behavior regularly and invariably leads to destructive consequences. As used, the phrase describes behavior and its effects, not causes.

Christian ministers, social workers, mental health professionals and attorneys spend an inordinate amount of their time dealing with Destructive Personalities. While the vast majority of modern Destructive Personalities are neither as flamboyant nor as talented as Byron, they nevertheless work their way through churches, Christian organizations and communities on a regular basis leaving a trail of personal disasters in their path. It is vitally important for the Christian Professional to identify a Destructive Personality early on in the relationship before they can do more damage to those around them or the professional themselves.

Identifying Characteristics of Destructive Personality:

Three of the key identifying characteristics of Destructive Personalities are isolation, havoc and polarization. Destructive Personalities work best in isolated small groups where emotional, familial and social pressure can be used to manipulate the groups’ perception of reality to fit their agenda.

A key identifying characteristic of a Destructive Personality is the havoc they wreak upon those around them. The Destructive Personality will seldom admit to the havoc they have caused and take little thought of it after the fact. Simple proximity to a Destructive Personality is often highly destructive, wreaking havoc upon comparatively innocent bystanders. Look for a trail of spoiled personal relationships, hostility or indifference toward conventional authority and in the worst cases ruined careers of former friends, helpers and business associates.

The third identifying characteristic, polarization, is a natural by-product of the first two. Anyone who challenges the Destructive Personality’s carefully nurtured view of reality must be dealt with harshly. The challenger must be not only removed from the support group but personally destroyed as well. The challenger will be characterized to the support group as dishonest, immoral, incompetent or even criminal. This final reaction by the Destructive Personality can be devastating, splitting churches, ruining businesses and careers.

Dealing With a Destructive Personality

If you suspect that you are dealing with a Destructive Personality you must concentrate on the facts and the facts alone. You cannot allow yourself to be pulled into their web. If you are going to effectively serve them as a Christian professional, you must remain grounded in reality and make the them deal with you in reality as well.

The Christian professional should not rely on the verbal representations of a suspected Destructive Personality. At one end of the scale, they can be master liars, convincing anyone they seek to influence of the truth of whatever proposition best serves their interest at the moment. These are classic sociopaths who tell destructive tales with no concern for their victims beforehand and no remorse afterward. For example, a few years ago, an attorney friend revealed that he had a client who, over a period of years, had passed himself off as airline pilot, a surgeon, an attorney and a college professor before finally being caught. When his false identity finally came apart, he was wanted for fraud, forgery and other crimes in 26 different countries.

At the other end of the scale are the delusional. Many of these personality types present in Christian circles. They are victims of a psychological phenomenon known as confabulation. Convinced of the rightness of their cause, they will tell and re-tell the facts of their situation to themselves and their associates, casting them in an ever more favorable light until they convince themselves and anyone else who will listen that the representation of the situation that best serves their interest is the gospel truth. Within hours or days, they can justify terrible wrongs with a clear conscience declaring in absolute sincerity that they are doing the will of God.

The difference between the two sub-types is that the first is indifferent to the truth of their statements or their effect on others while the second convinces themselves that they alone are telling the truth and are doing the best thing for all concerned. Sometimes, you will find both sub-types presenting in the same person and it is not unusual to find both operating in close proximity to each other. A sociopath frequently develops a support system of delusional, confabulating followers and enablers.

Ministers and attorneys are usually not equipped to deal with sociopathic personality disorders and it is my opinion that suspected Destructive Personalities of this type should be immediately referred to professional Christian Counselors or Mental Health Professionals. Christian attorneys probably should not represent them. When an attorney presents a pleading to the court the attorney as well the client swears that the information being presented is the truth. If the attorney develops serious doubts about the truth of his client’s representations to him the only ethical course is to terminate the relationship. Confabulators should be confronted with the truth in the hope that reality will pierce the veil of their self-delusion.

Warning Signs for the Christian Professional

A near certain identifying characteristic of a Destructive Personality is a case history of other professionals who have attempted to serve the client but are now described by that person as evil, dishonest, etc. If the prospective client describes their last attorney, pastor or counselor as incompetent, the one before that as immoral and the one before that as dishonest you are dealing with a Destructive Personality and will soon be described in the same manner if you attempt to make them face reality. If you probe, you will usually uncover a complex chain of rationalizations and confabulations involving conspiracies by authority figures, unscrupulous or incompetent behavior by their former professional helpers and, of course, absolutely blameless behavior by the DP. Unless you have some important reason to maintain this relationship, you should immediately terminate the interview and be thankful that you discovered the problem early on.

Christian professionals are not immune to the considerable persuasive powers of a typical Destructive Personality. If you find yourself burning through long established professional relationships to serve a difficult client, are repeatedly threatened with ethical complaints because of your services to a particular client or find yourself becoming increasingly isolated in your practice because of the problem client, you have probably been taken in by a DP and should terminate the relationship before you do serious damage to your career.

The Problem of Confrontation and Repentance

Christian professionals face an especially daunting task in dealing with a Destructive Personality. If a professional relationship has developed, the Christian professional has a duty to confront the client with the error of their ways and admonish them to repent, seek reconciliation with those they have wronged and make restitution if possible. This is a dangerous but necessary course of action that must be handled prayerfully and carefully. The professional should prepare for the worst actions the client can take before the confrontation.


If a professional relationship has developed, you must confront the Destructive Personality with the truth. When they attempt to “explain” or minimize their actions, you must force them to face reality. When they attempt to draw you into their confabulated world of rationalizations you must step back and analyze the situation rationally based upon the objective facts. Take a cue from the famous TV detective, Sgt. Joe Friday and if at all possible restrict your dialogue with suspected Destructive Personalities to “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.” Destructive Personalities must have trust and dialogue to make their “explanation” of events acceptable. Without confabulation and rationalization by enablers the DP stands alone and the reality of his actions become apparent. If you will suspend trust and dialogue and check the facts you will not be fooled by a Destructive Personality.


Postscript: There is an excellent discussion of this problem at the Crime and Federalism Blog, here:

and another at:


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