February 5, 2021

Dear Drama Observers,

Later this month—February 24th to be precise—I’ll be participating in a 6-hour webcast program with my friend and fellow psychologist, Gregory W. Lester, Ph.D. Greg will present the first three hours and I’ll present the last three of our seminar entitled: “Demystifying Personality Disorders: Clinical Skills for Working With Drama and Manipulation.”

Greg’s morning sessions will focus on understanding personality disorders. My afternoon sessions will focus on how to handle them and how to help those who’ve been impacted by them.

If you’ve been reading my weekly missives for a while, you’re no doubt familiar with the way I distinguish between normally-functioning, reasonable people and personality disordered people whom I sometimes refer to as Drama People, unreasonable people, or manipulators. Actually, we usually refer to these people using various terms of derision such as jerks, creeps, crazy-makers, schmucks, wolves in sheep’s clothing, horse’s tails, pain-in-the-necks, pieces-of-work, or any number of hybrid terms which combine body parts and cuss words.

Below is a sample from my part of the seminar in which I contrast normal and personality disordered people. As you read this through, take note of two things:

  1. How this describes those individuals in your own life who lack what normal people possess for making relationships function normally.
  2. How these qualities are often collectively missing in groups of people who can’t—or refuse to—get along with other groups who see things differently. (Note: I’m looking at you political parties. Oh, and some of you religious factions in the back–I’m looking at you, too.)

What Distinguishes Normal from Personality Disordered People?

(These 5 “reason muscles” are needed for doing the right things with personal wrongness.)


The first muscle needed to handle wrongness well is the humility muscle, which gives a person the ability to acknowledge potential personal wrongness.  When reasonable people use this muscle, the stance is, “I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk.” Reasonable people, who have healthy humility muscles, can handle being wrong if being right requires sacrificing the truth.

They believe, though perhaps reluctantly, in the maxim, “Truth is your best ally.” It may be painful to acknowledge wrongness, but they’ll do so because being truthful has a higher value to them than being right.

Unwilling to allow for the possibility of wrongness, unreasonable people (manipulators) will sacrifice truth if being truthful means being wrong. They’ll even lie to avoid being wrong. In fact, some manipulators revise truth so routinely that they delude themselves and come to believe their own revisions. The stance taken is, “I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.” They can be arrogant, inflexible, and never wrong about anything.  That’s why “you can’t reason with an unreasonable person.” Your attempts at reasonableness won’t work because they’re not interested in reason; they’re only interested in winning or in being right.


The second muscle needed is the awareness muscle, which enables us to observe areas of actual personal wrongness. Having this muscle, the reasonable person’s stance is, “I see where I’m wrong.” They see their strengths but also understand their weaknesses.  Manipulators have ruled out the possibility of wrongness, so the stance taken is, “I only see where I’m right.” Manipulators are notoriously lacking in self-awareness, not seeing the flaws in themselves that others so clearly see. Therefore, when problems occur, they automatically assume that others caused them.

This part of the personality serves the same function as a press box on a football field. It enables us to make big picture self-observations. For manipulators, the wires connecting the press box to the sideline phone are severed. They don’t have press box conversations and, therefore, lack the ability to self-monitor and self-correct.

Relationships are like mirrors in which we catch glimpses of the good and bad parts of ourselves. Reasonable people make use of the feedback that relationships provide. But manipulators catch no reflections of their flaws in relational mirrors.


Sometimes referred to as a conscience, the responsibility muscle enables us to be bothered by personal wrongness.  Manipulators seem weak in the conscience department.  While the reasonable person observes personal faults and cringes, the manipulator shrugs when flaws are pointed out.  His stance is, “If I’m wrong, so what?”

In the psychological literature, a distinction is drawn between ego-dystonic and ego-syntonic traits. If a person becomes aware of a personal flaw and cringes at the observation, he’s had an ego-dystonic reaction which then provides the intrinsic motivation needed to alter the undesirable trait. If he sees the flaw and shrugs it off, he’s had an ego-syntonic reaction. He so assimilates the trait that there’s no change motivation. By and large, manipulators have ego-syntonic reactions to the observance of personal flaws.

In effect, the manipulator looks in the mirror, sees the glob of spinach on his teeth, doesn’t like what he sees, and determines, therefore, to quit looking in mirrors. The reasonable person seeks out truth to change for the better. The manipulator runs from truth to avoid discomfort.


The fourth muscle needed is the empathy muscle.  Empathy is the ability to be bothered if our personal wrongness hurts others. It enables us to understand the effect we have on the other person and to use that understanding to govern our words and actions. “It is impossible to over-emphasize the immense need (people) have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood” (Tournier, 1982).

When a reasonable person uses this muscle, the resulting stance is, “It bothers me when my wrongness hurts you.”  He allows that understanding to shape how he behaves toward others.

The manipulator is empathy deficient. His stance is, “I’m only bothered when your wrongness hurts me.” He gives little consideration to the impact of his words and actions on others. Reciprocal empathy is a realistic expectation in conflict with reasonable people. With manipulators, however, we should anticipate only self-serving motivations and behaviors. They experience what Nordgren (2011) calls “empathy gaps.”


The reliability muscle is the ability to correct personal wrongness. A reasonable person is bothered by his flaws and determines, “When I’m wrong, I’ll change.”

Since the manipulator fails to see his flaws, he is neither bothered by them nor sees the need to correct them. Consequently, his stance is, “I’ll not change because I’m not wrong.”

People have two types of needs: real needs and felt needs. A real need must be felt before we’ll do anything about it. For instance, you could have cancer but not know it, an undetected but very real need. If your doctor diagnosed it, you’d become aware of the illness, feel the need, and seek treatment.  Evaluation and diagnosis would transform your real need into a felt need.

Manipulators have flaws but don’t see them and, therefore, do nothing to correct them. Frequently, a client being driven crazy by a manipulator remarks, “He’s the one who really needs to be in here getting help.” That may be true, but no one seeks help without first realizing that help is needed. The manipulator doesn’t see that anything is wrong with him, so why should he seek help?  Change presupposes awareness.


So, here’s what we’re up against with unreasonable people. They automatically assume that we’re the ones in the wrong, they fail to see their contributions to the conflict, they claim no responsibility for any part of the problem, they’re not bothered by the impact of their words and actions on us, and they change nothing because nothing about them needs changing. Is it any wonder that we use terms of derision to express our exasperation with them?

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Extremely informative and practical information. I hope you and Dr. Lester have another webinar later in the year. I am an LPCC in Ohio and I would be extremely grateful to take the webinar if available then. In the past I took a seminar from you and from Dr. Lester and I cannot thank you both enough for the insight and expertise….. you 2 are the best

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks for your note. The seminar will be recorded and available at a later time you could take at your convenience. I hope you’ll be able to do so. So very nice of you to write.

  2. Lynn Brallier
    Lynn Brallier says:

    Alan- This is such a helpful post. The 5 “muscles” are a good reminder of habits of mind that I must cultivate daily. Thank you!


    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks, Lynn. You’re right, these attributes don’t come naturally to any of us but can be cultivated. Nice to hear from you.

  3. Bill Coffin
    Bill Coffin says:


    I agree with the five you listed but wonder about the pejorative language. It seems that people with BPD, for example, are derided especially if they would never accept the diagnosis or go for help. Wonder if we are doing those w personality disorders an injustice that would be inappropriate if they had Intellectual Disabilities. I may have missed some nuance in previous postings.


    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a fair point, Bill, and I appreciate what you’re saying. My intent was not pejorative but the effect may have been.

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