It’s been a few years since I first posted a series of articles on the group of disturbed characters I like to call the “aggressive personalities.” I’m also in the process of compiling new material on the topic for possible inclusion in another book or in future revisions of my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. That’s in part because so many of the disturbed characters making news headlines of late appear at least on the surface to be individuals who have the characteristics of these personality types. So, for these and a variety of other reasons, it seems timely to revisit the topic. And because I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from folks about the examples I’ve included in recent articles about disturbed characters in therapy, I’ll be including several examples of aggressive characters behaving in the manner they are wont to behave in the upcoming series.
The idea of applying the label “aggressive” to a certain group of personality types dates from my graduate training in psychology. It was well known even back then that clinicians found serious fault with the official psychiatric diagnostic manual’s classification of personality disorders, especially when it came to describing a type of personality prone to violate boundaries and limits, cause interpersonal pain, and create problems for society. At the time, the only classification for such individuals was “Antisocial Personality Disorder” and the criteria for applying the label were not only stringent but also fashioned in such a manner that only career criminals seemed to fit the bill. But it had long been observed that there were many individuals just as prone to behaving in irresponsible and even seriously malicious ways who never led lives of crime or had ever been legally sanctioned for major social norm violations. One of my mentors particularly lamented this and noted that all of these problematic personalities, whether or not they were criminal in their behavior, exhibited an interpersonal style that was distinctly “aggressive.” And this mentor made it clear that in realm of human interpersonal relations, aggression is not simply synonymous with violence. Rather, human aggression is most often manifested in the unscrupulous and undisciplined will to power. That notion made a deep impression on me and helped me understand many personalities I wasn’t able to yet accurately label.
While I was still in graduate school I also had the opportunity to work part time for a company whose CEO seemed to be unique aggressive personality type. He was an absolute tyrant and his employees often quivered in their boots. He seemed to have no compunction about berating these employees even for the smallest of matters, heaping verbal and emotional abuse on them and instilling terror as a means of controlling them. He paid his key employees very well, however, and they were therefore quite dependent on him for their livelihoods. But despite the success of his company, it was clear his style of relating to others (i.e. his personality) though on some level effective, was grossly dysfunctional. He’d had several failed marriages and was at odds with several of his children as well as his current girlfriend. Still, there was simply no appropriate label to apply to his personality type, at least according to the official categorization schemes. One was tempted to label him antisocial, but he was a polished, astute businessman, not a criminal (though I knew him to engage in some business practices that I would characterize as somewhat shady), and was a pillar of the community, sitting on my corporate and civic boards. But he appeared to have virtually no empathy for others, and was not only merciless in his treatment of some but also disdainful of those he perceived as weak. I think Martha Stout might have labeled him a “sociopath next door,” but even she had formulated her thinking on the subject at that time. Not too long after meeting this businessman, I encountered a client in one of our school’s training clinic who frequently boasted of his tenaciousness and “winner take all” approach to life. But his history of relationships was a virtual train wreck, as he used and abused just about everyone he hooked up with. Before long, I found myself formulating my own thoughts on aggressive personalities, and for several years I gathered clinical data on the various sub-types of this problematic character and worked to refine my conceptual scheme. Not so incidentally, during my first years of practice, I encountered several examples of folks who were in relationships with people who presented a veneer of charm and civility but could be notoriously underhanded, back-stabbing, controlling, and manipulative. I studied these folks closely, with particular attention to the tactics they used to aggress against others covertly. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The news of late has been dominated by high-profile personalities who seem to fit somewhere within the conceptual scheme I eventually developed. There’s the Olympic runner who without a second’s hesitation fired rounds at someone whose identity he wasn’t even sure of only to assert and lament later that he “accidentally” killed the woman he loved. Interestingly, his father blamed the tragedy on “sportsman’s instinct” – a notion that itself is worth exploring in more detail in the coming weeks. There is also the pro football player who, with his “posse”, was in a shoot-out with some rivals that left two people dead, yet he not only claimed total innocence for himself (despite many indications of his culpability) but then tried to advance then notion that it’s not possible for God to commission a person to carry His message who has blood on their hands, so as a minister after all, he simply must be a good guy. Then there’s the police officer who prided himself as a man of justice and integrity who viciously stalked and executed several innocent people, all the while justifying it by claiming that his victims were all in some way responsible for a greater injustice done to him. And of course there’s the famous cyclist who had many of us thinking he’d overcome impossible odds with uncommon integrity, who now admits he not only lived a big lie but knowingly and aggressively destroyed the lives of those who tried to tell us the kind of person he really is. Make now mistake, there are a lot of aggressive characters out there and only a few of them are convicted criminals doing time in prison. And in the coming weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about all of them, and in greater depth than I ever have before. I only hope that others will join in the discussion and contribute their own experiences sufficiently to make the important issues clear and helpful to all the readers.
Next week’s post will focus on the characteristics all of the aggressive personalities share as well as the factors the latest research is telling us about how such personalities develop. Then, in subsequent weeks, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at each aggressive personality sub-type. More than anything else, it’s my hope that the readers will – as a result of the series – discover a framework by which they are better able to judge the character of individuals they meet or know and to protect themselves against possible victimization in some way.