In last week’s post I presented a general outline of the various sub-types of aggressive personalities (see: Aggressive Personalities: The Sub-Types). And among these sub-types, perhaps the type most researched and written about has been the type that I prefer to label the “unbridled aggressive.” Historically, such individuals have been referred to as antisocial personalities. And for years there has been an official category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association for Antisocial Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, the term “anti-social” is misunderstood by many because it is so often colloquially used inappropriately to describe individuals who shy away from social interaction or do not seem to enjoy mingling with others. It would actually be more appropriate to label folks who lack the normal desire for human contact as “asocial.” The term antisocial (literally, “against society”) is really meant to describe those individuals who deliberately and habitually pit themselves against the social order, violating the generally accepted norms for social conduct. Such folks are not at all adverse to superficial socializing (indeed, many can do that quite well). Rather, despite their acute awareness of the rules, limits, and structures society needs to function, they remain steadfastly opposed to subordinating themselves to the authorities and rules to which most of us willingly submit. Unbridled aggressive personalities frequently find themselves in conflict with authorities, commit criminal acts, and many spend a good deal of their lives incarcerated. And despite repeated social sanction, these folks often persist in their aggressive posture. As I mention in Character Disturbance, they are the irrational, indiscriminate, and unrestrained fighters among us, which is why I think the label “unbridled aggressive” captures the core dynamics of their personality.
For the most part, unbridled aggressives:
- view the world in “me against the rest of you” terms, and live their lives in a state of constant war.
- resist submitting themselves to any higher power or authority. They have little respect for rules, limits or boundaries and take pride in their ability to defy these constraints.
- can and do expend energy on their own behalf, but they vehemently resist what others would call legitimate work or labors of love. W-O-R-K is for them truly a four-letter word. That’s primarily because they hate to feel obligated to anyone or anything. Accepting obligation feels too much like submission – a position they detest. As a result, they shirk the typical burdens of a responsible life and generally lead socially parasitic lifestyles.
- have irascible temperaments and low frustration tolerance. It takes very little to get them upset, and they will not subject themselves for very long to anything they find distasteful or unpleasant.
- are remarkably sensation-seeking and risk-taking. Hedonistic and living life on a very primitive pleasure principle, they are prone to “chasing highs.”
- have a remarkable imperturbability built into their temperament. They will do things most of us would get anxious or hesitant about and will persist in their behavior unshaken despite numerous adverse consequences.
- are unwilling to delay gratification or to temper their impulses. They want what they want, when they want it and act without restraint. They act first, and think later.
- lack the internal self-monitoring mechanisms self-governing mechanisms most people have. They are uninhibited (i.e. lack internal “brakes”).
- like all the other aggressive personalities, are narcissistic characters, so they have not only an unwarranted high opinion of themselves (despite the mess they’ve typically made of their lives) but also a sense of entitlement to do as they please without compunction. They care primarily about themselves and their own desires and have little regard for others.
As is true of individuals with significant character disturbance, unbridled aggressives are persons of highly deficient conscience, which only compounds the difficulties with their internal self-monitoring and self-governing mechanisms. For most of us, these mechanisms propel us to do right and to refrain from doing wrong. But these unbridled aggressive personalities neither feel particularly apprehensive about doing wrong nor are they particularly motivated to do anything pro-social. As a result, they consistently do things that hurt others. And while they might have some practical, after-the-fact regret for some of the problems they cause themselves as a result of their undisciplined lifestyle, they rarely experience genuine remorse for the injury they inflict on others.
Research studies have found that some biologically-based predisposing factors contribute to the development of the characteristics described above. Indeed, there appears even to be a genetically-based predisposition toward anti-sociality per se. That is not to say, however, that antisocial characters are simply born the way they are. There are constitutional predispositions for sure, but environment and learning play roles, too. It’s also not correct to assume that these personalities are necessarily a product of a bad environment. For a long time, it was commonly believed by professionals as well as the general public that adverse rearing conditions (abuse, conflict, abandonment, poverty, etc.) were the main causes of this type of personality development. We now know that some of the most antisocial characters among us were actually well cared for as children, and had opportunities afforded them. Still, they seemed to prefer the pitting themselves against society. That’s why, as far as contributing factors to personality development go, you can be fairly sure that both nature and nurture play roles, and the degree to which either plays the stronger role varies from individual to individual. One of the most respected authorities on criminal personalities (antisocials or unbridled aggressives who led lives of crime) once commented that of all the various factors he had studied over many years in working with so many unsavory characters from all sorts of different backgrounds, the only consistent quality any of them displayed was a genuine fondness for breaking the rules and/or committing crime. In other words, the bottom line is: these folks really enjoy fighting the system.
In my many years working with disordered characters, I found the aggressive personalities to be among the most difficult. Of course, it was virtually impossible to work with them and foster any meaningful change using traditional methods. That’s because, by and large, on the neurosis vs. character disturbed scale, they mostly fall on the character disturbed end. True, there were a few whose behavior represented a genuine acting-out of unresolved and unconscious emotional conflicts stemming from early childhood trauma. Yes, “neurotic” antisocials actually do exist, although they’re extremely rare. But even in the cases where significant neurosis was present, the traditional methods were fairly ineffective. And it wasn’t until I refined my own style of cognitive-behavioral therapy that I found a way to foster genuine change in such individuals. Eventually, I was even able to fashion programs that were adopted in several settings in which unbridled aggressive personalities were abundant (e.g., prisons, probation programs, etc.). And I know of many instances where individuals completing such programs have truly turned their lives around.
The most difficult aspect of the early stages of working with these individuals was that despite the fact that even they had to agree that their lives were a true shipwreck, they persisted in the same old behaviors that got them into trouble time after time. Traditionally, professionals thought the reason these disturbed characters failed to learn what we all hoped they might learn from their life’s experiences, was that they simply lacked good insight capacity. And for this reason, insight-oriented therapies always attempted to help these folks “see” the error of their ways. But I learned quickly that these folks already “saw” things quite clearly, even though their awareness didn’t change their mindset or behavioral predisposition. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, when it comes to disturbed characters, insight is not what they really lack or need. And what really began making a difference in my work with these characters was when I began singling out and focusing directly on their overly aggressive behavioral predisposition and the other core characteristics of their personality that I outlined above. Asking questions like: “How much of your life would you say has been a shipwreck because you simply let yourself fight too much, too often, even when you knew you shouldn’t have?” or “What’s it been like for you to go through life with such defective brakes?” got a much different type of encounter going in sessions. And when I focused more attention on their problematic attitudes, thinking patterns, and the behaviors that stemmed from those, things really got interesting. How these disturbed characters responded to this different approach was startling. Finally, it seemed, someone was directly confronting the heart of their pathology — their uninhibited aggressive style — and that made a very big difference. It also helped develop a level of trust most professionals and theorists thought simply impossible to build between a therapist trying to foster corrective thinking and behavior and a deeply disturbed character who, for most of his/her life, resisted authoritative guidance or direction from anyone else. Instant respect seemed to come along with nailing things squarely on the head. And hope was not far around the corner, once the folks I was working with accepted the notion that their most ingrained tendencies could be overcome and modified over time, given proper attention and reinforcement.
Next week we’ll be talking about the channeled aggressive personality. And you certainly won’t want to miss the upcoming article on predatory aggressives (psychopaths) because it will be filled with examples borrowed from some high profile cases that have been in the news of late, one of which is currently capturing a lot of public attention. So stay tuned!
As always, I want to invite questions on the topic under discussion. It’s impossible to say everything that needs to be said in a single article. But with folks providing examples, sharing experiences, and especially, asking questions to clarify or expand, we can hopefully provide a lot more helpful information about these most disturbed characters among us.