Abusive Characters and Treatment: The Essential Requirements

A while back, Adam Sandler starred in a movie called Anger Management. Sandler’s movie character is neither an abuser nor your typical person with an “anger management” problem. Rather, he’s one of those folks who bottles up his emotions, most especially his anger, and this causes him trouble in his relationships. He lets his boss abuse and exploit him, and in his insecurity and unsureness about how to handle himself in most situations, he’s been been waffling on making a commitment to his girlfriend. His girlfriend concocts a scheme to get him into therapy with an unconventional therapist who operates an equally unconventional anger management program. The therapist then arranges for his patient to encounter increasingly provocative and outrageous situations to the point that he can no longer restrain his pent-up anger. Once the anger he’s been suppressing comes to the surface, he is forced to take more ownership of it and gain better control over it. While some aspects of Sandler’s movie have merit, there are some misconceptions it inadvertently promotes both about the nature of most abusers and the kind of intervention they need.

Anger is perhaps our most misunderstood emotion. It’s often characterized as a bad thing, pure and simple. But it’s really one of our most basic responses and it’s been with us for eons for some important reasons. Our brains are designed in such a way that a perceived external threat can evoke either fear or anger in us and thus prepare us to “fight” or “flee.” And there are some very specific physiological processes that both precede and accompany these primal responses, all of which serve to help ensure our safety.  Fear is nature’s way of mobilizing us to avoid something dangerous, and anger is one of nature’s ways of propelling us into taking assertive action to remove a genuine threat to our welfare. Both anger and fear can be problems in themselves when they’re experienced too intensely, occur too frequently, or represent an over-reaction to a given situation.  Most of the time, however, neither fear nor anger are a problem in themselves.  Rather, problems usually arise as a result of what a person does when they’re fearful or angry.  This is especially true when it comes to abusive behavior, which is why when an abuser is referred to some kind of domestic violence, anger management, or similar program, some very important caveats need to be observed.

Most anger management programs are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) principles that have been fairly well established. They are structured on the premise that how we perceive events and think about things heavily influence both the way we feel and also how we respond. Most programs focus heavily on the cognitive component, challenging participants to take a serious look at and change the ways they typically interpret events in their lives. For example, if I hold the view that someone did something deliberately to insult me, I’m likely to respond in a much different manner than I would if I believed the person did something to which I took offense was done without malevolent intent. How we think about and interpret events makes a big difference in how we handle our conflicts. And programs that employ CBT principles have a good chance of doing some good. They at least have a better chance than those programs that operate from the traditional misguided perspective that abusers are wounded, love-hungry, insecure, self-esteem-deficient individuals, out of touch with their feelings, lacking in communication skills, and who simply know no other way to cope (Such programs often do much more harm than good!). But even some of the better CBT-based programs have some disturbing weaknesses. That’s partly because they often focus too heavily on the person’s thinking patterns and attitudes and not directly or intensely enough on their typical behavior patterns.  It’s also because the prevailing but erroneous perspective guiding their structure is that anger is always the main precipitant of aggressive behavior. 

Having worked for years with hundreds of individuals whose uncontrolled anger and maladaptive aggression created huge problems for them and others, I came to realize that there is another side to the well-established notion that anger precipitates aggression. And I quickly became convinced how important it is to take into account this other side of things if abusive and other types of destructive interpersonal behavior is to be stemmed. My book In Sheep’s Clothing was among the first to point out that some aggression is not prompted by anger at all but rather by pure desire (For more on this see the explanations of predatory aggression on pages 80-82 of In Sheep’s Clothing, pages 98-101 of Character Disturbance, and the article Understanding Predatory Aggressors, which has a link to an excerpt from one of my webinar presentations on the subject). My book was also the first to point out that the various aggressive personalities are frequently already in the aggressive mode of functioning long before they ever become angry. In other words, not only does anger not always precipitate aggression but it’s also sometimes actually preceded by aggressive behavior. 

As I point out in Character Disturbance, sometimes aggressive, abusive personalities can also brandish anger quite fiercely even when they’re not really angry. Rather, they display rage as more of a tactic to intimidate others into acceding to their demands. Such a situation can become even more dangerous when they’re indeed also genuinely angry and want to scare the living daylights out of the person standing in the way of something they want.  

Many abusers, especially the aggressive personalities, don’t respond all that well to typical anger management interventions. The biggest reason for this is that it’s not their anger they really need to learn to manage most. What they mostly need to change is their overly aggressive style of dealing with life.  Programs that employ “aggression replacement training” (ART) in addition to or in lieu of “anger management” recognize this. ART programs were initially fashioned for and tailored to the adolescent population, but they are rarely used with adults. I’ve found, however, that focusing on the aggressive personality’s typical aggressive modus operandi is absolutely essential to prompting any meaningful changes in them. And it’s especially important to focus on the less serious instances in which their aggressive M.O. is on display. As I mention in my books, aggressive personalities are like locomotives with defective brakes descending a steep mountain slope. If you’re ever going to stop it, the effort has to be made when the train first starts to roll. To attempt to intervene when it’s already gained momentum or running full steam is simply an invitation to be run over. So, interventions that have the best chance of doing some good focus on arresting aggressive interpersonal behavior in all the little instances and relatively innocuous circumstances in which it’s displayed, even when only a minor degree of aggression is evident, then recognizing and rewarding more adaptive behavior.  An example would be challenging an abuse group participant’s earliest beginnings of a verbal tirade, inviting the person to quickly put on the breaks, take a step back, reformulate their words, and then reinforcing them for being willing to modify their behavior.  In the process, they learn not only to communicate without verbal aggression but also without giving anger a chance to rise.

In early September, Character Matters will feature an interview I did with a genuine champion of abuse victims, and one of the things we’ll talk about is how traditional perspectives have often inadvertently “enabled” abusive behavior to go uncorrected. Also, this coming Sunday at 7 pm Eastern time, I’ll be discussing the tragic losses of the past week and talking about some important aspects of these events the popular media appear reluctant to address.


32 thoughts on “Abusive Characters and Treatment: The Essential Requirements

  1. Tragic loss indeed sounds like an empathetic entertainer who was flawed but someone who strove to conduct himself with a certain amount of integrity and generosity. Just something you don’t see much right now.

    Cannot help but think it was an impulsive act given he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s on top of financial setbacks, open heart surgery, etc. Sometimes three four setbacks in a short timespan can be a lot.

    He had at least 10 good years to contribute to the world, probably 20, in my opinion, as he was still in top form last year in his now-cancelled tv show.

  2. Catching them when that train starts to roll…gosh I think that could be difficult at times. Dr Simon you make them sound very much like toddlers but I guess it is like toddler taming in a way. I can remember quite clearly the sulking moods that would go on for quite some time before the real rage but it was difficult to get through to him in that state to find out what was going on. Although I would admit I wouldn’t have been handling it at all well at that time as it’s only after the fact I found your books.
    You describe what I lived with he was aggressive in everything he did…your anecdote is him to a tee. I hated driving with him, he would tailgate and swerve in and out of traffic. Also rage/anger as an intimidation tactic that again really hits… I hate to admit it too but it works so well, everyone in the house would be terrified when he was like that. I can even feel the tightness in my body as I remember it. That sort of fear is paralysing and trying to stand up to that is extremely difficult. I know I would try but usually one way or another I’d pay for it either then or later on.
    You know miraculously he’s found a cure for his anger apparently, he’s found love, peace and happiness an overnight cure in the form of his next victim. I only shudder to think what might happen to her if she should get hooked by his charm. I may have to send her a link to your books she may well be needing them in the future, maybe she can stop the train before it rolls over the top of her.
    Thankfully I now have internet fully connected so I will be reading all about these aggressive personalities and catch up with the character matters I’ve missed.

    1. Tori,,,be careful about alerting her to anything. you would have to do it in a way that completely does not imply that you are the one who is giving her this information.

      I never knew the train was even rolling down the hill until it crashed.

      1. Hi Puddle, that’s only a wish really. I’d hate to see another woman go through what I went through with this man. I won’t be sending her anything. I’ve removed myself completely from the picture not engaging with him on any level anymore. I refuse to let him manipulate her in anyway using me. There’s a certain relief for me now, a real sense of freedom. I am on my own track with MY life though still have those scars that will need a lot of work to put to rest or at least to learn to live with. 🙂

        1. Tori, I know what you mean about hating to see another woman go through this. I almost feel negligent by not doing something, ANYthing but WHAT? There is so little TO be done without further jepordizing myself in some way. That just flat out makes me angry!

          1. Puddle, it’s awful isn’t it. Yet you’re right there is not a lot you can do. You put yourself back in harms way one way or another. Of course most likely the woman is not going to believe you anyway. They will of course be in the throes of love, totally entranced with their charming ways and will believe it will be different for them like us at the beginning. We can only hope they trust their GUT at the first sign of that flashing red light. Big ((HUGS)) to you my friend! 🙂

          2. Tori, the other thing is this,,,,,,,,,you can be (and I have been) targeted by a Spath FOR setting boundaries and standing up for yourself, speaking of putting yourself in harms way. AND, anything you say or do can be con strewed as a personal insult to them even if it was not intended that way.
            HUGS right back to you! 🙂

  3. I’m asking something that’s not directly related to this article or anything about aggressive characters.

    Let’s say you want to have a clearer view of what you’re going to do in life, especially to make a difference. Thus, like I, you want to clarify your purpose in life.

    I’m not a Christian. I see all religious figures as symbols for a higher lever of awareness. There’s that and the usual, humdrum awareness, where people often just ask: “What’s on TV?” or something like that.

    Now, I’ve understood true spirituality is submission and not getting inflated with destructive grandiosity(like I’ve reflected after reading Dr George Simon’s Judas Syndrome and Dr Robert Moore’s Facing the Dragon). It’s not ego-spirituality, where we, as I’ve read it been said, “block our own light”. It’s honest reckoning of finitude. I figure that much.

    I’ve even done some meditation on this. Now, I welcome your advice, folks. What should I understand about discovering my life purpose? What do you recommend? What would you figure about the way it goes?

    1. J, many say……do what you love and love what you do. What do you truly have a passion for? What are you good at? Then take those qualities and tweek them into a picture of something you FEEL is right for you. ???

    2. J maybe thinking on your life experiences, your talents and skills and how you can use those to bring some purpose or fulfillment into your own life.
      I know through living with this horrid individual that I really felt lost in what was my purpose also. As he had stripped away all I believed I was, slowly I am climbing back and getting back to what I really loved. I also have a sense that I lived this for such a huge part of my life and now realise how much of that was a lie that I have felt betrayed and cheated of any good moments or memories. (which has made grieving that loss quite complicated) so I’ve been finding ways in which I can hopefully use that experience so it doesn’t become a huge complete loss for myself. It just feels important for my own healing process. I am not sure exactly what form that will ultimately take but I’ve made some small steps using my voice that along with others might make a noise that forces change.
      It is such a personal journey finding what it is that will bring joy and purpose to your life and sometimes just being open to what is around you it sort of just pops in, so meditation seems like a great step. I wish you luck in your search. 🙂

      1. Tori, {{HUGS}}. Again, I can completely relate to your words except my involvement was relatively short. I can’t imaging what it would be like to have been involved longer like you were.

      1. Hi Krista

        I have meditated but didn’t really get any answers, just a feeling of peace and relaxation. I suppose being in a relaxed state can facilitate finding answers for some people, though. I do know people who spend time and money on group meditation while they ignore their sick elderly parents. So, I wouldn’t say that meditating, on its own, always provides the lessons selfish individuals need–but maybe don’t want. In the case I mentioned, less focus on ‘Om’ and more consideration for ‘mOM’ would be a good start.

        Great if you were able to get the help and clarity you have needed though!

  4. If you want to check out what Christians believe, you could read “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.

      1. Hello J — Here are a couple more suggestions.

        First, a book by Martha Beck, Finding your way in a wild new world. I bought this one, interesting, even though I don’t agree with all her conclusions. Very recent, you can go to marthabeck.com or amazon for details. She is a “life coach” and has written magazine columns which I have found useful.

        Then I remembered another old book which I have in my files. Pulled it out (paperback), it has a very interesting chart in the back — “Suggestions for various combinations of aptitudes” (shows many different occupations you might choose) — first published in 1948. To my great surprise, it’s available on Amazon. Written by Charles V. and Margaret E. Broadley, title is “Know your real abilities.” Helped me years ago, recommended.

        There are various aptitude tests available on the web also.

        Also, you might look up Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen. He wrote a book — Men and Women: the Essential Difference. Don’t know if you are male or female, but this book helped me to see partly why I don’t “fit” easily in many categories; I’m female but was apparently (according to his theory) exposed in utero to a higher than “normal” dose of testosterone. You can also google for Baron-cohen systemizing and empathizing tests — multiple choice interactive tests, you can take them anonymously and get your scores as soon as you finish.

        You have also said that you are not Christian. Please note that I am not trying to change your mind here, I am simply reporting on my experience which does relate to my Christian experience. Grew up in Seventh-Day Adventist denomination, which at that time used exclusively the King James translation of the Bible. (There were at that time several other translations available–but other translations put Adventist doctrines in some doubt. Also, there was heavy reliance on the writings of Ellen G. White. (I recently found information that she plagiarized LARGE portions of her work from other religious writers of the period) I went through a rebellious period, decided those old fogies didn’t know what they were doing. I made a lot of mistakes which were directly responsible for a lot of misery for me.

        When I finally realized that I should not take some person’s word on what the Bible meant, but I should go directly to the Word of God for spiritual sustenance and guidance, I found the “New Testament in Modern English” translated by J. B. Phillips into 20th century English. The religious establishment that I have observed in the U.S.(as a church organist, pianist, choir member, soloist, etc.) tends to have a high proportion of NPD pastors, possibly because when in the pulpit they can be “the Voice of God” and it doesn’t matter in the least to them how many people they hurt in pursuing their aims.

        Proverbs 3:16 tells me to commit my way to the Lord, and He will direct my path. Note that the word is “commit”, not “submit.” What this means to me is that I am a “partner” (albeit a very junior partner) to God in helping people in various ways. And as long as I follow His guidance, my life goes smoothly. If I step out of line, I can expect problems.

        You might think that clothing alterations is so mundane that how could I possibly help anyone (and truly much of what I do is mundane). So here are just a couple of examples: a VERY short (about 4’9″) young man came in with his father. I thought at first the son might be mentally retarded, because he said almost nothing. I was careful to make eye contact with him and include him in the conversation. Turned out the young one (20? or so)was going to a relative’s wedding, they had bought him a new suit and it needed major surgery to get it to fit. jacket and pants cuffs taken up. jacket hem shortened. When they came to pick up, he tried it on, and they both were almost overwhelmed because the son had NEVER had a suit to fit before. They went back to the store where they had bought the suit and sang my praises.

        And one more: 50ish woman came asking for me to make something to help her hammertoe — she had had surgery to correct it, but surgery was not successful. She had tried various commercially available appliances to hold toe in proper position, but she said none of them were comfortable. To complicate matters, she is diabetic, so must be very careful to keep her feet healthy. I came up with a very unorthodox solution involving a knit wrist cuff, narrow elastic to go back around the heel, plus a small elastic “sleeve” for the big toe, which had a small pocket containing a small triangular bit of closed-cell foam to force the big toe apart from the other toes. She was thrilled that it worked and was comfortable. I’ve since made 3 more for her, so she can wear one, rinse it out, air dry, and wear one of the others, keeping one in reserve for future use.

        There are many other examples I could cite, but post is way long already. J, I wish for you great success in searching for your life path. Peace and hope to all from Elva

      2. Elva, great words. All of them.

        Since you wonder, I’m male.

        I’m going to use many different methods. No sense only using one.

  5. Dr. Simon,

    I read your books a few years ago and decided to have a look again at your work. This article was the first piece I read — a fortunate coincidence, and full of insight. People who behave in an aggressive way and look ‘angry’, may not actually be angry at all.

    I wonder if you have written practical suggestions using techniques of ‘aggression replacement’ that would be helpful for those of us in relationships with aggressive personalities.

    I’m not suggesting that a partner or a friend replaces a therapist, but people do encounter the difficult personalities in their own lives, and often are left walking on eggshells, falling into codependency, and so on, before the situation escalates and they leave.

    1. I have an intuition those are for therapeutic use. They are used in therapeutic context. Relationship-context-wise, the best is to have boundaries, see tactics for what they are and disengage, get away.

      1. Hi J,
        There are degrees of character disorder, and in any case not everyone will want to leave, for whatever reasons, once they discover that their partner, relative or friend has an aggressive personality.

        I’m guessing there are positive steps one can take besides setting boundaries as you say.

        I think setting boundaries is number 1 too. I’m asking a simple question in the end, which is what can be applied from knowledge of aggression replacement in people’s daily lives in their dealings with an aggressive, disordered personality.

        I hope this is of some interest.

  6. J, I am reading The Emotional Rape Syndrome right now and while some of the notions about motivation of the rapist are questionable and as far as I can tell in conflict with Dr. Simon’s and the more current beliefs, it describes the experience better than anything I have read so far. I THINK I may have started this book a long time ago and not been able to deal with it at the time but wanted to ask you if you had posted this title as a suggestion to someone ?
    And I wanted to know if Dr. Simon was familiar with the book and what his opinion of is is.
    The Emotional Rape Syndrome by, Michael Fox

    He wrote this book because a friend of his was involved with one of these monsters and was so negatively affected that she tried to end her life. I really REALLY get the impression that he understands what we have been through so well. I’m only about 1/4 into the book but I highly recommend it with the possible exception of some of the speculations about why these people do what they do.

    1. The book was written nearly 20 years ago so it’s not hard to imagine that some of the thinking regarding motivation is outdated.

      1. Dr Simon, I don’t know how much hurries you have. Even so, would you have happened to read the book I and Puddle are talking about? I think it’s an important opus about abuse.

      2. J, I hope you get the opportunity to read this book. I’ve read a couple interesting things regarding “evil” and thought you would find them interesting.

        1. Here is one quote. I’d never considered the aspect of laziness before.

          “There is also an element of laziness in evil. It takes work to grow spiritually, and evil people are not willing to make the effort.
          Another description of evil ((which he points out is “live” spelled backwards)) might be malignant laziness and narcissism. ”
          Michael Fox

    1. I think so J. Someone with a solid sense of who they are, good self esteem and self respect would be far more likely to take various forms of social rejection in stride and not personally. I would think so anyhow.

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