Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course

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.



19 thoughts on “Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course

    1. A couple of these headline-making folks have given some interesting interview in which their self-descriptions are so very revealing (and also make my point about their already high level of “awareness”). I will be using some of these self-descriptions to better illustrate the core characteristics that define the aggressive personalities.

  1. I am looking so forward to these upcoming articles. I too had a tyrant for a boss when I was young working for a well know restaurant franchise. He would scream and yell at 15 and 16 year olds in front of customers and belittle them to such an extent that some would leave crying (me for example). I worked very hard for this man. I never forgot that experience and wished I had stood up for myself. I think alot of these aggressive personalities take their aggression out on young ones especially in work situations. My son had the same experience with a manager he worked for. Again this manager did this to all the workers not just my son. He was a tyrant. When kids would go to the higher up manager he would just say ” he is very old school”. Enabling him to keep treating those kids very tyranicle. So sometimes you feel very helpless to do anything. Maybe you have some suggestions for the kids out there that have to work in these situations.

  2. There is an item on yahoo today about a man who found out on their computer that his wife was looking for another man, and badmouthing him.

    If you do x, I will do y.

    He did not recriminate. Went and got a backhoe full of manure and dumped it on her snazzy open convertible roadster. That’s what I call consequence! Not nice. But a consequence she will never forget. 🙂

  3. I’ve read Character Disturbance and wait to hear more about ways aggressive and disordered characters become like the kinds of people they end up as.

    Would you also talk about character defamation at some point? Sometimes a reputation of a decent person may get tarnished thanks to an unscrupulous fighter devoid of integrity. Of course, this kind of use(or abuse) of power can frequently be seen in politics as well. Sometimes people engage in a lesser form of this that may not tarnish a target’s reputation in eyes of many people, but still paints a target in unfavorable light for a third party, as a social game. Many people, who aren’t actively underhanded fighters, can still [have] holes in their character, after all. Would you talk about character defamation in its varying degrees at some point?

      1. More importantly, how to defend against it. At worst character defamation can be downright character assassination. No one wants to find himself the target of undeserved hatred of others despite having lived with merit.

        Some people seem to have an unassailable reputation and this is not impression management of disturbed characters I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is that some people have managed to get such high regard of other people that trying to blacken their reputation is ineffective at best. At worst such attempts only reflects badly on a would-be aggressor. Now, how could that kind of a sterling reputation be achieved and upheld?

        The world may not be just, but if one were to use that as an argument for never doing anything, then we could as well accept all kinds of abuse of power, emotional abuse, felonies and atrocities, forgo the concept of human rights altogether and make millenia worth of human advancement pointless.

        Folks need to educated on as many kinds of subtle torpedo tactics as possible. Even more so would be useful that a following attitude would be more encouraged: To take a step back and view a situation of which we actually know little about as a coin with two sides. To refuse being tempted by a believable rumor. To think of an accusation toward someone else with healthy skepticism. To be aware that good people suffer just as often as bad people rationalize. To accept that we can’t see all pieces in the puzzles right away or at all and see things as such, an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. To avoid condemning or letting off the hook too hastily. To withhold judgement. To discourage jumping to conclusions.

        Some people say “Good luck” to justify doing nothing. There have to be things within our power we can do to benefit ourselves and others. As a has-been defeatist I can say, to conclude this post that became a mini-manifesto: Let’s say No to defeatism and Yes to keeping ourselves standing.

          1. I cannot speak for J so I look forward to a summary as well, but if I’m understanding correctly, he (please pardon if I have gender wrong!) is asking what power we have to put forth our true character when someone is unfairly trying to assassinate it. IMO we have a lot of power- but the ultimate gift is not how others perceive us, it is a feeling of being at peace with who we are and working to be. We can absolutely keep ourselves standing. We can engage in behavior that is correct, socially acceptable, and consistent with the highest possible standards. When I forget what these things are, I go to the girl scout law (corny but it works and I am an adult girl scout!):
            I also have Dr. S’s ” 10 commandments of character (p 140 Character Disturbance by Dr. Simon) on my refrigerator. Hopefully, our true character or at least our efforts to be a person of exceptional character, will shine through regardless of anyone’s efforts to attack. We have to have faith that people are wise and intuitive enough to say. “something doesn’t add up here- so-and-so says this person is awful but I find that not to be the case”. If our efforts are sincere and we work hard, I believe that the truth about who we are comes to light-eventually. Historically there are many instances where good people were wrongfully accused, mistreated, villainized, jailed, etc. That happens. Our best defense- our only defense is to work on our own character development. Make it impossible for people to believe that awful things being said about you are true. And I think we can do it for that reason, but the bigger reason, in my opinion, is because it’s the right thing to do and it makes us better people, period. We can all be better. So we have to work at it, constantly. Because we are human, and we do falter, and we do make mistakes and our intentions probably aren’t always pure and good. I have finished the Judas Syndrome and I highly recommend it- it takes all of this to the next level. I believe that we cannot do this important work and cannot feel utterly safe and at peace despite the existence of problematic behavior in the world without having faith and a connection to a Higher Power. At least I can’t 🙂

          2. Thanks, Linda for the comment. I was going to chime in on the discussion here, but frankly you expressed things so well i don’t think it necessary. And thanks also for the kind words about the new book. I hope you’ll consider posting a review on Amazon.

  4. Dr Simon,

    As you are aware, some folks with disturbed character, are so charming and highly likeable. It can be hard to get support because others are mesmerized by their personalities.

  5. You understood me correctly, Linda. Thank you. As a side note, I AM male.

    Let’s also take Susan’s comment. Yes, some disturbed characters can appear to have very likable personalities, just like decent people can be seen in a poor light. Two facets of the same issue. That leads us back to what I have been getting at: As best as we can, we should spread the attitude of the importance of looking through surface appearances. A decent person can be cast in a horrid light through clever manipulation, gut-wrenching as it is. A disgraceful dirtbag devoid of integrity can twist appearances to look shiny. What ways are there to spread the gift of getting a better sense of people’s real character?

    1. J, I know its a little late for a reply but just in case you do come back to this…

      I have found that the truly disturbed characters seem to develop a track record. The people who don’t know the truth about a person will believe in their stellar reputation however, the disturbed character’s traits tend to reveal themselves over a period of time and inconsistencies will pop up.
      A person’s actions reveal more about them than the person’s intentions. Someone may very well have good intentions but, will justify the means to their end even if it involves criminal activities and knowing how to skirt around being caught.
      I learned my lesson the hard way with one particular person and regret not following my gut and warnings from other people. Its rather shocking to be treated up front as a friend when all along the intention was to destroy. In the end, trust your gut. Sometimes, the charmers are just that. Affable on top but sinister underneath.

      1. I met one sinister man at the beginning of my stint in army, in the basic skills training period, in the same room. He may not have been a full-blown covert-aggressive, but the first time I met him, I felt a funny sensation in my gut. I definitely listened to it. After introductions, I avoided talking to the guy as much as possible. I’m only glad.

        Despite being affable and bland on the surface, he had no problem lying about things and casting himself as a righteous one(“I’m here to get things done”). Never mind that, because he was irresponsible and slowed down the team. He did attempt to use rules and regulations as a way to make himself look better a few times, but this didn’t benefit him much, since he got himself into trouble with the quartermaster of our unit a lot.

        He had no trouble stealing like he demonstrated a few times. Once he took a teammate’s helmet, because he found it “bigger and more comfortable”. Despite others’ insistence for him to concede to requests to change helmets back and a trainer would-be officer saying it would be brought up again later, the guy was unfazed by it.

        He didn’t like being called out on bad behavior. He might not have been the most brazen egomaniac and from what I’ve heard others tell, he did demonstrate anxiety on several occasions over trivial matters. This is still not someone I’d trust except to be someoen to steer away from.

  6. The only thing I would like to say is that if someone was spreading untruths about me, serious lies against me and trashing my character, I would sue them for slander. There are very few, if any, things anyone could tell another person that would ” bother ” me. There may be a couple things I would prefer to not have someone share with people who don’t really know me but even those things wouldn’t really be an issue.
    That being said, I will admit that when I got slimed by the disturbed character who is now my X, I said some things to some people that I probably should not have. I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true or that wasn’t my opinion but I probably did not use the best judgement at the time. I was not well then,,,, in many ways. I was reaching out to people and in doing so I said things that were probably inappropriate. It’s a hard judgement call. Many factors were involved…..lack of sleep, meds, shock, betrayal, PTSD……I was a mess. I’m just now STARTING to see the slightest light at the end of the tunnel. I honestly don’t think that anything I said to the people I said it to will amount to a hill of beans and I also don’t think it helped me much either.

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