As I assert in the opening lines of my first book (which will mark an amazing 18 years in print in September, some manipulative people are like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing: they can appear benign on the surface because they so carefully cloak their aggression. Inwardly, however, they can be quite ruthless. But rather than openly assert power over you, covert-aggressors use subtle tactics that not only blind you to their real nature and self-serving agendas but also have the power to bring you to submission and control you. And dealing with these folks is often like getting whiplash: you only fully realize what’s happened to you after most of the damage has been done. At the time In Sheep’s Clothing was first written, most professionals didn’t even recognize the existence of the personality type I was trying to describe. But in recent years, many other authors and researchers have written about such folks, some even suggesting that their character pathology is significant enough to make them (as the title of one book suggests) “almost a psychopath.” In today’s post, we’ll begin taking a more up-to-date look at these disturbed characters, the tactics they use, and the best ways to deal more effectively with them.
The big wake-up call for me with covert-aggression came when I observed an interaction between a young woman and her husband in the presence of several mental health experts. The husband had been court-ordered to take “anger management” classes and to receive counseling for the physically and emotionally abusive behavior he had inflicted on his spouse. He claimed he was a new man because of his “therapy” and deserved a second chance. But while he was away in the treatment center his wife discovered a joy in living she hadn’t known in years. And she was hesitant to simply put the past aside and take him back. Even though he wasn’t acting quite like he used to, something was bothering her about his behavior toward her but she simply could’t put her finger on it. Every time she wanted to say “no” to him, she found herself giving in. And every time she found herself thinking there was something still horribly unhealthy about him, he’d somehow have her thinking she was at fault. What’s worse, the mental health experts brought in to observe the interaction of this couple as they aired their concerns appeared to side with the husband. This woman ended up feeling quite crazy. But I saw something clearly and I simply couldn’t rest until I did something about it: this man’s behavior, and most especially, his character, hadn’t really changed at all. Only his tactics of domination and control had changed. Instead of overtly berating or threatening this woman, he used guilt, shame, and subtle means of intimidation to bring her to submission. Once I understood what was happening I couldn’t let it go. I’d seen this kind of thing many times before and now a light bulb had gone off in my brain. And even though I’d never even dreamed of writing a book before, I knew I had to expose this personality type.
Once I began my clinical research in earnest, I realized a few general rules about manipulative relationships: covert-aggressors were relatively non-neurotic, character-deficient individuals who failed to “own” or exercise responsible control over their aggressive instincts and who exploited the excessive conscientiousness of neurotic individuals to get the better of them. I began to see these wolves in sheep’s clothing as part of a group of undisciplined fighters, whom I label in Character Disturbance as the “aggressive personalities” (see also: Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course and Aggressive Personalities: The Sub-Types), and who cloaked their aggression in behaviors many of my colleagues thought of as “defense mechanisms” but were really offensive power tactics that simultaneously concealed their aggressive intentions, effectively invited the other person to give ground or give way, and prevented the aggressor from internalizing the values and standards of conduct that would help make them a better person. That was the real key: at the very moment the manipulator was excuse-making, blaming, denying, minimizing, feigning innocence, or guilting the other party, they were fundamentally fighting (not “defending”) – fighting not only to get the other person to see things their way and cave-in to their demands but also fighting against the rules they knew most people wanted them to observe about healthy social behavior – all while looking relatively good and maintaining a benign social image. And the person on the receiving end of this emotional barrage didn’t trust their gut. They responded to the tactics by going on the defensive but still couldn’t view the tactics as offensive moves. And I also came to realize why the ways I’d been trained to “help” people with character impairments were of little use to me when trying to make situations better. Eventually I realized that traditional methods didn’t work because they were never meant to work! They were designed to help folks struggling with fears and insecurities, not confident connivers who fought too much, too indiscriminately, in too cagey a manner, and with little motivation to change. So in addition to getting a whole new perspective on things, I had to develop an entirely different approach to dealing with the problem. And this effort would define the rest of my professional career.
In next week’s post we’ll take an in-depth look at all of the most common manipulation tactics, including some I didn’t address in that much detail in my books. Then, in the final articles of this series on aggressive personalities, we’ll take an in-depth look at the most severely disturbed of all the aggressive characters – the conscienceless psychopathic (alt: sociopathic) predators, using some real world examples from some high-profile cases that have been in the news of late.