This is the second to last in a series of articles on personality and character. The last two articles (see: Personality & Character Disorders Pt 4: O-C & P-A Types and Personality & Character Disorders Pt 5: O-C & P-A Types in Depth) took a fairly close look at the two personality types that tend to be more “neurotic” than they are impaired in character. But the types we’ll be discussing in this article are generally among the most character disturbed personalities, with one sub-type in particular being the most dangerous and disordered character of all.
Not only have I devoted two books, In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance largely to helping people understand the most character-challenged personality types, but I’ve also written many online articles about these types of folks, including several on this blog. I’m not even plugging in links to the articles in this post because there’s so much information on this site and on the sister site: www.counsellingresource.com about them that can be easily found using the search box. They are the narcissists and the group of individuals I prefer to call the “aggressive personalities.”
It wasn’t that long ago that almost all professionals thought about folks with narcissistic personality disorder as being yet another example of a dysfunctional “neurotic” coping style. For a long time the view was that certain folks who had an underlying impoverishment of self-image and poor self-esteem, had developed a compensatory and unquenchable hunger or “need” for adulation and approval from others. They wanted to “feel special,” so the thinking went, because underneath it all they felt inferior, and sought praise and adulation because they really felt unloved.
Now I have met a few (and I do mean FEW!) individuals who actually fit the description above fairly well. In other words, narcissism CAN indeed be a “neurotic” personality style. But very early in my practice I came to realize that the vast majority of the narcissistic individuals with whom I worked did not fit the traditional mold. I really tried seeing them all as folks who put on a false front of importance and confidence to cover up their insecurities, but the more I got to know some of them the more I realized how much certain folks really and sincerely did think they were all that! I took notes about these folks and found that they deeply harbored some very disturbing attitudes of entitlement – believing that their “special” status granted them license to do as they pleased and to exploit others at will. And I also got some really good insight into the nature of what I’d always been taught were their primary “defense mechanisms:” denial and projection. I began to see their failure to accept and see things realistically (i.e. “denial”) as more of a willful act of defiance as opposed to an unconscious and fear-based act of self-protection. They weren’t protecting a “fragile ego” or fending off anxiety at all, but rather steadfastly refusing to allow anyone or anything else to alter their grandiose views of things. And when they were pointing the finger at others, they weren’t unconsciously “projecting” onto others things they’d be horrified to admit about themselves. Rather, they were simply refusing to take any responsibility and blaming everyone else. These insights changed everything for me.
Now how character-impaired narcissists get to be the way they are is really quite interesting, especially when you cast aside many of the old fallacious ideas we once held with conviction but which have never been empirically supported. There is evidence mounting that on the constitutional side, narcissists seem to have a biologically-based diminished capacity for empathy. This prevents them from having sufficient regard for the welfare of others or the impact of their behavior on others. And this diminished capacity rises to the most extreme level in another personality type we’ll be discussing a bit later – a type characterized in large measure by the most malignant variety and level of narcissism. On the learning end of things, the classical notion was that the child was deprived of and therefore left “hungry” for approval and adulation. But in fact what appears to be the case is that narcissists get too many messages as children that they’re “special” or even “superior” to others. Sometimes, they find themselves to be the most functional member of a dysfunctional household, really inflating the opinion they have of themselves. And a point that I make in all my writings is that because self-esteem and self-respect are two very different things and arise from two very different sets of circumstances, we actually need look no further than what goes wrong in their self-esteem development to know how narcissists get to be the way they are. You can find some in-depth discussion about this in the articles: Self Esteem and Merit and How to Inflate an Ego in Three Easy Steps. But to make a long story short, what I’ve found happens with children who turn out to be narcissists is that they not only get lots of “strokes” for attributes they have like talent, intelligence, good looks, etc. but they also readily claim ownership of these things (instead of humbly and in gratitude recognizing them as “gifts” from a “higher power”). Contrarily, they get relatively little attention or recognition for the conscientious and pro-social use of their gifts for the good of all. Perhaps more problematic than anything, their intrinsic confidence breeds a certain amount of success which only confirms for them their opinions about their power and special worth.
Narcissists can suffer from mood disturbances, and certain aspects of their personality might actually predispose them to mood swings. It’s easy for them to get so full of themselves that they go a little crazy and behave in a manic-like way. When the inevitable “crash” of reality ensues, they might get “down” for a brief bit, but being incapable of learning the important lesson the crash had to teach them, and being so predisposed toward grandiose self-appraisal despite any objective evidence to the contrary, they quickly rebound and resume their egotistic course. Narcissists can also succumb to more serious disorders like paranoid disorder under stress. Unwilling at a deep level to acknowledge and reckon with their own culpability when things go horribly wrong, and unable to learn the beneficial lessons that can come from acknowledging personal failure, they find fault in their external world.
The Aggressive Personalities
For starters, it’s important to realize that the group of personalities we’ll be talking about next are in fact narcissists through and through but who also happen to have a tendency most purely narcissistic folks don’t: a disturbingly aggressive predisposition. Instead of merely paying little heed to the welfare of others like pure narcissists do, the aggressive personalities deliberately and actively trample on others.
For a long time, only one of the aggressive personality sub-types was regarded as a clinically disordered personality, and was most often given the label “antisocial.” Now antisocial doesn’t mean what many people think it means. Some people use the term to describe folks who are socially aloof or who don’t easily mingle with others. But “asociality” is definitely not “antisociality.” The prefix “anti” means “against.” And the term antisocial personality applies to those who firmly pit themselves against the social order. The old notion was that these individuals suffered from a “neurosis” that stemmed from their early experience of life as both non-nurturing, untrustworthy, and hostile. Seeing the world as a cold cruel place in which they had to fend for themselves, they unconsciously faced the world with a “strong offense is the best defense” attitude. But mounds of research have debunked these notions as a suitable explanation in most cases. And while aggressive types of all persuasions often report that their early experiences were full of trauma and disadvantage, the casebooks are full of the most antisocial individuals who came out of fine backgrounds, so it’s clear much more must be at work shaping the aggressive personality style. So, once again, even though it’s possible for neurosis to underlie some of the aggressive personality styles, most aggressive personalities are far more disturbed in character than they are “neurotic.”
Several biological/constitutional factors are thought to play roles in the development of aggressive styles. As children, these personalities tend to be highly energetic and to have a high threshold for responding emotionally but a low threshold for responding physically. They tend to have a low threshold for irritation and act impulsively (i.e. without hesitation or “thinking” first), and perhaps more importantly, also have a diminished capacity to “put the brakes on” when riled. They also tend to lack “adaptive” fearfulness. That is, they don’t seem to have the innate “uneasiness” that gives most of us pause when we’re contemplating doing something risky. And as we know (and I emphasize heavily in Character Disturbance), anxiety is the hallmark feature of neurosis, which helps explain why folks who simply lack the capacity for even adaptive levels of fearfulness tend to become much more disturbed in character than neurotic.
As they grow and develop, in their interactions with their environments, the aggressive predispositions of these personalities strongly shape their character. They resist the socialization process ardently, internally vowing not to be defeated by or to eventually surrender to the external demands or consequences placed upon them. And most especially, they resist internalizing (i.e. “submitting” to and making a part of their own world view) the most important social messages most of us would like to see them adopt.
I remember well a young man whom I was asked to evaluate and provide consultation about while he was an inpatient at a local psychiatric hospital. He had been suspended from school multiple times to the point that he would certainly have to repeat the academic year. And despite the fact that he had been in the hospital’s intensive treatment program for a month already, no one on the staff anticipated a timely discharge for him. And he’d been hospitalized before – for many months – without any apparent benefit from treatment. The first time I came to get him to escort him to the testing room, he readily began rushing down the hall, many steps ahead of me, despite having absolutely no idea where he was going or where I planned to take him. This behavioral modus operandi pretty much defined him: a walking impulse – already in gear and moving in high speed without any sense of direction and without a moment’s hesitation. I let him go until he realized he had no idea where he was headed. I’d wait for him to come back and then take the lead and begin to direct him. Within seconds, he’d be out in front again, directing himself aimlessly. I’d again wait and when he realized he was lost would catch up again and I’d re-establish the lead. For 5 weeks I repeated this procedure daily, each time directing him to a different place and each time requiring of him a quicker and faster “surrendering” of his own impulsive self-leading tendency to my direction. By the end of the 5 weeks, he was asking: “Where are we going today?” and I would respond: “I know, so you just follow me.” For two weeks after that I was sure to make him “practice” the behaviors of patient waiting, surrendering his innate tendency to self-direct to my authoritative lead, and submitting himself to my guidance and direction. The staff could hardly believe the turnaround that seemed to occur as a result. He was able to complete the treatment program without major disruption and after discharge was even able to finish a full semester in school. Even the validity of his longstanding ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) diagnosis came into question (many times children’s impulsive behavior is a reflection of the innate traits they have as opposed to an outgrowth of a true attention deficiency, even though they’re often given the ADHD label). The lesson learned: folks with impulsive, aggressive predispositions don’t take to the socialization process easily, but with careful structure, guidance, etc., they generally can be socialized. But some are either too strongly and adversely opposed to the socialization process (because of the various innate traits they possess), or come out of environments in which sufficient socialization was never afforded them. In those cases, especially if there’s no remedial intervention, there’s a good chance such youngsters will turn out to be one of the following:
- An “unbridled aggressive” personality – the classic antisocial who breaks all the rules and exercises no self-restraint
- A “channeled aggressive” personality – who for practical reasons will put some clamps on his/her aggression and channel aggressive energies in pursuits that are socially more palatable (e.g., competitive sports, military, law enforcement, etc.)
- A sadistic personality (one who takes pleasure in power over others)
- A covert-aggressive (a wolf who tries to conceal his nature and the primary subject of my book In Sheep’s Clothing)
- A predatory (psychopathic) aggressive – heinously malignant narcissistic aggressors without empathy or conscience who feel entitled to prey on all those they see as beneath them.
And on this site you can find several articles discussing each of these types in great detail.
In next week’s article, which will conclude the series on personality and character disorders, we’ll be talking about the other relatively common personality dysfunctions, including borderline personality in its various different manifestations. And I want to particularly invite questions and comments on personality and character disturbances in advance of that article, so that I might address those questions in the article itself.