Personality & Character Disorders Pt 6: Narcissists & Aggressives

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.”

Narcissists

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.

 

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28 thoughts on “Personality & Character Disorders Pt 6: Narcissists & Aggressives

  1. Hi Dr. Simon, I have a question. My mother is a narcissist. Where is the line from “pure” or “just” narcissistic to being an aggressive personality? Like you explained above: “a disturbingly aggressive predisposition” ?

    The reason I ask is because of how my mother behaves and treats others in order to get her way. She chose me as her “golden child” and my sister as her “scapegoat.” Altho, my sister and I both suffered physical, emotional and psychological abuse, she treated my sister (and still does) far worse. It’s so horrible and hurtful to think of what she did to my sister. My mother has admitted to this. She knows she’s always treated my sister badly. (That’s putting it mildly) That she *knows* she’s always done it, and is still doing it — it seems as though she’s *choosing* to do it. If you choose to mistreat/abuse your own child, (or anyone) isn’t that an example of “a disturbingly aggressive predisposition”?

    I hope I’m making sense here. It’s hard for me to put my thoughts into words. Thanks in advance for your response.

    1. Although the official classification scheme has never worked this way, it’s more like a continuum. And the more aggressively predisposed the narcissist is, the more antisocial they are. Non-aggressive narcissists hurt and exploit people because they simply don’t care enough to safeguard the concerns of others. The aggressors set out to violate the rights and boundaries of others.

      1. Yes, I think I understand what you mean. Takes me awhile to let this information sink in to really understand it. Thank you for responding.

  2. Very glad to see this article – a lingering question in my mind has been the relation between the traditional concept of ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ and the aggressive character disturbances in your conception: different things but overlap? NPD as traditionally described (until the last DSM!) an inaccurate description of CDs…? This helps me understand how you’re framing it.
    Thank you!

  3. Dr. Simon,
    If someone is knowingly stringing someone along in order to “punish” them or pay them back for a perceived relationship infraction, valid or otherwise, and being passively resistant and hurtful to that person, misrepresenting their true intentions and feelings towards that person and their real interest or lack there of in the relationship, covertly lying, all the while acting the part of being in the relationship and receiving the “benefits” of being in the relationship….what would that be? To me that is a conscious, underhanded covert behavior but is probably justified in THEIR mind because of the way their beliefs are structured. Maybe something along the line of, an eye for an eye.
    Second question,,,,,,,,
    Are you familiar with the book, Stalking The Soul by Marie-France Hirigoyen?

    1. Abusive people, overt or covert, passive or active, can justify anything they do, whether they really believe it or not. If someone has no trouble acting in such a hurtful way, then they have beliefs that allow them to act that way, like Dr Simon teaches. Perhaps abusive people believe they have the right to get back at another person for the smallest of infractions, maybe they are an automatically good person, who can do no wrong and whom no one has right to call out, they may believe others should be grateful for their very existence, perhaps they believe that underneath all talk of respecting others it’s still okay to act however they like to act, but it’s some kind of a twisted belief nonetheless.

      Also, thank you for mentioning the book. Haven’t gotten it yet, heard of it, however. What’s it like?

    2. I’m not familiar with that particular book. With respect to the topic of how they justify things in their mind, I address this not only in Character Disturbance but in several articles (see, for example: Disturbed Characters Say the Darnedest Things and CBT and the Thinking Patterns of Disturbed Characters). Sometimes they really think a certain way. Sometimes they just want you to think they’re thinking a certain way as part of their game of impression management. You’re actually in worse shape in a relationship when they sincerely think in a certain way that’s distorted and allows them to justify hurtful behavior.

  4. Thanks for your comment J. I can see the validity of believing something WAS an infraction or a hurt or a slight, but to retaliate in a underhanded, intentional way without confronting the issue up front with the person……to consciously and intentionally cause them pain….blows my mind. I just can’t digest that someone would do it and potentially do it just to “win”! kind of an “I’ll show you” attitude. Childishly pathetic.
    About the book, I ordered it because it cam highly recommended but have not received it yet. There are some excerpts of the book here and there on the internet.

    think here?

    http://books.google.com/books?id=QMfyXh7ZrDYC&pg=PA13&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

    1. Thanks, Puddle. I’ve got to order that book at some point. I sure don’t want someone for a partner or significant other, who’d, like you say, “retaliate in an underhanded – way without confrontingthe issue” bothering them “up front” just because they prefer to handle their aggression in a destructive way.

  5. J, My understanding is that some of these people “squirrel things away” in their minds, storing them up to use against you in the future. It’s also been my experience with my ex. So I think Dr. Simon is correct when he says that it is “impression management” in several different ways. One, it’s a way they can put you in a one down position and wiggle out of an argument. They throw things into the mix to divert you from the topic at hand, i.e……them!

  6. My ex was abusive in many ways, the way in which he wore me down the worst was in trashing the house. He would for example open a pack of smokes and drop the wrapping on the floor right outside of the trash bin or after I’d spent hours cleaning it he would make a meal in the kitchen and completely trash it – when I’d ask him to clean it up he’d rant at me that I never did anything around the house. Those were pretty overt things but he did much more covert stuff, some of which I never realized until a year after he was out of my life. I think the following is the most chilling to me and yet it seems so innocuous I would like another opinion.

    This is over a period of 17 years. He drank coffee, I did not. When he first moved in with me I bought him a Mr. Coffee and after a year it started leaking coffee on the counter. Which he would not clean up, I would end up doing that. He said he needed a better coffee maker. I bought him one, after a while it began leaking coffee and he’d tell me he didn’t know what was wrong but that it was a crappy coffee maker anyway and he needed a better one. I bought him another one, this continued for all the years we were together. The last coffee maker is still in my kitchen and I use it to heat water for tea. I discovered that if I poured the water into the brew area by accident it would leak in exactly the same way every single coffee maker we’d ever had leaked. I have come to the conclusion that there is no way this intelligent person didn’t figure out why every single coffee maker “leaked”. And the fact he did this for years I just cannot wrap my head around. To punish me? To control me, forcing me to clean up the mess? To show himself his superiority over me? All of it? Something more?

    1. Datdamwuf……..I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it was for ANY of those reasons. They are twisted and underhanded. I’ve put more and more and more together since being out from under my ex’s crap. SO many things make sense now and It’s disgusting. So many things I suspected and inquired about but was convinced otherwise and reassured because he still had an “interest”, not in ME but in some twisted objective of his own…..pathetic children is all they are.
      Im going to take this opportunity to recommend a movie that I just watched which I thought was fantastic. I also would recommend watching it a couple of times if possible.
      It’s a Merryl Streep movie called “Doubt”.

      My guess is that he did this coffee sabotage to see how many hoops he could get you to jump through. But………it all comes down to this, There is no asking why with these losers because if you asked them, they would lie and if they DID tell you the truth, it wouldn’t make sense. Be glad you are out and alive!

    2. These losers can make up anything on the spur of the moment, because they don’t care whether they are telling the truth or lying, except for instrumental reasons. Sometimes they themselves may not distinguish between truth and lies, just like Dr Simon has said some disturbed characters actually believe whatever they tell themselves.

      1. J, my ex was trying to defend himself one time and told me that I get a hold of something in my mind and turn it and turn it until it becomes something bigger than it is. Basically, that I make a mountain out of a mole hill. He then said, “you know how when you tell a lie enough times, you believe it”? That was a “tell”. He was actually telling me that he is a liar and that he believes at least some of his own lies. Twisted. These tells are part of their game.

  7. Excuse me, I don’t quite get the part about the tell. Do you mean he asserted with conviction how much more “real” his viewpoint is?

    1. J, “tells” are hints that they give the victims in ways that you take notice but doubt IN THE MOMENT. So, the “tell” registers with you but in such a subtle way that you ignore it or don’t confront them about it. It’s like they are telling you what they are and daring you to catch them in their game. Some serial killers do this, leave clues that lead nowhere. After the fact when you are out from under them you start putting two and two and two and two together and, LOL,,,,still come up with zero!

      1. J, You’re welcome. It is mind boggling and bizarre and alien.
        I doubt very seriously that I will ever understand the “why’s” of their behavior and choices.

      2. Perhaps understanding their mindscape is useful only as far as we know all we need to know so we can clear harmful misconceptions. Some people just have developed a twisted world of thinking. That’s the best explanation we can have.

        Sure, there are infinite individual variables in nuances when it comes to these behaviors. All we need to know is the core essential: undisciplined antisocial aggression.

  8. I have been married for 20 years(same man) with 4 gifts from God. My manipulative mother in law has taught me A LOT!!!! I

    I like to tell my daughters, your dad and I were two wounded souls that met and healed along side of each other. My in laws have always been a challenge! I have constantly seek ed guidance when dealing with them. Just like you have said, the manipulation attempts and tactics are still going strong. My mother in law has found every way possible to exclude me. Maybe 5 years into our marriage, he quit talking to his parents, because of one of her moves. She never did that one again… but of course it was not her fault. The facts are she never did that tactic again. So he has drawn some effective boundaries.

    I need some help…. she hasn’t changed one bit, but the last time we were around his parents I showed anger at one of her usual tactics. Her tactics did not change just my reaction. (that fed her fire for winning at manipulation) big mistake on my part.

    Where I need help…

    since our last visit with her she was on a ventilator for 10 days due to emphysema. In the hospital and nursing home for 10 weeks. She just went home this week and now we are heading to a visit in our hometown (where all 4 grandparents/parents live) She is using her dying to manipulate even more… and I think my sign of anger did not help things. I haven’t read your book yet, but I will!!! I just need to know how to deal with this dying manipulator. She has told my husband how he should call her everyday, he did not. She has told him how much It has hurt her… that he didn’t visit when she was on the ventilator. He has done nothing but hurt her in her eyes. Does he confront her or just do what we have been doing… short visits and remind ourselves of our ability to walk out of their home?

    Thanks,

    1. Truly a manipulator to the end. I suggest you nonchalantly label her tactics as such as soon as they come up, if it’s something you can win, or simply limit contact.

  9. I think limiting contact sounds best!! It’s HIS mother so HE needs to lead, in my opinion. Sounds like the two of you should be able to form a united front? And…..don’t take the bait. You know it’s going to be there, she WILL attempt to engage you……be prepared, emotionally, mentally and verbally. Short, sweet, to the point. You don’t have to take it personally but you do have to be prepared. Im guessing that may be what happened when you became angry….not prepared or expecting the inevitable. Maybe it caught you off guard or maybe just a bad day, who knows.
    You and your husband need a team plan, escape routes, etc. And I would rehearse some words out loud so they came more easily and natural to you if needed.
    Good Luck!!

  10. I feel for C who posted above! A mother in law with NPD is hellish and causes great damage to your marriage. My MIL is clingy to my husband, she undermines me behind my back and has done so in front of the kids too. I really can’t stand her constant dramas, need for attention especially from my husband (an only child) and to be seen as number 1 over me. We are in counselling and the counsellor said she scored 9 out of 9 for NPD when she went though the list of traits for NPD. She said we need to work as a team (which is what I have wanted from my husband for along time….he has tried so hard to please her but lets face it you can’t win with a NPD). Please help with what boundaries we need to put in place to stop this woman ever causing damage to our marriage again! Here is our big chance to start anew!

    1. Shazza, I’m thinking the number one thing that has to happen is that you and your husband need to be on the same page FOR SURE. IMO, if it’s his mother, he needs to take the lead though. I think he needs to know how this is affecting you but he needs to lead the two of you as a team. Good luck!!

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