Understanding Predatory Aggressors

As I mention in my book Character Disturbance, we do a lot more “fighting” in life than we do “running.”  And while most of us “neurotics” fight in principled and disciplined ways (that’s what assertiveness is all about), the disturbed characters among us are unscrupulous fighters determined to get the better of us.  But the nature and prevalence of human aggression is generally poorly understood.  This is especially true when it comes to differentiating reactive vs. predatory aggression.  To avoid victimization, you really must heighten your awareness about the kinds of aggression disturbed characters exhibit.

Aggression can be overt (out in the open so everyone can see it) or covert (veiled or carefully concealed so that a potential victim is caught unaware).  It can be direct (aimed at a particular person) or indirect (carried out through intermediaries). It can also be active (defined by what a person does) or passive (revealed by what a person doesn’t do).  And as I mention in In Sheep’s Clothing, perhaps there is no more common misunderstanding than the difference between passive and covert-aggression.    But it’s also true that many of the traditional psychology paradigms made it all but impossible for folks (lay persons and therapists alike) to appreciate the difference between reactive and predatory or instrumental aggression.  In fact, it’s the tendency on the part of most folks to assume that fear and/or anger underlies all aggression that makes it really hard to tell when someone is neither afraid of you or angry with you but simply preying upon you!  Predatory aggressors are a very different lot.  And sometimes they victimize out of pure desire or for amusement.  Below is a link to a video segment from my upcoming DVD and webinar series on character disturbance, explaining the difference between predatory and reactive aggression:


17 thoughts on “Understanding Predatory Aggressors

  1. Thank you. This article and video are brilliant. In addition, what you have done is make irrelevant the nature vs nurture argument. We are animals (period)! It is nature (period)!

    1. Thank you, Sarah. And doing the hard work of rising above the purely animal level is what character development is all about. We can be more, but it takes work. And for some, given their innate predispositions, it takes a lot of work.

  2. Great post as always! I’ve been helped tremendously by reading and watching your videos. I also read your book and it gave me a new approach and a way to step back and see patterns that have been so deeply burned into my behavior that I’ve not been able to see them.

    I was raised in a dysfunctional family where drugs and avoidance of responsibility was prevalent. As I understood later, often one person in such a family steps up and takes responsibility for the rest of the family members. I was the “chosen one,” and in retrospect, I had a lot of omnipotent traits. Actually, I still have a problem with this “Jesus” complex :), caring for others but having trouble caring for myself. But as I already mentioned, your work has given me a chance to see the roots of my own behavior :).

    I was wondering if there are any studies based on family dynamics on how traits of family members and the “automatic” behaviors you describe are “burnt” into the relationship between family members? As I see it, the “automation” process occurred in both ways in my family: I got the automatic behavior of becoming the “savior” to my sister, but my parents put their lack of responsibility onto my shoulders. They, on the other hand, got the “burnt-in” behavior of never taking responsibility, always coming up with excuses and playing the victim when they failed.

    I repeated this “Jesus” syndrome in my relationships with women in my adult life. So; I can’t put all the blame on them for being unable to take responsibility. I was in a sense also picking up relationships where I could play a role that fitted with my “burnt” in behavior. So in a sense me and my partners “fitted” into each others like a hand in a glove.

    My problem now, being mentally aware of my “automatic” behavior, is trying to appreciate all the good people who actually care and not see them as competitors in my Jesus crusade :). At the same time I need to spot and reject relationships that I “automatically” am drawn to. And again, thanks to work like yours I do believe I’ve become better in spotting the people with bad apples in their basket and put the responsibility back to them instead of carrying their burden for them. But as I see it, again; the hard part is to really appreciate all the good people out there and trust them enough to eat from their baskets and at the same time give away some of my good apples to them – to get away from the one way street of being the one giving apples away.

    Sorry if my grammar or spelling is bad, I’m from Sweden. Feel free to correct any grammar misstates or misspelling..

    And again, thanks for your excellent work!


    EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was edited for grammar and spelling correction only.

    1. Thanks for your kind words about my work, Michael, and for sharing your experience. You have apparently identified the challenge before you quite well. And there are numerous studies and books that address the “dynamics” of patterns that tend to be instilled in members of dysfunctional families. However, as you might have gleaned from my work, I do not consider it particularly empowering to invest time or energy musing about such things. The task before you will take just about any reserve energy you have. I always advocate that people invest their energy where they have power: changing their own thoughts and behavior. And more importantly, I urge them to recognize and reinforce themselves for the effort that it takes to do that. Over time, they’ll conquer those old, destructive, “automatic” behaviors and feel more vital. And when they face the inevitable periodic setbacks in that effort, they’ll experience intimate contact with all of the “dynamics” they need to understand about how the patterns developed in the first place.

  3. I seem to be on the same sort of path as Michael; different dynamics, same gist. I’m like him, too, that I’d like to figure out the family dynamics; the ingrained patterns of behavior that caused all of this. (My mother is a narcissist) And your response to him stopped me cold:

    “However, as you might have gleaned from my work, I do not consider it particularly empowering to invest time or energy musing about such things. The task before you will take just about any reserve energy you have.”

    Isn’t learning “how” it happened part of the task at hand? Or is that an avoidance tactic? I don’t seem to know how to “meet it head on.” It feels like I’m “untangling” all of my ingrained beliefs and views and behaviors. And part of the “untangling” is figuring out how it all happened in the first place. Or at least that’s how I see it.

    I would love to know how to meet all of this “head on.” Do you have any advice for those of us who are foggy and are trying to figure this out to become healthier?

    1. I think the fact that my first assertion “stopped [you] cold” took your attention away from the other part of my reply where I assert that when you “face the inevitable periodic setbacks in that effort (to challenge and replace old dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors and reinforce yourself for the effort), [you will] experience intimate contact with all of the “dynamics” [you] need to understand about how the patterns developed in the first place.” In other words, in the very process of facing your demons and overcoming them, you inevitably come face to face with all the dynamics that shaped your dysfunctional behavior in the first place. It’s in the process of “doing” that awareness grows about how you got messed up in the first place. Simply musing and introspecting about it all can be (although it’s not necessarily so) a big avoidance tactic. And, the great failing of traditional insight-oriented therapy approaches is that while insight is fine as far as it goes, it can’t remedy a dysfunctional pattern. In fact, sometimes it only adds to a person’s misery as they’re trying to get better (because they “know” how dysfunctional they’re behaving and all the bad dynamics that contributed to it, but still succumb to self-defeating behavior). Years of experience has shown me the wisdom of learning by doing. When we stop musing and re-visiting the past and plow head-first into self-development we will always come into the most intimate contact with our demons from the past. And as we slay them, we not only get the awareness we want as to how it all fits together, but we get a new level of self-awareness that can carry us forward with less of the past’s baggage upon our backs.

  4. I think I know what you mean, and I think, that while it doesn’t *feel* like I’m plowing head first, I actually am (if this anxiety I feel is any indication). This is a mysterious and very slow journey for me. I’m used to “planning my work and working my plan” and I feel like I want to do that in this situation. I feel like there’s something I *should* be doing in a more practical way that will “fix” all of this faster. Or more efficiently. Or I should be doing it “better.”

    I did notice what followed what I had quoted above.

    “face the inevitable periodic setbacks in that effort (to challenge and replace old dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors and reinforce yourself for the effort), [you will] experience intimate contact with all of the “dynamics” [you] need to understand about how the patterns developed in the first place.”

    And while it sounded sort of scary to me, it also sounded like a reward *for* all the hard work.

    It’s very hard to verbalize what I mean through this process. I hope I am making sense here.

    Anyway, thanks for your reply and the words of the possibility of being carried “forward with less of the past’s baggage upon our backs.”

    That’s a happy, hopeful thought.

    1. You make perfect sense. And all the best to you on your journey. Your awareness will grow about all the past dynamics as you face and overcome the demons that will inevitably attempt to thwart your progress. Just remember to recognize and reinforce yourself for every effort you make.

  5. Hi there I love your writing. I was married for many years to a character disturbed individual. Although it has been three years I continue to be a target to this person. I won’t even begin to get into my experience. I know that someday my escape from him will be complete.
    I attend a great program called Celebrate Recovery. It is Christ centered it promotes “freedom from lifes hurts habits and hangups” and focuses on individual accountability, forgiveness, exploring the self, let go and let God and that secrets keep you sick. It is so much more than this……. it is an awsome program.
    I am looking for a counselor in the Denver area. I have a situation similar to the story of Amanda in your book In Sheeps Clothing. The current counselor encourages disrespect from my daughter and tells me that I need to respect her “feelings”. I however beleive that while her “feelings” are important the focus should be on her behavior and actions. She parrots my ex’s sentiments without providing any specifics. The counselor insists that we proceed as if these are valid. I let her know I will not proceed in that way and she (the counselor) has become resentful and acts out in passive and covert aggressive ways it has become a nightmare and I have started recording our sessions in self defense. I do not want to end up with another controlling insecure therapist. Are you familar with any counselors in my area that subscribe to your views and your common sense?

    1. I get asked the question you ask more than any other. Unfortunately, it long ago proved impossible to maintain any kind of roster of therapists and counselors who adopt the perspective I and others advocate. I am also familiar with the Celebrate Recovery program, and I know that many of the programs around the country have my two books on their recommended reading list. I can’t respond directly to your situation, however, because it’s impossible to really assess it adequately so remotely. But one thing I’ve learned from experience is that sometimes it’s not so much the program itself that matters as much as what a person puts into drawing out of the program with respect to issues of personal growth. I sincerely hope your work in the program and whatever benefits you’ve derived from my work assist you in what you need to do to heal.

  6. There is a new theory that humans evolved the flexible thumb because it was possible to form a fist. The closed fist was structurally more supportive to the hand bones, and less likely to break. Human evolution selectively rewarded the aggressive, and the humans capable of forming a closed fist. Fist gets girl, and food. Just google “fist and human evolution.” Of course, aggression seems to be a very human characteristic. Hence, the predators among us. Hmmm…good title for a new book. Any thoughts, Dr. Simon?

  7. I stumbled upon this site googling manipulative people. And I am glad I did. A good friend of mine analyzed a behavior of a guy that I had been seeing for just a few month. I contacted that friend AFTER I pulled the plug!
    My friend used the term “predatory” once I explained why I ended the relationship.
    Here it goes: met the guy through other friends, he seems nice enough. He was kind and helpful and not like other jerks really pushing to get me to go to bed with him. One day he asked to come over to his place for a glass of wine while my b-day was approaching. Again, guy seemed to be nice enough and in no form or shape was he trying anything. So we talked, had some wine and just sat on the couch.
    Then he said that he has many friends, male and female and that after a bad divorce and a failed long term relationship he is now wanting to be happy and just have fun. He said that there are two categories of FM friends that he has. Good friends and special friends. He explained that special friends he sleeps with and that all participants know of each other and all want the no stings attached relationship. My reply was that I am not willing to be a participant in a “harem”. So that was the end of that day and I assumed I will not be involved in any form or shape. We been pretty friendly for a while on the phone and or email. Next invite was for diving which I came over and yes it involved liqueur and he simply led me to his bed. So I admit my fault in this of believing what he said that it’s been 4 month since he had anyone over. He had also let me to believe that of the special friends, there maybe one left if that at all. He said he sees a special friend and may or may not sleep with them. So I figured let’s just have a few more dates and see where it goes. A few month of regular and exclusive (at least that what he wanted me to believe) “reporting” to me every day with emails and phone calls of his whereabouts have past, and he stated every so often how I make him feel, that he can’t wait to see me….
    Anytime of day or night I call the home phone, there he was. I knew his sis, which she did not know of us and she confirmed his whereabouts! Than we have a brief meeting about something else as he tells me so and so called and he told her that he will see her next week. I got up from my chair and said that’s it for me. He responded that he had told me all along that he has “other friends and that he will see them”
    Before you call me stupid or I should have known better….he send in my presence pics of him and me to his kids, (his idea, not mine) told me I will meet them in spring. Asked me if he can meet my grown up son. Took an extra shirt of mine, made a draw in his bedroom for my things. Again his idea, did not asked for it or expected it. Every week asking me to be patient until his workload will be less, so he “can make time for us”. Once I figured this is too little time spend for me, I said why don’t we just call it a weekend affair. No he was not comfortable with that expression. I said why don’t we just meet for the physical part and I sleep at home….no he wants to have a nice eve and me to stay overnight?
    So the fling is definitely over, just tell me is this classified predatory aggression?
    As many that submit comments I am here to grow and learn about myself and people that is my motivation. Thank you.

  8. I watched your video in which you explain reactive versus predatory aggressors. Is it possible for a predatory aggressor to talk like a reactive one in order to feign innocence?
    When a repeated abuse is followed by words like “I’m sorry I reacted that way because of stress,” could this be a form of excuse or manipulation?

    1. Not a form of excuse. An excuse pure and simple. And for behavior for which there simply is no excuse. There’s always a reason. But never an excuse. And the reason (whether honestly or manipulatively stated) for any inappropriate behavior is irrelevant. Making the excuse is your biggest indication a person will engage in the behavior again because they haven’t accepted the behavior as wrong and committed themselves to changing it.

      1. This is gold, Dr. Simon:

        “Making the excuse is your biggest indication a person will engage in the behavior again because they haven’t accepted the behavior as wrong and committed themselves to changing it.”

  9. My neighbors are predatory aggressive. The ring leader feeds off negativity/anger and is ALWAYS looking for a fight/to complain. He teamed up with the other neighbor (an alcoholic). They look for petty things to get worked up about and fight over.

    I’m single, quiet, keep to myself. Friendly, but mind my own business.

    He started up again. After I didn’t take the bait on their last go around and ignored them, they upped the anti and put nails in two of my tires. On passenger side – my neighbors porch light doesn’t work, so it was an easier target.

    Immediately filed a police report with pictures. Then bought two solar landscape lights that you put in the ground that are pointed at my cars tires. Been like this since.

    Today the Malignant came up to me while I was weeding. Acting polite (I know better, he call people Pu$$y’s, and awful things) . Says he wanted to ask me before he went to the city. Says my lights are flooding into his window (way across the street) and other neighbors too. I said I was surprised considering they’re aimed at my car tires. He said if I didn’t fix it he was going to the city and talk with them about a code violation (he cited the code for effect – nice touch!). He said it was a $500 fine and was trying to be nice. No sale. (He also said my neighbor who was kind enough to place one of the lights on his property would also get a citation). He just wants to harass and feel powerful. I told him I’d speak to the inspector when they came. He also tried to convince me that the nails in my tire were an accident – not intentional. How’d he know they were punctured?

    He added that he didn’t like me…for good measure. Well, duh!

    I went across the street and asked the police officer (who’s also had problems with him) if the lights were bothering him and he said no. He also said they were such low lights that they would not be a code violation. He suggested I keep them aimed at the tires. I mentioned that this person has continued to harass/try to intimidate me and this seemed like another effort. I asked if he had a camera in the front and he said not yet, but with malignant next door, he was looking at his options. I suggested a field camera, b/c I had been looking for options as well.

    So today I did the final research on my trail cameras that I’m purchasing in the morning. Hopefully I catch him/them in the act.

    He has plenty of enablers/people who are afraid of challenging him.

    I have PTSD from being targeted like this all my life. I’m learning to keep my energy in me and not allow myself to be pushed off balance. To not get sucked into their game and certainly not try to reason with them. To hold my own and let them do what they are going to do. To display confidence, strength and not get hooked. He wants me to be afraid. So afraid, I’ll be compliant/submissive. NOT happening. I’m learning how to fight back effectively.

    I’ll look up the code myself and my lights wattage and ensure they do not violate any codes. He won’t have a leg to stand on. Pretty sure he wasn’t counting on me fighting back. It really stinks having to deal with them. I’m looking at it as practice. Strength training of sorts.

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