Today’s post begins a new series on a subject historically afforded little attention in classical psychology paradigms:  human aggression. For the most part, traditional psychology overly focused upon, and perhaps was even obsessed with, people’s fears and anxieties. Classical psychology paradigms even sought to define people’s personalities by the ways they “ran” from things they unconsciously feared or the ways they “defended” themselves against perceived “threats” from the outside world and from the experience of anxiety. In short, classical psychology viewed people mainly as runners and largely unwitting runners at that. And the classical paradigms viewed all the psychological problems we can have as stemming from the unhealthy or inadequate ways we avoid or defend ourselves from the things we fear.  As a result, classical psychology failed us all in explaining a large segment of human behavior.

I’ve long made the point that most of us do an infinitely greater amount of “fighting” than we do running in our daily lives (see also pp. 96-105 in Character Disturbance).  And by fighting I do not mean being physically violent.  Physical violence is just one of many forms of human aggression.  And it’s by no means the predominant form. While human beings do an awful lot of fighting, most of it is done in various nonviolent ways.  And not all of the fighting we do is bad either.  Sometimes it’s both appropriate and necessary that we fight.   And when we fight with principle for the things we truly need and with the constraint and discipline necessary to respect the rights, needs, and boundaries of others, it can be a really good thing – perhaps even the healthiest thing we can do.  That’s largely what assertive behavior is all about.  But some kinds of fighting are particularly problematic, as is the case with the subtle, underhanded, unprincipled fighting I call covert-aggression. Those familiar with my books and other writings are already aware that covert-aggression is almost always involved in interpersonal manipulation.

There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of human aggression.  And much of this misunderstanding is unfortunately due to the rampant misuse of important psychological terms, even by mental health professionals.  That’s one reason many folks have problems accurately understanding such concepts as psychopathy, sociopathy, antisociality, denial, acting-out, etc. (for more on this see the series on commonly misunderstood and misused terms, such as:  Passive Aggression:  Top 5 Misused Terms – Part 3).  So, I think it worth reviewing some of the many forms of human aggression:

  • Direct aggression – when the aggressor directly attacks a target
  • Indirect aggression – when the aggressor employs some type of intermediary entity or action to attack a target
  • Active aggression – when the aggressor does something actively to injure/exploit/gain advantage over a target
  • Passive aggression – when the aggressor fails to do, resists doing, or refuses to do something as a way of frustrating a target
  • Reactive aggression – when a person aggresses (usually, defensively)  in response to a threat to his/her safety or security
  • Predatory aggression – when a person aggresses for the pure purpose of victimization
  • Overt aggression – when the aggressor openly and unabashedly lashes out against a target
  • Covert aggression – when the aggressor attempts to conceal aggressive behavior and nefarious intent to increase the odds of gaining advantage over a target

Now covert-aggression is a particularly insidious type of fighting.  That’s because victims of it can have a lot of understandable difficulty recognizing it in the first place and then defending themselves against it once they sense it.  As I say in In Sheep’s Clothing, being the victim of covert-aggression can make you feel crazy.  In your gut, you think someone’s trying to get the better of you or abuse you in some way, but you can’t point to anything clear and obvious to back up your hunch.  And it’s also like getting whiplash:  You don’t really realize what’s happened to you until after damage has already been done.  Even once you get an idea of what’s going on, it’s hard to respond well.  The covert-aggressor has usually succeeded at throwing you on the defensive, and when you’re in such a state it’s hard to think clearly about how you might better handle yourself.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be giving some new examples of covert-aggression and I look forward to a robust discussion on the topic. We’ll also be exploring some of the other kinds of aggressive behaviors and the toll they take in human relations.  Though many of the readers are quite savvy on these subjects, there are many newcomers to the site that have either just become familiar with my work or are just beginning to suspect that they’ve been the victim of any of these types of aggression.  The more anecdotes and examples they can access, the more validated they’re likely to feel in their feelings and suspicions.  Hopefully, they’ll also find in the examples and discussions the insights and tools they need to better empower themselves.

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19 Responses to Aggression and Covert-Aggression

  1. Einstien
    Jan 17, 2014

    My very first ‘aha’ moment came when I found an excerpt from Dr. Simon’s book, “In Sheep’s Clothing”. I don’t know how the dilema could possibly be described better. It should be required reading for anyone who finds themselves wondering what the hell is going on.

    http://www.cassiopaea.com/cassiopaea/psychopaths_in_sheeps_clothing.htm

    I hope you don’t mind Dr. Simon. To this day, it’s one of the best – and most enlightening (and freeing) – things I ever read.

    • johanna
      Jan 20, 2014

      Thanks for pointing out that excerpt from “In Sheeps Clothing”. It was also my ‘aha’ moment.

  2. Noel
    Jan 17, 2014

    Your article basically defines my 49 year relationship with my xnh. It did make me think I was going crazy. I went to a psychologist around our 20th anniversary and told him just that. He had a few counseling sessions with my husband during this time period. Of course xnh wanted to establish that I had mental problems. The Dr. laid out that my then husband was pretending to be one person while he was really another. He said that my actions totally lined up with my beliefs. I thought he was talking about just our current situation at that time. I had never heard of personality disorders. This was around 1980 and I think these issues were just being recognized. I stayed another 25 years.

    I find great strength in my belief in God. Now that I have healed somewhat, my faith is stronger than ever.

  3. Danny
    Jan 18, 2014

    So much to learn – all very interesting Dr.Simon. Thank you. Again, you touch on many aspects of my relationship that I had always dismissed along the lines of “well, she just has a way of dealing with me like that. She doesn’t really mean it”…….not realising that she absolutely did, every single bit of it.

    In response to voicing my concerns, I was told many times……”you’re just overreacting”, “you need to go get some therapy”…..or similar. Too, I had made the mistake in confusing passive aggression with covert aggression, the latter being far more insidious in my experience.

    Just a point for clarification please. I’m assuming some of those forms of aggression will overlap? For example, reactive aggression can both be direct or indirect? Or to take another example, reactive aggression can be direct, indirect or passive? Or am I completely confused?

  4. Hopey
    Jan 18, 2014

    The one thing that drove me crazy was indirectness or what I have learned to be covert.
    Progress was finally made when I admitted, to myself, that this was driving me nuts, and I left a certain situation.
    I had decided if the problem really was me, a change of environment would help me see my problem in addition to counseling.
    I have problems but it stemmed from behaviors of some which are not happening in the new place.
    Now I can place appropriate boundaries/identify what is bothering me without going nuts!
    Sometimes you have to get out of a situation/relationship to do that. That isn’t easy either as I suffered from guilt for doing that for too long.

  5. Gigi
    Jan 18, 2014

    Thanks Dr. Simon! I wished that I found your article sooner. I am married to a covert aggressor for 7 years and now is going through a divorce. It look him leaving me to realized that I was not the root of the issue in this marriage.

    STBXH and I have been to MC but he insisted going to a therapist that he went to for a few sessions instead of going to the one that I have been going for months. During MC, I was blamed for the issue in the marriage. I did not realized that I was being brainwashed by STBXH and then by the therapist. I started to tell everyone that I am a horrible wife and will argue with anyone that tell me otherwise.

    The sad part about this whole situtation is that even though I realize I am not a that horrible person that he made me out to be, sometime my mind will go back and believe that I am that horrible person that I was once made to believe.

    • J
      Jan 19, 2014

      Reminds me of anti-self system by Robert Firestone. I think that’s one thing us, who prefer to live in peace, could use learning about.

    • Einstien
      Jan 19, 2014

      Gigi,

      I think everyone has a ‘critical’ inner voice – it’s why we are able learn and grow as a person. Unfortunately, this is the same human trait that makes it so easy to be manipulated and mind-warped by a CA. The tools of their trade are denial, minimization, justification and projection – which make anything and everything YOUR fault/problem/hang-up/issue.

      One of the hardest things to overcome is the damage they do to the way we see ourselves. You need to fight that urge to internalize the fault – it isn’t with you.

    • J
      Jan 19, 2014

      You summed it up better than me, Einstien. Indeed, we need to fight or tame the urge to internalize fault.

    • Dr. Simon
      Jan 28, 2014

      You’re so welcome. And welcome to the site and to the discussion!

    • Gigi
      Jan 19, 2014

      Thanks for the link! I started reading it and is finding it very helpful.

  6. J
    Jan 19, 2014

    Theodore Roosevelt has been quoted saying what I think fits this subject matter very well.

    “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

    http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/theodorero147876.html

  7. Claire
    Jan 20, 2014

    Don’t know where to put this, but http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/for-the-love-of-money.html?_r=3

    “From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. …”

    • J
      Jan 21, 2014

      That’s an extremely interesting article there, especially with this concept of wealth addiction.

    • J
      Jan 23, 2014

      Isn’t wealth in some way a signifier of achievement and accomplishment?

      • Puddle
        Jan 23, 2014

        Not always J and even if it does signify achievement and or accomplishment, it’s only one way of signifying it.

  8. Claire
    Jan 23, 2014

    “And it’s also like getting whiplash: You don’t really realize what’s happened to you until after damage has already been done. Even once you get an idea of what’s going on, it’s hard to respond well. The covert-aggressor has usually succeeded at throwing you on the defensive, and when you’re in such a state it’s hard to think clearly about how you might better handle yourself.”

    Indeed, I knew something awful was happening and I knew “bad behavior” was taking place, but it was a few years before I could put a name to it: she was being *aggressive* with me. I was not crazy – she indeed was covertly *attacking* me.

  9. friend of a friend
    Jan 30, 2014

    Dr Simon
    I am in need of info to help a friend who has been in a long term abusive relationship in which he sees all of the abuse directed at him only. He claims she is very neurotic because he sees her portray deep concern for others. Which I have explained is her need to maintain a favorable image and to keep him confused. The difficult thing for me to address is that in character dist. you talk about fear/anxiety as something neurotic have and character dist. don’t. She is EXTEMELY edgy and gets hysterical when startled. She is terrified of everything. I know she is character disturbed as she uses all of the responsibility avoidance behaviors and manipulation tactics to a tee. He is very neurotic and although he sees the truth he doubts it. He started reading character dist. and can’t get past the 1st 50 pages because he feels those pages tell him she’s neurotic. Have you encountered character disturbed individuals with such paranoia? If so, where can I learn about it?
    Thank you for your books, they are heaven sent.

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