Aggression and Covert-Aggression

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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21 thoughts on “Aggression and Covert-Aggression

  1. 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.

    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.

  2. 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. 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. 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. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  6. “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.

  7. 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.

  8. “The more anecdotes and examples they can access, the more validated they’re likely to feel in their feelings and suspicions.”

    Well, here is one of the tiniest daily abuses, that it took me 11 years to see, was just one form psychological abuse.

    Almost every time I ever felt sick, sad, hurt in anyway and expressed it, my husband responded with a BIGGER sickness, sadness or hurt. I could not understand why that bothered me so much, and finally to the point that I simply stopped expressing myself to him. Looking back I realize it was an effective method of invalidating of my feelings. If I had a headache, he had a brain tumor. Aha moment for me, maybe it will be a piece of the puzzle for someone else too.

    1. Oh my gosh, mine does this exact thing too. However, since my mom is like that I never thought much of it. Yes, there “hurt” is a little more, their “sick” is a little worse, they are “more sad,” he’s actually even gotten angry at me for not being more loving and supportive of him when I experience a loss that has little to do with him … crazy! Then gets angry if I ask him for more support … once again, weird how they can be the same in so many ways. Even if I’m sick and he can’t seem to fabricate something worse than me, then the focus needs to be on that one little thing he might have “helped” me with while I was sick, or we need to feel sorry for him for how much my loss or being sick, etc. has put a burden on him.

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