Category Archives: Psychological Manipulation

Dangerous Deceptions and Character Disorders

I’ve been posting on one of the principal distinguishing features of character disturbed and character disordered individuals: their penchant for serious, sometimes highly “artful” lying (see also:  The Art of the Lie and Why Some People Lie So Much). And while character-impaired individuals are notorious for having chronic problems with the truth, there are two types of deceptions in which they engage that present the greatest dangers to relationships. The first type of deception is the kind that prompted me to write my first book In Sheep’s Clothing. It has to do with what some theorists and authors have called the art of “impression management” (for an egregious illustration of this capacity, see the article: “I Am Not a Monster:” Impression Management Ariel Castro Style), and sometimes it can be carried to a highly pathological extreme.  There are, unfortunately, people who are simply not who they appear – proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing who, while they know their own  nature all-too-well, don’t want you to know who they really are so they can get what they want from you.  But as I’ve mentioned before and illustrate in my book Character Disturbance, character disturbance exists along a continuum (for more on this topic see the series of articles on the character disturbance continuum beginning with: Character Disturbance Exists Along a Continuum), so the degree to which someone knowingly and deliberately misreprents themself and with truly malevolent intent can vary considerably.  The second type of deception disturbed and disordered characters are known for is self-deception, which I’ll have more to say about in next week’s series concluding article.

I’ve told this story before, but I think it worth telling again:  I was asked to mentor a colleague who had recently carved some time out of his private practice to provide psychiatric services to a women’s prison.  It seems he’d been too often “conned” into prescribing several highly abusable drugs to inmates who in turn were selling them at a handsome profit and trading them for various favors.  And when I first gently approached the topic of why it probably wasn’t a good idea to simply take an inmate’s word for things when gathering the information necessary to make a diagnosis he asked a question that stands out in my mind even today:  “Why would they lie?” (Remember, this is a professional used to treating individuals who came to him in great distress and truly needed help).  Of course, it would have taken an eternity to list all of the umpteen thousand reasons folks who virtually lie for a living would have for casting false impressions, but suffice it to say that I had to really make the point that some folks simply don’t want you to know who they really are or what they’re really all about simply because they know that if they’re straight-up with you, you probably won’t give them whatever it is they want from you.

The most disastrous relationships I’ve witnessed over the years all began with a “con” of some sort. Sometimes the deception was both knowing and deliberate as in the case of one severely character disordered woman who completely but artfully misrepresented herself to a man of incredible financial means merely to gain access to part of a fortune and a lifestyle most of us could only dream about and the case of a notorious user, abuser, and “hustler,” who made it his life’s mission  to charm, seduce, exploit, and then callously discard women of great physical beauty. But other times the wool was not so calculatingly pulled over the eventual victim’s eyes. There are times in all of our lives when we simply don’t trust our better judgment – when we won’t let ourselves see what we’re afraid to see – or when we simply can’t accept what seems too unsettling or unimaginable to believe. And because the most skilled manipulators among us often know our vulnerabilities better than we do, if we’re “in denial” or put the mental and emotional blinders on for some reason or another, we unwittingly make a covert-aggressor’s quest to take advantage of us a whole lot easier.

We live in an age where character disturbance is certainly more prevalent and, arguably, more severe than it used to be. So it’s unfortunately quite dangerous to be too trusting a soul in our times. We simply can’t judge on appearance. And we have to be really sure about our own character health if we’re to fully trust our gut. We have to be particularly mindful, cautious, objective, and be sure to gather the facts. There are individuals out there who are not who or what they appear and if we take the way they present themselves to us at face value, we could easily be duped.  Fortunately, a person’s track record will often betray them. So, offer all those contemplating a relationship the same advice I gave the good doctor I referenced in the story above years ago: do your homework – look objectively at the history – don’t just take his or her word for things – be mindful of your own needs and vulnerabilities, and then maybe, just maybe you won’t get the wool pulled over your eyes.

Character Matters will again be a live program this Sunday so tune in at UCY.TV at 7pm EDT (4pm PDT) and join the conversation!

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Why Some People Lie So Much

Some would argue that lying is simply part of human nature – that we’re all less than truthful at one time or another. And sometimes our lies are relatively inconsequential, not really hurting anyone to any significant degree. But lying can be a real problem at times, bringing unnecessary pain and suffering into the lives of others and poisoning our relationships. And there are those truly disturbed characters among us who appear to lie repeatedly, even about little things, and often for no apparent rational reason. Such folks simply can’t seem to tell the truth – even to themselves, let alone others, and more importantly, even when the truth would appear to do just fine. Sometimes we’ve called thes kinds of foks “pathological” liars because their behavior seems to make no sense. But there’s actually method to the pathological liar’s apparent madness, and once you understand why some people simply prefer to lie – even when the truth would do just as well, you’ll have a better idea of what goes on in the mind of life’s most manipulative and seriously disturbed characters.

Myra never really understood James (as always, key facts and details in the vignette that follows have been altered to ensure anonymity).  Even during the time they were dating there would be times when things he said just didn’t add up.  She’e hear different versions of things from family members, and sometimes the facts as he told them just didn’t check out. But she’d never caught him being untruthful about anyting big, so she dismissed her concern. She also speculated that he might have “trust issues” and believed that as extent of her loyalty and trustworthiness became apparent to him, he’d drop his “defenses” and be more open and vulnerable. Moreover, many of the little things she had reason to believe he had misrepresented appeared to involve his social image, which led her to believe he must be suffering from some self-esteem issues. With enough support and validation from her, that should resolve, she thought. Only after years of marriage and when the proverbial “crap” began “hitting the fan” (e.g., what he’d really been doing with their money, how many affairs he’d really had, how few of the things he’d told her about his past, his family, or himself were really true, etc.) did she realize the extent to which she’d been duped. Still, she couldn’t understand why someone would lie so much, even about the most semmingly inconsequential things.

Over the years working with disturbed characters I came to realize that the folks we call “pathological liars” are not as irrational or as mindless in their behavior as they might first appear. And while it’s natural for a person to speculate about all the possible underlying reasons for such lying, I came to realize that when it comes to pathological lying, there’s really only one major reason for it. Lying is one of the most effective tactics a person can use to both resist aceding to moral principles and simultaneously manipulating and managing the impressions of others. In a way, it’s the ultimate manipulation tactic. And pathological liars have a singlular purpose in doing it: namely, to keep a position of advantage. That’s right. Disturbed and disordered characters treat life like a game or contest and never want to play on a level field. Whenever they engage, even in the simplest way, they want the advantage. If you’re in the dark about who they really are, what’s really going on with them, what they’re really up to, how they really feel about something, what they really want, etc., then you’re automatically in a one-down position, which is just the way they like it. Keeping you unawares and thereby gaining a leg up on you – that’s what it’s all about, pure and simple. Forget all the other reasons you’ve ever entertained about why they do these things. The reason some people lie, even when it doesn’t seem to make any sense, is to maintatin a position of advantage, so it’s easier for them to take advantage of you.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories (like the one above) over the years about relationship partners who’d led “double lives” and were exposed for the disturbed characters and frauds they really were only after bank accounts were already drained, affairs that had been going on for years finally came to light, or the many stories that had been told were finally proven bogus. And in each case, the victims of such duplicitous behavior found wondered how they could have been “duped” for so long. They also entertained a myriad of potential reasons their partner behaved the way they did. But what they rarely considered is that there are some people whose character is impaired in such a way that an equal partnership with them is simply not possible. There simply cant be trust when right from the get-go it’s all about position and impression management, exploiting weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and looking for opportunities to take advantage (for more on trust and relationships, see the series on this topic, beginning with Trust: The Foundation of Any Relationship). And while many a victim’s guts may have been churning at the “red flags” they sensed about these things, most tended to discount their gut feelings because it seemed so unfathomable to them that there could be people so hell bent on maintaining a position of advantage that they would never reveal their true nature or real agendas. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of being so egregiously conned, many victims also struggled with shame, guilt, and a tendency to constantly question their ability to ever again be able to make sound judgments. Surviving a relationship with a pathological liar can leave almost anyone feeling quite unsure of themselves and confused. That’s why I wrote my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing. Once you understand the true nature of character disturbance, cast off old notions about why people do the things they do, and pay greater heed to that churning in your gut and the warning signs about someone’s character, you’re less at risk of being deceied by an artful but pathological liar.

So the next time you have encounter with someone whose outlandish claims don’t seem all that believable and whose stories just don’t add up but who also appears to have no reason to deceive, pay attention to the uneasiness in your gut. Consider the possibility that you’re dealing with someone who lacks both the desire and the capacity to relate to you on fair and equal terms and may only want to take advantage. And don’t waste time and energy asking yourself why. Just heed your instincts, walk away, and watch your back. Odds are, you’ll be really glad you did.

This Sunday’s Character Matters program at 7pm EDT (4pm PDT) will again be live, so I can take your calls.

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Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Trust and Relationships – Pt. 2

Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. But it’s absolutely crucial to a marriage. Without trust, it’s not possible to safely give yourself away. And when the parties to a union can’t give themselves away, there’s really no marriage. Marriage is about the melding of hearts and minds. But  when someone entrusts their heart to another, only to have it crushed, the damage done is not only substantial but also can take years to repair, even under the best of circumstances.

I’m sorry to say that over my many years counselling troubled couples I’ve witnessed very few cases where the disturbed character in a relationship was truly willing to “own” all the damage they’d caused by their breaches of trust and then commit themselves to repair the damage. What follows is an example of one of the more unfortunate cases (as always, any potentially identifying details or circumstances in the vignette have been altered to preserve anonymity and confidentiality):

Looking back on things, “Jane” realized the warning signs were there all along. She should have trusted her gut but took the risk of trusting “Ted.” There was that time, for example, early in their engagement when Ted had a rendezvous with his former girlfriend and didn’t tell Jane about it until she confronted him after learning about it from a friend.  And she chose to believe him when he insisted “nothing happened,” that he was only doing the right thing by affording this woman the “closure” she desperately needed to “move on” with her life, and that he kept quiet about the encounter purely out of concern it would only unnecessarily worry her to know about it.  She chose to believe him despite the fact that by all appearances, this woman didn’t appear to be “moving on” all that much, frequently contacting Ted at odd times, prompting Jane to finally put her foot down.  It would be a few years into their marriage before Jane learned that something indeed “did happen” between Ted and his ex, and as much as it hurt for her to learn the truth, she chose to accept Ted’s explanation that “it was a stupid mistake” that occured only happened once (it didn’t) and only because he felt sorry for an emotionally vulnerable person with whom he was once close. And he insisted it would be wrong to dwell on something that happened in the past and over and done with anyway, so it was time to “forgive and forget.” But it was only a year or so later that Jane, while taking Ted the cell phone he’d forgotten on the kitchen counter, found a truly unnerving text message from one of his female co-workers. Her heart sunk. And she confronted him as soon as she got to the office. But somehow he made her feel guilty for adopting an “accusatory tone.” Again, he insisted, “nothing happened” and there was nothing to really worry about. He admitted that he’d “probably let a harmless flirtation get a little out of control” but promply promised it “would never happen again.” He even offered to leave his job (which would certainly hurt them financially) “if it would make [her] feel better.” But it’s what happened next that should really have clued her in to the kind of person Ted really was. After he’d made his so-called apology, Ted launched into a diatribe about how “paranoid” Jane was “because of that one little mistake” he made years ago with his ex girlfriend and how sad it was to think she might be checking his phone all the time now, when all she really need to do was “just get over it.” At the time, however, she wasn’t seeing things clearly. In fact, she remembers only feeling guilty herself for finding it so hard to trust. But looking back, Jane realized how many red flags had been raised not only about the kind of person Ted really was but also about the kinds of heartless actions he was capable of because of his apparent lack of honesty and empathy.

So here they were, in a therapist’s office (at Jane’s insistance, of course), trying to salvage some semblance of a relationship after the sudden revelation that Ted and yet another co-worker had been having an affair for several months. Just going to therapy with Ted was hard enough, but when, on only the second visit Ted dared to suggest that she had “some part in this too” because her “paranoia” and “emotional distance” probably “drove him” into someone else’s arms, and then on top of that the therapist appeared to agree that “there’s always two sides to any infidelity story,” Jane had her epiphany. How could she have been so blind, she wondered?  Who was this person she had married, anyway? Could he really be such a selfish, heartless fraud? And if he was, as she had now come to believe, why couldn’t the therapist see it? Moreover, how could any reasonable person think a marriage to someone so deceitful and untrustworthy could ever work?

Now, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from this story and the hundreds I’ve seen very much like it. When people of decent character “make a mistake,” they not only take responsibility for it but they’re also willing to do what it takes to repair any damage they may have done.  And even when folks with significant character impairments deliberatly do bad things, if they have any shred of decency in them (i.e. any modicum of empathy and conscience) they certainly don’t add insult to injury by blaming the vicim of their trust violations and chiding them to “get over it” (for more on this topic, see the relevant articles on remorse and contrition, especially, Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition). A decent person who violates trust, works both diligently and unbegrudgingly to earn some trust back. Disturbed and disordered characters feel no obligation to do so, content to put the burden on others to “forgive and forget.” That’s the lesson Jane unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late to save a heartbreak. If she’d only known the signs that would have revealed the kind of character Ted really was, she might not have married him in the first place. But she didn’t know what to look for and she trusted Ted instead of her gut. Worse, she entrusted her heart to him. Ted knew very well the wound he’d inflicted on Jane’s heart. And his actions testify to the fact that he was never really sorry (i.e. never had genuine remorse) for anything he’d done. As I assert in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome, the truly contrite person hurts precisely because they’ve hurt the other person. Jane didn’t see it early on but she saw it clearly now: Ted was all about Ted – a narcissist lacking in conscience, empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse, and he always had been. He could never give himself over to her or to anything other than his own selfish desires, which made him an untrustworthy partner from the very beginning. And because of all the damage he’d inflicted on her heart by his betrayal of the trust she’d placed in him, it would be a very long time before Jane could allow herself to even think about trusting anyone again.

There will be at least one more post in this series, as trust is one of the more important topics.

Changes will continue to the blog over the coming weeks and information about the upcoming webinar and advance registration details will be posted in just a couple of weeks.  Details are being worked out for some regional seminars for professionals and some of those workshops may also be open to the general public.

There will be a lot to talk about on Character Matters this Sunday evening (7 pm EDT, 4 pm PDT), which will again be a live program, so tune in, and if you have a mind to, call in and join the discussion.


Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Primer – Pt. 2

As I mentioned in my last post (See: A Primer on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), a lot of folks who say they have either administered or received Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have never actually engaged in a process that focuses heavily on the most crucial aspect of the paradigm: behavior.  Affording attention to the thinking patterns and attitudes that predispose harmful behavior patterns is important to be sure, but when it comes to gaining the skills to empower oneself – and especially when it comes to overcoming character deficiencies – perhaps nothing is as important as confronting, correcting, and ultimately replacing dysfunctional behavior patterns.

In Character Disturbance, I present some vignettes that illustrate the very different nature of therapy that remains true to the cognitive-behavioral model.  Disturbed characters readily display their problematic behavior patterns, even when they’re in the process of impression-management (i.e. doing their best to create a favorable impression and manipulate the opinions and judgment of the person evaluating them). and an astute clinician should be able to “spot” and label these behaviors when they occur.  And what makes CBT so different from other forms of therapy is that because change always takes place in the here-and-now moment, therapists employing the paradigm have to be willing to call out the behaviors of concern at the very moment they occur, then artfully “invite” the person to correct these behaviors and replace them with more pro-social ones, providing them afterward with much needed reinforcement for the person’s willingness to conduct themselves in a healthier way.

When I was doing research for In Sheep’s Clothing, I encountered a man who had some level of genuine care and affection for his wife and who truly didn’t want to loose her as he feared was very possible but who was also prone to some casualness about his frequent “flirtations” with other women and the few times he’d “slipped” and had an affair.  One would think he was “clueless” about the detriment his behaviors posed to his marriage.  And at some level, I suppose you could say he was indeed clueless.  But he was quite “aware” at least at an intellectual level that a marital bond that is both deep and mutually enriching is necessarily founded upon trust and fidelity. However, his habitual behaviors of minimizing the seriousness of his constant flirtations and episodic indiscretions, his persistent lying to himself about the consequences of his actions, his willingness to gaslight his wife whenever she suspected him of betrayal, and willingness to use a whole host of other behaviors (e.g., victim-blaming, feigning innocence, feigning ignorance) to manipulate her into sticking with him only “enabled” him to perpetuate the pattern. Something in this vicious cycle of abuse would have to be altered for the cycle to be broken, and that would necessarily mean some behavior would have to change.  Now, I’d always been taught that a therapist should always set an atmosphere where the client would feel “safe” to sort through the “underlying feelings and dynamics” always presumed to be at the root of such problematic behaviors (e.g., “fear of intimacy, fear of commitment, unmet love needs, unmet needs for adulation or affection, etc.).  And I’d especially been taught not to call out behaviors in a judgmental sense, lest I run off a client who’d not yet come to trust me and would likely become too “defensive.”  But I quickly learned that unless destructive behavior is confronted and corrected, almost nothing really changes, despite all the possible flowery talk and promises a person might make.  I also learned that there simply cannot ever be trust and respect between a disturbed character and a therapist (or anyone else for that matter) unless their tactics are both accurately labeled and confronted and a commitment to certain principles and values are firmly upheld (Over my career, I’ve seen far too many cases in which a disturbed character will “string along” both the therapist and an aggrieved relationship partner while all the time holding only both mistrust of and disdain for the person they were able to manipulate).  And perhaps the most important thing I learned is that behavior always has to be confronted the very moment it occurs.  So for awhile, I would confront this man every time he would minimize or trivialize, or when he would allow himself to distort the reality of circumstances.  Only then did he come not only come to a fuller level of awareness of the destructive nature of what he had been doing but also become more amenable to changing the kinds of thinking patterns and attitudes that predisposed him to conduct himself in a way so hostile to the nurturing of a wholesome, healthy relationship.  Just as the model predicted, changing behavior helped him reshape his attitudes, and as he changed his problematic ways of thinking, his behavior only improved all the more.  Most importantly of all, he began to change.  And as he became more willing to self-correct both his thinking and behavior without my prompting, I became even more reinforcing, until he was more consistently willing to engage in his own self-endorsement. Now, I’ve mentioned before that not all problem characters change their “internal stripes” as a result of outwardly changing their behavior.  But many do indeed change.  And it’s important to remember that for there to ever be any possibility of real and lasting change a person has to be willing to change behavior and thinking patterns in the here-and-now moment.

In next week’s post I’ll have some more detailed information about the actual mechanics of CBT (I have long made available to therapists and lay persons specially-designed worksheets for addressing and changing problematic thinking and behavior patterns).

Also, look for some more specific information about this fall’s upcoming webinar (we’re hoping to make it a fully interactive forum) in the next few weeks.

Sunday night’s Character Matters program will be a live broadcast, so I’m again happy to take your calls.


Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Some Different Views on Gaslighting and Gaslighters

I was recently interviewed by Carrie Borzillo for an article appearing in the current edition of Dame magazine about “Gaslighting.”  It’s a really good article, written by someone who’s “been there” so to speak, so I thought I’d share the link to: My Husband Convinced Me I Was Insane!       

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Gaslight.”

In the article, some differing views are offered by different experts about just what “gaslighting” is, who does it, what makes a person want to engage in this kind of covert-aggression/manipulation, etc (The term comes from the stage play “Gaslight” and movie by the same name in which a husband who wants to get rid of his wife tries to make her think she’s going insane).  As you might expect, there’s one expert who offers the fairly conventional notion that gaslighters are “generally people who were narcissistically wounded early in life—through emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, inconsistent parenting and the like” whereas I assert that most gaslighters are not necessarily wounded souls but simply aggressive narcissistic personalities – disturbed and disordered characters “who are out to dominate, manipulate, and control; and will use any means necessary, including gaslighting (trying to make you feel crazy when they think you’re onto them and their schemes and lies) to further their ends.”  It’s a particularly popular tactic among serial cheaters. And I make the point I do because so often victims end up unnecessarily prolonging their abuse because they buy into the notion that their abuser must be coming from a wounded place and that only patient love and tolerance (and lots of misguided therapy) will help them heal.

I hope you enjoy reading the Dame article.  And I hope you share both the magazine article and this post with friends and acquaintances you think might benefit from them.  You can find more on the manipulation tactic of gaslighting in my articles: Another Look at Manipulation Tactics, Manipulation Tactics: A Closer Look – Part 2, Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, and Why, and Gaslighting Revisited: A Closer Look at This Manipulation Tactic).  You can also find an expanded discussion on the topic in the latest reprint of my book In Sheep’s ClothingAnd, as the article in Dame mentions, you can find a different perspective on what really makes certain characters do the hurtful things they do in Character Disturbance.

I’d also like to announce a planned “webinar” on understanding and dealing with (and seeking appropriate therapy for) manipulative and other character-disturbed people tentatively set for September 24, 2015 with discounts available to subscribers to this blog.  It’s important to get a fair idea of the likely size of the internet audience, so anyone reading this who thinks they might want to go online for the seminar should contact me through the “Contact Dr. Simon” feature and indicate their interest.  Further details will be posted about the program, teaching objectives, and registration in the coming weeks.

Character Matters will again be a live broadcast this Sunday, so calls can be taken.


Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Manipulation Tactics: A Closer Look – Part 2

In last week’s post (see:  Manipulation Tactics:  A Closer Look), we began a more in-depth discussion of some of the more common manipulation tactics as well as how and why they work.  That discussion continues in this week’s post.

One of the more common responsibility-avoidance behaviors and a frequent manipulation tactic is minimization.  This is when the disturbed character attempts to trivialize a wrong or harmful behavior.  It’s their attempt to make a mole hill out of a mountain.  You might confront them on something serious, but they try to get you to believe that you’re over-reacting, being overly judgmental, and unfairly assessing the nature of their wrongdoing.

Minimization works as a  manipulation tactic because no self-respecting neurotic wants to think of him/herself as unfair or unreasonable. So, if I can get you to believe that you made a rash or unfair judgment of me or my actions, I can easily get you to back off or back down in your confrontation.  I might even get you to question your assessment of me.  Even if I am a monster, if I can make you think you’ve unfairly cast me as a monster, you’ll probably get to wondering if you’re not the monster yourself.

Now, in all fairness, all of us are prone to “catastrophizing” now and then.  So, sometimes we might actually unfairly assess the behavior or even the character of someone else.  And depending upon how neurotic we are, if we’ve erred once, we’re likely to be overly cautious the next time about making a similar judgment.  But disturbed characters make a habit of trivializing really important things – things that reflect most strongly on their character.  Maintaining a favorable social image is important to them, even when they know their character is deeply flawed.  And their minimizations are frequently paired with other responsibility-avoidance behaviors and tactics such as excuse-making, blaming others, denial, feigning innocence, etc.).  Once you’re intimately familiar with all the tactics they habitually employ to:  1) get the better of you; and 2) look good while doing it, you can be more sure of your judgments about your manipulator’s character.

Selective attention is a most interesting responsibility-avoidance behavior and manipulation tactic.  Disturbed characters, most especially the aggressive personalities, hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see.  It’s not that they’re attention-deficient (they can focus like a laser beam when it comes to something they want).  Rather, everything they process goes through a peculiar kind of mental filtering.  They hear and see “invitations” from others to pay better heed to the more commonly accepted rules for civil conduct.  But they resist.   And on the occasions when you have to confront them, they most likely began to “tune you out” before you even opened your mouth.  Most of the time, they can anticipate the issue you want to bring to their attention.  But they simply don’t want to pay attention to it because if they took it seriously and with an attitude of acceptance, it would mean two things: 1) the way they prefer to do things is erroneous and in need of change; and 2) they would have to work at changing, which would also mean paying some deference to you, and to the generally accepted rules, etc.  And that’s way too much like respecting someone else’s needs, or the desires  of a higher power.  More importantly, it’s far to much like subordinating themselves – something narcissists feel no need to do and the aggressive personalities abhor.

The fact that so many times neurotics in relationships with disturbed characters waste their breaths expounding on things that simply fall on deaf ears is one of the main reasons I advocate simply taking action over trying to reason or persuade.  It’s likely that half the time, disturbed characters aren’t really listening to you anyway.  And to manipulate you even further, they might try to make you think they’ve heard you or taken you seriously by using the tactic of giving assent.  Assenting is when the disturbed character gives you a superficial “Okay, okay, I hear you,” but has absolutely no intention of really taking to heart your concern or working on changing anything.  What they really want is for you to simply get off their back.  So, they’ll offer you what seems to be capitulation even though it’s anything but.  It’s a tactic very close to false concessioning, which on the surface looks like they’ve actually given some ground when in fact they’re standing firm.

Disturbed characters are generally quite skilled in the use of various intimidation tactics.  Most of the time, covert manipulators prefer the more subtle forms of intimidation (e.g., veiled threats, glaring glances, menacing gestures, etc.).  But all disturbed characters are capable of more overt forms (e.g., bullying, brandishing rage, etc.) of intimidation to get their way.  What’s been recently termed “gaslighting” (for more on this tactic see:  Another Look at Manipulation Tactics) is a particularly interesting form of intimidation and a powerful manipulation tactic.  The term comes from the play and movie Gaslight, about a man who uses the clever tactic of making his wife think she has lost her mind as a way to dispose of her.  Because neurotics are by nature somewhat insecure and apprehensive, intimidation tactics of all types are effective means of manipulating them.  Sometimes intimidation is very deliberate.  But there are times when merely the disturbed character’s apparent level of passion and conviction is intimidating.  Such  passion and conviction can make you doubt yourself.  Skilled manipulators know how to use all the various forms of intimidation to get you to doubt not only your judgment but also your very sanity.  And if they can get you not only to doubt your own position but also to fear what might happen if you don’t see things their way, they strengthen their position of control even more.

As I say in my book In Sheep’s Clothing, a moving target is difficult to hit.  When you try to address an issue with them, manipulators will use the tactic of diversion to change the subject or focus of attention, or the tactic of evasion to side-step the issue.  The more skilled they are in subtle use of the tactics, the less you realize what they’re doing when they’re doing it.  You start off talking about one thing, and realize much later that you’re somehow talking about something else.  It’s always so important to remain focused and centered when you’re dealing with any type of disturbed character.  One of my psychology mentors once made the analogy that trying to get a firm hold on an impaired character’s problematic traits is like “trying to grab a fish in a bucket of oil.”  Getting a firm hold on a fish that’s already endowed with a certain sliminess and is wriggling like crazy not to be contained is hard enough work.  But the task becomes monumental when both theirs and your skin are covered with oil.  So it is with disturbed characters, especially the most manipulative.  Pinning them down is always difficult.  But when they use diversion, evasion, and other tactics as well, it’s an even more difficult task unless you’re extremely well-focused and persistent.

Lastly, there’s lying – the responsibility-avoidance behavior and manipulation tactic that disturbed characters have turned into a virtual art form.   And as I mention in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, there are numerous ways to lie, most of which are very hard to detect.   Lying is, perhaps, the ultimate manipulation tactic (see also:  Lying:  The Ultimate Manipulation Tactic).  It serves many purposes, two primarily:  1) to possibly prevent something you don’t want to happen (usually, the negative consequence of a behavior) from happening; or 2) to help ensure that something you desire happens.  Some disturbed characters lie more often and in more sophisticated ways than others.   And the most seriously disturbed characters and penultimate manipulators (psychopaths) lie, even when the truth would suffice.  That’s because they simply can’t relinquish a position of advantage over you.  So they’ll lie merely to keep the balance tipped.  One of the most effective ways to lie undetected is to recite a litany of true things but leave out a crucial detail or two that would change the whole picture.  It’s a way to give yourself credibility while simultaneously taking advantage through deceit.

I hope all the readers will do some sharing about how they encountered the tactics we’ve talked about and the tools they eventually used to confront and deal with those tactics.  Next week we’ll be concluding the series on the aggressive personalities with an in-depth discussion on predatory aggressors (i.e., psychopaths, alt: sociopaths).


Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Manipulation Tactics: A Closer Look

Covertly aggressive people are among the most manipulative personalities.  They use certain tactics to accomplish two things simultaneously:  1) conceal their aggressive intentions, and 2) invite you to fear, be doubtful, or optimally, to concede or give in.  And there are a handful of tactics covert aggressors tend to use more frequently – tactics that are generally the most effective in manipulating others – especially neurotics.  Recognizing these manipulation tactics and knowing how to respond to them are the keys to personal empowerment.

I can’t stress enough how capable the more skilled manipulators are of using just about any behavior imaginable to accomplish their aims.  This is especially true when the manipulator has a “good read” on the character of their target of manipulation.  When a covert aggressor (CA) knows his or her “opponent” inside out (i.e. knows their sensitivities, fears, insecurities, core beliefs, level of conscientiousness, etc.), a vast opportunity opens up for using that person’s traits (often, their most socially desirable traits) against them in a covert war for dominance.  Because it’s so unrealistic to list all the possible ways a covertly aggressive individual can get the better of another person, I find it helpful to focus attention on the more common tactics CAs employ and to explain in depth why the tactics are so effective.  Understanding the basics of how manipulation works gives the potential victim of covert-aggression a better intuitive grasp of the nature of troublesome encounters with all disturbed characters and heightens their sensitivity to the many possible tactics a manipulator might employ.

Let’s talk first about the tactic of rationalization.  Actually, a better term for this tactic would be “excuse-making” or “justifying.”  The term rationalization derives from the Freudian notion that people sometimes unconsciously defend themselves against the anxiety they might experience by engaging in actions that violate their conscience.  By finding reasons that seem to make their actions more benign, appropriate, acceptable, or understandable, any qualms of conscience are assuaged.   But this scenario, of course, assumes that the person actually has a well-developed conscience.  And this type of rationalization is a strictly internal and largely unconscious process.

When disturbed characters make excuses for their behavior, they know what they’re doing.  They have a clear purpose in mind when they’re seeking to justify themselves.  They use this tactic only when they know full well they’ve done something or plan to do something most everyone would regard as wrong.  But even knowing it’s wrong, and knowing how negatively the action reflects on them, they remain determined to do it.  They might feel “entitled” to do it (as in the case of more narcissistic individuals) or they may simply pit themselves against the generally accepted rules (as in the case of the aggressive personalities.  What’s most important to recognize is that at the very moment they’re making the excuse, they’re not “defending” at all or unconsciously fending off any anxiety.  Rather, they’re actively fighting against a principle they know society wants them to adopt.  And more importantly, they’re also trying to get you to go along with it.  Covertly aggressive folks prefer this kind of tactic as opposed to open defiance because it not only helps conceal their aggressive intentions (as well as some telltale aspects of their character) but also simultaneously helps them maintain a more favorable social image (by getting someone else to see things their way or buy into the purported reasonableness of their actions).   And once they get the other person to become more accepting of their premise, they’re well on their way to winning the contests of image and interpersonal control.

Think just a little bit more about this tactic.  It’s a testament to what I’ve said all along about disturbed characters and their level of awareness (for more on this you might want to read the post:  They Know What They’re Doing).  Why are the elaborate “explanations” and justifications necessary if the person doesn’t realize how most people would judge their actions?  It’s not that they don’t know most folks would regard their behavior as wrong.  And it’s also not that they truly believe in their hearts that what they’ve done is okay.  Rather, they simply don’t want you to negatively appraise their character and possibly be done with them.  And, more importantly, they don’t want to accept and internalize the notion that such behavior should not be done again.  The very fact that at the moment they engage in the tactic they’re resisting accepting a principle and obstructing the internalization of that principle into their own social conscience is the best indication they’re likely to do the very same thing again in any similar circumstance.  Think about it.  How many times have you relented after half-heartedly accepting someone’s lame excuse only to find yourself dealing with the exact same behavior time and time again?!

Let’s look at another tactic: denial.  Now this is also a term that had its roots in classical Freudian psychology.  Freud conceived it as a primitive and unconscious defense against unbearable emotional pain.  And there actually is a type of denial that fits this classic definition.  I give an example of it in my book Character Disturbance:

A woman has been married to the same man for 40 years.  She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while they were out in the yard working, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress.  The doctors later tell her that he has suffered a stroke, is virtually brain-dead, and will not recover.  Yet, every day she is by his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him.  The nurses tell her that he cannot hear, but she talks to him anyway.  The doctors tell her he will not recover, but she only replies, “I know he’ll pull through, he’s such a strong man.”  This woman is in a unique psychological state – the state of denial.  She can hardly believe what has happened.  Not long ago she was in the yard with her darling, enjoying one of their favorite activities.  The day before, they were at a friend’s home for a get-together.  He seemed the picture of happiness and health.  He didn’t even seem that sick when she brought him to the hospital.  Now – in a blink of an eye – they’re telling her he’s gone.  This is far more emotional pain than she can bear just yet.  She’s not ready to accept that her partner of 40 years won’t be coming home with her.  She’s not quite ready to face a life without him.  So, her unconscious mind has provided her with an effective (albeit most likely temporary) defense against the pain.  Eventually, as she becomes better able to accept the distressing reality, her denial will break down. When it does, the pain it served to contain will gush forth and she will grieve.

This is classic denial.  And to this day it’s simply amazing to me how many people, especially mental health professionals, will simply assume that this is what’s always at work when character disturbed people deny their wrongdoings.  Character disturbed patients will resist admitting things everyone knows they have done and the therapist might say: “Give him (or her) time, they’re still in denial.”  And they make equally unwarranted assumptions, like mounds of shame and guilt must certainly underlie the denial.  Why else would they deny, especially the obvious?  They must have more shame and guilt about what they’ve done than they can bear, right?  Wrong!  Refusing to acknowledge the truth is not the same thing as neurotic denial.  It’s simply lying and very different in character from the phenomenon I described in the first example.  At first glance, someone’s denial might look like classic, neurotic denial.  But when CAs and other disturbed characters engage in denial, it’s a very different thing.  I give an example of denial the manipulation tactic at work in my book also:

Joe, the class bully, strolls up to one of his unsuspecting classmates and engages in one of his favorite mischievous pastimes – pushing the books out of her arms and spilling them on the floor.  It just so happens that the hall monitor catches the event and sternly hollers:  “Joe!” to which Joe, spreading his arms wide open and with a look of great shock, surprise, and innocence on his face retorts:  “Whaaaat?”  Does Joe really not understand the reality of what has happened?  Does he actually think he didn’t do what the hall monitor saw him do?  Is he in some kind of altered psychological state?  Is his possible altered state brought about by more emotional pain than he could possibly stand to bear?  Is he so consumed with shame and/or guilt for what he’s done that he simply can’t allow himself to believe he actually did such a horrible thing?  More than likely, none of the aforementioned possibilities is correct.  Joe is probably more concerned that he has another detention hall coming, which means another note to his parents, and possibly even a suspension.  So, he’s got one long-shot tactic to try.  He’ll do his best to make the hall monitor believe she didn’t really see what she thought she saw.  The hallway was crowded.  Maybe it was someone else.  Maybe it was just an “accident.”  If he acts surprised, innocent, and righteously indignant enough, maybe, just maybe, she’ll begin to doubt herself.  He hopes that, unlike him, she might be just neurotic enough (i.e. has an overactive conscience and excessive sense of guilt or shame) to think she might have misjudged the situation.  Maybe she’ll even berate herself for jumping to conclusions or for causing a possibly innocent person unwarranted emotional pain.  This tactic might have worked before.  Maybe it will work again.

Manipulators will often couple denial with other tactics such as feigning innocence.  This is when the person you’ve confronted acts like they have no idea what you’re talking about or pretends in a self-righteous manner that they’ve done absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or guilty for.  Sometimes they can use denial and feigning innocence with such intensity and seeming conviction that you begin questioning your perceptions and your sanity.  You start out knowing that you’ve nailed them on a behavior and somehow they get you to wondering if you haven’t gotten it all wrong.  A very effective one-two manipulation punch indeed.

By far, however, the biggest weapons in any CA’s arsenal are the tactics of shaming and guilt-tripping.  And the reason for this is quite simple:  neurotics, by definition, have a high degree of conscientiousness and hate to think they’ve said or done anything wrong or shameful.  So, the perfect way to control them is to make them think they’ve done something about which they should feel guilty or be ashamed.  Sometimes conscientious people try to lay guilt or shame on disturbed characters, thinking it will somehow prompt them to modify their behavior.  But they quickly learn that these tactics don’t work on disturbed characters.   You have to have a big sense of right and wrong and an equally big desire to be a good person for these tactics to have any effect.  In short, you have to have a pretty well-developed conscience, something disturbed characters lack.

In next week’s post we’ll discuss some of the other more popular manipulation tactics.   Then, in the following week’s post, we’ll be concluding the series on the aggressive personalities by taking a close look at predatory aggressors (i.e. psychopaths, sociopaths).  Following that there will be some posts on topics that readers have been asking for information about.  So, stay tuned!


Demeaning as a Lifestyle: The Sadistic Aggressive

Over the past few weeks we’ve been discussing the various “aggressive personalities” (see, for example:  Antisocial Personalities:  The Unbridled Aggressive Pattern and Powers to be Reckoned With:  The Channeled Aggressors).  And because they are the most seriously character disordered of all the various personality types, I’ve attempted in these posts not only to provide as much information as possible but also to encourage discussion and contribution from the readers, who undoubtedly have stories to tell that can benefit others.  In this week’s post, we’ll be discussing a relatively rare but still significantly problematic aggressive personality sub-type:  the sadistic aggressive.

The sadistic aggressive personality (see my categorization in Character Disturbance) is a most unique aggressive personality sub-type.  All of  the aggressive personalities hurt people.  That’s because in their relentless, thoughtless, and undisciplined pursuit of their self-serving agendas, they’re quite willing to run over those whom they perceive as standing in their way.  They’ll do whatever it takes to “win,” secure the dominant position, or get something they want.  Still, for most of the aggressive personalities, causing pain and injury to others is not their primary objective.  Triumph is their ultimate aim, even if someone has to get hurt in the process.   Sadistic-aggressive personalities, however, are primarily interested in hurting, degrading, demeaning, and inflicting agony upon others.  And making someone else grovel is not only the major way sadists secure the dominant position their relationships but also an activity they truly enjoy.  

Now, I must reiterate that there are no real clear, distinct lines between these various aggressive personality sub-types.  In fact, all the aggressive personalities have many more features in common than they do attributes that separate them.   And sometimes a person’s overall interpersonal operating “style” can contain a few of the features of other personality types and sub-types.  Still, it’s helpful to categorize these folks because, for the most part, every individual typically develops a unique and relatively unchanging style of relating that best fits within one of the categories I outline in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing and the better you’re able to both recognize and understand how to deal with each type, the more empowered you’re going to be in your relationships.

In my first post of this most recent series (see:  Aggressive Personalities:  An Upcoming Refresher Course), I mentioned that early in my clinical studies I’d encountered a businessman who I would categorize as having traits of both the channeled-aggressive and sadistic-aggressive personality.  My experience with this person taught me quite a bit about the nature of character disturbance in general as well some of the key aspects of character disturbance that differentiate it from what had historically been seen as the universal human psychological dysfunction: neurosis.  For one thing, this person knew the kind of person he was  and what motivated him (remember, neurotics are supposed to be unconscious of their underlying motivations and the true nature of their actions), and he wasn’t at all afraid to acknowledge any of these things.  In fact, he was proud of all his unsavory attributes and told me so on numerous occasions.  He once told me completely unprompted that he knew that if he weren’t successful as a ruthless businessman, he would certainly have ended up in prison for most of his life because of his aggressive, defiant ways.   Society’s rules were barriers meant for the weak or insecure.  And he knew that he was made to defy rules and authority since the day he was born.  Fortunately, he happened into a circumstance that allowed him to make a great deal of money and amass a lot of power legitimately, and that’s what kept him out of jail.  Over time, this man would tell me a lot more about himself, demonstrating one of the more important axioms I’ve mentioned about character disturbance:  how much insight he already had (even though the insight itself provided no impetus for him to consider changing his behavior).   But perhaps an even greater teacher than this man’s self-revelation to me was the frequent opportunity I had to watch him in action.  And witnessing on many occasions how he terrorized and demeaned others as well as how much he enjoyed such behavior was a real eye-opener.

One day, while I was still present, the man I will call Vince called one of the female support staffers into his office.  He began to berate her in a most vicious fashion.  And he insinuated many times what little worth this person would have elsewhere on the job market and how fortunate she was to have her well-paying job at his company.   The degree to which he brandished rage had me shaking a bit in my own boots.  And the degree to which he seemed to make this woman feel small and to cower unnerved me.  After he finished berating her, he warned her of the dire consequences that would ensue if she didn’t pay heed to his demand for greater diligence on her part then summarily dismissed her.  But to my great surprise, as soon as the woman left the room, he looked at me and began to chuckle and grinned. He then told me plainly that he had pre-planned his expression of rage and that it was meant to instill fear in the woman, to make her feel like she’d have no value anywhere else but working for him, and that he was sure that as a result she would be more conscientious about doing what he expected of her in her job.

This man’s deliberate use of rage when in fact he was in an upbeat mood made me aware  how rage can be used as a manipulation and control tactic.  Moreover, it doesn’t have to arise out of genuine anger or hurt.  Rather, it can simply be used as just another tool in one’s arsenal to bring someone else to their knees and to get something you want (I discuss the use of rage as a manipulation tactic in In Sheep’s Clothing).   This man was also very adept at spotting really conscientious individuals who happened to be in one-down positions in their lives and were in dire need of support.  These were the kinds of folks he sought to hire because he surmised they’d be willing to put up with his bullying behavior.  And this man took not only took pride in his ability to reduce a person to minuscule size with his demeaning and berating but also truly enjoyed doing so.  It was one of his favorite pastimes.

I’ve encountered many sadistic personalities over the years.  They seem to be an increasing percentage of the aggressive personality types in prison settings these days.  And while they’re not very common in the general population, they can cause  an inordinate amount of distress in the lives of those who happen to become entangled in some kind of relationship with them.  

Traditional personality development theories have always viewed individuals like the sadistic personality as becoming the way they are because of deep-seated (and unconscious) feelings of inferiority stemming from being themselves subjected to severe abused or debasement as children. And while it sometimes turns out that such things might be factors, there’s plenty of evidence not all such personalities come from that kind of background.  Some sadistic characters I’ve encountered have even lied about or exaggerated adverse circumstances in their background it to engender sympathy and to make their innate heartlessness seem more understandable and even palatable.  And most of these individuals actually come from unremarkable backgrounds and simply see themselves as superior to those whom they perceive as weaker.  In their disgust of weakness and desire to feel superior, they take a sordid delight in belittling, demeaning, and torturing others. It simply makes them feel good to make someone else feel bad.  And to make other feel small and ineffectual makes them feel large and powerful.   All of the research over the past several years on bullying in schools bears out all I’ve been saying here.  Within the traditional models, bullies used to be seen as “cowards underneath” compensating for feelings of low-esteem by bullying only the weak and steering clear of the strong.  I always thought such views were flawed, and now, thanks to some good research, we now know better.  Bullies simply like to hurt people and target those they perceive as weaker, not only because such folks make easy targets but also because bullies have a natural internal revulsion to such personalities.  And when a young bully gets chronologically older but still hasn’t grown any emotionally, what you’re likely to get is a sadistic-aggressive personality of one degree of severity or another.

It’s dangerous to think there’s any way to be truly safe in any kind of relationship with a sadistic-aggressive personality or immune from the effects of their abuse.  Some folks tell themselves they have sufficient strength to endure the torment they experience.  Others allow themselves to think that as long as they’re appeasing their sadist, they’re safe.   But even though sadists have much more respect for strength than they do for perceived weakness, there’s really no way to be completely safe with them or to be unaffected by the psychological damage they can inflict.  And sometimes sadists develop a special fascination with a particular “target,” taking a sense of “ownership” over that target and exacerbating the risk associated with trying to break free of their grip.  Moreover, sadists can have other aggressive personality traits as well, making them even more dangerous (sadistic predatory aggressives [alt: sadistic psychopaths] are without question the most dangerous people on the planet).  So it’s very important to recognize these personalities early on and do your very best to stay clear of them.

In next week’s post we’ll be talking about the covertly-aggressive personalities and the tactics they use to manipulate and control others.   We’ll round out the series with an article on predatory-aggressives (i.e. psychopaths, sociopaths) that will include some examples from high profile cases that have been in the news in recent months.


Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course

It’s been a few years since I first posted a series of articles on the group of disturbed characters I like to call the “aggressive personalities.”  I’m also in the process of compiling new material on the topic for possible inclusion in another book or in future revisions of my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance.  That’s in part because so many of the disturbed characters making news headlines of late appear at least on the surface to be individuals who have the characteristics of these personality types.  So, for these and a variety of other reasons, it seems timely to revisit the topic.  And because I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from folks about the examples I’ve included in recent articles about disturbed characters in therapy, I’ll be including several examples of aggressive characters behaving in the manner they are wont to behave in the upcoming series.

The idea of applying the label “aggressive” to a certain group of personality types dates from my graduate training in psychology.   It was well known even back then that clinicians found serious fault with the official psychiatric diagnostic manual’s classification of personality disorders, especially when it came to describing a type of personality prone to violate boundaries and limits, cause interpersonal pain, and create problems for society.  At the time, the only classification for such individuals was “Antisocial Personality Disorder” and the criteria for applying the label were not only stringent but also fashioned in such a manner that only career criminals seemed to fit the bill.  But it had long been observed that there were many individuals just as prone to behaving in irresponsible and even seriously malicious ways who never led lives of crime or had ever been legally sanctioned for major social norm violations.  One of my mentors particularly lamented this and noted that all of these problematic personalities, whether or not they were criminal in their behavior, exhibited an interpersonal style that was distinctly “aggressive.”  And this mentor made it clear that in realm of human interpersonal relations, aggression is not simply synonymous with violence.  Rather, human aggression is most often manifested in the unscrupulous and undisciplined will to power.  That notion made a deep impression on me and helped me understand many personalities I wasn’t able to yet accurately label.

While I was still in graduate school I also had the opportunity to work part time for a company whose CEO seemed to be unique aggressive personality type.  He was an absolute tyrant and his employees often quivered in their boots.  He seemed to have no compunction about berating these employees even for the smallest of matters, heaping verbal and emotional abuse on them and instilling terror as a means of controlling them.  He paid his key employees very well, however, and they were therefore quite dependent on him for their livelihoods.  But despite the success of his company, it was clear his style of relating to others (i.e. his personality) though on some level effective, was grossly dysfunctional.  He’d had several failed marriages and was at odds with several of his children as well as his current girlfriend.  Still, there was simply no appropriate label to apply to his personality type, at least according to the official categorization schemes.  One was tempted to label him antisocial, but he was a polished, astute businessman, not a criminal (though I knew him to engage in some business practices that I would characterize as somewhat shady), and was a pillar of the community, sitting on my corporate and civic boards.  But he appeared to have virtually no empathy for others, and was not only merciless in his treatment of some but also disdainful of those he perceived as weak.  I think Martha Stout might have labeled him a “sociopath next door,” but even she had formulated her thinking on the subject at that time.  Not too long after meeting this businessman, I encountered a client in one of our school’s training clinic who frequently boasted of his tenaciousness and “winner take all” approach to life.  But his history of relationships was a virtual train wreck, as he used and abused just about everyone he hooked up with.  Before long, I found myself formulating my own thoughts on aggressive personalities, and for several years I gathered clinical data on the various sub-types of this problematic character and worked to refine my conceptual scheme.   Not so incidentally, during my first years of practice, I encountered several examples of folks who were in relationships with people who presented a veneer of charm and civility but could be notoriously underhanded, back-stabbing, controlling, and manipulative.  I studied these folks closely, with particular attention to the tactics they used to aggress against others covertly.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The news of late has been dominated by high-profile personalities who seem to fit somewhere within the conceptual scheme I eventually developed.  There’s the Olympic runner who without a second’s hesitation fired rounds at someone whose identity he wasn’t even sure of only to assert and lament later that he “accidentally” killed the woman he loved.  Interestingly, his father blamed the tragedy on “sportsman’s instinct” – a notion that itself is worth exploring in more detail in the coming weeks.  There is also the pro football player who, with his “posse”, was in a shoot-out with some rivals that left two people dead, yet he not only claimed total innocence for himself (despite many indications of his culpability) but then tried to advance then notion that it’s not possible for God to commission a person to carry His message who has blood on their hands, so as a minister after all, he simply must be a good guy.  Then there’s the police officer who prided himself as a man of justice and integrity who viciously stalked and executed several innocent people, all the while justifying it by claiming that his victims were all in some way responsible for a greater injustice done to him.   And of course there’s the famous cyclist who had many of us thinking he’d overcome impossible odds with uncommon integrity, who now admits he not only lived a big lie but knowingly and aggressively destroyed the lives of those who tried to tell us the kind of person he really is.  Make now mistake, there are a lot of aggressive characters out there and only a few of them are convicted criminals doing time in prison.  And in the coming weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about all of them, and in greater depth than I ever have before.  I only hope that others will join in the discussion and contribute their own experiences sufficiently to make the important issues clear and helpful to all the readers.

Next week’s post will focus on the characteristics all of the aggressive personalities share as well as the factors the latest research is telling us about how such personalities develop.  Then, in subsequent weeks, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at each aggressive personality sub-type.   More than anything else, it’s my hope that the readers will – as a result of the series – discover a framework by which they are better able to judge the character of individuals they meet or know and to protect themselves against possible victimization in some way.



Recognizing Covert-Aggression

In recent weeks I’ve posted several articles on the special considerations that must be made when engaging therapeutically with a disturbed or disordered character.  And I’ve spoken to the pitfalls inherent in traditional approaches and perspectives when it comes to fostering real change in impaired characters  (see, for example:  Therapy and the Face of Real Change Part 2 and Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy).  As readers of my work know, I believe covert-aggression is the principal way irresponsible characters manipulate and control others.  But by nature aggression that is covertly expressed is hard to detect, especially when you don’t know what to look for.  And it’s even harder to detect and deal with appropriately if your conceptual framework is such that it impairs your ability to recognize covert-aggression when it’s at play.  This can be especially problematic in a therapy situation.

I might have shared this tidbit before, but it’s worth mentioning again.  I was first inspired to bring together all the information I’d compiled over the years and fashion a book about covert-aggression after watching a popular daytime talk show.  The program featured a couple whose relationship had been marked by years of verbal and emotional abuse and sometimes physical violence.  The husband was eventually incarcerated and ordered to complete a course of anger management and domestic violence group therapy as a precondition for early release.  During the program, the couple discussed with the host how things had been going since the husband’s release, while the studio audience (as well as home viewers) and a panel of mental health experts looked on.  I was simply horrified when I observed the husband, who had supposedly turned over a new leaf after therapy, subtly and craftily “beat up” his wife on an emotional level, eventually bringing her to submission.  And his aggression appeared completely undetected by the host of the program, the panel of “experts,” and the studio audience.  To make matters worse, some of the experts even appeared to side with the abuser, thus “enabling” the continued victimization of his wife.

The following case excerpt (again with names and details altered)  is strikingly similar to the scenario I described above with one major exception:  this covert-aggressor was exposed and confronted on his tactics, which led to some very different results for the victim (T=Therapist, R=”Randy”, F=Francine):

F:  “Dr. Simon, I wanted us to come today because Randy really wants to come back to the house.  But I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet.  You know he’s been living with his parents since he got released a couple of weeks ago.  And he says things will be different now – and I’m not saying they won’t – but still….

R:  What’s it going to take, Francine?!  Haven’t I suffered enough?!  It’s bad enough I got locked up because of you always calling the cops every time we had a disagreement.  And I admit that I might have lost my temper a few times and maybe I pushed you that one time.  But that’s over now and I’ve taken responsibility.  And I learned in those classes they made me take how not to let all those irritating things you do bother me so much.  Besides, I’ve paid for everything – in spades!  Now, I have to live with a criminal record for the rest of my life!  All I want is my life, my kids, and my wife back.  Just a chance!  Is that too much to ask?  Do you want me to suffer?

F:  No, I don’t want you to suffer, it’s just that….

R:  It’s just that what, Francine?  That you just can’t let go of the past and give me a chance?!  I’ll bet I know what the real deal is!  You’ve had your freedom for awhile and probably got together with somebody!  I’m betting you just don’t want me around while you fool around and get my kids all turned against me and carry on with someone else!

F:  No, that’s not it at all, I swear!  I just, I…, I….

T:  I’m going to interject here.  Randy, what’s different about you now since completing the therapy the court ordered you to have?

R:  I don’t get so upset anymore.  I just don’t let things irritate me like they used to.  And when I don’t get mad, I don’t lash out.

T:  But you just spent the last few minutes beating up your wife pretty relentlessly and right in front of me to boot!

R:  What are you talking about, beating up my wife?!

T:  I think that just like any person would, you would know when you’re fighting, what you’re fighting for, and whether you’re fighting justly.

R:  Okay!  So I want my family back.  That’s not a crime!  Is it wrong to want to be with the woman who promised to love you for the rest of your life?

T:  It’s wrong to beat up anyone, especially the woman you claim to love, just because they won’t give you what you want when you want it.  Some things have to be earned, like trust.  You know that.

F:  He’s been pressuring me like this for days.  That’s why I’ve been a little nervous about things.  It reminds me of before.

T:  But when he was pummeling you with all of his tactics, casting himself as a victim, blaming you and casting you as the real victimizer, minimizing the seriousness of the behaviors that rightly earned him prison time, and trying to shame and guilt you into relenting, not only didn’t he stop himself – even with me sitting here observing – but also you didn’t call him on his behavior.

F:  In my heart I feel like there’s something wrong when he does those things, but then I end up saying to myself: “maybe he’s got a point,” or “maybe he’s right.”

T:  If you’re ever going to really be safe, you have to trust your instincts more, Francine.  Nature gifted you with fear for a reason.  You also have to see more clearly how certain aggressive types operate, otherwise you could easily find yourself in similar circumstances, even in a different relationship.  And Randy, there’s no way at this point that I’m recommending to the court that you derived sufficient benefit from your treatment to come home.  I know you got a graduation certificate from your program and were released, but treatment like the kind you had can only be regarded as successful when a person demonstrates real behavioral change like control over their aggression, and empathy for the other person.  You displayed just the opposite today.”

There is a lot more to this case, but the excerpt above should be sufficient to make the point about the nature of covert-aggression.  And it also illustrates the problem with so many types of intervention that don’t focus on the here-and-now behaviors that really demonstrate whether someone is making meaningful changes.  There are some additional vignettes in Character Disturbance that illustrate this point and some vignettes in In Sheep’s Clothing that illustrate what can go wrong in relationships when one party doesn’t trust their gut about when they’re under assault.