Tag Archives: covert-aggressive

Aggressive Personalities: The Sub-Types

By far the most limiting aspect of official diagnostic conceptualizations (i.e. the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) of the most character-disturbed individuals among us is that the purely behavioral criteria used to delineate the various personality types don’t capture the essence of what is unhealthy and problematic in them.  So, early in my work I found it necessary to devise a more useful conceptual scheme.  And over the years, sharing this conceptual scheme has seemed to benefit those who struggle with various difficult people in their lives.

For a long time, the professional community paid little attention to personality dysfunction, preferring to focus on clinical syndromes (i. e. mood disturbances, anxiety disorders, eating and substance use disorders, etc.).  Most clinicians not only regarded personality disturbance as simply too difficult or impossible to treat, but also unnecessary to treat if you attended to any clinical syndromes present.  But while clinical conditions can and do afflict otherwise healthy personalities, these days the difficulties many people experience in their lives are intimately connected to the problematic aspects of their personality or the personality of others.   And today, more professionals have come to recognize and appreciate this reality.  Some have even begun to recognize that the fact that those aspects of personality that reflect a person’s ability to function in a socially responsible way (i.e. their character) have a lot to do with the problems presented in their lives and relationships.  That’s why I felt safe in asserting in my second book (Character Disturbance) that character dysfunction is indeed “the phenomenon of our age.”

The group of personalities I label “aggressive” are among the most character-impaired of all the personality types. As I mentioned in my prior post (see: Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course), for a long time the official diagnostic manual (DSM) recognized only one sub-type of these personalities as clinically disordered, applying the term Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) basically to persons who consistently led lives of crime since mid-adolescence. A relatively recent revision of the manual has de-emphasized the criminal conduct aspect of this personality type but still fails to clearly delineate the many different sub-types, suggesting instead that persons qualifying for the APD diagnosis may have either a varied smattering or clustering of other disturbing traits. This classification system does not recognize the distinctly pathological traits that define at least five very different, sometimes dangerous, and always problematic personalities.

As I mentioned earlier, the most limiting aspect of traditional approaches to understanding the most character-disturbed individuals among us is that purely behavioral descriptions don’t capture the essence of what is unhealthy and problematic in them. It is my assertion that the inordinate predisposition for aggression lies at the heart of some individuals’ character disturbance and influences every aspect of their growth and development. At their core, the personalities I’m talking about are under-inhibited and unrelenting fighters who would be entirely different characters if they could more easily bring themselves to concede, back down, or submit at times, especially when it is in their long-term best interest to do so. But some individuals have great difficulty with this, fighting indiscriminately and unnecessarily, while even others flatly abhor the notion of subordination of their fighter instinct.  This can create all sorts of problems in relationships.  This aggressive predisposition can combine with other problematic traits to create some very disturbing personality styles, which is why I find it helpful to categorize 5 basic aggressive personality sub-types:

The first type I call the unbridled aggressive.
These are the individuals we have traditionally called “antisocial” (the colloquial use of the term “antisocial” to describe aloof or asocial individuals is an incorrect use of the term) in their behavior pattern because they so frequently violate major social norms and end up running afoul of the law.  Unbridled aggressives go through life as hapless “palookas,” swinging wildly at every obstacle in their path and with seemingly no awareness about the ultimately defeating aspects of their behavior.  They see rules and norms only as barriers and are wont to break them down.  They’re at war with authority figures of any type and resist acceding to expectations imposed by others.
The second type I label the channeled aggressive.
Individuals with this personality type frequently channel their aggressive energies into socially sanctioned outlets such as competitive sports, military careers, tough corporate enterprises, etc. They generally don’t break the major rules and exercise a degree of control over their aggression.  But they exercise their restraint for pragmatic purposes primarily and will violate norms and cross boundaries when they feel assured they can do so without sanction.

The type I label covert-aggressive  are the more deceptive and manipulative.

These personalities do their best to appear benign on the surface and to veil all their aggressive agendas.  They use clever tactics to overcome their adversaries and to get others to bend to their wishes.  They are the primary subject of my book In Sheep’s Clothing.

Another sub-type is one that I label the sadistic aggressive.

Aggressive personalities almost inevitably hurt other people.  But for most aggressive personalities, inflicting pain  is not their principal aim. Aggressive personalities generally simply want what they want and if they have to run roughshod over someone else to get it, they have no compunction about doing so.  Sadistic personalities are different.  For them, inflicting pain and demeaning others is not only something they actively seek but also enjoy.

Lastly, I apply the label predatory-aggressive to the most severely disturbed of all characters, the psychopath (alt: sociopath).
These individuals are first and foremost characterized by their senseless, remorseless, and empathy-devoid use, abuse, manipulation, and exploitation of others. Some of these individuals also lead parasitic, antisocial lifestyles.  But others can appear quite civil and even charming.  They are the “snakes in suits” and “sociopaths next door.”  The key thing about them is that they are so lacking in empathy that they can’t form a mature conscience.  Some have no conscience or empathy whatsoever.  And they have a special kind of malignant narcissism that makes them especially prone to prey on others.  They are the only known intra-species predators.

Now, all of the aggressive personalities are also narcissists.  In fact, one could easily say the personality type we call narcissistic is simply a non-aggressive variation of the aggressive personality type.  And how narcissism is expressed in each of the different aggressive personality sub-types is unique.  In the next series of posts, I’ll be exploring each of the aggressive personality types in much greater detail and illustrating through examples. I’ll also be discussing the pitfalls of attempting to intervene with such personalities using traditional approaches.  And because I’ve gotten four email requests to say something about two of the likely psychopathic women who have made news headlines in high-profile trials over the past year and a half (including a trial being concluded currently), I’ll be sharing a lot of observations about these cases that should invite substantial discussion when the article on predatory aggressives is posted.

Next post:  The unbridled aggressive (or “antisocial”) personality.

Character Spectrum Disorders

In recent years, we have come to realize that conditions like autism are not singular entities but rather part of a broader spectrum of conditions.  As a result, we now have a much improved ability to detect the various manifestations of developmental delays such as Asperger’s Disorder and to provide the most appropriate early interventions for those conditions.  But we have been much slower to recognize the broad spectrum of character dysfunction.  And largely as a result, there has been a lot of confusion in people’s minds about how to correctly label and deal with those persons in their lives who behave so irresponsibly.

Several years back, books were coming out every day about Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  And for some time, many folks thought that the descriptions of narcissistic behavior adequately explained the problems they were having with the dysfunctional persons in their life.  As a result, it suddenly appeared that there were narcissists everywhere.  More recently have come all the books on psychopathy and sociopathy, and for some time following, the internet blogs were full of stories of psychopathic ex-spouses and the “sociopath next door”  And when it was announced that the official diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association is probably going to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a definitive classification (for years it has not included psychopathy as an official condition, either), some people were up in arms while others were left scratching their heads.  For a lot of reasons – mostly media hype and lots of misinformation – there’s now more confusion than ever about the nature of character disturbances.

I was among the first to propose that character disturbance exists along certain continua or spectra and that we needed to take a fresh look at our ways of conceptualizing character-impaired individuals.  It went against all convention when I suggested that it’s a mistake to see all personality types as different “neurotic” styles (there’s still a popular and long-selling book with a title asserting that they are) and that and that there’s a continuum upon which everyone rests that runs from primarily neurotic to primarily impaired in character.  I also suggested that there’s a continuum of character dysfunction – based on the nature and severity of symptoms – that ranges from having certain undesirable character traits to having a full-blown character “disorder” or marked impairment in a person’s social functioning.  And in my book, Character Disturbance, I took great care to present a framework that can help almost anyone understand the entire spectrum of character dysfunction and where someone they know might lie along that spectrum.

Given the nature of our times, it’s a safe bet that the person causing you grief in your life has a character impairment of one type or another.  And despite all the recent hype, the likelihood they’re a full-blown psychopath is fairly low (not saying here that you can’t be dealing with one).  More recently, the authors of the book Almost a Psychopath have acknowledged that there are folks who are empathy deficient and tend to manipulate in relationships but who lack the level of cold-blooded callousness to warrant a formal clinical diagnosis or the label of psychopath.  Such folks often fit much better under the covert-aggressive formulation that I first introduced in my book In Sheep’s Clothing.  And you can read the confession of one such individual, who recognized himself when reading the book, in one of my prior posts (the link to Confessions of a Covert-Aggressive Personality is broken right now but will soon be fixed).  And the very fact that he was distressed enough about what he knew to be true about himself and wanted to work at becoming different argues against the notion that he was a psychopath.

The main thing I’ve tried to do with both of my books is to present a framework that the average person can understand that explains the wide range of impaired characters they’re likely to encounter in their lives and to offer practical suggestions about how to deal with such folks.  And over the years, In Sheep’s Clothing morphed from a small independent publication to an international bestseller (entering its 17th year in print).  That’s mainly because of strong word-of-mouth recommendations of readers to family members and friends.  Most gratefully, the very same thing is happening with Character Disturbance.  As its readers gain better insight into the broad spectrum of character dysfunction, as they are empowered to improve their life circumstances as a result, and as they spread the word to others about the benefits of the perspective I offer, Character Disturbance will most likely eventually enjoy the same if not better success than In Sheep’s Clothing.  No fancy promotion, outrageous claims, or hyperbolic commentary on the trendy labels of the day, just simple, practical ways to understand and deal with the character impaired individuals in your life.  And because I know that such individuals exist along a continuum, if there’s a person in your life making you miserable, I know you’ll find them somewhere among the descriptions I provide in Character Disturbance.

Ending a Controlling Relationship: A Risky Time

I’ve seen many situations in which a spouse or partner living with a domineering and controlling type finally had enough and wanted out of the relationship.  But what some folks often didn’t anticipate was the risk that can present itself when someone hell-bent on control finally gets the message: “No more.”
A recent situation stands out in my memory as an archetypal instance of a controller for whom the jig was finally up.  Having a personality like I describe in my book In Sheep’s Clothing, a father who outwardly appeared conscientious, attentive, and meticulous, had used his apparent obsessive-compulsivity as a pretext for weilding total domination and control over his family. The children had to account for every move.  And if they dared stray from expectations, the punishment he crafted “for their own good” rarely fit the seriousness of the “crime.”  As time went on, expectations became almost tyrannical and tirades for non-compliance became more frequent.
As I have written about in prior posts (see: Aggressive Personalities and The Covert-Aggressive Personality) there are people in this world whose preferred style of relating to the world is an aggressive one.  Much like the old adage for real estate agents (i.e. only three things matter: location, location, location), for these folks, there are only three things that matter at any given time: position, position, and position.  As long as they’re in the position of dominance and control, and as long as they have their way, they’re content.  But attempt to stand on equal ground, or worse yet, to put them in a position of relative disadvantage, and all hell is likely to break loose.
Covertly aggressive personalities are among the most difficult to deal with.  That’s because when a person so adeptly conceals their aggressive intentions under the pretext that they’re doing just about anything except trying to control you (e.g, just trying to help, just trying to do the right thing, just showing care and concern) you often don’t trust your gut feelings that what they primarily want is to have their way and have everyone else march in lockstep to their wishes.  That’s why so many people end up well-entrenched in relationships with such types before realizing the true nature of things. Most of the personalities I’m talking about rarely show open signs of their aggressive nature. But when their spouse or partner finally figures things out, calls them on their real behavior, and starts enforcing limits and boundaries, it can be a whole other story.  It also can be a risky time.
If there’s one thing that’s anathema to any aggressive personality, it’s being told: “No.”  So, when, for example, a spouse has finally seen things for what they are, has had enough, and wants out, things can get really dicey. In the case I referenced above, that’s exactly what happened.  The minute his wife announced that she’d had enough of her husband’s ways, enough of his excuses for not getting help, and was separating from him, he dropped the facade he’d been wearing for years, and launched an all out war.  His aggression became more overt, including frequent verbal berating and abuse, threats with regard to the children, and eventually, some physical aggression as well.
Because one the riskiest times for folks in relationships with dominating and controlling types is when the jig is up, it’s important for those trying to embark on a new life to have a solid support system and a viable plan to help ensure their own safety as well as the safety of their loved ones.  Fortunately, in the case that prompted this article, ample, adequate support was readily available.   But sometimes, it’s not.  That’s one big reason why some folks who have come to realize the true nature of an abusive situation choose what they understandably believe might actually be the safer course and remain in the relationship. They intuitively sense the risk involved in declaring independence and their fear gets the better of them.  And, as I point out in my book Character Disturbance, that intuitive feeling needs to be respected.  But because there’s really no safety in capitulating, by far the better course when you’re dealing with a recalcitrant controller is to shore up the defenses, craft the safest plan, and proceed with due caution toward a better life out from under their thumb.

Confessions of a Covert-Aggressive Personality

Folks often ask me if Covert-Aggressive personalities (manipulators) and other disturbed characters really understand themselves or know what they’re doing.  I always reply that most of the time, such personalities know exactly who they are and what they’re up to.  This is something others find very hard to believe.  But to illustrate the point, I thought I’d reproduce a portion of an article I wrote about a year ago on a popular international blog:

Covert-Aggressive Personalities are the archetypal wolves in sheep’s clothing that I introduced in my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing . These individuals are not openly aggressive in manner in which they relate to others.  In fact, they do their best to keep their aggressive intentions and behaviors carefully masked. They can often appear quite charming and amiable, but underneath their civil facade they are just as ruthless as any other aggressive personality. They are devious, underhanded, and subtle in the ways they abuse and exploit others. They have generally cultivated an arsenal of interpersonal maneuvers and tactics that enable them to effectively manipulate and control those in relationships with them. The tactics they use are effective because they simultaneously accomplish two objectives very effectively:

  • The tactics conceal obvious aggressive intent. When the covert-aggressive is using the tactics, the other person has little objective reason to suspect that he is simply attempting to gain advantage over them.
  • The tactics covert-aggressive personalities use effectively play on the sensitivity, conscientiousness, and other vulnerabilities of most persons — especially neurotic individuals — and therefore effectively quash any resistance another person might have to giving-in to the demands of the aggressor.

So, it’s this one-two punch of the tactics: never really seeing what’s coming, and being vulnerable to succumbing to them, that’s at the heart of why most people get manipulated by them.

About a week after I posted the article referenced above, the blog site received one of the most interesting comments to date:

It’s very disturbing, but true… I am one of these personality types.  It is quite an issue for me since I only started really looking at this pattern and why I do it over the last few weeks. (I am 35).  You make the point that this personality type has an underdeveloped conscience and that some of these individuals have more conscience impairment than others.  This may be a harsh assessment, but I know this is true, also.  I actually have some degree of conscience.  I would never think of actually hurting another person physically for personal gain, ever.  Still, I do seem to “attack” when I perceive my own interests or safety to be under assault in any way, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, and I justify my behavior by telling myself it’s necessary.

I have tried to limit my covert-aggressive actions to those situations when I feel it’s absolutely necessary for survival and the last resort.  However, it’s very difficult for me not to “act-out” (I know you say this is an incorrect use of the term) whenever I see a chance to gain a victory over others.

I dont know where this all got started.  I just know that my behavior has a name, and that I really need to try harder (it seems to become a bit easier all the time) to be less manipulative and more straightforward. To face this issue is not an easy one, because it means I have to adapt my way of thinking and acting to more “normal” trains.

My wife knows all this about me and still loves me.


The above comment validates points that I’ve made in prior posts about this personality type.  Some of these folks are more neurotic than they are character-disordered.  Some have more of a conscience than others.  But in the end, such personalities have impairments in conscience and character that allow them to exploit the vulnerabilities of others and to justify their actions by claiming their behavior was necessary.  And, as the testimonial above attests to, these folks know what they’re doing.

Perhaps the most hopeful aspects of Jacob’s testimonial is that people can and do change, but they have to be the ones to decide it’s in their best interest.  And over the years, I have dealt with literally hundreds of folks just like Jacob who acquired enough integrity of character and motivation to put an end to their covert-aggressive ways.