by Dr. Simon
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March 22, 2013
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 abuse 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 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 others 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.