Understanding the Unbridled Aggressive Personality

Despite frequent social sanctions, aggressive personalities often persist in their aggressive defiance of society’s rules and limits.

Among the various aggressive personality subtypes, perhaps the type most studied and written about has been the type that I prefer to label the “unbridled aggressive.” Historically, these individuals have been more commonly labeled antisocial. I often hear the term antisocial used inappropriately to describe individuals who do not seem to enjoy mingling with others. These folks are actually most appropriately labeled “asocial” if they lack the normal desire for human interaction. The antisocial label, however was always meant to describe a very different personality type. The prefix “anti” means “against.” Antisocial individuals are those who deliberately and habitually pit themselves against the social order. They’re not at all adverse to superficial socializing (indeed, many can do that quite well). Rather, despite their acute awareness of the rules, limits, and structures necessary to preserve a society, these individuals are diametrically opposed to submitting themselves to the rules most of us agree to live by. Many of these individuals find themselves in frequent conflict with the law and several spend much of their lives incarcerated. Yet, despite repeated social sanction, they persist in their aggressive defiance of the rules and limits society attempts to impose. That’s why I think the label “unbridled” best describes this aggressive personality subtype.

Unbridled aggressive personalities possess these basic characteristics:

  • They view the world in terms of “me against them” and are at war with the social order.
  • They resist recognizing or submitting themselves to a higher power or authority. They have little respect for rules, limits or boundaries.
  • Although they will expend energy on their own behalf, they vehemently resist what others would call labors of love. They don’t like feeling obligated or taking on the burdens of a responsible life.
  • They have irascible temperaments and low frustration tolerance. It takes very little to get them upset, and they will not subject themselves for very long to anything they find distasteful or unpleasant.
  • They are remarkably sensation-seeking and risk-taking. Operating very much on the pleasure principle, they are constantly “chasing highs.”
  • They have a remarkable imperturbability. They will do things most of us would get anxious or hesitant about and will persist in doing things despite numerous adverse consequences.
  • They are extremely unwilling to delay gratification or to temper their impulses. Again, they lack internal “brakes.”
  • As is true of all the aggressive personalities, they have many narcissistic characteristics as well, especially a sense of entitlement to do as they please without compunction.

As is true of individuals with significant character disturbance, they are persons of highly deficient conscience. They lack the internal self-monitoring mechanisms most of us have to propel us to do right and to refrain from doing wrong. They might have some practical, after-the-fact regret for problems they cause themselves as a result of their undisciplined lifestyle, but they rarely experience genuine remorse for injury they cause others.

Research studies have found that some biologically-based predisposing factors contribute to the development of the characteristics described above. Indeed, there appears even to be a genetically-based predisposition toward anti-sociality per se. That is not to say that all of these characters are simply born the way they are. There are constitutional predispositions for sure, but environment and learning play roles, too. Nor is it right to assume that such disturbed personalities are necessarily a product of a bad environment. For a long time, we thought that adverse rearing conditions (abuse, conflict, abandonment, etc.) were the causes of this type of personality development. We now know that some of the most antisocial individuals were well cared for and raised as children. So, it’s always a mix of both, and the degree to which nature or nurture has played the stronger role in someone’s personality development varies from individual to individual.

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In my many years of work with disordered characters, I found the aggressive personalities to be the most troubling. It was also literally impossible to work with them and foster any meaningful change using the traditional methods I’d been taught, despite the fact that I had deliberately chosen training that was extremely eclectic in orientation. It was not until I refined my own style of true cognitive-behavioral therapy that I found a way to foster genuine change in such individuals. Eventually, I was even able to fashion programs that were adopted in several settings in which unbridled aggressive personalities were abundant (e.g., prisons, probation programs, etc.).

The most troubling aspect of working with them initially, however, was that despite the fact that even they would agree that their lives were a true shipwreck, they persisted in the same old behaviors that got them into trouble time after time. It had been traditionally assumed that the reason they seemed to fail to learn what most of us wanted them to learn from life’s experiences, was that they simply lacked insight. So, insight-oriented therapies tried to help them “see” the error of their ways. Of course, these days we know a little better than that. And, as I have posted before, as is the case with all disturbed characters, a lack of insight is not the issue. What really began making a difference was targeting directly the maladaptive aggressive behavior pattern and the equally disturbing attitudes and thinking patterns that accompanied it and sometimes fostered it. Directly confronting the heart of their pathology — their uninhibited aggressive style — was the beginning of making a difference.

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