Understanding the Sadistic Personality

Sadists love to build themselves up at the expense of others. It makes them feel powerful to wield almost tyrannical influence over those they perceive as weaker or inferior. They derive pleasure from watching others cower, grovel, or struggle in one-down positions.

I’ve been posting a series of articles on the “aggressive personalities.” This group of individuals is among the most seriously disordered in character of all the various personality types. Despite the fact that official diagnostic literature neither recognizes the inordinate predisposition for aggression as the core problem for such personalities nor recognizes the distinct differences between aggressive personality types, I have outlined what I believe to be the core attributes aggressive personalities in general as well as the major aggressive personality subtypes. I’ve written in more detail about the characteristics of the Unbridled Aggressive Personality as well as the Channeled-Aggressive Personality. (See “Understanding the Unbridled Aggressive Personality” and “Understanding the Channeled-Aggressive Personality”.)

The Sadistic Personality is a relatively rare but very different aggressive personality subtype. It’s not uncommon for any aggressive personality to injure others in some way in their relentless, thoughtless, and untempered pursuit of their agendas. They want what they want and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. And, what distinguishes aggressive personalities from assertive personalities is that aggressive personalities don’t particularly care about whether others get hurt in the process, nor do they take particular heed not to injure others. All that said, most aggressive personalities do not set out to hurt others. Their objective, purely and simply, is to get what they want. Contrarily, sadistic personalities have a primary agenda of hurting, degrading, demeaning, and inflicting agony upon others.

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Sadists love to build themselves up at the expense of others. It makes them feel powerful to wield almost tyrannical influence over those they perceive as weaker or inferior. They derive pleasure from watching others cower, grovel, or struggle in one-down positions.

When I was doing early research in the area of character disturbance, I happened to encounter a president of a small corporation who boasted to me quite frequently that he was aware that if he weren’t successful as a ruthless businessman, he would probably have ended up in prison for most of his life. He was well aware of his aggressive predispositions and the ruthless aggressiveness that permeated all of his interpersonal relations. One day I witnessed this man call a female subordinate into his office and begin to berate her in a most vicious fashion. The degree to which he brandished rage had me shaking a bit in my own boots. After he finished berating her, he warned her of dire consequences if she did not accede to his demands and then dismissed her.

As soon as the woman left the room he looked at me and began to smile and chuckle. He expressed that his pre-planned expression of rage was meant to instill fear in the woman and that he was sure she would be more conscientious about doing his bidding because of it. He also expressed disgust for her weakness. His deliberate use of rage when in fact he seemed in a jovial mood after the fact made me aware for the first time how rage can be used as a manipulation and control tactic and that it doesn’t have to arise out of genuine anger or hurt. The long self-aggrandizing speech this man then engaged in with me also let me know the degree to which he was willing to make his sense of his own power and worth dependent upon the degree to which he could make others feel powerless and worthless. This man was extremely adept at spotting fairly conscientious individuals in one-down positions in their lives who needed support and were willing to put up with his bullying behavior. He surrounded himself with these types of folks and relished opportunities to terrorize them.

Although Sadistic Personalities seem to be an increasing percentage of the aggressive personality types in prison settings, they do not appear to be very common in the general population. Nonetheless, they cause an inordinate amount of distress for those who happen to become entangled in some kind of relationship with them.

Traditional theories on personality development have always presumed that individuals like the sadistic personality became the way they are out of deep-seated feelings of inferiority or as a reaction to being themselves severely abused or demeaned as children. While it sometimes turns out that such things may be factors, there is no evidence to suggest that all such personalities have such characteristics in their background, although many will lie about it to engender the sympathy of others. Rather, it seems that the majority of these individuals simply consider themselves as superior to those whom they perceive as weak and take particular delight for pure entertainment’s sake in the torture of others.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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