Deeper Into the “Sportsman’s Instinct”

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As a group, aggressive personalities are among the most potentially problematic individuals, especially in relationships.

Soon after the story of the tragic shooting of model Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius (a.k.a. the “Blade Runner”) broke last year, I posted an article on the topic, using a quote from Pistorius’s father for the title (“A “Sportsman’s Instinct””). Henke Pistorius had been reported as saying that he believed his son shot his girlfriend through a locked bathroom door not out of malevolent intent but purely “on instinct” common to sportsmen. As the prosecution wraps up their side of the trial that’s been underway for several weeks, witness after witness has painted a picture of Pistorius that very much fits the characterization Henke Pistorius gave of his act (shoot) first and think about it later son. I think it’s worth revisiting the whole notion of a “sportsman’s instinct” and the role certain personality traits play in the molding of a person’s character.

Many well acquainted with Oscar Pistorius have described him in their court testimony as a man not only deeply enamored of and possibly obsessed with guns but also prone to recklessness with them. (This was exemplified by the time that he boldly proclaimed he had a loaded weapon under the dining table at a restaurant and after discharging it and creating quite a stir asked someone else to take the blame for it, and by the time that he, while riding in a car, fired a gun pointed out the sunroof, obliterating a traffic light above.) They also described him as prone to various types of impulsive behavior, including unpredictable displays of violence and rage. Prosecutors have presented email exchanges between Pistorius and Steenkamp that suggest Reeva was at least in some way fearful of Pistorius’s emotional and behavioral volatility as well as his possessiveness and jealousy. These observations speak to some of the hallmark features present in the group I refer to as the “aggressive personalities.” (See my Series on Aggressive Personalities.) And it behooves anyone who observes these traits in a person with whom they’re involved to be wary of the dangers posed by persons with this character type.

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As a group, aggressive personalities are among the most potentially problematic individuals, especially in relationships. Some aggressive personalities (i.e., the sub-group I refer to as “channeled aggressive”) are generally able to confine their aggressive predispositions to socially acceptable outlets like competitive sports, military activity, or law enforcement. But there are certain aspects of their makeup that make any self-restraint they manage to impose on themselves tentative at best. So when stresses mount to the point that those tenuous controls break down and their “instincts” take over, the result can be disastrous.

Some of the most problematic traits intrinsic to aggressive personalities involve their temperamental, attitudinal, and behavioral predispositions. Chief among these are:

Irascible Temperament
Aggressive personalities seem to be hardwired with very low frustration tolerance. They’re prone to anger over what most would consider minimally stressful or provocative events and are quick to fly off the handle when they do get upset. Sometimes, when they’re already angry about something, they’ll go “looking for a fight,” progressively provoking others into a conflict situation in which they can find justification for all out war. (This self-escalation tendency is common to many abusers.)
Possessive Thinking
I’ve written about this “thinking error” before in “Possessive Thinking and the Disturbed Character”. Character-impaired individuals, especially narcissists and the various aggressive personality types, tend to look on folks with whom they have a relationship as objects or possessions. Some researchers (e.g., Stanton Samenow) label this an “attitude of ownership.” Some aggressive personalities see their relationship partners as trophies they have rightfully “won” and over whom they’re entitled to claim not only ownership but dominion. Harboring such an attitude, they become easily (and in their view, righteously) angered when they sense their ownership being contested. According to Steenkamp, Pistorius would get upset at anything he thought even resembled “flirting” behavior on her part. The rage he displayed when he sensed his ownership of her threatened in some way made her fearful of him and what he might do.
Poor Impulse Control (deficient internal “brakes”)
In my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing, I liken aggressive personalities to a train with inadequate brakes that’s descending from the top of a mountain. Once the train has gained any significant momentum, it’s almost impossible to stop it. If the slope is steep enough, and there’s no other way to temper the momentum, a crash is almost certain as the train progressively accelerates. That’s the way it is with aggressive personalities. Once they get revved up, it’s almost impossible for them to stop. Their habitual coping pattern is such that they never developed internal brakes sound enough to do the job. The only way to keep the inevitable crashes from happening is to insist that the brakes they do have be applied very early on and that any looming temper outbursts are “nipped in the bud.” But most people hate to be so demanding and controlling, so they usually cut the aggressor some slack and let him or her vent a bit. Unfortunately, all too often they regret that because by the time it’s clear to them that things are getting out of control, it’s already too late.

Whether Pistorius is eventually convicted of a capital crime may be of interest to many, but I see an even bigger issue at stake. In recent years case after case very similar to this one has come to public attention. But we haven’t yet seemed to have learned the important lessons such cases can teach us. As tragic as the shooting was, resulting in the untimely death of a beautiful young woman with a promising career, it’s far more tragic that each and every day individuals with aggressive personality disturbances and disorders bring great instability and danger into relationships. And unfortunately, those who know these individuals or who are intimately involved with them rarely heed the warning signs and take appropriate action until disaster strikes.

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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