Potentially Abusive Personalities: Some Red Flags – by Dr. George Simon, Jr.
Once more we extend our thanks to Dr. Simon for contributing this second article on still another vital subject. See his first post at How to Recognize True and False Contrition. As most of our readers know, Dr. Simon is the author of:
1. In Sheep’s Clothing – Understanding and Dealing With Manipulative People [Affiliate link]
2. Character Disturbance – The Phenomenon of Our Age [Affiliate link]
3. The Judas Syndrome – Why Good People do Awful Things [*Affiliate link]
This trilogy really serves to equip anyone with tools that you will agree we all should have learned much earlier in life. Here then is Dr. Simon:
While there is no single profile for an abuser and no particular abusive personality type, there are certain personality characteristics an individual can have that can place a person at higher risk for abuse in any relationship with them. Abusers come in every shape and size and from every socio-economic and cultural background. But they also tend to exhibit some common behavioral characteristics and also tend to harbor troubling attitudes and thinking patterns that increase the risk they will behave irresponsibly with and possibly even mistreat their relationship partners. It would therefore behoove a person contemplating a deeper relationship with someone to be on the lookout for these warning signs.
Some behavioral characteristics that raise the red flag for potential abuse include:
Spotty or poor impulse control – It’s not uncommon for abusers to “lose it,” and lash out destructively only to regret their actions later. And while they might apologize profusely and swear they won’t behave irresponsibly again (a scenario that frequently invites abuse victims to remain in high-risk situations, thinking and hoping things will eventually get better), they don’t have sufficient internal “brakes” to modulate their responses, especially under stress. Most of the time, problems with impulse control show up early in a relationship and potential partners really need to pay attention to this red flag. Sometimes, folks are too willing to dismiss an explosive episode as a fluke, or trivialize the significance of an outburst. They might also buy into rationalizations offered for the behavior, and give the self-control-deficient person the benefit of the doubt about future behavior. But even when episodes of poor impulse control are rare or virtually unpredictable, they still spell risk. And the very best single predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So, if someone has flown off the handle once, you can safely bet they’ll do it again. This is true even when you’re talking about primarily verbal or emotional explosions as opposed to physical violence. And you simply can’t assume that just because someone’s deficient impulse control usually takes one form (e.g., non-physical) it won’t take another form at some other time. This behavioral characteristic is more common in the individuals I describe in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance as “aggressive personalities.”
Impaired self-regulation of emotional expression – All of us have minor shifts of mood. It’s normal to have “ups” and “downs” in life. But most of us are able to modulate our feelings and keep ourselves in some degree of emotional balance. Some personalities lack the ability to adequately regulate their emotions. And relationships with them often feel like riding an emotional roller coaster. Not all individuals with emotion-control problems are inherently prone to abuse. But whether a person displays swings between intense fear and unreasonable anger, giddy elation and profound depression, or placidity and explosiveness, the fact that they have difficulty with emotional self-regulation should serve as a warning flag for increased risk of abusive behavior.
Behavioral rigidity – It’s certainly potentially problematic when someone always has to do things a particular way or have things done in a specific manner. Being a conscientious and exacting sort of person is one thing, but being a personality with no room for flexibility or capacity for adapting is quite another. Rigid folks become easily irritated, anxious, and upset when things don’t go the way they expect. And it’s hard for them to hide their rigidity. So, even early in a relationship, one should be able to spot this risk-enhancing sign.
As I mentioned earlier, some people tend to harbor some attitudes and to think in some ways that increases the chances that they’ll act abusively in relationships. Some of the more important red flags to watch out for include:
Attitudes of “ownership” – In my books I describe a type of thinking I call “possessive thinking” and a mindset of ownership that accompanies it. Basically, this is a way of thinking about other people as if they were objects to possess and possessions to hold. Possessive thinkers believe that their relationship partners don’t really have identities or rights of their own. Rather, they think of their partners as personal property. This kind of thinking is often reflected in their words and tone when speaking about others, referring to them in a manner that suggests that their spouse or their child inherently must defer to them simply because they are theirs.
Extreme or “all-or-none” thinking – Extreme thinkers cannot see the shades of grey in life. For them, everything is black or white, and in many cases, it’s “their way or the highway.” And because they tend to see things in extreme terms, when life’s typical stressors occur, they are more prone to over-react.
A penchant for “external” thinking – “Externalizers” tend to focus much of their attention and energy on people, places and things in their outer environment and don’t focus enough on the nature of their responses to those things. They’re prone to blaming others when things go wrong and not looking inward for better ways to cope with stresses and frustrations. This makes it hard for them to be fully accountable and to take responsibility for their role in problems and also makes it more likely they’ll lash out when they believe someone or something else is to blame for their predicament.
Attitudes of “entitlement” – Certain personalities are prone to a type of thinking that makes them feel entitled to act toward others in a manner they would never tolerate from others. Attitudes of entitlement generally stem from a narcissistic inflation of self-worth and are common in the egotistic and aggressive personalities I describe in my writings.
Demanding, authoritarian attitudes – Some personalities believe they are powers in their own right even if they outwardly (and falsely) proclaim subservience to a “higher power.” And most demanding/authoritarian personality types also harbor attitudes of entitlement, a bad combination when it comes to healthy relationships and a real risk-enhancer when it comes to the potential for abuse.
I discuss these and other risk factors for various kinds of trouble in relationships, including abuse, in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. And in In Sheep’s Clothing I give particular attention to one personality type (the covert-aggressive personality) that is good at masking many of these characteristic, making a favorable impression at the beginning of a relationship only to inflict a type of emotional “whiplash” on their unsuspecting relationship partner once their true characteristics come to light. Still, by paying close attention to the attributes I’ve outline above (attributes that are hard to fully conceal for very long), it’s possible to give yourself some measure of protection that you don’t become involved with someone prone to abusive behavior. And while no single potential warning sign listed above is a reliable predictor of abuse, the more of these characteristics a potential relationship partner displays, the greater the risk they might engage in abusive behavior. That’s why it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for these and other signs of character impairment during the early exploratory phases of a relationship.