Transformations of Aggression

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Prone to magical thinking, the narcissist is deeply convinced of the transcendental meaning of his life. He fervently believes in his own uniqueness and "mission". He constantly searches for clues regarding the hidden - though inevitable - meaning of his personal life. The narcissist is forever a "public persona", even when alone, in the confines of his bedroom. His every move, his every act, his every decision and every scribbling is of momentous consequence. The narcissist often documents his life with vigil, for the benefit of future biographers. His every utterance and shred of correspondence are carefully orchestrated as befitting a historical figure of import.

This grandiose background leads to an exaggerated sense of entitlement. The narcissist feels that he is worthy of special and immediate treatment by the most qualified. His time is too precious to be wasted by bureaucratic trifles, misunderstandings, underlings, and social conventions. His mission is urgent. Other people are expected both to share the narcissist's self-assessment - and to behave accordingly: to accommodate his needs, instantly comply with his wishes, and succumb to his whims.

But the world does not always accommodate, comply, and succumb. It often resists the wishes of the narcissist, mocks his comportment, or, worst of all, ignores him. The narcissist reacts to this with a cycle of frustration and aggression.

Still, it is not always possible to express naked aggression. Many cultures frown on directness and encourage white lies – or outright deception - in order to avoid or mitigate conflict. “Straight talk” may be dangerous, or counterproductive, or plain silly. Even the narcissist cannot attack his boss, or a policeman, or the neighbourhood bully with impunity.

So, the narcissist's aggression wears many forms. The narcissist suddenly becomes brutally "honest", or bitingly "humorous", or smotheringly "helpful", or sexually "experimental", or socially "reclusive", or behaviourally "different", or find yet another way to express his scathing and repressed hostility. He often labels such thinly disguised aggression: “tough love”.

The narcissist's favourite sadistic cocktail is brutal honesty coupled with "helpful advice" and "concern" for the welfare of the person attacked. The narcissist blurts out - often unprovoked - hurtful observations. These statements are invariably couched in a socially impeccable context. Akin to "anger management", the sadistic narcissist also requires "truth management" to teach him how to contain his impulsive and offensive "honesty" and "directness".

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For instance, "Do you know you have a bad breath? You will be much more popular if you treated it", "You are really too fat, you should take care of yourself, you are not young, you know, who knows what this is doing to your heart", "These clothes do not complement you. Let me give you the name of my tailor...", "You are behaving very strangely lately, I think that talk therapy combined with medication may do wonders", and so on.

The misanthropic and schizoid narcissist at once becomes sociable and friendly when he spots an opportunity to hurt or to avenge. He then resorts to humour - black, thwarted, poignant, biting, sharpened and agonizing. Thinly disguises barbs follow thinly disguised threats cloaked in "jokes" or "humorous anecdotes".

Another favourite trick is to harp on the insecurities, fears, weaknesses, and deficiencies of the target of aggression. If married to a jealous spouse, the narcissist  emphasizes his newfound promiscuity and need to experiment sexually. If his business partner has been traumatized by a previous insolvency, the narcissist berates him for being too cautious or insufficiently entrepreneurial while forcing the partnership to assume outlandish and speculative business risks. If co-habiting with a gregarious mate, the narcissist acts the recluse, the hermit, the social misfit, or the misunderstood visionary - thus forcing the partner to give up her social life.

The narcissist is seething with enmity and venom. He is a receptacle of unbridled hatred, animosity, and hostility. When he can, the narcissist often turns to physical violence. But the non-physical manifestations of his pent-up bile are even more terrifying, more all-pervasive, and more lasting. Beware of narcissists bearing gifts. They are bound to explode in your faces, or poison you. The narcissist hates you wholeheartedly and thoroughly simply because you are. Remembering this has a survival value.

Note: Depression, Intransigence, and Defiance as Forms of Aggression

The link between depression and aggression has long been hypothesized. Scholars suggested that depression is nothing but internalized aggression, directed at structures of the Self.


But we may need to reconceive of depression as a form of externalized aggression as well. After all, it has massive adverse impacts on the lives, moods, actions, thoughts, emotions, and even personalities of people around the depressed person, especially on his nearest and dearest.


Some patients wield their depression as a manipulative instrument or punitive implement. They leverage feelings of guilt and shame in others or induce a penumbral state of mind that consumes those exposed to the patient's tenebrous mood - or to buttress their entitlement to special treatment and concessions.


Other forms of passive aggression include intransigence (obstinacy) and defiance (extreme reactance).


But do extreme behaviors emanate from our other repressed essence, our habitually inhibited core – or are they alien to our nature (they sure feel like it to the perpetrators of such misdeeds)? Or maybe egregious misconduct just represents the ends of a spectrum of behaviors?


What can we learn by observing people in extreme or traumatic circumstances - for example when they are exceedingly drunk or immediately after a natural disaster or when they have just received horrible news?


Very little, it turns out.


By definition the personality is comprised of traits, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, inhibitions, and behaviors under NORMAL circumstances. One's personality consists of the TYPICAL and the RECURRENT, not the one-off and the aberrant.


There is very little useful to learn from observing people in extreme conditions - so we rarely do.


This is why we ignore experiments in psychology which simulate extremely stressful circumstances. We even castigate them as unethical partly because of the paucity of useful information that they produce.


And this is why there is no official diagnosis of "psychopath" in the DSM: psychopaths have been observed and tested almost exclusively in outlier settings such as prisons or corporate boards. The diagnosis is promoted mainly by self-interested and media savvy psychologists like Hare, Dutton, and Babiak: they sell diagnostic tests, seminars, and consulting time.


Some people tend to react to frustration, uncertainty, and insecurity in three dysfunctional ways:

1. Catastrophising

We imagine the worst and then react to our fictional scenarios, not to reality.

2. Escalation

Our reactions to frustration and bad, dissonant, and ego dystonic emotions are disproportional and extreme.

We launch nuclear weapons where a handgun would have sufficed.

3. Aggression

Anticipating pain or rejection, we lash out to preempt what we perceive to be the inevitable (a misperception of reality brought on by catastrophising). Aggression wears many forms. For example: withdrawal of communication or verbal abuse.


In extreme cases borderlines decompensate and disintegrate and then act out recklessly (go on shopping sprees or engage in promiscuous sex, for examples).


Psychopaths and narcissists rationalize their extreme misconduct in order to reduce dissonance; ameliorate anxiety; bury incipient, dimly felt stirrings of guilt; and legitimize such misbehaviours in the future. Healthy people also rationalize but usually only in order to account for an irrational or ill-conceived decision or choice.

Narcopaths create artificial moral hierarchies or exclude certain activities from the ethical or social calculus. For instance: "Kissing is not as serious as having sex; killing Jews is OK because they are evil; I cheated on my husband but I didn't climax, so it's not as sinful." This is cognitive dissonance resolved via reframing.

Reframing involves a group of defense mechanisms, the most notable of which is rationalization. People with cluster B personality disorders use these defense mechanisms to justify even the most extreme misbehavior or to render it more acceptable and "just". Examples: "I stole the money but I lost it; I fucked my husband's best friend but I did not enjoy it; I had to do it, my wife left me no choice; a blowjob is not as sinful as fucking; I cheated with him only once, I will never see him again, what's the big deal; I was drunk, I didn't know what I was doing".

As opposed to healthy people, rationalization in narcopaths is coupled with alloplastic defenses (blaming others for one's egregious violations) and an external locus of control: It just happened; I was made to do it; the circumstances were unique; I was not myself (on auto-pilot). What narcopaths call "guilt" is not what people experience typically. It is more basic - atavistic and animalistic - and less social. Their "guilt" has to do with the FEAR of getting caught, harming themselves and losing "loved" ones (read: sources of narcissistic supply and services).


"Contrary to popular misconceptions, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (or Reaction) are not typical responses to prolonged abuse. They are the outcomes of sudden exposure to severe or extreme stressors (stressful events). Yet, some victims whose life or body have been directly and unequivocally threatened by an abuser react by developing these syndromes. PTSD is, therefore, typically associated with the aftermath of physical and sexual abuse in both children and adults.

This is why another mental health diagnosis, C-PTSD (Complex PTSD) has been proposed by Dr. Judith Herman of Harvard University to account for the impact of extended periods of trauma and abuse."


Also Read

Narcissists and Mood Disorders

The Intermittent Explosive Narcissist (Narcissistic Injury and Rage)

Narcissists, Disagreements and Criticism

Violent, Vindictive, Sadistic, and Psychopathic Narcissists

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