Anger, Aggression, and the Abusive Personality: A Sense of Entitlement
In this commentary, I explore warning signs of an abusive personality. I first examine some causes of abusive behavior, then I attempt to address a common question I hear in my practice: “Do you think I am an abuser?” With a few clinical examples, I hope to demonstrate how and why an individual turns to aggression and abuse. Finally, I focus on treatment techniques that are particularly helpful when working with individuals who have an abusive personality.
It is important to note that my perspective in this article is grounded on my training as a psychoanalyst. Based on years of education and clinical experience, I employ a psychodynamic orientation to think about and treat these disorders.
What are the signs of an abusive personality?
A few common typical warning signs of an abusive personality include:
- Intense jealousy
- Verbal abuse
- Controlling behavior
What is Causing My Anger?
The causes of anger and rage are multifaceted, and difficulties managing these intense emotions occur for many reasons. One psychodynamic formulation locates the root of such anger in childhood.
Early in life, infants learn how to differentiate inner states by observing and experiencing empathic reactions of their caregiver. Under ideal circumstances the caregiver demonstrates a capacity to respond to the infant’s unnamed feelings. However, if the caregiver does not contain, manage, model, and label intense anger, it remains nebulous and confusing to the child. Anger thus lacks a reference point or symbolization and, therefore, becomes difficult to recognize and regulate.
The challenges of daily life provide many reasons to get aroused, agitated, or angry. Sometimes this starts with a legitimate event (try taking a subway in Manhattan during rush hour!), and other times the source is imagined in one’s head. Either way––real or imagined––when something aggravating happens, arousal goes up. Without the tools to recognize and regulate such arousals, we become vulnerable to their effects, displaying and enacting anger.
Why Do I Get so Angry? A Sense of Entitlement!
Individuals who did not learn to recognize and regulate anger from their caregivers often rely upon others in adulthood to help them emotionally function in life. This can manifest in numerous ways, such as the expectation that basic chores of life (e.g., preparing meals, attending to children) will be handled for them. One astute patient exemplified this when she said that “chores are not just chores. The chore is me.” In other words, she felt entitled to be taken care of, like a chore. In essence, this is a sense of entitlement.
Entitlement can present as being too busy or too overwhelmed to tend to basic adult responsibilities. Being “too busy” is often just a smokescreen. Instead of being a healthy form of communication (i.e., for individuals who are overwhelmed, scattered, overbooked), this phrase serves as an excuse intended to gain total control over the thoughts, feelings, and actions of everyone around them. Such individuals lack an understanding that other people are people like them. They fail to see others as having their own lives, desires, feelings, interests, and needs of their own. Rather, other people primarily exist to tend to the entitled individual’s needs.
For those with abusive personalities, one goal is to preserve, at any cost, that to which they feel entitled. When a need goes unmet, or some pressure is put on them to take care of something on their own (e.g., to make a decision or act like a mutual partner in a relationship) this can spark rage. They believe they have a right to destroy who interferes with their view of the way things should be.
The following is a simple yet common example of this. A patient came in upset because his girlfriend did not text him “good morning” or a colleague did not greet him enthusiastically at work. I explored his conviction that these actions are what a good girlfriend or colleague “should do.” He assumed that he is supposed to be the continuous object of interest, and that he has a right to feel anxious and angry if those around him do not constantly indicate their investment in him. We came to see that he felt as if he were dealt an injury and therefore was entitled to have a fit.
How do I treat those with Abusive Personality?
Treatment of abusive, bullying patients is complicated. Making in-roads with such patients takes time because the factors detailed above are often not consciously accessible. In such cases, the first order of business is to help the individual articulate their thoughts and feelings. For instance, when a patient tells me about a fight in which he called his girlfriend an idiot and a loser, I gradually help him see that his feelings of hurt that she did not, in his mind, tend to a specific need. Great relief comes from the ability to recognize thoughts and emotions and express them more accurately. As the work progresses, I will help these individuals talk about their real feelings (e.g., hurt, abandonment). Their ability to take ownership and control of painful emotions relieves the pressure to have someone else be responsible for those feelings and make them go away. Repetition of this cycle (i.e., perceived insult, anger, attack, discussion, recognition of entitlement) increases these individuals’ capacity to tolerate frustration of a need and, hopefully, resolve underlying aspect of their abusive personality.
The goal of this brief article was to help you better understand the development of the angry and abusive personality. For many, this stems from a compensatory response to deep injuries from the past that are played out in the present. I provided some typical examples of abuse’s causes and their progression to a dysregulated state and I shared a few techniques that I have found to be the most helpful when working with these individuals. In treatment, these patients begin to better tolerate frustration and regulate their own emotions.
If you or someone you know is struggling to manage intense feels of rage or abuse, it may be helpful to speak with a qualified mental health professional. If you have any questions about this commentary or if you would like to set up a consultation, please call my office at 212-591-0152 or fill out the form at this contact page. From there, I can review your case and offer you a treatment plan to meet your needs.