Many people have been emotionally or financially hurt at sometime in their lives: people sometimes do not reciprocate feelings, fail to appreciate another’s worth, fall out of love, betray, leave, retrench or disappoint another. These are all part of the pain of being human, and do not necessarily reflect people with difficult personalities. But some people have personality types with toxic behavior patterns that frequently damage others or cause intense pain, and as they journey through life leave in their wakes more than one hurt, financially devastated or troubled person. They include everyday sociopaths, bullies, and people with passive aggressive personalities. People with these personalities usually find it difficult to change their behaviour towards others because they simply don’t want to; they get what they want, but at the expense of other people, according counselling psychologist, university lecturer and co-author with Hazel Edwads of Difficult Personalities (Choice), Dr Helen McGrath.
According to Dr McGrath, many people with toxic personalities can be difficult to recognise; they can present as charming, caring individuals whose only concern is for others, when in fact they have a total lack of conscience about their behaviour or actions or how it impacts on those around them.
The passive aggressive personality
Robyn* describes her 10-year relationship with Steve* as “living with Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde.” At times Steve was aggressive and nasty towards Robyn, telling her she was exclusively responsible for any family problems. “If the children were sick, it was my fault; if the car broke down, it was my fault,” recalls Robyn, who has now been divorced from Steve for two years. Steve resented Robyn’s success in her job, and would sulk whenever she worked on a big project. “Steve would launch into a litany of my faults as a wife and mother, and blame me for abandoning the family to go to work. It was a no win situation – we needed the money, but if I didn’t work, he would berate me for being lazy.”
Robyn undertook most domestic and parenting responsibilities as Steve procrastinated on almost every job – from paying bills to collecting the children from child care. “When I tried to speak to Steve about these issues, he would become silent or stalk out of the house. It became easier to do things myself.” On the other hand, Steve could be charming. “We’d spend romantic weekends in the country, where John would be affectionate and loving. He’d convince me that our life could be perfect – if only I stopped `over-reacting’ about his behaviour. “In front of others Steve was a doting husband and father constantly nagged by his wife. He would snigger at comments I made, making me look stupid in front of others, and later tell me I was imagining things. At times I thought I was going mad.”
At work Steve rarely did his share of the workload or follow cooperative plans, much to the frustration of his co-workers. He made excuses as to why work wasn’t completed on time, and regularly blamed others for his tardiness. He made jokes about his boss to workmates, and loathed colleagues who moved onto better positions.
Dr McGrath: “People with a passive aggressive behaviour pattern like Steve often lack assertiveness skills and instead find satisfaction in controlling another person’s life. “Passive aggressive’s can be eaten up by jealousy and resentment, and have so little belief in their own ability they feel incapable of trying to compete with another person. So instead they attempt to bring that person down. “They are essentially cowards who are not prepared to outright attack someone like Robyn, but will undermine them at every opportunity. They can’t handle retaliation, and will often give the silent treatment to anyone who questions their behaviour. “At work they can harbour a deep anger towards colleagues they perceive threaten them in some way. In their need to control others they can frustrate, undermine or sabotage their workmates: some spread rumours, deliberately procrastinate, or stubbornly refuse to negotiate. “Often people like Steve invent plausible excuses for their behaviour, and workmates can end up feeling paranoid and stupid if they complain. As game players, they can waste an enormous amount of productive time and emotional energy at work.”
– In a romantic relationship, ask a partner showing passive aggressive behaviour to attend counselling with you. In the workplace, seek advice from a supportive colleague or superior. Through counselling, a passive aggressive person may eventually acknowledge that they could lose a relationship or job unless they change their behaviour.
– Refuse to be caught up in the game. Use rational self-talk such as “I won’t get upset over another instance of non-cooperation or sabotage. Either I will let it go or I will be assertive. But I won’t just fume.
– Where possible, don’t work with them. Consider a transfer. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to collaborate with them or where they can undermine you.
– In either a romantic of job situation, try and keep your cool. If you become upset or aggressive you’re just playing into their hands. They will be enormously satisfied if they can produce out-of-control behaviour in you.
The sociopathic personality
The sociopath at work: By the time Roger* was in his late 40’s he was married with two teenage children, a successful lawyer, and partner in his law firm. He was financially secure, lived in an up-market suburb, and was a well-respected member of the community. But Roger lived a double life; he was using client’s trust funds for his own use, involved in unethical money-making scams, and having sex with a young employee and several clients. Roger travelled regularly, and was often out of contact with his office and family for several days. He’d always have an excuse such as fatigue or unreliable plane timetables, and would be furious if anyone questioned his disappearances, insisting they were paranoid. The truth was a girlfriend usually accompanied Roger business trips, and they would spend several days at expensive hotels.
Roger was repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, who usually believed his sincere claims that he would never look at another woman. But if his wife became suspicious, the charm would disappear and Roger would insist she was going mad. Roger’s mistresses were convinced they were the only woman he loved, and that he would soon leave his wife to make a new life with them. Mostly indifferent towards his children, Roger criticised them for their behaviour or dress, or make them feel guilty by complaining about the cost of their school fees.
Dr Mc Grath: “People like Roger like to portray themselves as charming and caring, but it’s all an act. The lives of sociopaths like Roger are an interchangeable mask: they can be cold and ruthless, with no qualms about ethical rules or boundaries in their quest to get what they want. “Sociopaths act on their impulses without regard for the devastating consequences their actions bring to others. But they can appear to be perfectly normal – even the most severe sociopaths may have areas of their lives where they behave in a kind and generous way. This contradiction often confuses and causes enormous distress to their victims. “People like Roger can be described as `successful’ sociopaths, while `unsuccessful sociopaths’ have very few skills or attitudes that allow them to become successful in society on their own merit or hard work.
“`Unsuccessful sociopaths’ can be either irresponsible lawbreakers or sadistic and violent. They are usually social losers who may destroy property, harass others, use aliases, disappear owing money, or suddenly leave a partner or children without support. “But while `successful’ sociopaths like Roger are not `social losers,’ and usually don’t have a pattern of assault or obvious crimes, they love the thrill of deceit and rewards that come through dishonesty, and can be excellent liars. “Unfortunately for their victims, very few who come into contact with sociopaths have the whole picture, so the pattern of their behaviour often isn’t obvious for a long time.”
Dealing with a sociopath
– Check if you suspect. If you begin to identify a possible pattern of sociopathic behaviour, check out as many facts as you can. It may take a while for the pattern to emerge, as sociopaths are masters of deceit.
– Consider leaving. While most people do not stay with a lover, co-worker, friend or boss with sociopathic behaviour, human beings are full of hope and it may take some time – and a lot of misery – to reach this conclusion.
– A sociopath in the workplace may cost a company money, legal action or loss of staff due to their actions. Small businesses who may take people “on trust” can be caught by skilful sociopaths and face financial ruin. Be diligent about checking previous qualifications and employment.
– Don’t cover for a colleague, boss or partner whom you believe is behaving in unprincipled ways.
– Develop a healthy mistrust if a potential partner seems charming and almost too good to be true. They may be genuine, but check their stories.
The bully at work: Melinda*, a well-dressed woman in her 40’s, worked as a manager for a large company. She was on excellent terms with her superiors and friendly towards the majority of her co-workers. But when Tina*, a bright, attractive woman in her late 20’s, began working in the office, the darker side of Melinda’s nature appeared. Within days of Tina’s employment, Melinda began to monitor Tina’s every move, and kept detailed records of her coming and going’s from the office – even timing her toilet breaks. Melinda was highly critical of Tina’s work, and would set her up to fail by not giving her the information she needed to complete a task. At meetings and in the lunch room, Melinda would snort in derision, roll her eyes, or smirk at colleagues when Tina put forward her ideas. As the months went by, Melinda spread untrue rumours about Tina’s sexual orientation, and made unflattering remarks about everything from her hairstyle to the clothes she wore. Urged by concerned friends, Tina eventually approached senior management about Melinda’s bullying, only to be told that Melinda was a valued, long-time employee, and that the problem was obviously a clash of personalities. Humiliated and depressed, Tina left her job.
The bully at home: Because Melinda’s household ran better if she got her own way, her husband and children learnt to accept that she ran the show. Although Melinda spread unkind rumours about an attractive, successful sister-in-law, she was charming while she did it, giving relatives the impression she was an innocent bystander to family matters. A controlling mother who dominated her husband, Melinda was kind to her children’s partners – as long as they accepted her dominance. She wrecked havoc in her children’s relationships if her position was challenged.
Dr McGrath: “Bullies like Melinda cold-bloodedly attempt to undo another person as part of their plan to retain popularity and power. “Bullies are usually have an arrogant, inflated view of themselves, so can be threatened by anyone who is likeable, well qualified or attractive. They are prepared to intimidate, humiliate or emotionally destroy another person in order to get what they want. “Some bullies don’t look like they need to intimidate another person – like Melinda, they can be well presented and charming. But the more toxic bullies are, the more difficult they are to pick. – they’re very good at covering their trails. “Other bullies target people who are less articulate, of a different religion, lack social skills, are overweight, or show signs of anxiety. “If a target takes their problem to senior management, they can be fobbed off as over-reacting – people like Melinda work hard at endearing themselves with their superiors. “Surveys show that bullying is becoming a major cause of workplace stress, and is widely recognised as an important health issue. A company where bullying is rife is characterised by high staff turnover, excessive sick leave or stress-related compensation leave.”
Dealing with a bully:
– Have the courage to report bullying to management or authorities.
– Tell someone. Keeping quiet about bullying can be harmful to your mental health.
– Change your usual response to the bullying. For example, with a smile say “Thank you for telling me,” and walk away.
– In any contact with the bully, sound and act confidently, not in a frightened manner.
– In a group, ignore what they say and talk to the person nearby.
– Helplessness fuels bullies. So ask them to stop. Say “I want you to know that I find your behaviour unpleasant and childish. I don’t know why you need to do it and I don’t care, but if it continues I will report it.”
The rigid personality
Rigid controllers never budge on their decisions, are self-righteous, rarely prepared to see another person’s point of view, and have an undue preoccupation with detail. People with this behaviour pattern can be difficult to work and live with because they make cooperation difficult and leave others feeling devalued and powerless because of their inflexibility. They often have an inability to express warmth and tender emotions. People with a rigid personality need to work hard to see other people’s perspectives, according to Dr McGrath. They can be helped with counselling, but only if they realise they have a problem.
The anxious personality
People with an anxious personality stress out at the drop of a hat. They tend to magnify anything remotely threatening, be perfectionists and stress others and themselves by their unrealistic standards, be rigidly controlled by routine; procrastinate about decisions in case they make a mistake; and be over-controlling as they try to make sure nothing goes wrong. Those with an anxious personality can be helped with medication, naturopathic remedies, relaxation strategies and counselling, according to Dr McGrath.
The demanding personality
People with demanding personalities are terrified they will be abandoned. They see potential abandonment everywhere, and can become manipulative and demanding to others to ensure they are not left alone and that their needs are met. Their controlling, needy behaviour often ends up driving away the very people they wanted to keep. People with this personality pattern should seek help through counselling to help them change their interpretations of separation as rejection, says Dr McGrath. They can learn to rid themselves of irrational feelings of abandonment and develop greater self-esteem.