Building on the examination of organizational dynamics that foster workplace violence
in Part I, the second segment concentrates on a select composite of a violence-prone
personality. The Stress Doc highlights key potentially destructive characteristics -- from
rigid control and ego-driven goals to grandiosity, sensitivity and a cultural propensity.
Read with care!
"Going Postal" and Beyond: Part II
A Profile of the Violence-Prone Personality
Drawing on experience as a stress and violence prevention consultant with the US Postal
Service and other organizations, Part I of "'Going Postal' and Beyond" examined
system dynamics -- policies, procedures and personalities -- that contribute to a violent
workplace. Now let's examine a composite profile of a potentially explosive and
violence-prone personality. My characterization is somewhat elastic. It covers individuals
found at all levels of the organization or workplace -- from execs to front line
employees. It's not restrictive by race or class, though I'm more experienced with the
menacing or intimidating behavior of males in the 30s to 50s age range. Perhaps a
percentage of this group is particularly activated by or reactive to power and authority
issues. Such a subset often includes individuals with power and control and men lacking
the same. The former may abuse their authority status; the latter may resent, feel
jealous, helpless and/or enraged by this disparity in power. They may be self-conscious of
a subordinate status.
Seven Highly Destructive Characteristics
So here is the Stress Doc's "Seven Highly Destructive Habits and Characteristics
of the Violence-Prone Personality." Upon reflection, many of these traits are
associated with the Type A Personality, in extremis -- a driven, impatient, judgmental,
suspicious and hypersensitive individual with a "me against the hostile world"
attitude. However, as will become evident, under enough stress, provocation, drug abuse or
peer group inhibition a variety of personalities may be prone.
1. The Paradox of Control. The violence-prone individual is often preoccupied by
control issues. (For sake of economy, when writing I will use the male gender.) He has a
strong need to control, if not dominate, his environment, especially the people with whom
he feels responsible or for whom his sense of esteem and authority are dependent. He also
needs to be in control because he is a smoldering, if not actively seething, emotional
cauldron. Not being comfortable with his emotions, this rigidly strong silent type may be
rather fearful of erupting. Of course, his emotions are invariably tied to other people's
expressions, behaviors and interactions, especially his view of how these others judge
him. So to protect himself he must restrict the range of another's actions and
communications that push him beyond his circumscribed emotional comfort zone. Maybe the
phrase strong silent type should be translated as follows: "For me to be strong you
must be silent!"
Not surprisingly, I refer to this individual as the HE MAN. Under this tough, demanding
bravado are two basic dynamics: "H" stands for "Humiliation" and
"E" for "Emptiness," emotions forever on the verge of being triggered.
The HE MAN can also morph into a SHE MAN. Here the "S" stands for
"Savior." And humiliation and emptiness too drive this individual, though
disguised as the rescuer/controller of other's lives. The SHE MAN becomes outraged when
others in his mind are disloyal or they don't appreciate all his "unselfish"
We've reached the contradictory edge. For a person who tries hard to be in control, and
who needs to inordinately control others (for his own emotional equilibrium,
aggrandizement and survival) this individual often has poor impulse control. As soon as he
feels attacked, which is often and early with his low shame and mistrust threshold, he
will lash hostile darts and daggers, spew venom, make intimidating nonverbal gestures,
become physical explosive or obsessiviely vindictive. (Think Unabomber.)
And of course he's justified. The individual, so out of touch with his own emotional
cauldron and so impulsive, rarely takes time to reflect upon the old abuse and past
humiliations that are coloring his present perceptions and actions. His hyperreaction
reveals little capacity for judgment or proportion. When chronically smoldering, even a
trivial offense may yield volcanic effects. Life has a fundamental, all or none quality.
Ironically, the more in-control, the tighter the emotional spring is wound
shorter the latency for flying apart. And stress only exaggerates both sides of this
in-and-out of control contradiction.
2. Rigid and Righteous Standards. Related to both sides of the control issue is the
presence of rigid and condescendingly judgmental expectations. When you are rigid and
righteous, people will always fall short, step over the line, be out of bounds, with us or
against us. And if against us, you are a heathen or an agent of Satan. As one emailer
"screamed" at me: "How can you sleep at night supporting the use of Prozac?
You are killing people!" Clearly, no tolerance here for two sides of an issue, for
shades of gray: that antidepressants may be both lifesaving for millions, and misused or
abused, by too many.
And with a "holier than thou" barely contained rage, her computer becomes the
medium for a "primal screen" and attack. Hopefully, venting will reduce this
but don't count on it.
R & R standards actually insure the blindness of rage. When you know what's true
and therefore others are either ignorant or immoral then, surely, one doesn't have to do
much genuine or complex self-reflection. For example, a Type A manager in the State
Department challenged me on an organizational retreat: "What do you call it if you
don't have any stress?" My immediate response to Mr. Bluster: "Denial!"
Alas, while sometimes accurate in observing shortcomings in others (though the method
of confrontation is aggressively noxious) these folks are often blind to their own
self-defeating or destructive manner. Or worse, this invasive style comes so easily, they
embrace it as natural and justified. To illustrate this righteousness, let me provide
anecdotal evidence. Periodically, I participate at workplace health fairs and give away
copies of articles. One article title predictably gets a reaction: "Are You a
Blameaholic?" I'm always a tad suspicious of the folks who, "with a gleam and a
sneer," are so quick to pick up on my suggestion that they surreptitiously leave the
article on someone's desk. Conversely, I'm most sanguine about those individuals who in
response to my query, "Do you know any blameaholics?" acknowledge a propensity
while laughing at themselves. A capacity for self-effacing humor, revealing genuine
awareness and self-acceptance is the counterpoint to rigidity and self-righteousness. And
it's a foundation for understanding and empathy, for negotiation and collaboration over
vilification and intimidation.
3. Unrealistic Goals and Time Frames. A strong contributing factor to life on the
smoldering and explosive edges is the pursuit of elusive goals. In addition to being hard
to define, let alone achieve, the person's ego is wrapped up in this intensely mercurial
pursuit. (There frequently is a fine line between creative passion and destructive
aggression.) And if the goal is not so unreasonable, the number of tasks and objectives
that must be juggled is. A favorite Stress Doc witticism may have more relevance than
originally realized in the context of workplace violence: "Can there be life after
deadlines?" When one keeps stretching oneself thinner and thinner and
someone's going to snap or crack.
Again, the need to compulsively pursue the ephemeral or unobtainable -- to be
egoal-driven -- is often related to underlying feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness.
Also, there's the irrational belief that when one finally achieves the fantasy or reaches
the summit, all those naysayers and antagonists, those demon voices past and present will
be slain and silenced once and for all. (Of course, beyond some transient peacock
posturing, after reaching some summit the likely gut reaction: "Is this all there
Also, when juggling an elusive goal or near unmanageable objectives time is ever on the
verge of running out. Look for impatience with self; even more, impatience with others.
The inefficiency or disorganization of others threatens his tightly scheduled to the
minute life. Naturally, if he's thrown off course regarding goals and time frames, whether
the fault of human failing, unavoidable forces or happenstance then it's not his fault.
He's not responsible
because he's both special and embattled. Though someone else
4. Grandiose Entitlement and Defiance. The violence-prone individual may well feel he
is entitled to break the rules and is immune from adverse consequences. This grandiose
perspective comes from a variety of sources, including: a) parental neglect or
overindulgence -- lack of discipline, a pattern of inconsistent behavioral consequences
which encourages immature behavior; inappropriate or deficient limits and poor modeling
regarding psychological and interpersonal boundaries and b) years of parental intimidation
-- physical or verbal-emotional abuse such that rage and humiliation becomes an ever
bubbling pool of lava-like pain. Sometimes this pain is mostly blocked from consciousness
in post-traumatic stress disorder fashion. However, enough added pressure and implosion or
eruption is fairly predictable.
Both because of feeling uniquely gifted (though often the sense of entitlement rivals
the actual talent) and/or deserving special consideration for past hurts and humiliations
this person believes societal norms don't apply. Whether victorious or a victim, defiance
of authority, rules, laws, social customs, etc., is neatly rationalized. I can think of
one adult client, an ex-New Yorker, who had frequently used aggressively inappropriate
humor, especially when feeling anxious, misunderstood or ignored. He fought my
confrontational feedback. His humor was creative, clever
part of his essence. Why
should he have to stifle himself? What's wrong with those plebeians for not getting his
wit and wonderful repartee? So setting some limits on his expression evoked conscious and
unconscious feelings of loss of control and loss of his perceived sense of self. It
actually was stirring some long-standing feelings of being inadequate or inferior.
Clearly, this inflated and ever endangered sense of self (along with a deep core of
emptiness) has roots in feelings of abandonment, humiliation and a smoldering rage. The HE
MAN often has a narcissistic nature, actually grappling with self-loathing more than
exaggerated self-love. And a volatile and fragile self-esteem makes one an easy prey to
the "R"-word: REJECTION!
5. Sensitivity to Loss and Rejection. Early trauma or loss, from physical injury to
family breakup through divorce or the death of a parent or caregiver is the most
disruptive of dynamics for the infant or young child. Emotional issues such as
hypersensitivity to abandonment, depression and feelings of unworthiness abound. Whether
it's a child symbiotically attached to a depressed surviving spouse or a child believing
his parent left because he was bad or a burden, the psychological context for deep-seated
emotional vulnerability is established. There's often a diminished sense of control or
predictability regarding one's vital resources. Others aren't trustworthy, you can't count
on people. Because I'm helpless and wounded they can prey upon me. They are out to get me.
I better strike first. Clearly, here's a thinking and feeling sequence of a potentially
Some individuals (mostly unconsciously) provoke the interpersonal scenario that results
in abandonment or rejection. Why? Sometimes they do this to test the love or loyalty of
the other. But other times they provoke this rejection to affirm that they are the object
of another's malevolent intentions. Uncertainty or separation anxiety is the most
intolerable state. Better to reaffirm their endangered status, along with their
entitlement of special protection. Then again, insult and injury, no matter if
self-generated, justifies their hostile to rageful strikes and counterstrikes. And, of
course, if they are the target of evil then they must be the embodiment of right and
6. Intimidation through Rage and Ridicule. While some individuals uncharacteristically
or surprisingly resort to violence under prolonged duress and provocation, others employ
intimidation as their a modus operandi. Being offensive is the best defense. Putting
others down props up a shaky ego. Intimidation may be used not only when feeling abandoned
or devalued, but also when others are getting too close. Actually, this interpersonal
dynamic, that is, a threatening degree of intimacy, brings the aggressor too close to
painful hurts, shame and truths. He feels trapped or smothered. He must project or
displace this angry angst to preserve his shaky boundary and self-control.
By way of illustration, let me sketch an explosive verbal battle in the kitchen between
me and my father, a highly reactive, aggressive guy. I can't tell you how long ago this
occurred; ten to fifteen years I suspect. While trying to discuss some of the sources of
my childhood anxiety, he felt attacked and began yelling, "You're not going to make
me feel guilty." To shorten this battle (someday I'll examine the blow by blow),
after letting him vent we retreated to respective bedrooms. Then, as if a bell had
sounded, we emerged from neutral corners, encountering one another in the kitchen again.
This time when he lashed out I could not contain myself. I yelled back, "Do you
realize how scared I was as a kid? How much crap I went through?" Apparently, my
aggressive energy and forward movement caught him off guard. My father backed into a
counter corner and suddenly broke down and began crying. This from a man whose open
expression of emotions usually ran the gamut from "a to a": agitation to anger.
(Except in times of crisis; then he could be Mr. Cool, bless his heart.)
Now I approached him, took my old man in my arms and encouraged him to cry: "Just
let it out." After many sobs and a long, and long-needed father-son embrace, he
haltingly spoke of the pressures he had to endure when I was young: a breakdown, fighting
off depression, supporting a family with one, then two kids, not knowing if he could
survive financially or emotionally. Not only was he able to resurrect the fear but, what
finally was verbalized if not precisely articulated, was the shame around his illness and
the guilt for not being more available as a father. His initial defensive rage along with
the projection -- "I wasn't going to make him feel guilty" -- was, in fact, an
attempt to obliterate me. He wanted to stop me from opening up his Pandora Box, with its
shame and humiliation. Fortunately, we persevered and truly discovered that our rage for
each other was not murderous and that our love was durable and enduring.
Other character dynamics come to mind when reflecting on violent personality types.
First, there's the highly verbal individual, who feels superior and taunts those beneath
him. Another dynamic is constant interruption, reflecting both self-centeredness and lack
of self-other boundaries. With a person less verbal in expressing anger, one encounters
demeaning and threatening communication in a variety of nonverbal modes: glaring stares,
clenched teeth, sneers and snarls along with sharply or wildly dismissive hand and arm
gesturing. (I must say, I do like the one where a person in response to a hostile attack
throws someone a pinkie. When the antagonist acts puzzled or says, "What the hell is
that?," the perfect reply: "You don't even rate the real thing!" Okay, so
this may not be the best way to de-escalate a hazardous encounter. But it sure feels fun
typing it out. ;-)
Nonverbal aggressive dynamics and danger signs include crowding into another's space
and not respecting physical or emotional boundaries. A person with sharp, aggressive mood
swings, whether having a bipolar condition or not, especially under chronic stress, may
succumb to destructive patterns. And finally, a person with smoldering rage so
disassociated from his real feelings, with no genuine sense of self, having little access
to feelings for self or empathy for others may be a candidate for sociopathic violence. A
history of animal torture or fire setting, for example, is often a warning sign.
The danger with intimidation and reflexive aggression is that it can become addictive.
What may have started as a self-protective reaction, especially if "rewarded" --
others kowtow or avoid confronting this disturbed individual -- can too easily become a
habitual pattern or character disorder. When rage festers, figurative and literal
backstabbing becomes all too possible.
7. Aggressive/Addictive Culture. Clearly, the violence-prone personality is not just a
product of chromosomes or a psychiatric diagnosis but of a life cycle and cultural
context. We know alcohol and many illegal drugs break down our social restraints and
facilitate more combative communication and behavior. And too often substance abuse only
feeds the shame monster within, further encouraging humiliation-based defensiveness and
reactivity. Even drugs like marijuana, which sometimes help people chill out, can have a
debilitating effect. Too often regular pot use deprives the individual the opportunity for
directly experiencing and expressing his feelings. Emotional muscles invariably atrophy
and, in the long run, enhance the likelihood of extremes in coping -- passivity and
helplessness or rage and explosiveness. (Of course, I'm precluding the use of marijuana
under medical supervision.)
Another volatile dynamic found in the workplace often has its roots in adolescent
rituals: group hazing and harassment. Part I provided two brief examples. The first
involved a couple of postal employees aggressively bantering, if not harassing, colleagues
they perceived as slackers. While some might say this is not a bad strategy, consider the
outcome: one of the aggressors had to be removed from the Postal Service after he made
threats to his psychiatrist to kill the slackers. The second example provided a West Side
Story like script, Jets vs. Sharks, tension along racial lines, escalating from taunting
to scratching and defacing cars in the parking lot. An aggressive group identity often
enhances a sense of "us vs. them." Also, similar to the effects of alcohol,
dysfunctional groups may reduce individual responsibility and encourage a mob mentality.
And, on the subject of group dynamics and colleague harassment, there's a contemporary
and inverse lesson - Columbine! People who are constantly bullied and tormented may
finally reach the state of the news commentator in the farsighted movie classic, Network:
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore."
Then there's the pernicious dynamic of authority figures emotionally and verbally
abusing or physically intimidating other employees or supervisors. This is definitely
planting seeds of violence. And you reap what you sow. This scenario, especially for a
vulnerable individual who grew up the target of emotional or physical abuse, or saw a
father consistently degrade a mother or sibling, can easily trigger latent rage. I recall
an old client spewing in my office. Hutch had been reassigned to trouble shoot in another
department that was having productivity problems. Compared to my client, the manager of
this department was less competent. This manager also had an alcohol problem (that was not
being confronted by upper management). Hutch was furious because any suggestions for
improvement were discarded, ignored, devalued. It was clear that Hutch was not considering
the source of the message and was taking this impaired manager's criticism too much to
heart. What emerged in our sessions were the sources for much of Hutch's volatile
reaction: a) his parents had a contentious relationship and Hutch's mother had a way of
putting down his father that drove Hutch "nuts" and b) Hutch's dad had a
drinking problem. Bingo. This impaired manager, with his hostile-defensive put downs and
drinking problem, was hitting two of Hutch's most powerful hot buttons.
Whether for the bully or the bullied, violent role models abound. Which, of course,
brings us to the role of the media, including the Internet. I have little doubt that hours
of television, movies or computer games awash in violent imagery and action doesn't just
adversely influence the capacity for frustration and impulse tolerance. It also disturbs
judgment about reality and consequences of actions. People don't usually bounce up when
shot as the figures do in video games. And kids are not the only ones affected.
And finally, a culture awash in handguns, with insufficient opportunity and time for
background checks is, frankly, inviting self-destructive madness.
In conclusion, a composite profile of the violence-prone personality has been posited,
with such potentially destructive characteristics as: 1) The Paradox of Control, 2) Rigid
and Righteous Standards, 3) Unrealistic Goals and Time Frames, 4) Grandiose Entitlement
and Defiance, 5) Sensitivity to Loss and Rejection 6) Intimidation through Rage and
Ridicule, and 7) Aggressive-Addictive Culture.
Part I outlined workplace dynamics that predispose violence. Part II has presented a
violence-prone personality profile. One task remains: what companies and organizations can
do to reduce the workplace violence risk. And this will be the objective of "'Going
Postal' and Beyond: Part III." Until then, of course
Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized
speaker, trainer, consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's
"Online Psychohumorist" . Check out his USA Today Online "Hot
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