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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

September 1999, No. 1, Sect. II

Due to the length of the main article, it is enclosed in Section II. The readers section follows. And in keeping with my Section I spiritual travels an apt selection.

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" sacrifice.

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…and the 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 murderous rage…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 thinner…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 is?")

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 must pay!

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 violence-prone personality.

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 virtue.

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!

THREE WISE WOMEN From: CeeJClarke@aol.com

You do know what would have happened if it had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise men, don't you? They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.

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 Site" website - www.stressdoc.com  and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc

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