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Types of of Abusive Behaviors: A Proposed Classification

Uploaded 4/1/2012, approx. 5 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Abusive conduct is not a uniform homogenous phenomenon.

Abuse stems and emanates from multiple sources and manifests in myriad ways.

Following are a few useful distinctions which pertain to abuse and could serve as organizing taxonomical principles, dimensional topologies, in a kind of matrix of pain.


First, there is overt versus covert abuse.

Overt abuse is the open and explicit, easily discernible, clear-cut abuse of another person in any way, shape or form, verbal, physical, sexual, financial, legal, psychological, emotional, etc.

Covert abuse revolves around the abuser's need to assert and maintain control over this victim. It can wear many forms, not all of which are self-evident, unequivocal and unambiguous.

Second distinction is between explicit versus stealth or ambient abuse, gaslighting.

It is a very useful distinction between explicit, manifest, obvious, indisputable, easily observable, even by a casual spectator or interlocutor, and stealth or ambient abuse, also known as gaslighting.

And this is the fostering, propagation and enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability and predictability and irritation.

There are no acts of traceable, explicit abuse. There are no manipulative settings of control, but it's there in the air, in the atmosphere, in the environment.

Then we have projective versus directional abuse. Projective abuse is the outcome of the abuser's projection defense mechanism.

Projection is when the abuser attributes to other people feelings and traits, motives and behaviors that he himself possesses but deems unacceptable.

He is disconcerted by these ill-fitting attributes that he finds in himself.

So instead of saying, I am actually like this and that, he attributes it, he projects it to other people.

This way he disowns these discordant features and secures the right to criticize and chastise others for having or displaying them.

Such abuse is often cathartic. We'll talk about it later.

Directional abuse is not the result of projection. It is a set of behaviors aimed at a target, the victim, for the purpose of humiliating, punishing or manipulating her.

Such abusive conduct is functional. It's geared toward securing a favorable and desired outcome.

We have cathartic versus functional abuse.

While the aforementioned pair, directional versus projective abuse, deals with the psychodynamicals of the abuser's misbehavior, the current pair of categories, cathartic versus functional, is concerned with the abuser's consequences.

Some abusers behave the way they do because it alleviates their anxieties. It enhances their inflated, granular self-image, or it purges impurities and imperfections that they perceive either in the victim or in the situation, for instance, in their marriage.

So this kind of abuse is cathartic. It is aimed at making the abuser feel better.

Projective abuse, for instance, is always cathartic.

The other reason to abuse someone is because the abuser wants to motivate his victim to do something, to feel in a certain way, to refrain from committing an act.

And this is functional abuse, in the sense that it helps the abuser to adapt to his environment and operate in it, however it is functional.

Then we have pattern or structured abuse versus stochastic or random abuse.

Some abusers heap abuse all the time on everyone around them, spouse, children, neighbors, friends, bosses, coworkers, authority figures, and underlings.

So their abuse is diffuse. It's mitted out to everyone.

Abusive conduct is the only way they know how to react to a world in which they perceive to be hostile and exploitative.

The behavior of these abusers is hardwired. It's rigid. Ritualistic. It's structured.

Other abusers are less predictive. They are explosive. They are impulsive. They have a problem of managing their anger.

They respond with temper tantrums to narcissistic injuries and real and imaginary slights. They have ideas of reference. They think that everyone is talking about them, mocking them behind their back, ridiculing them.

These abusers appear to strike out of the blue, chaotic and random men, which cannot be attributed to any external trigger.

Then we have monovalent versus polevalent abuse. The monovalent abuser abuses only one party, one person or one group of people, repeatedly, viciously and thoroughly.

Such abusers perpetrate their acts in well-defined locations or frameworks, for instance at work or at home or in the workplace. They take great care to hide their hideous exploits and they present as socially acceptable things or rather facile in public.

Their acts are driven by the need to annihilate the object of their maltreatment or the source of their frustration, pathological injury.

In contrast, the polevalent abuser casts his net wide and far. He does not discriminate in choosing his prey. He is an equal opportunity abuser with multiple victims who often have little in common. He is rarely concerned with appearances. He regards himself above the law. He calls everyone, especially authority figures, in contempt. He is usually antisocial, psychopathic and narcissistic.


There is another distinction in the typology of abuse between characteristic personal style abuse and atypical abuse.

Abuse amounts to the personal style of most patterned or structured abusers.

Demeaning, injurious, humiliating and offensive behavior is their modus operandi, their reflexive reaction to stimuli and their credo.

Stochastic or random abusers act normatively and normally most of the time. Their abusive conduct is an aberration, a deviation perceived by the nearest and dearest to be atypical and even shocking.

Finally, there is normative versus deviant abuse.

We all inflict abuse on other people from time to time. Some abusive reactions are within the social norms and they are not considered to be indicative of a personal pathology or social or cultural anomaly.

In certain circumstances, abuse as a reaction is called for and is deemed actually nothing, socially commendable.

Still, the vast majority of abusive behaviors should be regarded as deviant, pathological, antisocial and perverse, ignoring for a minute the moral aspect.

It is important to distinguish between normative and deviant abuse. The total lack of aggression is unhealthy.

A cultural context is critical in assessing when someone crosses the line and becomes a deviant abuser, when it becomes pathological.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like the following:

Gaslighting and Ambient Abuse

Ambient abuse, also known as gaslighting, is a subtle and insidious form of abuse that is difficult to identify. It is the fostering of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability, and irritation. There are five categories of ambient abuse: inducing disorientation, incapacitating, shared psychosis, abuse or misuse of information, and control by proxy. The abuser uses these tactics to manipulate and control their victim, often leaving them with low self-esteem and a sense of isolation.


Good People Ignore Abuse and Torture: Why?

Good people often overlook abuse and neglect because it is difficult to tell the abuser and victim apart. The word abuse is ill-defined and open to interpretation, leading to a lack of clear definition. People also tend to avoid unpleasant situations and institutions that deal with anomalies, pain, death, and illness. Abuse is a coping strategy employed by the abuser to reassert control over their life and regain self-confidence. Abuse is a catharsis, and even good people channel their negative emotions onto the victim.


Narcissist's Victim: NO CONTACT Rules

Professor Sam Vaknin advises victims of narcissism and psychopathy to maintain as much contact with their abuser as the courts, counselors, evaluators, mediators, guardians, or law enforcement officials mandate. However, with the exception of this minimum mandated by the courts, decline any and all gratuitous contact with the narcissist or psychopath. Avoiding contact with the abuser is a form of setting boundaries, and setting boundaries is a form of healing. Be firm, be resolute, but be polite and civil.


Bullying as Art, Abuse as Craftsmanship

Abuse is about control and is often a primitive and immature reaction to life's circumstances. The abuser's primary colors include unpredictability, disproportionality of reaction, dehumanization, objectification, and abuse by proxy. The abuser engineers situations in which he is solely needed and generates his own indispensability in the victim's life. The abuser fosters an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability, and irritation, which erodes the victim's sense of self-worth and self-esteem.


False Hope of Hot and Cold: Intermittent Reinforcement, Trauma Bonding, Approach-Avoidance

Intermittent reinforcement is a pervasive phenomenon that involves two or more people, and it is not always abusive or dysfunctional. It involves regular signals, messages, and treatment that are cruel, abusive, and disempathic, interspersed with displays of extreme affection. Intermittent reinforcement can be attributed to four types of schedules: fixed interval, variable interval, fixed ratio, and variable ratio. These behaviors wear down the victim and make them more amenable to manipulation, which is the idea behind intermittent reinforcement.


Abuse: Inevitable and Normal?

Abuse is a phenomenon that can be explained by three theories: emergent, hardwired, and as a strategy. The first theory suggests that abuse is learned and acquired behavior that is embedded in social and cultural contexts. The second theory suggests that abuse is a universal phenomenon that is hereditary and associated with mental illness. The third theory suggests that abuse is an adaptive and functional behavior that is used to control and manipulate victims. Understanding the roots of abuse can help society cope with its perpetrators.


Body Language of Narcissistic and Psychopathic Abuser

Abusers emit subtle signals in their body language that can be observed and discerned. They adopt a posture of superiority and entitlement, and they idealize or devalue their interlocutors. Abusers are shallow and prefer show-off to substance, and they are serious about themselves. They lack empathy, are sadistic, and have inappropriate affect. They are adept at casting a veil of secrecy over their dysfunction and misbehavior, and they succeed in deceiving the entire world.


Deja-vu: Fight Back Gaslighting, Messing with YOUR Mind

Gaslighting is a manipulative form of communication where a power differential exists, often involving invalidation of emotions, twisting reality, and coercion. It can lead to lower self-worth, feelings of insecurity, depression, and anxiety. To combat gaslighting, it is important to recognize the situation, document events and feelings, assert oneself, seek support from others, and consult a professional if necessary. Gaslighting is a dangerous form of emotional abuse that can have long-lasting effects on mental health.


The Abuser's Mind

Abusers suffer from dissociation, a mild form of multiple personality, and often have a dichotomy between their behavior at home and in public. They view their victims as two-dimensional representations, devoid of emotions and needs, and convert them into their own worldview. Abusers are often narcissists with low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence, and abuse is bred by fear of being mocked or betrayed. There are various forms of manipulation that constitute verbal and emotional abuse, including withholding, countering, discounting, blocking, blaming, and accusing.


Bullies: Intermittent Reinforcement and Sex Withholding

Intermittent reinforcement is a tool used by bullies, which is rarely conscious and often unintentional. Most bullies are not self-aware and deny that they are bullies, instead claiming to be victims. Withholding sex is a strategy used by bullies, who often make excuses for their behaviour and refuse to acknowledge the problem. The bully rejects their partner, humiliates them, and isolates them to render them incapable of finding an alternative.

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