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Dangerous Personalities

Recognizing and responding to people who make us feel uncomfortable.

We all deal with people who make us uncomfortable, perhaps exhaust us, even scare us. The just published book, Dangerous Personalities, based on two decades of talking to and studying victims and perpetrators, alerts us to four categories of such people and how to respond.

Its author knows from whence he speaks. Joe Navarro spent 25 years as an FBI agent and supervisor, specializing in behavioral assessment He is one of the founding members of the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Program and now consults and lectures on human behavior. Dangerous Personalities is Navarro’s sixth book, preceded by, for example, the classic book on reading body language, What Every Body is Saying.

In today's The Eminents interview, I spoke with Joe Navarro.

Marty Nemko: Your book identifies four types of dangerous personalities and includes a 100+ item checklist for identifying each. For each of those four personality types, are there a few that are most central?

Joe Navarro: Yes but before I list them, I want to stress that they shouldn’t be used to label people. The proper use of the checklist is this: The more of these behaviors you observe, the more attention you should pay. Do recognize that the more serious or prevalent these behaviors are, the more likely the person is to victimize you physically, emotionally, mentally, or financially.

Warning Signs of the Narcissistic Personality

  • Expects to be treated as special and to be given priority.
  • In words and actions, overvalues himself or herself and devalues others.
  • Doesn’t care about you unless you can help him or her.
  • Is a poor listener unless s/he stands to gain.
  • Needs to control others and demands loyalty.
  • Rarely appears guilty nor apologizes for wrongdoings.
  • Seeks advantage rather than justice.

Emotionally Unstable Personality

  • Needs to be the center of attention in relationships, needs excessive caring and reassurance, and dreads abandonment to the point of making threats or acting out physically.
  • Regularly plays “victim” or “princess” to get special attention.
  • Relationships are a roller coaster of highs and lows, and you often can’t relax around this person. Indeed you often feel drained and/or frustrated.
  • Is angry disproportionate to the circumstances.
  • Arguments that should last a few minutes may go on for hours.
  • To deal with this person, you have to check if s/he’s in an acceptable mood.
  • Often fluctuates between expressing love and hate for the same person.

Paranoid Personality

  • Is unduly suspicious of people, neighbors, even news events, believing others seek to hurt or exploit him.
  • Is highly moralistic and judgmental.
  • Tries to strictly control family members.
  • Is very guarded, secretive, and scheming, and thinks others are that way.
  • Is a “wound collector,” vigilant to slights. Holds grudges for a long time.
  • Claims that failings at work, life, or in relationships have been others’ fault, an effort to keep her down.

The Predator

  • Takes advantage of people, for example, parasitically uses others to provide housing, food, money, or sex. May fail to pay debts.
  • Has talked about having a mean or evil side.
  • Without concern, puts others at financial, physical, or criminal risk.
  • While often callous and cold, can be charming and seductive.
  • Routinely lies to get what s/he wants. Even enjoys lying.
  • Routinely skirts rules and laws even if that hurts someone.
  • Is arrogant, may think s/he is a “legend in his own mind.”

MN: Are such people easily identifiable?

JN: Not necessarily.Sometimes, their toxic behavior can be subtle and grow so slowly you don’t become concerned until it’s too late. Talk with survivors of Jonestown and you’ll see how people can come to accept even very extreme behavior as normal.

Remember too, that often, we may piece together a person’s behaviors as a dangerous personality only when considering a long period of time. For example, you may not have remembered the put-downs, slights, lies, or petty thefts, but now as things have gotten worse, it all comes together to paint a clearer picture.

MN: How should you interact with each of the four types?

JN: First, some general advice. If these behaviors are making you uncomfortable, yes, it’s possible it’s you, but it’s more likely them. Don’t prematurely dismiss your feelings. Those behaviors on the checklist violate the boundaries of normal behavior and if they occur too frequently or intensely, beware.

Perhaps check out your perceptions with others. Not only will that help confirm that you have reason for concern, it can provide you with support if that person is—at least for now--unavoidably part of your life: boss, spouse, or other family member.

Specific to the four personality types:

Narcissist: Early on, let the person know you won’t tolerate being disrespected. Keep a log or email yourself to a private account every time s/he abuses or degrades you.

Emotionally Unstable: Don’t buy into the person’s emotional drama, in which they try to blame you. If s/he drains your patience, energy, and understanding, set hard boundaries. Otherwise you’ll likely pay a high price.

Paranoid: They will try to get you to buy into their rigid, unrealistic ideation, which often ignores facts. Try to avoid engaging with them as there is no persuading such people. And of course, if their proposed solution is violence, at minimum, distance yourself, and if you’re concerned enough, contact the police.

Predator: Don’t let down your guard when it comes to, for example, your safety or your finances. They will try to control you or that which you value. Distance or avoidance are your best recourses.

MN: If you can’t distance yourself, what might you do?

JN: I’ve often wondered if Nicole Brown Simpson had gone to the police with checklist in hand and said, “My ex-husband has done these things to me,” whether the problem could have been addressed before it was too late.

MN: If a person wants to see a therapist or counselor about it, what might s/he do?

JN: S/he might show the relevant checklist items to jumpstart an exploration of what is really going on, and whether and how it could be fixed. That also can help you assess your options and the extent to which you’re in danger.

MN: Any self-help strategies?

JN: Well, my book contains a 14-page bibliography that may help those who have or are affected by a dangerous personality.

MN: In your personal life, have you had to deal with someone with a dangerous personality?

JN: Yes, all of them, both on a personal level and professionally. These individuals can be draining, taxing, exasperating, and take advantage of us financially as well as emotionally.

MN: What did you do and how did it work out?

JN: When I was younger, I almost always gave these four personality types too much leeway. In some cases I thought I could fix them or prevail over them logically while at other times I was too generous with my time and money. I've since learned to quickly spot these people before they can do much harm. Most importantly I learned that no one has a social obligation to be victimized--ever.

MN: What's next for Joe Navarro?

JN: Lecture, read, write, spend more time with my wife; repeat. When I retired from the FBI, this was the book I wanted to write. Now that it’s out, I can exhale.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at

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