A sociopath is in everyone’s daily life.
Psychopaths, even further along the “have no conscience” continuum than sociopaths, are in my daily life. Maybe not every day, but often enough to know what it feels like to have your hackles raise because you’re in the presence of a predator.
Last week, I sat down and had a conversation with a man in prison who has no conscience. It is a thing to experience from a distance. From any closer, it can be a little like offering up your neck for the kill.
Even with as many skills as I have, I didn’t come away unscathed from this conversation.
I was in a fog for the rest of the day. I was shaken. And, it was because I did not play the game of cat and mouse he set out to play with me.
I think that it is this very dynamic that makes it so hard for HSPs to deal with sociopaths. A person with no conscience instinctually knows how to flush out his prey. He knows exactly how to manipulate you.
In this case, he elicited in me the very qualities that embody who I am as an HSP: sensitivity, compassion, empathy. And even though I knew there would be a game, it didn’t make it any easier.
In these situations, taking care of yourself goes against every fiber in your HSP being. That is why it feels so bad to do what’s healthy in the presence of toxic relationships and predatory behaviors.
On the surface of things, your rational mind sees the sheep’s clothing–the charm, the attractive presentation, feeling seen and appreciated or “special”; but the undercurrent that you feel is the salivating wolf.
It’s easier to doubt yourself when you trust what you see and can’t articulate (and don’t trust) what you feel.
That’s why, I think, that HSPs are at such risk to being harmed by sociopaths. But it’s also why I think that the very “vulnerability” of sensitivity that attracts sociopaths is also the key to stop being the prey they seek.
It takes developing your sensitivity and the awareness of what you feel in order to go against everything that feels wrong (not be empathetic, not be “sensitive,” not care, not help) to do what’s right and healthy.
This particular guy is a murderer who committed a heinous crime. But you’d never guess it from looking at him, or even from having any one of a number of “normal” conversations in the course of meeting someone like him.
He looks respectable. Affiliates himself with spiritual and religious people who make him seem more respectable. His logic is sound. He smiles and he cries. He is the victim and he takes responsibility for his actions.
He could be your dad, your brother, your son, your boyfriend or spouse, your grandfather or grandson. And, no doubt he has been one of them at some time in your life.
And, no, psychopaths and sociopaths are not just men. Women, too, can be callous and cold and exhibit the same traits as men with no conscience. Research suggests that diagnosis–and the identification of psychopathic traits–may be “gendered.”
In other words, women with these same traits may tend to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) rather than Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), the diagnosis a male psychopath or sociopath would be more likely to receive. Same traits, different way of interpreting what they mean (and different way of “treating”).
Dr. Martha Stout wrote in The Sociopath Next Door that something like 4% of the population is a sociopath.
She puts this 4% in perspective by saying that 3.43% of the population is anorexic, a nearly “epidemic” level; and that 40 per 100,000 people have colon cancer at an “alarmingly” high rate.
“Put more succinctly,” she says “there are more sociopaths among us than people who suffer from…anorexia…and one hundred times as many sociopaths as people diagnosed…with colon cancer (p.8).”
I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a pretty scary number. If you look through your life as a Highly Sensitive Introvert, I’m guessing you’ve (I know I have) come across more than a few people who’ve shown no compunction about doing or saying harmful things to you while benefiting from you.
Sometimes, the way in which they harm is obvious. These are easier to spot. It’s easier to know what to do and how to respond. The obvious ones are dangerous. But it’s the ones who don’t appear dangerous who scare me more.
Lke animal predators, a sociopath develops ways to disarm his prey.
They say or do things to draw out your compassion and your care, they present themselves as charming, make you feel special in some way, make you believe you’re needed.
But then, they make you doubt yourself, twist your compassion and empathy into guilt and horror that you could have a need or set a boundary. They make you feel small and insignificant and they enjoy it. They can be successful and lie, cheat, and steal. They can appear lazy and depressed, working “hard” but never really seem to be working.
No, it is never right to be victimized. The thing to consider is that when it comes to sociopaths, they don’t care about right and wrong. It’s just a failing of yours that you care and that you do experience guilt.
So, how do you stay safe when you come up against a sociopath? It isn’t easy.
But here are some things I’ve learned that help me recognize when I’m with an “everyday” sociopath in the moment. These are things to think about the people in your life – and help you identify if you’re dealing with someone who may be harmful to you.
At the end, I share my super-secret techniques that can give you the space you need to get centered every time you lose your footing in an exchange.
This one is pretty tricky because many times blame is undercover. In the same breath for example, I’ve listened to a murderer say he took responsibility for his actions, and then in the same breath, refer to an action he could’ve taken to prevent someone else from doing harm to avoid the crime altogether.
He left me to infer that he took responsibility for the murder. He then cited an action he could’ve taken that would be considered positive (preventing someone else from doing harm), and then provided me with the actual perpetrator (the other person who had done harm). The net result? He sounds like the good guy.
It’s a little like being asked in a job interview to talk about your biggest weakness. You respond that you tend to work too hard and stay late. While you’re talking about your “weakness,” you’re actually communicating that you’re someone who cares and gets the job done.
2. “I, Me” language and hollow empathy
I find that people without conscience tend to be able to say they can empathize. “I know she suffered because of me.” It’s self focused. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about…” Self focused.
But if you let them talk long enough, the actual expression of empathy can be oddly missing. There’s no imagining what it must be like to be someone else or to experience something difficult. Statements sound thoughtful or caring, but the “other” focus is not there and it can feel hollow.
3. Does he or she direct your attention away from questions you ask?
Like a magician, sociopaths are good at directing your attention away from what they don’t want you to see. They find ways to not answer questions you ask. They change or avoid the subject repeatedly, and can typically do it in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the fact they didn’t answer. They might:
- make a statement or ask a question that puts the focus on you to answer–and thereby change the subject.
- put you on the defensive to feel guilty–why do you keep asking the same question, can’t you see how tired I am, or what a rough day it’s been?
4. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior
No, it’s not perfect, but as a general gauge, and in combination with other factors, taking stock of past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. If the person has done x,y, and z behaviors before, it’s more likely they will continue to do the same than change.
It is difficult for people who want to make change in their lives. But people who don’t want to make change, or have no reason to make a change, they’ll keep doing the same thing.
5. Are words and actions in alignment?
I think that one of the big vulnerability points for HSPs is the ability to see “the good” in someone. The potential that could be realized. If you tend to be someone, like me, who sees the good in people, it’s especially important to hold up what you know to a mirror.
This capacity to “see the good” can be ripe for manipulation by a sociopath because they appeal to your sense of hope that they “could” be successful, they “could” be the person for you.
As long as you hold onto that hope, and as long as you hold onto the possibility things could be different, they have power over you.
6. Uses logic so you doubt yourself
This tactic can be pretty devastating. If you question yourself, you can’t trust what you know. I think for INFJs (or F types…), it might be more challenging. Feelings and emotions provide so much “information” but they very rarely make any kind of “logical” sense without context.
When you look back on a situation it’s easier to see what your intuition might have been telling you, but in the moment, the “logic” and “rational” tactics a sociopath uses might make more sense. In effect, since your sensitivity is your strength, this logic “trips” you up so you lose your balance and become more vulnerable.
7. Subtle (or not so subtle) power moves
Body language becomes more expansive so that it’s intimidating. The sociopath can lean back in their chair, cross one leg over the other in a figure-4, and clasp his hands behind his head. He could lean forward toward you and step into your space. Or just stand up while you’re sitting down. He could start yelling, or quietly berate you.
Ok, so that was a list of some ways to know you might be dealing with a sociopath.
Here are a few techniques I’ve developed for myself to survive direct exchanges. They are not easy to do in the midst of doubting yourself, and wanting to jump in and help someone.
In general, the less information you offer, the better. Usually, when you’re nervous or feel upended, the normal thing is to talk. If you’re basically a trusting person, it’s normal to share a bit about yourself. With sociopaths, the more specific the information you offer, the more power you give to the sociopath to manipulate you.
1. The observation technique:
When you’re asked a question, reply with an observation. Sometimes, it’s a statement followed with silence that makes you feel like you have to respond (and if you can ignore altogether, even better). Either way, stating what’s already observable gives you some room to think. The simpler, the better.
- “You’re really curious about me.”
- “You really want to…”
“Yep, my shoes are brown.”
- “It’s really warm out here.”
2. The Columbo technique:
Columbo is a TV character who famously played stupid to gather information to solve crimes. Sociopaths want to engage you. There isn’t anywhere to go when you “play” stupid. The other person can’t argue with it – or they can try, but if you stay with “the act,” it reduces the entry to getting you to engage.
- “I don’t know.”
- “I’m not really sure.”
- “It’s beyond me.”
3. I’m not really sure what you mean technique:
Sociopaths ask questions and makes statements so that you’ll feel like you have to engage. It’s a normal, human response. But they’ve developed the art of knowing how to manipulate it. This technique is a variation on the Columbo technique.
It’s also a form of “playing” stupid, but it flips the script by getting the sociopath to explain and give more information. This is how you begin to identify the mismatches of alignment in words and action. It’s how you begin to identify the language that might indicate that you’re dealing with someone who is psychologically or possibly physically threatening to you.
- “I’m not really sure what you’re saying..”
- “I don’t think I understand what you mean…”
4. The silence technique:
Silence is the realm of the introvert. So, it’s something you can learn to use very effectively. With sociopaths, it’s probably the hardest technique, but when used in conjunction with the other techniques, it increases their effectiveness.
Sociopaths need people to prey upon. They need people who care, who want to help, who are sensitive and who they find vulnerable. Silence disrupts that connection they rely upon.
Silence can be powerful. It can place the burden on the other person to speak. For a sociopath, silence can be incredibly frustrating. They tend to expect that they will get things their way, so in the presence of silence, they might be more likely to show themselves as what they are.
5. The what do I need technique
If you find yourself sitting with someone and thinking about all the things you could do to be of help to them, it’s a minor red flag. Of course, not everyone you want to help is a sociopath. Most people are good people.
Still, while you’re running all those things you could do through your head, ask yourself: if I did this thing for this person, what would I not be doing for myself?
You help out of the goodness of your heart. Sometimes, just asking this one question, though, can help you avoid the very behavior that sociopaths can’t wait for you to do for them.
How do you deal with the sociopaths you’ve encountered?
photo credit: Hartwig HKD
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