There is a psychopath living next door to you, stalking you on the golf course, at the club, in your workplace, behind the pulpit, and even in your bed. These people do not wield knives or raise their voices – their chosen method of murder is the long game, complete with meticulous planning: their goal – your complete and utter destruction.
Psychopaths are devoid of any emotion, although they can mimic emotions with the skill of a Shakespearean actor. Once they have achieved their goal – your financial and emotional destruction – they do not experience any sense of elation; instead they move on to their next prey without even the courtesy of acknowledging they have ruined another life.
Psychopaths are incredibly difficult to detect. They are congenial, bend-over-backwards-to-help-you friendly. They are experts in flattery and telling you what you want to hear. Their skill in scanning you is breathtaking. Within minutes of your first meeting they grasp your likes and dislikes, motives, needs and most significantly, your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Their target will be your Achilles heel, and it takes them only minutes to find it. These people are true geniuses; they are the Mozarts of manipulation, their talent is humbling, awe-inspiring.
They can sniff out a vulnerable target a mile away. Everything about you, your body language, your facial expressions, your words, are all signposts that assist the psychopath in his or her quest for dominance. Be careful: they are about to rape your soul.
Psychopaths endear themselves to you; they laugh at your jokes, they offer sympathy when the occasion demands, although this is really just a mask of false concern; they go out of their way to bond quickly with you; they like you, they are reassuring, charming, and yet all through the game, they are plying their trade of deceit and entrapment.
The American Psychiatric Association recognised in 1968 that psychopathy was a mental disorder. Until then it had been referred to as ‘antisocial personality’ or ‘personality disorder characterised by a pattern of disregard for, and the violation of, the rights of others.’ Indeed, it is now generally accepted that being a psychopath is a mental disorder in its own right. The symptoms are: lack of empathy, lack of guilt, impulsivity, egocentricity, and chronic violation of social, moral and legal norms.
In All in the Mind – Hypnosis, Suggestion and the New Mesmerists I included a short table of 28 ‘tick the boxes’ tell-tale signs. One in every 50 people are said to be psychopathic, or fit neatly into the definition of psychopathology.
Victims of psychopaths are left dazed, often having been drained of any last shred of self-esteem and unsure about their own identity. The psychopath on the other hand feels nothing, not even the tiniest vestige of guilt. Victims feel that the psychopath has taken their very soul. They are utterly without conscience and without any of the inner mechanisms that chastise us when we are selfish, unethical, or immoral.
Psychopaths (and I have met two prime examples in my life) are superficial – they know how to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ but that’s about it – there’s very little in between. They are often grandiose, with vastly over-inflated opinions of themselves, irreparably narcissistic, and they see other human beings as mere pawns. They consider themselves to be Messiahs in their own chosen field and have habit of recycling the work and opinions of others as their own genius.
They are irredeemably deceitful, never willing to accept responsibility; they are arrogant, often envious of others, and can never stoop too low when the opportunity arises to exploit friends and acquaintances. They are the ultimate users of other people, but are adept at covering this up with the pretence of charm and phoney altruism. Many psychopaths are able to operate under perfect camouflage, of the business world, or even the church.
One of the fundamental mistakes the victim makes is to assume that all other human beings have the same moral and human standards, the same emotional standards as they do. Unfortunately, conscience is not something that is universal to all humans. Psychopaths are pathological liars, particularly when it comes to painting moral pictures of themselves. They tell lies with an abandonment that elevates lying to an art form. When caught out, they will glibly tell more lies, adapting their stories depending on whom they are speaking to without a flicker of shame. Beneath their apparent passion beats a calculating, cold heart.
With most members of the human race, guilt is a natural inhibitor. It stops us from killing, stealing and coveting our neighbour’s ox. This mechanism is absent in the psychopath. True, psychopaths do not get a great deal of emotional satisfaction from hurting or destroying the lives of others, it is merely the gratification or fulfilment of getting what they wanted that is paramount. Psychopaths do covet their neighbour’s ox.
They preach high moral standards but think nothing of stooping to the lowest morals to get their own way. In this respect, their victims are always targeted. Psychopaths don’t go for collateral damage – they don’t hurt innocent bystanders. They take very great care not to hurt others because they may well need those same others as character witnesses. This is one reason why victims are often unable to show the rest of the world just how deeply damaging the psychopath’s work has been. Female psychopaths pretend to be nurturing, loving, caring individuals, they often appear dependent, and yet at the same time, women psychopaths are equally controlling, manipulative and toxically narcissistic.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago (a psychopath) preys on the weaknesses and virtues of the other characters and tells how his victims will be ‘led by the nose.’ I can never sit through Othello without feeling uncomfortable. For me, Iago is worse than Lady Macbeth, a pussycat in comparison.
Real psychopaths are born and not bred: being a psychopath is not something you learn at psycho school. The current wisdom is that they are born with those manipulative genes. Of course nurture must also come into play. A psychopath’s upbringing is bound to play a part, but the absence of the checking mechanism that is part of everyone else’s behaviour is typical of the true psychopath. They just don’t see that there’s anything wrong with their behaviour.
They have a sublime lack of empathy with their fellow humanity, although this is often disguised by their need to publicly display their charitable nature. On the other hand, they are brilliant at social influence and master networkers. In public, they are often good-humouredly self-effacing but privately, they are supremely jealous of their public image. They are extremely adept at spotting what makes others tick because their empathic skills are not only honed to perfection, they have been developed solely as a way of data gathering.
In purely bio-psychological terms, Hot Empathy involves feeling (emotion) located in somatosensory circuits, including the amygdala – the tiny but powerful emotion processing area of the brain. Cold Empathy on the other hand involves calculation – the ability to coldly and dispassionately gauge what others are thinking. Cold Empathy involves different neural circuitry, primarily the anterior paracingulate cortex, the temporal lobe and the superior temporal sulcus. There is a huge difference between the two processes – one that can be detected using FMRI scanning. Some researchers comment that psychopaths possess a dysfunctional amygdala, and that the processes that experience emotion are blocked, or switched off altogether.
Bad news I’m afraid: even mental health experts have problems in spotting psychopathy in patients. Psychopaths are superbly adept at playing the role of victim. Anyone who tries or even succeeds in getting close to the psychopath should beware. They are just as much fair game as anyone else.
Psychopaths blink less than normal people, but that’s not necessarily a giveaway, because unconsciously, we find this attractive, especially members of the opposite sex – it gives a sense of ‘openness.’ But the most telling sign, and you have to look vey carefully, is that Psychopaths have no personal emotional ability. Psychopaths feel nothing – no real emotional connection to others. Their only true emotional connection is to themselves. They find it impossible to continue with long-term personal relationships. Their lives consist of working out how others can be of use to them. Their lives are punctuated by a series of unfulfilled short-term relationships. They harbour no true friendships. They can only talk about themselves or their latest pet projects. They have no genuine interest in others because personal gain is always their prime concern.
Although psychopaths are unable to feel empathy, the concept of empathy is integral to their manipulative way of thinking. Psychopaths have a unique ability to gauge, but not feel, emotion.
They may well be intelligent, charismatic, socially skilled, or even attractive. They can sometimes be spontaneous and uninhibited by the rules. Often they are fun to hang around with, at least at first, until you eventually start to see through them, but behind all the charisma and the charm, there is not a shred of morality.
Nothing will get in the way of the psychopath’s self interest. The threat of impending danger, punishment, social discomfort, means nothing to them. When caught out, they will even try to turn that situation to their own advantage. If there is any kind of advantage to be gained, the psychopath will embrace it, irrespective of risk or possible negative consequences. They keep their composure in the face of threat or adversity, are ruthless in their pursuit of detractors and pursue their goals with a relentless patience and an energy that most of the rest of us lack.
Does any of this remind you of anyone?