It’s estimated that sociopaths (or psychopaths as they used to be called) make up anywhere from 1-4% of the population.
They can be INCREDIBLY destructive to your life, and it can take years or decades to recover (in my experience). So, knowing how to spot and avoid them is a damn useful skill.
If you have the misfortune to find a sociopath in your life, they will
- Happily lie to you to about anything and everything
- Take everything of value that they want (you time, money, effort, self-esteem)
- Manipulate you in any way they can
- Completely destroy your life without a second thought
- Promise you the world (in the future), in exchange for giving them everything they want now
… all while believing that their behaviour is completely reasonable, and not worrying in the slightest about what they are doing. Once they’ve got everything they possibly can from you, they will drop you by the wayside with no hesitation at all.
I recently read an excellent book on this subject (The Sociopath Next Door), and have since realised that I’ve known several sociopaths very well indeed, both in my professional and personal life.
First, a quick explanation. Put very simply: a sociopath has no conscience.
This means they can do or say ANYTHING, with no regret, no shame and not a care in the world. They’ll lie as easily as breathe. If they get caught in the lie, they’ll double down and lie even further. They’ll take every cent you own and sleep soundly at night. They’ll happily have you working thousands of hours for them, and when it comes time to pay you, they’ll beg off claiming “poverty” or “hardship” (all lies and part-truths, of course). Somehow their needs and wants become the focal point of your time together. Their desires are always the thing you’re working towards – them first, you after. Maybe. (Which of course never quite happens).
I cannot state this strongly enough:
SOCIOPATHS HAVE NO CONSCIENCE.
Generally speaking, they’re incredibly charming people (at first) – after all, it’s a key way to get people to do things for them. Once they’ve got what they want, they will just as quickly disappear… until the next time they want something.
Where this all gets tricky is, sociopaths are very good at hiding what they are, at least initially. When you first meet them, they may seem “perfect”, charming, witty, and most commonly of all, nice. They have to be good at this. How can they manipulate you if you see right through them?
The reason they’re good at charming people is, while they have minimal emotional depth themselves, they are highly skilled at understanding other people – their strengths, weaknesses, needs and wants. They succeed in being charming because they know exactly what to say to flatter you or make you feel great about yourself. This is all part of their game. Once they have you convinced that they’re “nice” or “wonderful”, then they can start to manipulate you to their own benefit.
Of course, once you believe they’re “nice”, it’s a natural tendency to try and “explain away” their aberrant behaviour (violence, manipulation, lies). It’s also normal to try and help them improve their situation (after all, this is what they’re manipulating you to do – pour your energy into helping them). However, notice that they only listen to you when it suits them, and otherwise are perfectly happy to ignore (while placating) you completely. That’s because underneath it all they have zero interest in listening to anyone other than themselves.
To a sociopath, you only exist as a way to get them what they want.
So, what are the key characteristics of a sociopath?
- Very charming
- Take much more than they ever give
- Promise the world to get what they want, then somehow fail to follow through later
- Lack of shame
- Things are never their fault; blame is always on other people
- No remorse
- Minimal emotional depth
- Near zero empathy
- Have a very inflated sense of self worth (they’re “obviously” better than everyone else)
- Strong sense of entitlement
- Often quite narcissistic
- Often very intelligent
- Will hurt anyone in order to achieve their goals
- Would run over you in a bus if it made them look better
- Can be needy, wanting you to be there for them whenever they want
- Know how to make others think they’re the victim while actually being the aggressor
- Can be very violent
- Extremely manipulative
These characteristics do differ from sociopath to sociopath. The more boxes that are ticked the more likely someone is to be one.
[Obviously only a trained professional can provide a definitive diagnosis – I’m only telling you this to try and help you to protect yourself.]
That said, there is one key characteristic that every sociopath has: they want you to pity them.
The reason for this is, pity is the strongest emotional state that instinctively compels us to provide assistance. In other words, it gives them the most power over us.
Often this pity will be emphasised in the same breath as bragging about some great achievement of theirs (no shame or empathy, remember?)
Eg, “Oh, this work we’ve (you’ve) done is amazing, but I can’t pay you just yet, because…”
Of course, they won’t want you to pity them all the time. You will see pity come out if you ever want anything from them (as a defence to not give it to you), or if they want something from you (to manipulate you into giving it to them).
Another thing to watch for is lying. Remember the rule of threes.
- One lie may be a misunderstanding
- Two lies may be a serious mistake
- Threes lies, get the hell out of there
Oh, and in this context? Broken or endlessly delayed promises are lies.
Do not give your time, affection, money or work to a three time liar. Ever.
What should we do when we spot a sociopath?
- Get the hell away as quickly and peacefully as you can
- Do NOT tell them they’re a sociopath. You do NOT want them angry (no conscience, remember? Which means they can and will do ANYTHING in retaliation)
- Do NOT believe anything they tell you about changing, needing you etc
- KNOW that they will lie, or try to make you feel sorry for them in order to keep control over you
- KNOW that they will turn the charm up to 11 if they think it will work
- Quietly warn others (one reason I’m writing this post)
- Think for yourself. Sociopaths prey on people who struggle to think for themselves
- Not all sociopaths are violent but it’s still safest to keep as much distance as possible
Sociopaths are incredibly destructive to everyone around them. Fortunately, very commonly their lives do eventually implode.
In the mean time, all we can do is stay aware, stay safe, and stay the hell away.