*Note: the terms sociopath and psychopath are used interchangeably in this article, as is common practice in current psychological writing.
My sociopath latched onto me when I was young, mesmerizing me with the characteristic charm of his people.
If you have ever been on the receiving end of this kind of seduction, you know it is a deeply compelling, dare I say, spiritual experience. One feels as if the world is filled with light and possibility, connection…pure love.
I always look into the eyes of people I suspect might be sociopaths now and try to see if there some telltale sign that would indicate the depth of hollowness that lies within. But the truth is, if I had no other information except for their physical appearance, I wouldn’t know anything was wrong. They look normal, just like my ex. In fact, his eyes had a distinctive and disconcerting soulfulness that he used to his great advantage.
I used to confuse sociopathy with narcissism. It’s easy to do. Narcissists, like sociopaths, are selfish people whose needs in every situation trump the needs of others. They are emotionally immature, manipulative, narrow-minded, and may appear powerful in the singularity of their ideas or the intensity of their need. Their appeal wears thin over time as their partners start to see their patterns of self-serving behavior and understand the price that must be paid to endure it. Whether or not they are able and willing to leave then is a story as individual to them as a fingerprint.
As bad as narcissists are, though (and trust me, they can easily ruin your life), they’re still basically just ordinary people. Sociopaths, though. Oh, sociopaths.
According to Michael Koenigs in his peer reviewed article “The Role of Prefrontal Cortex in Psychopathy” published in Rev Nuerosci:
“Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by remorseless and impulsive antisocial behavior. A growing body of evidence associates psychopathy with structural and functional abnormalities in [the] ventromedial and anterior cingulate cortex….The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is likely to play an important role in psychopathy.”
What this means is that there is something missing in the psychopaths brain, and that something means that they cannot feel empathy for other people. They don’t choose this; they simply don’t have the capacity, much like I don’t have the capacity of a fish to live underwater. As a person who feels empathy, it is nearly impossible to imagine what it would be like not to feel it. If you just changed this one thing about yourself, you would be an entirely different creature. Most likely, you would be a monster.
Ironically, if you have a healthy mind, you might be feeling empathy for the psychopathic plight right now. How terrible not to be able to feel kindness and connection and love! But as natural as that is, your empathy would be wasted on a true psychopath, and indeed, will make you a moving target for them. Psychopaths feed on empaths like vampires feed on human blood. They literally cannot survive without them, and will move from one to another using and discarding them, and leaving a path of psychological destruction behind.
How do sociopaths hide in plain sight? Some statistics say that between 1-4 percent of the population are psychopaths and that their numbers are increasing, which, in addition to being really bad news for the rest of us, means that everyone knows and interacts with at least one, and possibly more, on a routine basis.
There are theories as to why they exist, among them that it is a corrective evolutionary adaptation to cull the herd, but I’m not so interested in that. What I am interested in, having been profoundly traumatized by one myself, is helping people understand what they are, and how to manage or avoid them.
Let’s go back to that “boyfriend” of mine (quotes because, with friends like him…). He employed all the classic sociopathic moves, and this is one way we can learn to spot them—by knowing the patterns they follow every time they fixate on a target.
Phase one: idealization or love bombing. This is the period of time during which a new love will make you feel like you are the most special person on Earth. It is an intoxicating sensation and binds the target to the sociopath. Much like the rush one gets when first using a powerful drug, which drives people to use again and again in search of that elusive high, so does love bombing keep us trapped in our own desperate fantasy that those initial wonderful feelings can somehow be recaptured.
My sociopath played me like a fiddle. He knew instinctively what to say to put me under what seemed like a magic spell. I’m embarrassed now at how easy it was for him, with cheap words like “we were meant to be together” and “you are larger than life,” but I shouldn’t be. He was tapping into my brain chemistry and shamelessly filling me with endorphins as insurance against the second phase.
Phase two: devaluation. As soon as a sociopath knows he has his victim “hooked” his mask falls off to reveal an unconscionably cruel stranger, whose behavior seems to make no sense, and who completely contradicts everything they previously said.
For me it happened quickly, not even two months into our relationship. I went to bed one night in a glorious rosy cloud of romantic love and woke up to unfounded and violent accusations that I was a “whore” among other things. Things went downhill from there, with brief love bombing respites punctuating endless psychological, sexual, and financial abuse, so I didn’t abandon the relationship until I was a shell of the person I’d once been. It took me five years of being broken down, isolated, punished, and acting crazy until I finally pulled myself together and started the long process of leaving.
Phase three: discarding. This final phase is usually described as the time during which a sociopath can no longer exploit his target to his satisfaction. In other words, he or she is not the shiny object that elevates their social status, financial gain, sexual satisfaction, or some other meaningful currency. When this happens, it is sudden, much like the devaluation stage.
It’s like a light switch has been turned off—the psychopath has no use for their target anymore and casts them off as casually as a normal person would brush off dog hair. Not surprisingly, this behavior is thoroughly confusing to the recipient, who is astonished that after all the intensity of the relationship, it could simply evaporate like it never existed in the first place.
In my experience personally and with clients, there is another way this phase can go. Sociopaths are concerned with one thing: winning. To them, there are only winners and losers in this world, and they will be damned if they are going to be the latter. Letting a target go before every last ounce of their resources have been exploited feels a lot like giving up, so they will hang around until things are so bad and so bleak that the target finally wakes up from their trauma bond and says, “No more!”
When this happens, it is the target that discards the sociopath…or tries to. As soon as the sociopath realizes the game has shifted, he will try everything under the sun to reclaim what he thought was his. Suddenly, this imperious person is begging, pleading, and alternatively threatening in a dizzying campaign that can often compel his victim to give him one more chance.
When he finally runs out of chances, he does one of two things: kills (or tries to kill or otherwise destroy his victim…statistics show that people in abusive relationships are never in greater danger than when they try to leave) or slinks away with his tail between his legs. This might be the most shocking thing of all—seeing this person who once seemed all powerful utterly reduced to ashes.
So how can we avoid being trapped in the sociopathic orbit?
Here are a few ideas.
1. Know yourself.
If you feel emotions deeply, if you routinely put others first, if you have a parent that you suspect is a narcissist or a sociopath, or if you’re a card-carrying empath, assume that sociopaths are on the hunt for you. Narcissists and empaths in general go together like peanut butter and jelly, so if you suspect you are the former, learn everything you can about narcissistic personality types (of which sociopathy is one) so that you can do your best to avoid them.
2. Know your relationship.
Healthy relationships are not filled with drama, second-guessing oneself, or the feeling that at any second everything might blow up. If that describes a relationship you are in, you could be dealing with a narcissist or even a sociopath. Allow yourself to discuss this honestly with an objective observer, be it a therapist or a friend. Listen to their thoughts and opinions. For most people looking in, there are plenty of clues that your relationship is toxic and if presented with the chance, they will be grateful that they can help.
3. Understand trauma bonding.
If you are already stuck in a toxic relationship it will feel impossible to “just leave.” This is because you have become trauma bonded with your abuser, which is the powerful attachment you feel due to their relentless cycle of positive and negative reinforcement. Similar to Stockholm Syndrome and brain washing, it puts intelligent people who know they should leave in a state of paralysis. The only way to break this bond is to cultivate other relationships including those with friends, family, and a great therapist.
4. Forgive yourself for being “stupid.”
The truth is, sociopaths pick the best of the best to prey upon because the bigger the quarry the better they feel about themselves. If you have become a target, feel free to take it as the biggest backhanded compliment anyone will ever pay you. That they need to then dominate and systematically destroy their hard-won prize is inevitable, but it doesn’t make you stupid, it makes them…well…psychopathic. You have inestimable value—that’s why you were chosen—and the sociopath won’t rest until they have snuffed out your light or died trying.
For all the tender hearts of the world, I offer you this: we are not victims even if we have been victimized. We are brave, we have the gift of being able to love deeply, and we the resilience to survive most anything.
If you are in a relationship that makes you feel crazy, but you remember a time when the world made sense, someone is messing with your mind. As scary as it may be, remember, you have more power than you realize. You are the most powerful person you know.
Don’t sacrifice your one and only miraculous self on the altar of false love.