Although psychopaths (aka sociopaths or malignant narcissists) comprise only about 1% of the population, we’re bound to meet some of them during our lifetime. I have had a psychopathic boss and am acquainted with several psychopaths in the form of current or former husbands of several clients over the years. We also often see them in power positions in politics or business and, recently, as sexual harassers and predators.
They are the kind of people who turn your nervous system upside down and could certainly trigger dysregulated eating. They may make you feel, among other things, on guard, giddy with joy, frightened, in awe, or as if you need to walk on eggshells. Before you say that you couldn’t possibly have a psychopath in your life, read over the list of psychological traits below and, then, make up your mind. Along with the 1% statistic above, these characteristics were taken from The Inner World of the Psychopath: A Definitive Primer on the Psychopathic Personality by Steve Becker, LCSW.
If you have someone in your life—a boss, colleague, spouse, partner, neighbor, child, friend, sibling or parent whose behavior includes any of the following, he or she might be a psychopath:
- Seems to feel total entitlement to get or take whatever s/he wants. For example, if s/he wants to stay married to you, while you’re filing for divorce, s/he’ll fight tooth and nail to keep you.
- Views you or anyone or anything that gets in the way of desire as mere obstructions. For example, your boss doesn’t care whose ego he steps on to get the credit or your colleague purposely badmouths you to get you fired because you’re in the way of her getting to the top.
- Sees you (your frailties and flaws) as the problem. For example, if you lend someone money who has a bad track record paying you back, s/he will think you’re simply a stupid dupe and deserve to be cheated.
- Shows highly audacious and risk-seeking behavior, and acts as if s/he’ll never get caught doing wrong. An example is your neighbor stealing your holiday lawn ornaments year after year and denying it, even when the police are at his/her door.
- Violates your boundaries and those of others because s/he objectifies you and doesn’t acknowledge your needs or humanity. For example, a friend you’ve just met keeps calling asking if you can baby sit, lend him/her money, or drive him/her places, even when you keep saying no.
- Wears a mask of glibness, charm, or loving when it helps him/her to get what s/he wants. For example, your spouse brings you flowers and love bombs you, then several days later tells you that s/he’s short the mortgage money this month and it needs to come out of your paycheck. Or, alternately, your spouse cries telling you s/he’s gambled away your life-savings—for the third time.
- Seems to feel no shame when the average person would. An example is your colleague telling you about taking money from petty cash while seeming proud of his/her theft and apparently not fearing that you will report him/her.
- Is overly confident in the face of real consequences as if they don’t exist. This goes along with audacity and high-risk behavior. For example, your sibling keeps spending money because s/he’s certain s/he’ll get a job soon though s/he not looking for one.
- Engages in chronic lying or deception—such as denying doing something you knew s/he did—or serial cheating. Lying can be over petty things which the psychopath does simply for fun or to see if s/he can get away with it. Insisting that you did or didn’t do something when you know you did or didn’t (called gaslighting) is another kind of deception that is common with psychopaths to keep you off balance and doubting yourself.
- Suffers no remorse for hurt s/he’s inflicted. There can be no remorse because there’s no sense of empathy, shame or acknowledgement of transgression. Psychopaths are never wrong or to blame. What you might see, however, on occasion, is fake regret or remorse through apologies that mean nothing because they’re inauthentic and used to manipulate you.
If you think that someone in your life is a psychopath, pay attention to that hunch and read up on this disorder or talk with a therapist about your suspicions. Know that psychopaths do not and will not change—ever, for you or anyone else. Do not try to get one into therapy other than to end the relationship. They are not like you or me and do not want to get help to change because they are fine just the way they are. As Becker says, and I can’t echo his words strongly enough, if you encounter a psychopath, head for the hills.