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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

How sociopaths keep you off balance

"Isabelle" described her recent experience with a sociopath on the Red flags for sociopathy post last night. She taught me some things about sociopaths I had been unaware of before. Here's her comment (with my responses not in italics):

I had an encounter with a sociopath yesterday which made me think of adding to this post. Duping delight, couldn't keep it off her face no matter how hard she tried, kept me off balance by asking inappropriate questions and if I tried to deflect her line of questioning, she would contradict me under her breath, obviously not all sociopaths are that overt I realise but it surprised me how grossly entitled she'd have to be to supply her own commentary.

She also complimented me inappropriately not long after meeting which had me on red alert since the timing and everything was off, usually when people notice my good qualities they would never bring it to my attention, but she was bombarding me with compliments within 15 mins of meeting, equally she turned it around and was calling me schizophrenic 15 mins later. Compliments followed by criticisms is a sociopath favourite as well as advertising their punches, at one point saying that she wasn't sadistic, which given everything she was doing, conning me out of large sums of money, was in fact what she was.

The too premature flattery I'm familiar with, but I hadn't realized that sociopaths would follow that up with insults right afterward as a way of keeping you off balance. That makes perfect sense though: it means they get to play offense while you're completely occupied with defense.

Volunteering that she wasn't sadistic was a definite tell: no one ever issues an unprompted denial unless what they're denying is in fact true. That's a little reminiscent of the guy who tells you, without being asked, that he has a lot of integrity and honesty. (Guard your wallet.)

Her calling me schizophrenic also had me on guard since sociopaths love labelling people as crazy, mad or schizo - partly as projective identification but also because it gives them duping delight to talk about themselves so openly without anyone knowing it's really themselves that they are referring to. So they get to advertise their punches and project at the same time. There was the constant communication misunderstandings that she would fall back on, as if she had misheard or misunderstood what I had said when she was being inappropriate or made me uncomfortable, despite understanding all the subtle nuances when I would try to deflect her line of questioning. The psycho stare of course which is a favourite and the watching of micro movements on your face and the paying attention to the smallest nuance in body language, all signs of a social predator at work.

I don't think that accusing Isabelle of being mad was projection; sociopaths aren't crazy themselves, they're simply evil. I think what the sociopath was doing was merely trying to keep Isabelle on the defensive, and also "gaslight" her, making her doubt herself. The intent was to soften her up and make Isabelle more vulnerable to the next line of attack.

However the one thing that made it certain for me that she was a sociopath was her asking about my abuse history, in the context of the massage therapy session it was highly inappropriate, but the feeding frenzy look that literally appeared in her eyes when I mentioned that I had cut away from my parents. I didn't say anything about sociopathy but she assumed that I was a good victim and when I was unclothed, she asked about further abuses that had occurred. I know the particular fascination sociopaths have with abuse histories and that alerted me wholesale to the fact that she was a sociopath but I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had read the inappropriate questioning and compliments faster. The completely over the top compliment at the start was the only thing that had me concerned since it was to lower my guard and it made me wonder why she wanted to lower my guard.

"Feeding frenzy look that literally appeared in her eyes" -- what a perfect description of what happens when sociopaths get to vicariously enjoy the abuse that someone else inflicted on you. Their eyes just light up as they savor your pain. And yes, they are great at reading people.

It was only after reading this paragraph that I realized that the sociopath was Isabelle's masseuse, so the "inappropriate" compliments bit made more sense to me, they must have been about her body. That situation must have made Isabelle feel doubly vulnerable, lying their naked while the sociopath passed judgment on her (even if the first judgment was a positive one).

What we tend to do is minimise all their eccentricities because we don't want to judge, but even we get over that hurdle there is still the social contract that makes it so hard to behave out of context once we realise we've walked into a trap. There is also the tendency to suspect one's own suspicions, partly because the statistics on sociopaths are not accurate. They seem to be much more common then is officially touted and partly because I also don't want to think that they are everywhere, so when I first encounter them I tend to dismiss the red flags but I have done that to my detriment on too many occasions, after all 5 mins of discomfort is better than 4 hours in their company. It seems breaking the social contract goes against our nature and is probably the most difficult part to master given that people are social creatures and are bound by empathy, even if the person you're dealing with doesn't have empathy, you tend to act out of that place and not let them know you know their motivations.

People DO tend to assume other people are like them. So decent people will automatically make the baseline assumption that others are decent, and sociopaths will always suspect the worst of everybody. And it IS hard, even if you know you're dealing with a sociopath, to just slough off the social contract and play the game by their (lack of) rules.

I also agree that the number of sociopaths is underestimated. Most textbooks say that they comprise roughly 1% of females and 3% of males. I'd guess it's more like 3% of women and 4% of men. (I have no hard facts to back that up, it's just a general impression.) Women are likely underdiagnosed simply because they are less likely to be violent; but that doesn't mean they're any the less predatory by nature.

In any case, the bit about keeping you off balance was what was most interesting to me. That's what sociopaths do: they flatter here, insult there, get you wondering about yourself, and make you dizzy and a little defensive. And all of that coming at you from different angles, nonstop, combines to make you just a little more suggestible, and a little more susceptible to their wiles. I'd seen it -- and felt it -- before, but had never quite put my finger on it the way Isabelle did.


Anonymous said...

this is a really good post

"telegraphing the punches" is a good psychopath tell, I would say sometimes it is not a slip but rather part of the dance, a style point ("NO I AM NOT A SNAKE ABOUT TO EAT YOU" = just hamming it up for all of the other imaginary snakes in the audience elbowing each other and saying YOU SEE THAT, VERN? THIS IS GOOD STUFF (I know, snakes don't have elbows, that would be a good name for a bar THE SNAKE'S ELBOW))

"People DO tend to assume other people are like them. So decent people will automatically make the baseline assumption that others are decent, and sociopaths will always suspect the worst of everybody." is 100% correct.

a whole bunch of other good stuff in this post


John Craig said...

Thank you. (Though I don't think I'd be drawn to a bar called "The Snake's Elbow.")

Anonymous said...

My dream is for all sociopaths to be abducted by aliens or to disappear by spontaneous combustion, leaving the rest of humanity in relative peace.

- birdie

John Craig said...

Birdie --
That would be nice.

Anonymous said...

"Volunteering that she wasn't sadistic was a definite tell: no one ever issues an unprompted denial unless what they're denying is in fact true. That's a little reminiscent of the guy who tells you, without being asked, that he has a lot of integrity and honesty."

^ this is one of the tips in the book 'The Gift of Fear' by Gavin de Becker for spotting sociopaths early. It says that an unsolicited promise like "I'll leave you alone after this" means they won't be left alone, or "I won't hurt you" means they do intend to case harm.

Even though the book is aimed at helping women avoid domestic violence before it ensues, the comments on Amazon suggest it should be required reading for everyone (well, apart from sociopaths, who'd probably take tips from it). Having experienced a close, albeit very short, relationship with a sociopath IRL, I can say that lots of the PINS (Pre-Incident Indicators) in the book were true in my case. The problem is that we all have instinctive feelings that something is wrong, but choose to dismiss those as paranoia.

I finally placed an order for the book last night after I read an article titled 'Worst Roommate Ever'. It's about a sociopath who used his extensive knowledge of tenancy laws to take ownership of people's homes. He'd start off by posting as a reliable, intellectual gentleman and then reveal the monster he really was when the next rent payment was due (spoiler: the story ends in murder). He'd squat in people's homes without paying rent and refuse to leave, threatening *them* with legal action if they tried to make him. If you're interested, the article is here:

My experience with sociopaths helped me recognise de Becker's PINS in just the first few paragraphs:

- Forced Teaming: tick. He says “I like the place, and I like you. If you like me, I could just do this [move in] now”. Non-sociopaths would be nowhere near that abrupt, or use language like "I like you. If you like me...". Most people would say something like "this seems like a nice place to live and I think we'll get on together. When could I move in?"
- Charm and niceness: tick.
- Too many details: tick. People don't normally bring up their brother's Hepatitis C or their Buddhist meditation habits on their first encounter; even if it's true, it's way too personal.
- Typecasting: tick. He describes Philadelphians as "flaky" to try to pressure her to prove him otherwise.
- Loan sharking: tick. Immediately gives her a cheque before being asked to.
- The Unsolicited Promise: not explicitly mentioned.
- Refusing to accept rejection: tick. Immediately puts her address on his cheque.

I'll let you know if I learn any helpful tips from the book.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
I actually read that book 20 years ago. I don't remember it that well but I remember its primary message being, listen to your instincts, and when you feel fear, run. It's your subconscious telling you that something is wrong. It wasn't the best book I ever read about sociopathy, that honor goes to "The Antisocial Personalities" by David Lykken. But it was a good book.

Agree that getting ay too personal way too quickly is a definite tell. Your anecdote reminds me of Karen Sypher and how she tried to come across to that desk sergeant:

Anonymous said...

I'll have a look at Lykken's book. The more stuff I read about this, the better. IMO, knowledge about how to recognise sociopaths is as practical as knowledge about fire safety. Indeed, I've dealt with several sociopaths throughout my life but not once with an uncontrolled fire.

The sociopath I had a brief relationship with began telling me Sypher-esque sob stories the first time I met him IRL (we initially met online). The sob stories were irrelevant as they were about things that allegedly happened years before he told them to me, but they elicited my sympathy. About an hour or so after I met him IRL, he suggested I stay the night and I agreed even though I found the suggestion abrupt. Had I listened to my instinct, I would have spared myself some pain. Fortunately, I had the wisdom to end the relationship after just a month; many aren't so lucky and stay with sociopaths for years.

Sob stories (especially if told early on) are a sign of mental instability in general. We all have had bad things happen to us, but there's no need to go in thinking about it and definitely no need to tell others early on. This is a red flag for sociopathy, personality disorders, eating disorders and all sorts of other people it'd be wise to avoid. I feel guilty telling others to avoid people with PDs and eating disorders, since it isn't necessarily their fault they're like that, but avoiding getting too close can spare a lot of pain. It's no fun to feel worried sick about someone because they're not answering their phone, and leaping to conclusions that they've attempted suicide.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
Agreed, learning about sociopaths and what to watch out for should be a basic part of everyone's education, there's a lot more practical value to that than to learning binomial equations or finding out the area under a curve, or reading Herodotus; but it's sadly lacking, so sociopaths thrive and normal people become their victims.