Empathy, hijacked

Until two weeks ago, I misunderstood psychopathy.

I believed that all psychopaths were serial killers, and vice versa. I also believed that their numbers were infinitesimally small.

They were, in other words, not worth much consideration, for the chance they’d impact my life personally was negligible.

My path to learning otherwise began with a simple question: What’s it called when someone treats you not as a human, but a need-meeting device? I figured there had to be a word for it, but I didn’t know what that word was.

Fortunately, I happened across a book that answered the question in a single, succinct sentence. In The Entitlement Cure: Finding Success at Work and in Relationships in a Shortcut World, Dr. John Townsend writes, “When one person treats another as a need-meeting object or as a dispenser of a desired commodity, that is objectification.”

There was my word: objectification.

I was surprised. Seeing this definition, it was immediately clear I’d misunderstood objectification as strictly sex-related. That misunderstanding had barred me from identifying prior experiences with objectification for what they were.

Armed with the word, I began searching for information on people especially prone to objectifying others. What would these people look like? What other kinds of behaviors might appear together with a propensity to objectify?

I found a few articles on “social predation.” In these articles, I found affirmation that objectification as a routine behavior doesn’t often travel alone.

The people who routinely exhibited this suite of behaviors were “social predators.” Having never found that term before, then, I looked up “social predation.” How had I never heard of it? The answer quickly became clear: when traveling together, this suite of behaviors is more commonly referred to as “sociopathy” or “psychopathy.”

I needed more information than I could glean from a couple of articles. I needed a framework. In short, I needed a book.

I first read Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door, in which the author uses the words “sociopathy” and “psychopathy” interchangeably.

As I read, I found myself both intrigued and horrified.

With every page I read, I became more certain that one of my foundational relationships was with a psychopath. Still,The Sociopath Next Door left me with at least as many questions as answers. I read on.

Robert Hare’s Without Conscience eliminated any doubt in my mind that I’d grown up with a psychopath. For decades now, Hare’s 20-question Psychopath Checklist has been used by professionals to diagnose psychopathy. Each trait is scored on a scale from 0 (near absent) to 2 (prominent). A score of 30 or above is considered indicative of psychopathy.

This isn’t to say that a score below 30 means all is well. Psychopathy is not all or nothing–like a light switch toggled either on or off. The higher the score, whether above or below 30, the higher the likelihood the people around the high-scoring individual will suffer.

When I say I grew up with a psychopath, I don’t use the word lightly. I know I’m not a trained clinician, and that I’m not qualified to diagnose psychopathy. And yet, the picture Hare painted in Without Conscience could have been modeled off this person from my childhood.

I’d always thought the bad behaviors stemmed from this person’s own trauma and not knowing better.

Having read these two books, I saw quite differently: the horrendous acts I both witnessed and experienced weren’t borne of combined poor impulse control coupled with sudden passion, but rather from a complete–or near-complete–absence of either conscience or empathy.

Fascinated that I could have gone four decades without having a word for so fundamental a driver of my formative years, I kept reading.

I read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, and Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. I devoured The Psychopath Whisperer, and then Almost A Psychopath.

I washed this all down with Carrie Goldberg’s magnificent Nobody’s Victim:  Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs and Trolls. While the latter wasn’t an exploration of psychopathy itself (and, to be clear, uses the word rather more colorfully than clinically), it was a testament to the spirit of those whose lives have been marred by their unfortunate encounters with psychopaths and “almost psychopaths.”

I finished it inspired, for, as luck would have it, I’d also bought and begun reading Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma. This book explained with crystal clarity how what I endured in childhood set me up to unwittingly recreate earlier victimization. It did so from a sound, meticulously supported perspective that change is not only possible but its steps achievable.

By careful action, I can rewire myself to respond differently.

With this confluence of new knowledge swirling around my brain, I saw that my historically unfettered empathy will be used against me–not just me but anyone broadcasting their susceptibility–by predators who cannot themselves feel empathy.

My new driving question, then, became: What behaviors, when evidenced repeatedly by someone in my vicinity, will serve as my triggers to consciously take my empathy offline? When, in other words, do I know that my empathy has already been hijacked or is in danger of being hijacked, to my own detriment? 

Stout addresses the #1 warning sign as I experienced it in my own childhood encounters with multiple criminals (against one of whom I testified in court as a child):

After listening for almost twenty-five years to the stories my patients tell me about sociopaths who have invaded and injured their lives, when I am asked, “How can I tell whom not to trust?” the answer I give usually surprises people. The natural expectation is that I will describe some sinister-sounding detail of behavior or snippet of body language or threatening use of language that is the subtle giveaway. Instead, I take people aback by assuring them that the tip-off is none of these things, for none of these things is reliably present. Rather, the best clue is, of all things, the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.

This might sound counterintuitive for those whose lives were not shaped by psychopathy. Thus Stout explains it succinctly:

there is an excellent reason for the sociopathic fondness for pity. As obvious as the nose on one’s face, and just as difficult to see without the help of a mirror, the explanation is that good people will let pathetic individuals get by with murder, so to speak, and therefore any sociopath wishing to continue with his game, whatever it happens to be, should play repeatedly for none other than pity.

Pity plays, especially multiple pity plays, used repeatedly by anyone in my vicinity are my first new trigger to take my empathy offline, and move instead to empathy-saver mode.

Even if overt pity plays are absent, though, there are many other useful triggers for which I now have words. These are those Factor 1 (“selfish, callous and remorseless use of others,” aka objectification) and Factor 2 (“chronically unstable, antisocial and socially deviant lifestyle”) traits identified in Hare’s Psychopath Checklist … traits already known to my intuition, thanks to unfortunate but illuminating experience throughout my younger years.

People whose actions routinely reflect many of these traits are those around whom I must, for my own well being, behave differently. In these cases, I must temporarily take my empathy offline lest it be hijacked by those who don’t necessarily understand or experience humanity as I do.

The point is neither to condemn nor diagnose such people, but to protect myself as a “nurturant” woman. Writes Hare on this point,

Psychopaths have an uncanny ability to spot and use “nurturant” women–that is, those who have a powerful need to help or mother others. Many such women are in the helping professions–nursing, social work, counseling–and tend to look for the goodness in others while overlooking or minimizing their faults: “He’s got problems, but I can help him,” or, “He had such a rough time as a kid, all he needs is someone to hug him.” These women will usually take a lot of abuse in their belief that they can help; they are ripe for being left emotionally, physically and financially drained.

Taking my empathy offline in certain cases may well make me appear callous to bystanders who still mistake “charming” for an adjective, instead of seeing it–as recommended by security expert Gavin de Becker–as a verb: “Why is this person trying to charm me?”

I witnessed this dynamic countless times in my childhood: the victim made villain by someone deeply destructive but superficially charming.

Today, drawing on my own intuition and experience as well as, now, the words of experts, I face the possibility probability of occasionally being thought callous with this calm conviction: I’d rather be thought callous than deprive my family and dearest friends of my love and light, having already spent it on predators who did not deserve it.

There is a name for the chaos I endured in childhood, and it is psychopathy.

Far from being anomalous and unlikely to impact any save the smallest number of unfortunate souls, Hare and Babiak say about the prevalence of psychopathy, “We estimate that about 1 percent of the population has a dose of psychopathic features heavy enough to warrant a designation of psychopathy. Perhaps another 10 percent or so fall into the gray zone, with sufficient psychopathic features to be of concern to others.”

That’s 3 million psychopaths and 30 million “almost psychopaths” in the U.S. alone.

Psychopaths are, then, inescapable to anyone save the most remote of hermits.

In this landscape, so much different than the one I only two weeks ago thought existed, it is imperative for me to know exactly when my empathy is in danger of being hijacked, and to then actively step out of my historical role of handing it over freely, instead disengaging it in the presence of warning behaviors.

In my last post, I reflected on the sometimes surprising power of words to change–and even save–lives.

For me, knowing the word behind what I endured in childhood has the power to change everything. Knowing my particular weaknesses in this context, I can now act to mitigate them.

Knowing better, I now have a chance to do better.

This. is. beautiful.

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