Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Vultures

When I left a toxic relationship several years ago I began trying to understand why I chose that person to be with in the first place.  I think we all do that on some level.  And if we don't, we definitely should. 

What was most shocking to me was, during the immediate aftermath, finding myself once again surrounded by these unsavory types of men.  They were like vultures looking for prey.  So when I found this article I immediately knew I had to share it. 

"Invisible Predators"

 I’m not sure what picture I had in my mind of the typical target for a sociopath when I began my research. I suppose I thought of either someone who traveled in fairly sordid circles or someone who was incredibly naive and unworldly. Either that, or someone with a pronounced victim mentality. As it turns out, anyone can be targeted and conned by a sociopath, including people who are successful, intelligent, and well-educated—even powerful, such as Sandra Boss, the Harvard-educated corporate consultant I mentioned in an earlier post who pulled down $2 million a year (in the news a while ago when her con-artist husband kidnapped their child). 

Some sociopaths go after those who have low self-esteem, even if it’s well camouflaged; sociopaths are known for having almost a sixth sense about such things. But others like a good challenge and will target someone strong just to see if they can pull it off. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, sociopaths will often target someone, weak or strong, when they are at a particularly vulnerable ebb after a life trauma.

In their book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, authors Sandra L. Brown, M.A., and Liane J. Leedom, M.D. present the results of a study they undertook in their efforts to see if they could discern any patterns in the types of individuals who attract and are attracted to sociopaths, and who tend to stay in the relationship even after things start to deteriorate and the true personality of the sociopath begins to emerge. As Leedom points out in a recent article on the recovery site,, “although sociopaths are not capable of love they are very social and most often want to count themselves in as part of a family, extended family and friendship network.”

Their subject pool included attorneys, physicians, therapists, social workers, teachers, editors, female clergy, and CEOs. Their conclusions are that sociopaths tend to go after women (male sociopaths outnumber female, but these authors’ conclusions could no doubt be equally well be applied to men who are targets) who possess the following constellation of positive traits: In general, they were nurturing, generous, forgiving, and tolerant. Targets tended to trust unconditionally, were cooperative, and highly empathic—an interesting contrast to the sociopath’s utter lack of empathy (it is likely that targets project their own empathy onto the sociopath). And they were compassionate, supportive, and devoted.

In fact, the women in their survey tended to be quite loyal and invested in their relationships; they attached deeply to their partners. According to Brown and Leedom, “These women find a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in what they put in and what they get out of relationships … once they attach, it is with great passion and enormous depth.” In addition, the average target is sentimental, more likely to remember the sweet things the sociopath did in the beginning of the relationship than dwell on the cruel things that begin to emerge. On top of that, these women tended to be tenderhearted, sympathizing with the wounded little boy the sociopath has conjured up in his courting, and readily using his unhappy childhood or experiences as reasons to overlook his increasingly hurtful, manipulative, and crazy-making behavior. 

Interestingly, many of these women tested high on the extroversion scale, were free-spirited, and/or sought excitement. Brown and Leedom’s interpretation of these results is that these women can overpower men who aren’t like them in this way; when they meet a sociopath, who is not intimidated by this aspect of hers, they are thrilled. These women find the charming sociopathic male with his impulsiveness and romantic or sexual intensity exciting. In addition, highly extroverted women don’t like to be bored, and a sociopathic partner is anything but boring. This is the main point of connection that is often made between the sociopath and his or her target, this desire for excitement and intensity. She doesn’t realize that the guy is not just edgy or adventurous; he possesses a pathology. 

Over time, these strong women end up dominated by their sociopathic partner, which confuses them. She often keeps the relationship going, despite how far south it goes, because she can’t believe that such a strong person as herself would put up with the treatment she ends up being subjected to, and keeps trying to re-frame it in some way that makes psychological and emotional sense.

This group of women also tended to be competitive, another counter-intuitive reason they stay too long in this dysfunctional relationship. As the relationship becomes more contentious and pathologically driven, she’s likely to stay and fight, certain that she’ll be able to work things out. Unfortunately, her personality structure is no match for a sociopath’s. 

Not only that, she is operating from an inherent position of weakness, in that she doesn’t really understand what she’s dealing with. It’s almost impossible for the target to grasp the fact that this formerly delightful, supposedly smitten “soul mate” doesn’t actually care for her and never did—that she was literally nothing more than a game, an object, a conquest, or a meal ticket—and that there is nothing to work out. The sociopath has zero interest in that. 

They’re perfectly willing to use and then discard, without any emotion whatsoever, someone who’s deeply committed to them if she becomes inconvenient or too much trouble in any way, or he simply becomes bored. And for such glib Romeos, there’s always another easy target out there.

The results of Brown and Leedom’s research indicate that many strong, successful, and nurturing women become involved with sociopaths. The sociopath skillfully uses the target’s strengths against her, turning a formerly independent, seemingly self-confident person into a broken, needy, and self-apologetic one. It is a painful and sad trajectory, one that seems to fill a sociopath with a bizarre combination of pride in his prowess and contempt for the person he was able to break.

In the recovery community, although some targets feel that they were completely blind-sided, that their strength and success represented the bait that proved their undoing, many of them feel that either a lifelong or recent weakness contributed to their selection—that some Achilles’ heel, such as low self-worth or the death of a spouse, created blood in the water that attracted these sharks. Several authors observe that targets tend to be people who automatically assume blame, whether they’re in the wrong or not, and many targets on support sites mention that they were raised by a sociopathic or narcissistic parent, which primed them to respond positively to the current sociopath in their lives. Not until it’s too late do they realize the magnetism they experienced was recognition, not attraction.

Anyone reading this post who recognizes him- or herself in these descriptions should be particularly careful in giving their heart or trust away, especially to extremely charming individuals who romance them intensely and seductively. If you have self-esteem issues, you should work on them, not just try to hide them or compensate for them. If you’ve recently experienced a painful blow in your life, be more careful than usual where you seek comfort and support. If you think you’re someone who would never fall for a sociopath, that you would see through them in an instant, think again. Just about every single person conned by a sociopath thinks that.

Whatever you do, make someone earn your trust over time; do not trust unconditionally. There is a difference between innocence and naiveté, between being compassionate and being a sucker. Getting swept off your feet can be fun in the beginning, but if the person who’s doing the sweeping is a sociopath, a crushed psyche and years of heartbreak will not make up for the comparatively short-lived, false ecstasy.

Bear in mind, too, that encounters with sociopaths aren’t limited to romantic relationships. You can unwittingly have a sociopath as a friend, colleague, boss, co-worker, minister, idol, etc. In her book,Stalking the Soul, psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen takes a look at the victims of sociopaths in the workplace. Often bullying of an employee begins with a sociopath. She observes, “Contrary to what their aggressors have others believe, victims are not, at the outset, weak or mentally unhealthy individuals. Quite the contrary, harassment is often set in motion when a victim refuses to give in to a boss’s authoritarian procedures.” She notes that targets tend to be perfectionists committed to their work; not the poor employee that the abuser conjures up by gaslighting and manipulation. In order to create a target, the sociopath subjects the selected individual to the same kind of devaluation that takes place in a personal relationship. Others in the organization will generally side with the bully for reasons discussed earlier, and soon, a perception exists that the target deserves this treatment: “They attribute to her character the consequences of the conflict, forgetting what she was before or that she is now in another context.” Hirigoyen remarks that abusers often choose “as their victims people who are full of energy and love of life.” For a sociopath, these attributes are like fingernails on a blackboard. Hirigoyen believes that the cynical, envious, empty and/or angry emotional landscape buried beneath the sociopath’s charming exterior drives them to destroy in others the qualities they lack themselves.

You might be lucky enough never to be targeted by a sociopath in any context, in either your work or your personal life—after all, they are in the distinct minority, thank goodness—but given the fact that in the U.S. alone, there are anywhere from three to twelve million sociopaths, most of them operating freely, it can’t hurt to be aware. As expert Dr. Robert Hare observes in his book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, psychopaths are “social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please.” He adds that they “are found in every segment of society, and there is a good chance that eventually you will have a painful or humiliating encounter with one.”

Sociopaths are Machiavellian masters at manipulating our egos and appealing to our desire to feel special and to be associated with charming “winners;” they are consummate liars, able to lie without the slightest qualm; they are excellent actors and true chameleons; they can read their targets with tremendous skill to find out what will seduce them with chilling accuracy; and they not only do notcare about you, if it amuses them, they will do everything in their considerable power to destroy you, bankrupt you, turn your friends against you … take everything from you they care to take. And perhaps worst of all, if you try to tell anyone what’s going on, chances are, no one will believe you. It’s as scary as a horror movie, except it’s real.

Be aware. And keep your antennae up for both gaslighting of people you might know and snow jobs directed at yourself. As Dr. Michael Fox observes in The Emotional Rape Syndrome, “the essential goodness of the individual … can serve us well in opposing the spread of evil in society, whether that evil manifests itself as emotional rape or any other major threat to the social good. We have to find the courage to get involved and to stand up to those who would use the best and highest human qualities, such as the ability to love and trust, for their own narcissistic gain.”

Suggested reading list:
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert D. Hare
Snakes in Suits, by Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare
The Sociopath Next Door, By Martha Stout
The Emotional Rape Syndrome: How to Survive and Avoid It, by Michael Fox
Stalking the Soul, by Marie-France Hirigoyen
Women Who Love Psychopaths, by Sandra L. Brown, M.A. & Liane J. Leedom, M.D.
The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships, by Patrick J. Carnes
Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry, by Albert Bernstein
How to Spot a Dangerous Man Before You Become Involved, by Sandra L. Brown, M.A.
The Emotionally Abused Woman: Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself, by Beverly Engel
Emotional Blackmail: When People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You, by Susan Forward