Developing the abilities to overcome my fears and, more to the point, act in the presence of fear have enabled me to change. And one of the main reasons that I have learned to act despite my fears is that I have learned to be more open with myself and other people, to be more trusting while honing my strengths at being discriminating (that is, learning to be both shrewd and innocent as Jesus instructed in Matthew 10:16).
In the past couple of years, I have worked on projects that required me to embrace new opportunities while maintaining my guard (not a path I recommend but the best I could make of complicated situations, involving collaboration with folks who had previously caused harm to friends and colleagues).
One of my roles stirred me to view an incident from an opposing perspective while the other compelled me to learn about psychological disorders and ultimately led me to read The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Vs. The Rest of Us by psychologist Martha Stout, PhD. The book gave me insights into how to deal with difficult people and situations, giving me tools to recognize problems and insights that allowed me to protect myself and others.
According to Stout, approximately one in 25 people is a sociopath. Such a person doesn’t have a conscience; he can tell right from wrong but this distinction doesn’t limit his behavior or cause emotional angst like the rest of us experience. However, severe consequences, such as the threat of a prison sentence, have the capacity to cause such a person to limit or control his behavior.
Interesting, Stout argues that the most telling clue of a sociopath is a play for your pity, not an obviously evil act. Though he doesn’t adhere to society’s rules, the sociopath understands that others do, so he uses the social convention of soliciting sympathy from caring people to his advantage.
What I found in one of my situations was a person who played the pity card over and over. He told a narrative that he had been wronged on numerous occasions, starting in childhood, continuing throughout various phases of his life, and culminating in continued harassment at work and in the community for his beliefs, values, and physical characteristics.
However, I knew that this person had taken actions, both intentionally and unintentionally, which caused harm to others (enough to require professional intervention) yet showed no remorse, regret, embarrassment, or any other emotion in regard to these incidents. Sadly, though, confronting such a person who appears so emotionally fragile makes the accuser seem reprehensible even though the other person may have deceived and manipulated for his own gain.
Now, I am not a psychologist and can’t make a diagnosis; but this experience has caused me to consider more carefully that a disorder may contribute to unusual and occasionally dangerous behaviors. Plus, I have better understanding of how I could be deceived if I was not more discriminating in my trust.
Stout provides this insight on the matter of acting pitifully and soliciting sympathy:
When deciding whom to trust, bear in mind that the combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person’s forehead as you will ever be given.
If … you find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to one hundred percent that you are dealing with a sociopath.
She also offers clues that may indicate you are dealing with a sociopath. Often such a person:
- Is charming
- Represents himself as charitable, creative, or insightful
- Makes choices outside of typical boundaries and fails to conform to social norms
- Acts spontaneously, sometimes recklessly; he or she may have been promiscuous or addicted in the past
- Does not honor financial obligations
- Lacks remorse, has no intervening sense of obligation based in emotional attachments
- Enjoys winning at games of interpersonal interactions
Protecting yourself starts with awareness along with understanding and acceptance of the idea that some people don’t have consciences that guide them. Initially, facing this fact seems wrong. As Stout explains,
It feels more democratic and less condemnatory (and somehow less alarming) to believe that everyone is a little shady than to accept that a few human beings live in a permanent and absolute moral nighttime. To admit that some people literally have no conscience is not technically the same as saying that some human beings are evil, but it is disturbingly close. And good people want very much not to believe in the personification of evil.
She also provides rules for dealing with sociopaths, which includes these tips:
- Trust your instincts; don’t trust someone simply because they have an authority role.
- When considering a new relationship, follow a “three strikes, you’re out” philosophy in which you cut ties if someone lies to you, breaks a promise, and/or doesn’t live up to an obligation three times.
- Don’t try to outsmart or redeem this person, or conceal their character.
Let me affirm that I believe in forgiveness, second chances, and redemption. People do change. People often regret the harm they’ve inflicted on others. And systems in the case of an organization or stances in the case of an individual can be instituted to prevent problems (though upholding these systems can be tiresome, time-consuming, and emotionally draining).
But I have come to realize that I should spend much of my effort in protecting myself and others if I sense a problem, not trying to fix a psychological disorder best handled by professionals. Still, facing the harsh facts frees me to more readily trust those who have proven themselves to be worthy allies. And trusting the right people allows me to experience deeper relationships and transformation through those friendships.