In psychology, there is something known as the dark triadic personalities, which includes narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In another article, we wrote about how you can discern whether or not you're in a relationship with a narcissist. Psychopaths make up about one percent of the general population. The focus of this article will be on traits exhibited by psychopaths and how to spot them.
Before exploring the traits exhibited by a psychopath, it's important to define psychopathy and determine how it's different from sociopathy. Many people use the terms sociopath and psychopath interchangeably. This is a topic that is discussed and debated by scholars in the field, and there is still no clear consensus about the difference. For the purpose of this article, we will define psychopaths as different from sociopaths.
According to Scott A. Bonn Ph.D., it is believed that psychopaths are a result of genetics ("nature") whereas sociopaths are a product of their environment ("nurture"). Psychopathy stems from a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions. Conversely, Sociopathy more likely results from childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse. Furthermore, sociopaths often seem nervous and easily agitated, and they are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts. They also tend to live on the fringes of society. On the other hand, psychopaths are unable to form emotional attachments and do not feel empathy. Whereas sociopaths are nervous and agitated, psychopaths are generally well educated, hold good jobs and are excessively charming. This is why psychopaths can be so dangerous- because they can charm themselves so easily into your life and before you know it; they've taken over.
Together with a team of physicians and psychologists, Robert Hale created the instrument called the "Psychopathy Checklist," which is now used worldwide by clinicians and researchers to distinguish psychopaths from "rule breakers." While it is good to know what these traits are, only a licensed professional can determine if a person is in fact a psychopath. Below is a list of traits that define psychopaths. Each term will have a brief description with it, and then following the list of traits, we will illustrate how a psychopath could work his/her way into your life, and how to watch out for it.
- Glib and superficial
- Psychopaths are often amusing and great conversationalists, always ready with a clever comeback. They tell unlikely but convincing stories that cast themselves in a good light. They are very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming.
- Egocentric and grandiose
- Psychopaths possess a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement. They see themselves as the center of the universe, and are therefore justified in living according to their own rules.
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- No matter how devastating their actions may be on others, psychopaths exhibit a stunning lack of concern. They will calmly state that they have no sense of guilt for their actions, and that there is no reason to be concerned. They are often forthright about this admission, as they feel no remorse or responsibility, and they easily come up with excuses for their actions.
- Lack of empathy
- Psychopaths cannot put themselves "in the other's shoes." On an intellectual level they may be able to imagine how others feel, but generally they are indifferent to the pain and suffering of others.
- Deceitful and manipulative
- Psychopaths constantly construct lies and stories about themselves. Even if they find themselves trapped in a lie, rather than feel embarrassed and admit the truth, they have constructed such a complex web of lies about themselves that they just create a whole new story and rework all the facts to rationalize the lie they were trapped in.
- Shallow emotions
- Psychopaths lack a depth of emotion. Often they appear cold and unresponsive. They can pretend to feel passion, but when observed more closely, they appear to be play-acting.
- If asked why they did something, a common response from a psychopath is "I did it because I felt like it." The primary aim of a psychopaths modus operandi is to achieve immediate satisfaction, relief or pleasure.
- Poor behavior controls
- Psychopaths react poorly to perceived slights or criticism. They can often respond with sudden violent outbursts that are short lived, and as soon as they are over, the psychopath acts as if nothing happened.
- Need for excitement
- They live for excitement. They often create their own rules for life and they can often be seen as people who "live on the edge."
- Lack of responsibility
- Psychopaths are unreliable - do not count on them for fulfilling obligations or commitments.
- Early behavior problems
- Most psychopaths begin to exhibit serious behavioral problems at an early age. These might include persistent lying, cheating, theft, arson, truancy, substance abuse, vandalism, and/or precocious sexuality. It is important to emphasize that the psychopath's history of such behaviors is more extensive and serious than most.
- Adult antisocial behavior
- Because they set their own rules, Psychopaths see the rules and expectations of society as inconvenient and unreasonable impediments to their own behavioral expression.
Now that you have reviewed the checklist of traits that define psychopaths, we will walk you through how a relationship with a psychopath could unfold and how you can identify it.
1. They reel you in with idealization, love-bombing, and flattery.
When you first meet a psychopath, they oversaturate you with information that makes it seem like you have a lot in common and are perfect for one another. They mirror all your hopes and dreams, and before you know it, you're excited about them, you trust them and you're hooked. They initiate all the communication, they plaster your Facebook wall with posts, shower you with compliments, share songs and inside jokes. Suddenly you're receiving so much attention it can be thrilling, yet overwhelming.
2. They prey on your emotions with pity plays and sympathy stories.
They quickly find a way into your heart by telling stories that make you trust and pity them at the same time. They talk about how crazy their last ex was and how they want to get away from the drama. The more time you spend with them though, the more you'll realize that drama exists in many facets of their life.
3. They involve you in their own versions of "love triangles."
As soon as your relationship gets more serious, suddenly the psychopath begins to invite past lovers, exes and potential mates back into their life. People that had previously been denounced as below you are now back in the picture because the psychopath lives for the attention. Before you know it, you begin to doubt yourself and you feel confused with regard to your relationship. The psychopath appears to be in "high demand" and you don't know how you stack up anymore.
4. They constantly rewrite reality and exhibit other crazy-making behavior.
If you speak with a psychopath about their manipulative behavior they will deny it. If you question their stories they become critical of your attempts to disprove the reality they've created with "facts." Rather than address and change their behavior, they put the blame on you for how you react to their behavior. Suddenly, you feel like the "crazy" one.
5. They accuse you of feeling emotions that they are intentionally provoking.
As you get drawn further into their web, the psychopath will provoke you by blatantly flirting in front of you with other people. When you call them out on it, you will suddenly be labeled as "jealous." Where you previously thought you were a relaxed an easy-going person, you'll find yourself constantly on edge and labeled as "hysterical" by the person you are now dating. You're whole emotional world is flipped.
6. You've noticed them pathologically lying and making excuses.
Psychopaths do not take responsibility for anything, and they often cast blame on everything but themselves. If you catch them in a lie, rather than feel embarrassed and admit it, they will come up with another story. Rather than change or improve their behavior, they spend their time rationalizing it and coming up with excuses.
7. They provoke jealousy and rivalries while maintaining their cover of innocence.
With time, they shift their attention to others. Whereas in the beginning they plied you with compliments, inside jokes and songs, now all that energy is going towards others - especially old flames or potential new partners. If you didn't doubt yourself before, now you're really starting to doubt yourself.
8. They withhold attention and undermine your self-esteem.
Before you know it, the psychopath appears to be "bored" of you. They "love-bombed" you in the beginning, but now that interest has waned. They treat you with silence. When you try and rekindle the passion that existed in the beginning that they created, they get annoyed with you. You've now become a chore.
9. They exhibit selfishness and a crippling thirst for attention.
Suddenly, you realize how drained of energy you feel. This person consumes your life, and you aren't getting anything back from it. You initially thought you were the person, the only person who could make them happy, but as the relationship developed you see that they thirst for attention from anyone and everyone. You can never fill that void - no one can.
10. You don't recognize your own feelings.
If you've made it this far in the relationship, you've lost all sense of self. Where you were filled with love and compassion, your emotions are replaced with anxiety, sadness and stress. You don't recognize yourself. You used to think of yourself as easy-going and fun, and now you can barely get out of bed in the morning. At the end of it all, you will fell drained, shocked, and empty. You are a shell of your former self.
Because psychopathy is a psychological disorder, it is something that cannot be "cured" or "improved" through deep emotional work. Psychopaths simply do not have the capacity to change. Therefore, if you find yourself romantically entangled with a psychopath, the only course of action is to get out of the relationship as quickly as possible. Relationships with psychopaths leave long-lasting damage - such as feelings of doubt about yourself and that you'll never be good enough or deserving of a healthy relationship. The first step in the process is setting boundaries for yourself and cutting off all contact - phone, email, social media, etc. It might be difficult at first, but it's a necessary step in taking back your agency and reminding yourself of your own value and greatness.