Friday, August 2, 2013

Sociopathic Charm (Part Three of Four)

People labeled as sociopaths are often superficially described as charming. Even after their outrages have been discovered, many people seem dumbstruck, despite the evidence. It is part of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of their personality disorder that enables them to deceive other people so easily. They are natural actors because deception and manipulation are second nature to them.

Sociopaths are people with an uncanny ability to access weakness and vulnerability. They know us better than we know them. They read and study their victims - this is their great advantage. Their propensity to exploit our weaknesses is their hidden skill; once they target their prey, their victims are compromised and defenseless. People who recognize or see through a predator's deceptions are assiduously avoided. Discovery is the last thing a sociopath wants.

But that speaks to them. What about us? Why do so many of us seem vulnerable? As with many things in life, there is no easy answer.  One explanation may be that most people have a mild affinity for danger and a hunger for excitement to punctuate their otherwise mundane lives.

Most people enjoy "controlled" risks. We love cheap thrills we can get an emotional rush from and then return to the safety of our homes. Vicarious experiences from action and thriller fantasies on the silver screen, to riding the latest and greatest amusement park attractions, fill this void for many of us. Still, others prefer creating murder and mayhem in the guise of video games in the privacy of their own homes, or living vicariously through the exploits of their sport heroes.

American pop culture presents a high octane lifestyle of the rich and famous, often fueled by drugs, alcohol, and conspicuous wealth, that creates an unrealistic expectation for success which most Americans can never achieve. We idolize famous actors, successful athletes, and people with money. We long for our own sense of celebrity. Anything to quell the incipient boredom of our conventional lives. We hunger for excitement, so most of us are willing to take the occasional risk.

Part of our American folklore informs us that dangerous people are charismatic. Going for the "bad boy" seems like a coming of age ritual for many young women in our culture - the proverbial moth attracted to the flame. How many intelligent women get into relationships with men who aren't as smart as they are because the man may be perceived as exciting, sexy, or notorious? The answer is "Too many!"

Often, these guys undermine other people's faith in themselves with a technique called "gaslighting," a term derived from the movie Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer - a husband tries to make his wife go insane by manipulating her self-doubt. It has since become a term used in clinical psychology. When someone or something doesn't feel right to you - go with your instincts - don't ignore warning signs.

Another thing that makes people vulnerable is that we are irrationally influenced by a person's appearance, especially people in positions of authority and in uniform. Our conventional wisdom insists that "You can't judge a book by its cover," but we do this routinely.

Sociopaths make full use of social and professional roles which provide a "ready made mask." Most people seldom look behind the mask, and they readily accept the superficial trappings of success. Women need to be more discerning in their personal lives and take off their blinders. Don't be an enabler and a party to your own emotional and physical destruction. Passivity is what sociopaths thrive on.