Thursday, February 5, 2015

Toxic Behaviors--Recognizing Sociopaths

One in twenty-five people is a sociopath. These are people with an instinctual ability to exploit weakness and vulnerability. Sociopaths read and study their victims--this is their great advantage over us. They know us better than we know them. Their propensity to exploit weakness is their hidden skill. Once they target their prey, their victims are compromised. People who can see through a sociopath’s deceptions are avoided or eliminated. Discovery is the last thing they want.

But this speaks to them. What about us? Why do so many of us seem vulnerable to sociopaths? One answer may be that many of us have a mild to moderate affinity for danger and a hunger for excitement to punctuate our otherwise mundane lives. Many people enjoy controlled risks and love cheap thrills they 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 rides, fill this void for most of us.

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Great Gatsby.

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

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 over their heads in relationships with men who aren’t as smart because they perceive the man to be exciting, sexy, or notorious? The answer is simply too many. These relationships often become controlling, degrading, and violent. Sometimes, they become fatal.

Everyday life is routine and tedious much of the time, and we are creatures of habit. So every once in a while, many of us like to step out of our hum-drum lives and relax our defenses. Predators know this. When someone or something doesn’t seem right, people should go with their instincts and not ignore the warning signs.

Here are ten traits of sociopaths to watch for:

Sociopaths don’t have a conscience.

2. They suffer from attachment disorder.

3. They are easily bored and need continual stimulation.

4. They are not comfortable in their own skin.

5. They are absolutely self-involved and high-strung.

6. They tend toward hypochondria and seek pity to manipulate others.

7. They are not team players.

8. They show unremitting self-interest.

9. They use and abuse people with impunity.

They are narcissists who know the words but not the music of life.

(Source unknown.)

Sociopaths make full use of social and professional roles which provide a ready-made mask. Many of us are irrationally influenced by people in positions of authority or in uniform. Conventional wisdom insists that You can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do so routinely. We have all heard and seen news reports of police, teachers, clergymen, and childcare providers who abuse the trust placed in them. Their roles or the masks they wear constitute their protective coloration or camouflage.

Serial killer Gerald John Schaefer became a teacher after college but was fired for “totally inappropriate behavior” by the school’s headmaster. Next, he tried to get into the priesthood and was quickly rejected. Then, he became a policeman. Each of these authoritarian roles would have placed Schaefer in a position of power to exploit and abuse people.

As a patrolman, Schaefer picked up two teenage girls who were hitchhiking on July 21, 1972--one seventeen and the other eighteen. He took them to a secluded place in a remote wood, tied them to a tree, and threatened to kill them or sell them into prostitution if they tried to escape. He had to answer a police call on his radio and left. When he returned, the girls had escaped and made their way to the local police station, the same station where Patrolman Schaefer worked. He was arrested and posted bail. Two months after his release, he pulled the same stunt. He abducted Susan Place--age seventeen--and Georgia Jessup--age sixteen. Schaefer tortured, murdered, and buried them on Hutchinson Island, Florida.

Most people readily accept the superficial trappings of authority unquestioned. Too often the danger signs are there, but people choose to ignore them. When they finally see what’s behind the mask, it is often too late.