Reply To: Taking on psychopath's behaviors?

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Hi Tiffany,

It may help you to look in more detail at what it was that happened, or what it was your new boyfriend did, that’s been leading you to “freak out” or “blow up” at him. In particular, was there anything about it that REMINDED you of the kinds of things your psychopath did to you? Or if you can pin down just what it is you feel fearful of or angry about, is that similar in some way to what made you (justifiably of course) fearful or angry about what that psychopath was doing?

If you do see similarities, I’m not suggesting that’s because your new boyfriend is a psychopath too! Mind you, that possibility should not be entirely ruled out, because a number of people do have personality traits that attract them to abusers, or attract abusers to them. As a result, they sometimes find themselves in one relationship after another with abusers of some kind.

However, that’s not really what I have in mind. Rather, I’m suggesting some of the things happening in your new relationship, things your new boyfriend is doing, while normal and innocuous enough in themselves, may be TRIGGERS for you, behaviors and events you’ve been hypersensitized to from your previous relationship. These triggers may be evoking fear or anger out of proportion to their real significance, and causing you to overreact to them.

Though you may be afraid that you’ve taken on some of your psychopathic ex-partner’s abusive behaviors, it’s important to realize that people can behave abusively due to quite different motives. So if you weren’t like this before, it’s highly unlikely that you’re “turning into a psychopath” yourself!

Chronic abusers themselves come in different “types,” who may on the surface do many of the same bad things but have a different underlying psyche, even opposite in certain ways. For instance, psychopaths seem largely immune to fear (though some of them can appear strangely paranoid at times). For the borderline on the other hand, fear—the fear of “abandonment,” and the rage it gives rise to—is a major part of the personality. In particular, while psychopaths’ behavior is rooted in their extreme emotional shallowness—their total lack of empathy above all—irrationally overblown emotions, fear and anger especially, can play a major role in the behavior of some other abusers. Some of them may not be easily classifiable in terms of a specific personality disorder, and their behavior (unlike the psychopath’s) is largely of environmental origin, typically the consequence of being chronically abused in childhood. In adulthood, abusers of this type can be “triggered” by others into overreacting to an action or situation, “normal” in itself, that reminds them (perhaps subconsciously) of how they were mistreated. That brings to the surface all kinds of fears and buried rage which they then unfortunately proceed to vent on the blameless person who triggered them.

Madelaine quite rightly pointed out that you’re likely to be suffering from PTSD after your encounter with the psychopath. After all, a prominent effect of PTSD is to cause overreactions to otherwise normal events, conditioned by past situations. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the classic example of the war veteran startled by a car backfiring in the street who throws himself on the ground—as if he’s still on the battlefield being shot at or ambushed. Overreactions typify PTSD. That example of course is not “abusive” to anybody, but all too frequently it can be. Dr. Donald Dutton spent his very fine career researching abuse-related issues and treating (as far as it can be done) domestic abusers, and one of his findings was that large numbers of chronic abusers suffered from PTSD symptoms, including insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

This is not to say your problem is as profound as someone who has harbored these symptoms since childhood, but it’s well worth examining how much of your behavior is not an “emulation of,” but a “reaction to” various aspects of your psychopathic ex-partner’s treatment of you. If it continues to be a problem, therapy can help with PTSD. Good luck!

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