Sociopath-proof in 2009

Editor’s note: This is the first post by Lovefraud’s newest blog author, Kathleen Hawk. She previously posted many thoughtful comments under the screen name “khatalyst.”

Last year, 2008, was a year in which we faced the cost of sociopathy in our economy. Huge financial firms were destroyed or deeply damaged by their own corporate cultures. Their employees were encouraged to pursue personal gain, without concern about the messes they left behind or the damage they did to other people’s lives. The results are loss and suffering, even for people who had nothing to do with these companies.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Sociopathy taken to a grand scale. But there are people and institutions that didn’t buy into the subprime mortgage debacle. There are people who turned down the opportunity to invest with Bernard Madoff. Likewise, there are people who don’t get involved with sociopaths. They don’t attract them, or if they do, they get rid of them before any damage is done.

This article is about my suggestions for New Years resolutions that will help make us like those people.

About 20 years ago, I was fortunate to attend a week-long training at Brain Technologies, a consulting firm founded by the authors of Strategy of the Dolphin.* This book — written for business managers but also useful for people wanting to better manage their own lives — divides the world into sharks and carps. Both act out their addictions. Sharks are addicted to winning. Carps are addicted to being loved.

There was a third type of character in the “pool.” That was the dolphin. The dolphin learned in action, adapting its behavior to what was required at any given moment. If threatened, it might act like a shark. At more comfortable times, it might act like a carp. One of my favorite dolphin strategies described in the book is “tit for tat.” That is, if a shark takes a bite out of a dolphin, the dolphin takes an equivalent bite out of the shark. Not to escalate the fight, but just let the shark know that it was not dealing with a carp.

You’ll notice the dolphin doesn’t cringe and say, “Please don’t bite me.” It doesn’t pat the shark on the head and say, “You must have had a difficult childhood and you clearly need more love.” It absolutely doesn’t lie down and say, “I can see you’re hungry, and I can spare a part or two.” What it does is communicate in concrete terms that a dolphin lunch is going to be very, very expensive for the shark.

Which brings me to the New Year’s resolutions we might consider to makes ourselves sociopath-proof.

1. Eliminate pity.

This may sound very strange to those of us who were taught that we are responsible to help the less fortunate. But pity is not what we were supposed to learn. Pity is an emotion that places us in a one-up position to someone we view as less than us. It is also dangerously linked to feeling sorry for ourselves. In acting on pity, we get into emotionally tangled situations of entitlement and debt, which leave us feeling unappreciated and resentful.

Empathy and compassion are much more functional and respectful emotions. Empathy is extending ourselves to understand another’s circumstances. (“That must be difficult for you.”) Compassion is extending ourselves to understand how they feel. (“That must be painful for you.”) Both of them can lead to bonding experiences. Neither of them requires us to take action to help. In fact, “dispassionate compassion” is the respectful recognition that other people are following their own paths, which have nothing to do with us. This doesn’t mean that we won’t help, but it keeps things in perspective.

As most people who have been involved with sociopaths know, the ability to elicit pity and then take advantage of our knee-jerk inclination to help is one of their greatest manipulative tools. It can be particularly seductive, because they seem so strong and confident, except for this one little weakness. If we practice offering empathy or compassion without offering to help, we can short-circuit the pity play, and gain control over where we place our helping efforts.

2. Demand reciprocity.

“Demand” doesn’t mean trying to make people do what is unnatural to them. It means making choices to pursue relationships in which reciprocity clearly exists. If we are generous to someone who seems to have an unlimited appetite for our generosity, but little inclination to give back, we cut that person out of our life.

In demanding reciprocity, we become clear about what we’re giving and what we want back. For example, if we are open about our feelings, then we may want the same in return. If we are willing to provide emotional support, we may want that back. If we are providing financial or material support, we may want something material or financial in return for it. (If we’re paying money for emotional support, this is a professional relationship, not a personal one.)

Reciprocity exists in real time. This is not like being good all our life, so that after we die, we go to heaven. This is being good and getting good back. Here and now. People act out of their characters and also out of their real objectives. If the other person’s real objectives don’t include being fair to us right now, then we are in an unfair situation. This is the year we abandon unfairness in our lives.

3. Trust conditionally.

It’s a basic human need to trust and be trusted. Like love, we want it to be perfect and forever. Like love, maintaining trust often takes shared effort, and it can lead to disappointment. Some of us hope that we if treat people as though they were trustworthy, they will rise to the occasion.

As those of us who have been involved with sociopaths know, treating them as though they can be trusted is equivalent to asking a burglar to watch our jewelry box while we make a pot of coffee. What we got back for treating them as though they could be trusted is loss.

But this isn’t just about sociopaths. In day-to-day living, we are continually learning new things about the people we know. Sometimes, we learn good things that make us trust someone more. Sometimes we learn troubling things that make us trust someone less. When we trust them less, it means that we are more guarded in sharing ourselves and our resources. When we trust them more, we are more relaxed.

Diminished trust is not the end of the world. There are ways that we can work with another person to rebuild trust, if that person is worthy of trust. And there are ways to deal with untrustworthy people if we can’t get rid of them, as in a work situation. However it plays out, the important thing is to be honest with ourselves about how trusting we really feel. It has everything to do with our survival and well-being.

4. Value what we have.

Other than pity, the sociopath’s best tool of manipulation is identifying our dissatisfactions with our own lives, magnifying them, and then claiming to have the solution. They set their hooks in the voids in our lives, the lacks that we worry over, dream over.

If we wonder what kind of person is invulnerable to sociopathic wiles, it is the kind who invests time and energy on what he or she has, rather than what’s missing. That doesn’t mean they aren’t working on improvements. But when they look at themselves and their lives, they see something they own, planned and built by they own efforts. It doesn’t mean they never made a mistake, but they survived it and learned from it.

That kind of attitude is fundamentally positive. It looks at what exists in the environment — internal and external — and says “What good thing can I do with this?” How can I use it to make me happier or my life more interesting? What can I do with it to make the world a better place for the people I care about?

For those of us who are still raw from a brutally exploitive relationship, it may be hard to focus on anything but what we’ve lost. We are wounded and we feel pain. But in healing, we learn that pain is one of our valued resources. It motivates us to learn. It can even keep us from learning the wrong thing. For example, deciding to never trust anyone again is a premature learning, and we feel pain whenever we go in that direction. Pain is one of the voices of our inner wisdom. It keeps us from settling for the wrong thing.

5. Self-validate.

In other words, care less about what other people think. Turn within for encouragement, approval, comfort, inspiration and kindness.

Sociopaths have been called “soul killers,” because they separate us from our inner wisdom. First they seduce us with our own dreams, then they cause us to question our ideas and our values, and finally they beat us down with disloyalty and denigration while telling us that we asked for it. The longer and deeper our involvement, the more we lose ourselves in self-questioning and ultimately self-hatred.

If there is one good thing about a relationship with a sociopath, it is the clarification that we are our own primary support. In dealing with someone who is dishonest, undependable, untrustworthy and viciously unkind, most of us discover that we know better. We know that we are not what they think of us. We are not even how we are behaving. There is something in us that knows better. Knows who we really are. Knows how we really want our life to be.

We also discover that no one else — not the sociopath, not our friends, not our advisors —knows us better than we do. It doesn’t mean that we know everything about the world. We still collect information. We still seek role models for things we don’t know how to do yet. We’re not proud or over-impressed with ourselves. We just know rationally that we’re our own best counsel, our only decider of what we think, feel, believe, want and choose to do.

When we learn how to self-validate, it changes our lives. For those of us who hear the denigrating voice of the sociopath in our thoughts, self-validating is a way to bypass it. To say, “Oh, shut up. You’re not me, you’re just a bad memory” while we move on to explore our thoughts and feelings. It takes practice to self-validate. We have to make a decision about wanting to be independent in creating our own lives. We have to train ourselves to find our inner wisdom and push aside anything that gets in the way of hearing it.

This year, 2009, is the year that all of us get better. Better friends with ourselves and others because we’re cultivating compassion and empathy. Better lovers because we’re learning to love out of choice, not need. Better partners of every sort, because we give and demand kindness and respect. Better members of our community because “dispassionate compassion” enables us to select our helpful efforts, rather than feeling forced into them.

Should a sociopath show up, we are learning the best way to be sociopath-proof. That is, to value ourselves and our lives. And to exercise our options — to be a ruthlessly determined shark or a sweetly generous carp — depending on what our circumstances require.

Namaste. The dolphin in me salutes the dolphin in you.


* Strategy of the Dolphin, Dudley Lynch and Paul Kordis, 1989. Out of print, but available from sellers at Amazon. More information on additional books and personal assessment tests can be found at Brain Technologies.

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