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Wednesday, 24 July 2019

How to Spot a Psychopath

It's a shame that Hollywood and pop culture depict psychopaths as stark raving lunatics carrying chainsaws. When writing my novella Psycho Girl I spent a lot of time watching films and reading books with psychopathic characters, as well as reading lots of articles and watching videos by psychologists. The truth is, psychopaths all have similar tendencies and it's simple to catch them out if you know what you're looking for. I think it's important that people are made aware of what a psychopath actually is, and how they are different from a sociopath.

A key difference between a sociopath and a psychopath is that sociopaths practically have a sign above their head saying 'I'M NOT A NICE PERSON.' A sociopath reeks of cruelty and blatant animosity. They're what we imagine when we think of a 'psycho.' Anyone can become a sociopath or develop sociopathic tendencies. Outward deliquent behaviour, blatant disregard for the rules, hot-headedness, aggression, manipulation - these are all evident traits of a sociopath.

What makes a psychopath dangerous and more rare is that they don't appear to be strange. At a glance, psychopaths seem incredibly normal - almost too normal. This is because psychopaths have reduced connections between the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex, and the amygdala, both of which are responsible for empathy, guilt, and regulating anxiety. Sociopaths can actually feel empathy and remorse - it is incredibly limited, but they are not born with a different brain chemistry.

What sucks is that if you have high empathy and intuition and can sense someone may be a psychopath, people probably won't believe you because of the stigma and common assumptions around psychopathy. A psychopath is not someone who runs around with a hacksaw chopping people's heads off. Mostly they are seemingly ordinary people; regular guys and girls with regular jobs and families. They are harmless as long as you stay away and don't aggravate them. Here are some key signs.

You feel intense discomfort. Humans are naturally trained to sense danger, and people who suffer from anxiety have heightened autonomic nervous systems. When you're highly empathetic or highly anxious, you're much more attuned to sudden threats. This is the opposite of psychopaths as they do not experience anxiety or fear in the same way as the general population. When a highly sensitive person comes face to face with a psychopath, intense dread and fear can swamp the gut. You may not know why, but it's your body subconsciously telling you something isn't right with the person. (Important to emphasize that this is very physiological - our bodies tell us things all the time. It isn't always 'all in our heads.)

The person exudes eerie calmness. This is probably the most obvious sign of a psychopath. Some people are naturally calm and laid back; this type of calmness is very different. Again, psychopaths don't feel fear or anxiety like normal people do. Norman Bates, Amy Dunne, Rhoda Penmark and Ramsay Bolton are characters in different movie genres from different time periods. But they all behave similarly and one major tell-tale is that blank, wide-eyed calmness. An indifference to what's happening around them, an inability to feel deep or intense emotions (other than rage, contempt or greed). Their vocal tone will be consistent, their voice won't tend to have the typical range of inflections. Ask them about something they love or are passionate about and you'll hear the lack of emotion in their voice.

They are soft-spoken. It's the perfect mask. A psychopath is someone who wants to appear as normal as possible. They will pay attention to how they dress and carry themselves, and try and show the world they are a good, honourable citizen. You won't really see a psychopath as the obvious lively life of the party; the charismatic friend who wants to bring everyone together and can talk the hind legs off a donkey. At a glance they may appear shy or subdued, or nondescript. It makes them the perfect predators.

They allude to their creepy nature. The few times in my life where I believe I have encountered psychopaths, they have all tried to draw attention to the fact that they seem odd or creepy. One person I met was standing and watching the other people in the room. When I came back to ask if they were alright, they said they were just watching everyone else, then smiled and said 'bit creepy.' Years ago I  had a brief Tinder date with someone I instantly knew wasn't right. He told me about a friend who met up with a girl online and then started controlling her and not letting her see her friends. He said all of this in a calm, deliberate manner, watching me intently, as if subtly hinting that he was the one doing this to the girl.
Got my eye on you...

The intensive stare. I struggle with looking people in the eye, especially if I don't know them that well. A psychopath doesn't have that kind of anxious self-conscious. They will stare at you, blankly and intensely, for ages, their eyes blinking infrequently. The guy I met on Tinder would stare at me and then erupt into a forced, almost deliberate laugh. I was incredibly calm but I remember my stomach churning with dread the entire time. It's a predatory 'dead faced' stare designed to make you uneasy. They are sussing you out, seeing whether or not you will crumble.

A vaguely abusive past. A sociopath will probably be upfront about all of the terrible things that have happened to them in an attempt to emotionally manipulate you. Psychopaths, being much more calculated and measured than sociopaths, will be more evasive. They will hint at 'crazy' or 'abusive' ex-partners, or make it seem that all of their friends and everyone they've ever encountered was cruel or unkind or weird in some way. They will drop enough information to reel you in, but there won't be any or many details. Sadly you may end up pouring your heart out to them, and then realising they haven't really reciprocated.

Attempts to confuse you or play mind-games. Also known as 'gas-lighting'; e.g. you tell someone that they said something, and then they will deny it or insist you are crazy or it never happened like that. They may hint at certain things they have done in the past or that have happened to them, and then ask if you believe them or think they're telling the truth. It's all part of their games. Psychopaths love to confuse people and mess with their heads; they get a kick out of winding people up and find it amusing when people can't tell if they're lying or not. (They are skilled liars and will lie just for the hell of it.)

Shallow friendships. Psychopaths view people as disposable, and tend to keep people close to them if they feel they are gaining something out of it, such as entertainment or attention. Empathetic people are incredibly giving and loving, and psychopaths know that, so if you really care for them you will end up doing things for them; buying them things, supporting them, without expecting anything in return. They will allude to the fact that they have few friends, and can go from speaking highly of one friend to putting them down.

Arrogance. A psychopath is a narcissist who believes that they are a superior being. They will believe that their view is best, they know best, and put down anything that goes against what they think. They're incredibly full of themselves and this will leak out, such as describing themselves as the perfect friend/partner or insisting that you do what they think. (This will be done in a charming way of course, rather than 'forcefully'. They need to keep you on their side.)

A good way to really see if someone is a psychopath is to be in pain or show vulnerability. The way in which people react to my panic attacks gives me a good indicator about their true colours. Supportive people will flock and ask what is wrong and if I'm okay, and try and help. Fearful people will show sympathy towards me, but won't know what to do or how to react so are likely to freeze or become uncomfortable. Indifferent people - which is rare - will say nothing, do nothing, and show no response to how you are. It's important to distinguish between someone who goes blank because they are afraid and don't know what to do, and someone who flat out doesn't care.

It's also important to note that people who have autism can appear to lack empathy or be emotionally indifferent. It's quite simple to tell the difference between a person who is autistic and a person who is a psychopath; autistic people tend to be incredibly empathetic and kind, it's just very subtle and shows more in action than words. Autistic people also struggle with emotional and social cues from others (think Sheldon Cooper). Psychopaths do not 'struggle', they are being deliberate. Psychopaths are very aware of the discomfort they cause others; autistic people genuinely struggle with social awareness.

Also, I must stress that I am NOT an expert or a diagnosed psychiatrist. I'm just a person who thinks and writes and studies people - partly because I'm a writer, and partly because I've been taken advantage of emotionally throughout my life so need to know what kind of people to be weary of. I also again stress that psychopaths are NOT the same as sociopaths, and the reason why that's so crucial to remember is because psychopaths are far more dangerous and coy (and much rarer), so mis-labelling the two can actually be damaging.
Video creds to Psych2Go

Luckily, there are loads of videos and sites online that distinguish between the two. I also highly recommend the book Psychopath Free by Jackson MacKenzie if you feel you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship. It doesn't matter how long ago something happened to you; if something has an extremely negative effect on you, then work through it for as long as needed. It only takes a few minutes for someone to be raped, but that emotional effect can last a lifetime.

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I'm Zarina Macha, an author, blogger, and musician from London. I write about stuff on the internet 'cos having opinions is fun -- if you want to join the games, please note your thoughts below. All thoughts welcome, even if they're mean (just no spam links please -- can't tell you what a liability those are to remove).
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