How to identify a psychopath

By Donna Duggan

How to identify a psychopath
They’re more common than you think, and not all are violent criminals. Here’s how to protect yourself.

David Gillespie, best selling author of the Sweet Poison books, is launching a new title this month, Taming Toxic People [Pan Macmillan], which covers the science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths. The former corporate lawyer has been researching the topic for many years and believes it’s a subject where people need answers.

“In many organisations I’ve had the unfortunate experience of working with psychopaths”, says Gillespie. “It may come with the territory, I don’t know if there are more in law firms but having spoken to a lot of people about this I’m finding that my experience wasn’t that unusual. While I thought I was suffering alone, the reality was there was a lot of people in exactly the same boat as me.”

The word psychopath has many different connotations. While the movies have us believe that a psychopath is someone that meticulously plans and executes violent attacks, psychiatrist Hervey M Cleckley more accurately described psychopaths in his 1941 book The Mask of Sanity as someone who knows no moral or ethical boundaries but appears to function as a perfectly normal member of society.

In 1980 Robert Hare, a Canadian clinical psychologist, developed a checklist for identifying a psychopath which is now widely used. The checklist measures traits like superficial charm, propensity to lie, lack of remorse, grandiose sense of self worth, lack of empathy, cunning and emotionally shallow. “There are more common terms that people would instantly recognize as a definition of this personality type,” says Gillespie “things like micromanager, workplace bully and emotionally manipulative.”

Our current Western society is the perfect breeding ground for psychopaths, where the desires of an individual trump community values, and profit is more important than how it is achieved. Gillespie makes it clear that you will never change a psychopath but you can ‘tame’ them by controlling your responses. “So from an organisational perspective it’s putting in place rules and procedures and checks and balances and a culture of honesty,” says Gillespie. Some rules include being polite [“the psychopath does not, and never will, respect you” writes Gillespie]; fact check everything they say [“you can’t stop a psychopath lying to you but you can stop believing them”]; and being emotionless. “From a personal perspective it’s about controlling your response to them and being able to predict their behaviour so life becomes more certain,” Gillespie says. “The most damaging thing they do is confuse us and make us doubt ourselves.”

Psychopaths treat people one of two ways. “On the inbound side, when they want something from you, they are almost impossible to recognise because they tell you exactly what you want to hear”, warns Gillespie. “That is one of their primary skills. They can mimic any personality type and read what motivates us.” When you are a victim it’s normal to want justice, but Gillespie warns that you must put aside all thoughts of retaliation and plan a path out without harm. “

If you are in the middle of an attack, Gillespie advises completely shutting down any emotional response. “They are not operating on emotions and neither should you”. Hitting back or running away doesn’t work with psychopaths. “Respond where required and otherwise don’t respond at all”. While there is nothing easy about disentangling from a psychopath, that is what must be done for your own emotional and physical health.

Gillespie says there are some signs you’ve partnered with a psychopath:

  • They were incredibly charming in precisely the way you liked to be charmed.
  • They identified and used your insecurities to make you like them more.
  • They gained your trust early.
  • They were impressive.
  • They manipulated your sympathy.
  • They crave attention and surround themselves with fans.
  • They have no past.
  • They will sever your relationships.
  • They lie constantly.
  • Nothing is ever their fault.


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