In my newspaper last week was an excerpt from a book by a female sociopath. It was disturbing on multiple levels, especially the introductory bit that said, “Read on. You could be a sociopath too.”
Here’s a summary:
• She’s smart, beautifully dressed, charming and super manipulative.
• She’s a subtle flatterer who knows how to cajole, amuse and beguile the most well-defended ego. (For her benefit, naturally.)
• She has no conscience. (How do you manage that?)
• If she talks to you at all — and she’d rather not — she’s always the first to leave the conversation. (It’s a power thing.)
• She has a steady, blank stare. (Like a wolf.)
• She doesn’t kill people close to her but she can’t guarantee anyone else’s safety. ( My supermarket shopping is now a study in paranoia. Is that Hannibal in the lamb section? The self-checkout machine is also suspect. Its callous disregard for humanity and its cold stare are dead giveaways.)
• She likes to know where your grandmother’s buried. (Your guess is as good as mine.)
As a physical hypochondriac, I think I’m dying from plague or cancer or stroke at least once a week. And now Lady Sociopath has revealed a nascent psychiatric hypochondria as well.
I checked my mental health status with psychologist husband (PH).
Me: Am I a sociopath?
PH: Of course not. You care about what others think. They don’t.
Me: They’re pretty scary.
PH: Not really. They do jobs that no one else will do.
Me: Like what?
PH: Like some of the more difficult things a war requires.
Me: But what do they do when there’s no war?
PH: They run companies or go into politics. They’re everywhere.
I spent the next hour worrying whether any of my friends, family, pets and acquaintances are sociopaths until it occurred to me that if they’re everywhere, then knowing how to spot them would be a valuable life skill. So I googled “How to spot a sociopath” and unearthed Martha Stout, a Harvard psychologist who’s written a book called The Sociopath Next Door.
She says they make up 4% of the world’s population. That’s about 340 million people. Or 1 in 25. Or 4 in 100. (No matter which way you write this figure, it’s ghastly.)
I did some sociopath maths to see how many I have to fend off in my own country.
Population of Australia: 23 million
Sociopath percentage: 4 per cent
Conclusion: I million sociopaths on my doorstep.
This calculation rattled me so I asked my teenage son whether 1 million Australian sociopaths is a problem for him. He said: “No. I’m more worried that 47% of Australians are functionally innumerate and illiterate.”
I emailed my sister. “We’ve got 1 million sociopaths here. Does that worry you?” She replied: “I read an article recently that said sociopaths bring about change, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but change nonetheless. They take risks and shake things up. This is probably why there are quite a few of them around.”
Maybe I’m worrying unnecessarily.
Back to Martha of Harvard. She says we have to protect ourselves from sociopaths because we’re at their mercy if we don’t. She says they glow with interestingness and intrigue and people gravitate to them. They’re intense, sexy and persuasive. Her advice is to avoid them at all costs.
I like her advice — it’s sensible and rational. But there’s a problem. It’s getting hard to avoid these social terrorists because they’re impossible to spot these days. They blend in with everyone else. This is because we all want to be noticed and admired so we buy bestselling books that tell us how make ourselves more charismatic and funny and interesting. We audition for reality TV shows and yearn to be on Oprah or Ellen de Generes or The Voice or Masterchef. We all look like sociopaths now.
So what do we do?
Here’s what we do: Because we can’t tell a genuine cold-hearted fiend from a regular person we have to shift strategies.
This is my strategy: Assume everyone is a sociopath until proven otherwise.
Now there’s no more guesswork. Guesswork takes energy and I need energy to deal with these evildoers. I’m then free to build up resistance to the sociopath’s most beguiling weapon:flattery.
This means I must soften my ego because egos love flattery. I’ve come to this conclusion because ego-reduced humans like the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle would never fall for a sociopath’s blather. My research suggests that meditation is helpful. And so is an exercise called Becoming Inconspicuous.
These are my secret weapons and they render me too boring to warrant a sociopath’s attention in the first place. And whenever I get smug and think I’ve removed my need to bask in flattery’s glow, I read this Myanmar folktale:
A king once received a guest at his palace who was a skilled flatterer.
The king’s advisers warned him to be careful: “This man attains wealth and prestige through flattery, and he will attempt to divest you of expensive gifts and land if you succumb to his wiles.”
“I would never fall for such deception,” said the king. “Send him in.”
When the guest arrived, he recited a poem in the king’s honour and knelt at his feet.
“How blessed I am to be in your esteemed presence, Your Majesty,” he said. “I am blinded by your radiant beauty and the glory of your being, your divine charm, your wit, your elegance…”
He continued for about twenty minutes. When he paused for breath, one of the advisers seized the opportunity to have a quick word with the king:
“Didn’t we warn you, Your Majesty. He is a charmer.”
“Stop fussing,” said the king. “I told you before that it’s hard to trick me. The moment he starts any flattery I’ll have him evicted. But so far he has spoken nothing but the truth.”
Scam the scammer: it’s time to fight back
Myanmar folktale adapted from Around the Globe Tales