Why Sociopaths Are So Hard to Identify

... and what to do when life absolutely requires you to take a stand.

Posted Apr 22, 2020

Motortion Films/Shutterstock
Source: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

As a psychologist, I studied sociopathy and treated clini­cally traumatized victims for more than 25 years, and still I did not fully appreciate the overwhelming prevalence of sociopathic victimization until I began to write about it. Since my book The Sociopath Next Door was published in 2005, I have been flooded with phone calls and letters from readers who have felt compelled to tell me of their own encounters with people who appear to have no conscience. So motivated have these read­ers been to tell me their stories that some have managed to ac­quire my unlisted home phone number or have waited outside my office door in Boston, hoping to catch me coming or going.

I decided to establish a website with a dedicated email ad­dress so readers could relate their experiences without hav­ing to embark on such desperate searches. As soon as I did, I began receiving a seemingly endless torrent of messages from all over the world. Most of the people who contacted me (and who continue to do so, daily) are dealing with a possible sociopath who is simply not avoidable: the opposing party in a custody battle, a boss or a coworker in a job too valuable to leave, an adult in their family, or, in perhaps the most excruciating situation of all, one of their own children.

The readers who seek me out are from all genders and many walks of life, but they have certain experiences in common: They have all felt alone and more than a little crazy; each has believed himself or herself to be the only person ever fooled and manipulated by a human being who turned out to possess an alien mind. They have survived a reality-shattering relationship with at least one person incapable of guilt, remorse, or even concern. And, until they read The Sociopath Next Door, all of these survivors had assumed that no one would believe their strange stories. The book gave them the concepts and the words to describe their experiences. Now they were searching for tools to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Nearly all the letters I have received over the years fall naturally into a few categories, and, in media appearances and private conversations, I have been asked countless questions on these same crucial topics: the grim reality of sociopathic children and how to deal with them; specific methods you can use to overcome a sociopath who has targeted you at work; what to do when, terrifyingly, your opponent in a child custody struggle is a sociopath; assaultive sociopaths (including cyberassault); and the differences between a sociopath and a narcissist.

Most conscienceless people, seeking to blend in with the rest of society — and not wanting to be caught or imprisoned — commit “invisible” moral and interpersonal crimes. Contrary to popular misconceptions, sociopaths who turn to lethal violence are a small minority. They are far more likely to be destructive liars and manipulators who play brutal psychological, financial, and political games with our lives. They comprise the single largest subgroup of domestic abusers: people who attempt to enhance their sense of power and control by beating up on spouses, chil­dren, and the elderly in the privacy of their homes. This is one reason we find them so difficult to identify. But when socio­paths do murder, the results disturb us deeply. The pattern seen in murderous sociopathic behavior is motivated differently from non-sociopathic violence.

Psychologists are loath to recommend avoidance as the solu­tion to a problem, but where sociopathy is concerned, avoidance is actually the optimal course. Whether violent or not, sociopaths live outside of the social contract that binds the rest of us, are uniquely destructive, and will never be able to engage in au­thentic personal or work relationships with anyone. Their sole preoccupation is to have power over other people, and the most advisable and least dangerous course of action is to avoid such people altogether. However, steering clear of the sociopath is not always possible.

What chance does an honest person have against a clever so­ciopath, a disguised adversary whose special powers are duplicity and absolute shamelessness? How does someone with normal emotional reactions to the suffering of others defeat an enemy who can guiltlessly do anything at all, no matter how destructive or cruel? How can a sincere and forthright person convince oth­ers of a sociopath’s true nature when this calculating pretender fools and manipulates even extremely intelligent people, some­times just for the thrill of making them jump?

My goal here is to provide clear and practical answers to these questions and to deal head-on with the fearful self-doubts that arise when people of conscience must oppose ruth­less manipulators. To the woman who showed up on my doorstep and so many others, I want to offer answers that are optimistic and em­boldening. As an honest, caring person, you have far more power than you know. Seeing the pattern, understanding the true na­ture of sociopathy, and, most crucially, possessing effective methods to thwart the sociopath’s agenda will allow you to identify sociop­athy confidently and respond with wise and powerful action when life absolutely requires you to take a stand.

Adapted from OUTSMARTING THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR by Martha Stout, Ph.D, copyright © 2020 Martha Stout, Ph.D. Used with permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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