Therapists and counsellors almost by definition are empathic – but this caring quality can mean they are innocent targets for sociopaths, aided by what Dr Jane & Tim McGregor call “apaths”. Dr. Jane and Tim McGregor’s important work and book, The Empathy Trap, are making empaths aware of the cruel signs and triggers to look for and hopefully avoid it.
Empaths targeted by a sociopath end up finding themselves overrun with guilt feelings like “I was stupid” and the big one…“I should’ve listened to my gut instinct”. But being involved with a sociopath is like being brainwashed. The sociopath’s superficial charm is usually the means by which she/he conditions people.
On initial contact, a sociopath often tests other people’s empathy, so questions geared towards discovering if you are highly empathic or not should ring loud alarm bells (listen to that gut feeling). People with a highly empathic disposition are often targeted. Those with lower levels of empathy are often passed over, though they can be drawn in and used by sociopaths as part of their cruel entertainment.
Sociopaths make up 25% of the prison population, committing over twice as many aggressive acts as other criminals. The reoffending rate of sociopaths is about double that of other offenders, and for violent crimes it is triple.
But not all sociopaths are imprisoned. There is the less-visible burden of sociopath-induced emotional trauma which, if left unchecked, can lead to anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronically traumatized people often exhibit hyper-vigilant, anxious and agitated behavior, symptoms such as tension headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, abdominal pain, back pain, tremors and nausea.
Exposure to and interaction with a sociopath in childhood can leave lifelong scars. This can apply to people in therapy – and for those who in recovery trained as therapists, re-exposure as an adult can trigger old emotions and PTSD.
Many sociopaths wreak havoc in a covert way, so that their underlying condition remains hidden for years. They can possess a superficial charm, and this diverts attention from disturbing aspects of their nature.
To deal with sociopaths effectively, you first need to open your eyes. In The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, two weavers promise the emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are stupid and unfit for their positions. When the emperor parades before his subjects, all the adults, not wishing to be seen in a negative light, pretend they can see the clothes. The only truthful person is a child who cries “But he isn’t wearing any clothes!”. You, too, need to see sociopaths as they are.
We are conditioned to keep quiet, which often means turning a blind eye to or putting up with abuse. The boy in the tale represents those who see the problem behavior for what it is and find the courage of their convictions to make a stand. Sight becomes insight, which turns into action. Awareness is the first step in limiting the negative effects of contact with a sociopath.
INTERACTIONS OF THE SOCIOPATH
Let’s look at what we term the Socio-Empath-Apath Triad, or Seat. Unremitting abuse of other people is an activity of the sociopath that stands out. To win their games, sociopaths enlist the help of hangers-on: apaths.
The apath. We call those who collude in the sport of the sociopath apathetic, or apaths. In this situation, it means a lack of concern or being indifferent to the targeted person.
Apaths are an integral part of the sociopath’s arsenal and contribute to sociopathic abuse. Sociopaths have an uncanny knack of knowing who will assist them in bringing down the person they are targeting. It isn’t necessarily easy to identify an apath; in other circumstances, an apath can show ample empathy and concern for others – just not in this case. The one attribute an apath must have is a link to the target.
The main qualifying attribute is poor judgment resulting from lack of insight. They might be jealous of or angry at the target, and thus have something to gain from the evolving situation.
The empath. Often, the person targeted by the sociopath is an empath. Empaths are ordinary people who are highly perceptive and insightful and belong to the 40% of human beings who sense when something’s not right, who respond to their gut instinct.
People are often attracted to empaths because of their compassionate nature. A particular attribute is that they are sensitive to the emotional distress of others. Conversely, they have trouble comprehending a closed mind and lack of compassion in others.
Very highly empathic people can find themselves helping others at the expense of their own needs, which can lead them to withdraw from the world at times.
THE SOCIOPATHIC TRANSACTION
Often empaths are targeted by sociopaths because they pose the greatest threat. The empath is usually the first to detect that something is not right and express what s/he senses. As a consequence, the empath is both the sociopath’s number one foe and a source of attraction; the empath’s responses and actions provide excellent entertainment for sociopaths, who use and abuse people for sport.
The world of the empath is not for the faint-hearted. In the context we are discussing, empaths often find themselves up against not only the sociopath but often a flock of apaths as well. Apaths are afforded pole position in the sociopath’s intrigues. But this prime spot comes at a price for, in what we call the “sociopathic transaction”, the apath makes an unspoken Faustian pact with the sociopath, then passively or otherwise participates in the cruel sport.
The usual set-up goes like this: the empath is forced to make a stand on seeing the sociopath say or do something underhand. The empath challenges the sociopath, who straight away throws others off the scent and shifts the blame on to the empath. The empath becomes an object of abuse when the apath corroborates the sociopath’s perspective.
The situation usually ends badly for the empath and sometimes also for the apath, if their conscience returns to haunt them or they later become an object of abuse themselves. But, frustratingly, the sociopath often goes scot free.
Written by Dr J McGregor, and T McGregor for OWL
DR JANE McGREGOR is a freelance trainer and lecturer at the Institute of Mental Health, University of Nottingham. She holds a PhD in public health and worked in the NHS and voluntary sector, mostly in the field of addiction treatment.
TIM McGREGOR is freelance consultant and trainer and a mental-health practitioner of many years’ standing. He has worked in the NHS and voluntary sector, most recently as a commissioning adviser.