Learning from psychopaths

I feel things a little too deeply sometimes – both stuff that affects me personally and the problems of those I love. It can lead to tears in the shower and a reluctance to face the world on cold winter mornings.

The sensitive diagnosis was confirmed a few months ago when I got Herrmann profiled at work. Hermann is a tool to help understand your thinking style.

You answer 120 questions about yourself and it creates a personalised chart explaining your brain processes.

It wasn’t a surprise to learn I was dominant in the D quadrant, which is all about aesthetics and vision and creativity. But my second most dominant quadrant was C – which is all about empathy and communication and feeling.

When I become stressed or anxious, everything moves to the C quadrant and my empathy and emotion skyrocket.

One of the downsides is that I soak up too many emotions that belong to others. I have to keep reminding myself that my place to offer compassion and support to people in their time of need, not collapse in a heap of vicarious distress with them.

I wasn’t always so emotionally connected my fellow human beings. I’ve always innately understood their actions and feelings and triggers  – which came in handy when selling magazines to more than 500,000 readers every week – but I wasn’t as affected by them as I am now.

My previous distance was possibly a defence mechanism to shield myself from difficult school and workplace experiences, although that eventually shattered about eight years ago at the hands of an office psychopath.

Actually, I’ve had the misfortune to work with quite a few psychopaths during my 28 years as a journalist and they all tested my resilience.

I started to worry that it was me that was the problem, because what are the odds of a person cramming so many psychos into one career?

Then I read a news report on a book called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success”, which noted that journalism is one of the careers that’s more likely to attract psychopaths than others.

Media jobs (primarily television and radio) ranked third on the list and journalists followed in seventh place.

Apparently it’s because psychopath traits such as being ruthless, charming, focussed, mentally tough and fearless can, when kicked into overdrive, be advantageous in journalism.

I didn’t have the surplus of those traits required to survive, so I finally turned my back on the career I loved.

I was reminded of the psychopath years this week when I read a report in the UK newspaper The Telegraph called “How to spot a psychopath.”

The article opens saying: “We think of psychopaths as killers, alien, outside society. But, says the scientist who has spent his life studying them, you could have one for a colleague, a friend – or a spouse.”

It notes that psychopaths lack remorse and empathy and feel emotion only shallowly. In extreme cases, they might not care whether you live or die. Some of them are violent criminals or murderers, but not all.

Criminal psychologist Professor Robert Hare has created the PCL-R, a psychological assessment used to determine whether someone is a psychopath.

“It stuns me that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern,” he says.

Hare’s test involves a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40.

A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy.

Even though I’m not a journalist these days, I still stumble across the occasional person who might qualify as a psychopath. I’m shocked by their disregard for the blackness they allow into their souls.

I’m gutted if I think my actions have hurt someone. But they are not. They couldn’t care less.

I’m beginning to realise that I need to stop  trying to make them feel empathy – because they never will – and focus more on keeping my distance from their nasty webs.

And I’ve decided that feeling too much is far preferable to feeling too little.

Song of the day: Nick Barker “Time bomb”



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