If someone new in your life were to offer you a free book or a free home-cooked meal, you might think something’s up. Or, you might graciously accept their offer and think they’re really nice.
According to Wendy Patrick, the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Toxic People in Your Life, we must be mindful of deceptive people who try to ingratiate themselves. As a deputy district attorney and team leader of a sex-crimes-and-stalking division in San Diego, Patrick has dealt with sexual predators, white-collar criminals, and sociopathic criminals who have a history of social prowess and financial power. But while some might consider Patrick’s background essential to the topic of underminers and deceptive people, as a therapist I found her book to have many holes and questionable theories.
Patrick writes that her background in law as well as her schooling in psychology have shaped her views on human nature and personality over time. And so, using a simple acronym, she describes four things we should be mindful of when examining the authenticity of people we communicate with in our daily lives. We must, she writes, notice what captures a person’s attention and determine if their attention is focused on themselves or on others. We should also consider how the person spends their time and determine what their hobbies and interests are. We should look at what company the person keeps, what companion they are interested in, and what organizations they belong to. And, Patrick thinks, we should note their priorities in life and try to determine if their ambitions are selfless or selfish.
Really, many of the ideas Patrick shares on how to separate the dangerous from the desirable are things we already do on a daily basis, have been told to do by our parents or guardians, or are naturally programmed to do as human beings. These guidelines, however, fail to acknowledge the gray areas in people. In reality, we can know all there is to know about someone’s focus, lifestyle, associations, and goals and still struggle to develop an accurate profile of them. As a therapist, I know firsthand that despite our level of intelligence, social prowess, life experience, and, for some of us, years of training, some people will still evade us.
And even when we try to be vigilant, we are easily swayed, especially when people are attractive, financially stable, or charming. We also cannot always tell whether a certain trait truly indicates a problem, but have to instead consider it as part of a larger picture. This is part of why therapists, psychologists, and researchers of human development and personality disorders struggle with educating the public on which red flags they should look out for. We can correctly identify some toxic characteristics, like traits often typical of sociopaths or sexual predators, that should tip us off. But we cannot oversimplify this kind of analysis.
Unfortunately, Patrick does oversimplify. Her legal training seems to give her a black-and-white perspective on the world. That perspective might hinder her ability to see the complexity in a person, and it also might turn off some readers.
At the same time, Patrick does do well in some areas of the book. Her discussion of how we can tell if someone we are dating, living with, working for, or sharing an innocent hello with is somewhat useful. After all, many of us believe that if we are dating someone who is successful, attractive, and charismatic, things are going well. Patrick reminds us that what looks too good to be true usually is.
For example, in chapter two, she focuses on “the attraction of power” and other leadership qualities that tend to draw us in. Then she shows us that sociopaths, CEOs, and others we encounter often manipulate us using their power in order to control, weaken, and deceive us: people like convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, or Jim Jones, the cult leader who led a group in mass murder–suicide. Both individuals were charming to some degree, charismatic, powerful, and alluring. But both used power to control others, and, ultimately, to hurt or kill them.
Still, Patrick is lacking something in her analysis, and focuses too much on certain kinds of traits or behaviors that, in reality, do not always indicate a problem. Her book might be helpful for those who want a basic look at potential red flags, but it’s missing a lot of important nuance.
Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Toxic People in Your Life
St. Martin’s Press, May 2015
Hardcover, 320 pages