Consider the following scenarios and see if any of them sounds familiar.
- Fifteen-year-old James was an intelligent only child from a wealthy family. He often became bored and listless, he skipped school by faking illness, and he was adept at manipulating his parents. He targeted certain classmates and engaged in emotional abuse, smear campaigns, and other disturbing tactics.
- John was a handsome and charming coworker who flirted with Mary, among other women, on a regular basis. Occasionally, John drove Mary home and talked about how his boss underestimated him, was against him, and intentionally held him back out of jealousy. Regardless of what happened to John, he claimed it was never his fault, he was always the victim.
- Julie’s mother felt almost no affection for her daughter. Her mother felt trapped and tied down, was disgusted by all aspects of childcare, and used terms like “life sentence” to describe her experiences. She beat Julie and locked her inside closets and once shaved her head to “teach her a lesson.” When Julie left home, her mother went to great lengths to prevent Julie from contacting her father.
If any of these is indeed familiar, you may have encountered a sociopath.
As Jane McGregor and Tim McGregor discuss in The Sociopath at the Breakfast Table, sociopathy comes in many forms and in many types of people: parent, child bully, coworker, friend. Sociopaths typically have little to no conscience and an inability to feel empathy for other people. They “pose a serious threat to humankind, harming individuals, families, and communities the world over,” the authors write, yet they exist “largely unseen.”
McGregor and McGregor use Martha Stout’s book, The Sociopath Next Door, as a foundation to show readers “the ruses and manipulations that sociopaths use” and “how to invest in your empathic powers to keep them at bay.” Whereas Stout tells us that nearly one in twenty-five Americans are sociopathic and proceeds to educate us on the who, what, where, when, and how of identifying them, McGregor and McGregor provide a guidebook on deepening awareness of the problem and offer suggestions on how to recover from experiences with sociopaths.
McGregor and McGregor do not distinguish between terms like sociopathic, antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or psychopathy. They claim, instead, to treat all of these labels under a larger heading: sociopathy, or disorders of “people who lack humanity.”
Sociopaths usually appear charming on the surface, but they intentionally target people they can easily manipulate. They frequently exhibit passive-aggressive tendencies such as referring to themselves as the victim (they are never at fault for any issue or problem, but almost always blame others). They often employ self-pity. And they usually have an obsession to maintain control — which often coincides with hypercriticality and extreme secrecy, even the tendency to live a double life.
Sociopaths approach potential targets in methodical phases. There is assessment, manipulation, and abandonment. Gaslighting is a common modus operandi. Gaslighting is “the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality.” It is, as the authors describe, “a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented in such a way as to make the target doubt his or her own memory and perception.”
A well-known, though relatively lighthearted, example comes from the film Amelie, in which the protagonist attempts to get back at a man who has bullied someone with mental health issues. Among other things, as a recent article in The Week recounts, Amelie swaps his slippers for smaller, identical ones and reroutes his speed dial so that it rings a psychiatric institution.
But one can gaslight through mental manipulation, too. Similar techniques are used in interrogation and brainwashing and can be debilitating for the victim.
While avoiding sociopaths is the best option, not all people are able to easily identify when they are being targeted. McGregor and McGregor provide a fairly detailed overview of sociopathic behaviors and tactics, as well as the personality types of those most at risk of being targeted.
But while Breakfast Table has some wonderful information on how to identify a sociopathic personality or person, techniques frequently employed by sociopaths, and even how to recover from a sociopathic relationship, the book lacks one important element: steps to first free yourself from a sociopathic encounter or relationship.
McGregor and McGregor do tread lightly around the topic, but never address it head-on. Instead, they suggest never directly confronting a maladaptive person and to consider reporting that person to someone who can help. The reporting suggestion seems specific to workplace- and school-related bullying behaviors. But what if the person is your boyfriend?
One tool I did find particularly useful in the book was the appendicized Empathy Quotient test created by Simon Baron-Cohen and adapted, with permission, from his Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. My suggestion is to take the test prior to reading Breakfast Table and use the results as a guide for navigating the book, paying particular attention to those portions that align with your own empathic approach.
Overall, I would recommend the book to students of psychology, therapists, lay readers with an interest in maladaptive behavior, and people who have encountered or been victimized by, or who suspect they have encountered or been victimized by, someone with sociopathic tendencies.
Keep in mind, however, that McGregor and McGregor do not present the final word on sociopathy, only a good start to understanding the disorder.
The Sociopath at the Breakfast Table: Recognizing and Dealing With Antisocial and Manipulative People
Hunter House, February, 2014
Paperback, 144 pages