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Blog – May 2018


The highly empathic
By Jane McGregor, Ph.D.

Individuals of highly empathic or highly sensitive (the terms are used interchangeably) temperament are often kindly and caring sorts of people. They have a tendency to put others before themselves and it is this inclination that poses the greatest problem. They tend to read much significance into other’s words, tend to be non-assertive and lean towards fear-driven thinking. Highly empathic people often are very sensitive to the remarks and actions of other people. They tend to try to ‘mind-read’ or second guess other’s motives, putting themselves at risk of misinterpreting or reading too much into other people’s words and actions. In addition, they may take other’s words in ways that they aren’t meant, or find themselves wounded by the slightest of remarks. This situation can leave them feeling different, vulnerable and flawed.

Highly empathic individuals are often highly perceptive and intuitive. According to psychologist Elaine Aron, about one in five of us are born with heightened sensitivity to our surroundings, men and women in equal number. Being highly responsive is most likely inherited, and a large body of research suggests that the trait is innate (Aron et al. 2012). In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, the Aron estimates that around 20 per cent of individuals have the characteristic. In actuality people are not routinely assessed for high empathy and there is no universal screening for extreme altruism in any country that we know of. We regard this prevalence estimate as highly generous and suspect the prevalence of high empathy is far smaller; more likely in the range of 1-5 per cent of the general population, though clearly this is only an ‘guestimate’ along with the rest in the absence of robust official data.

Most of us are born with some intuitive abilities and a lot of us have experienced that sinking feeling when we sense something is wrong; that we or someone we care about is in danger; however, we experience intuition and empathy in varying degrees. Empathy is a process of making sense of our feelings (affect) and thoughts (cognition) about a person or persons or situation; the outcome of which is arriving at a prosocial response. It is a tool of survival. It has at least 2 component parts:

Cognitive empathy
Cognitive empathy is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This is sometimes called perspective-taking. There can be a dark side to this sort of empathy. In fact, those who fall within the Dark Triad – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths have this ability, while having no emotional concern whatever for their victims (McGregor, 2017).

Affective or emotional empathy
Affective or emotional empathy is when you feel along with the other person. Emotional empathy enables someone to tune into another person’s inner emotional world. Our own experience of feelings (feeling sad, happy, outraged etc.) helps us to feel along with the other person. If our own range of feelings is limited; for example, a sociopath’s feelings may be restricted to base feelings like anger, envy and self-pity; this may mean they have difficulty recognising feelings in others that they don’t readily access or process in themselves. Conversely, a highly sensitive person may have an expansive emotional range to draw upon to aid them in emotionally empathising with other people. (McGregor, 2017)

Putting empathy under the microscope — or rather the modern-day gadgetry of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — Professor Simon Baron-­Cohen from the University of Cambridge, England is a researcher who explores new ideas about empathy. His research suggests that the level of empathy most of us experience varies according to the conditions we face at any given moment, although all of us have a pre-determined level of empathy which we generally return to – our pre-set or default position, if you like – on what he calls the empathy spectrum (Baron-Cohen, 2012). See Fig. 1. The Empathy Bell Curve, The curve is a ‘bell shaped curve’ also known as a ‘bell curve (Baron-Cohen, 2011).

Fig. 1 The Empathy Bell Curve

The empathy spectrum ranges from six degrees at one end to zero degrees at the other. Baron-Cohen suggests there are at least ten regions of the brain which make up what he terms the empathy circuit. Many of these regions are involved in actively coding our experiences and are automatically active when we perceive others behaving in similar ways or having similar experiences. Neuroimaging (brain scan) studies lend support to the idea that narcissists, like sociopaths, have abnormalities in the empathy circuitry of the brain. It is thought that differences in their brain circuitry account for their lack of reaction to other people’s distress. Whilst scientists have made progress in revealing mechanisms thought to enable a person to feel what another is feeling, the evidence, and our understanding of what helps and hinders empathy, is far from complete. Furthermore, we don’t have a nuanced understanding of the environmental and biological influences or how they interact. Baron-Cohen (2012) proposes that there is an empathy spectrum (or gauge – see Fig. 2), and each of us are positioned somewhere along it (See Table 1). Most people (represented by the hump in the curve) have middling levels of empathy, whereas few have high empathy (point 6), and few have no empathy at all (point 0).

Table 1. Points on the Empathy Spectrum

Point 0 No empathy and hurting others means nothing to them
Point 1 Capable of hurting other people but feels some regret if they do so
Point 2 Has enough empathy to inhibit them from acts of physical aggression
Point 3 Compensates for lack of empathy by covering it up
Point 4 Low to average empathy
Point 5 Slightly higher than average empathy
Point 6 Very focused on the feelings of others. An almost unstoppable drive to empathize.

Baron-Cohen (2012)

Imagine the empathy spectrum as a gauge (see below) with settings on it ranging from zero to six.

Fig. 2 Empathy spectrum as a gauge

People who are cruel and lack empathy are positioned at one end of the gauge (point zero), whereas people who express empathy in abundance are at the other end (point six). The majority of us are positioned some place between these two extremes. Most of us can develop and improve our empathic abilities, however some individuals, particularly those at point zero such as sociopaths may find that lack of empathy (at least of the emotional or affective kind) is a permanent state.

Empathy requires expressing to be empathy in action. Empathy can be expressed in many different ways and need not be an emotional outpouring. It can be action or a well-judged response such as sitting in silence with a person who is grieving, lending a listening ear, or even protesting in the streets over some perceived injustice! It is about caring about people and the world about us!

For the highly empathic, the experience of tuning into other people and their concerns can be an emotional onslaught and labour that leaves them overwhelmed. A common concern for the highly empathetic is that they often report experiencing social anxiety which has debilitating effects on a person’s social and personal life. A study done by researchers (tibi-Elhanany et al, 2011) at the University of Haifa’s Department of Psychology, Israel, found socially anxious individuals often have high cognitive empathy abilities (being able to put themselves in others situations or anticipate others’ moves). Furthermore, they may have highly tuned senses with regard to social cues, high other-awareness and self-monitoring in social situations. Of course, larger scale research is needed to confirm this hypothesis, but the results are rather convincing.

Neuroscientists suggest a neural basis for high empathy and empathy in action as expressed as extreme altruism. A study by Abigail Marsh et al shows that extraordinary altruists (those who go so far as to risk their lives to help others) can be distinguished from other people by the enhanced volume in right amygdala (a small almond shape structure in the brain) and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results mirror the reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions observed in sociopathic/psychopathic individuals.

Author of Emotional Freedom, Judith Orloff, describes the highly empathic as a species unto themselves because they absorb other people’s energy, and become anxious, or exhausted when they don’t have time to themselves. Orloff suggests that the highly empathic sometimes unwittingly avoid relations with other people because deep down they’re afraid of getting overwhelmed. They want companionship but, relationships don’t feel particularly safe. However, once they learn to set boundaries and express their preferences, intimacy and deep connections become possible.

If you are highly empathic and suffer with constant anxious thought, the good news is you don’t have to accept this as an everlasting trait or a permanent feature of your particular makeup. There are ways to recapture control over anxious thought. The answer lies in managing the problem from within. You need to develop ways of getting to grips with the emotional turbulence inside and learn how to turn irrational thoughts into rational ones. The first thing is to tell yourself that you’re not defective. The second is to accept your imperfections. You live in a world that doesn’t always fully appreciate your gifts of perception and empathy, but there are ways to thrive in an imperfect world. It starts with reframing your thinking. Examine your fears. If your thoughts have you prisoner, then it’s time to unlock the doors and walk out! So stop people-pleasing, find the strength to say ‘no’ sometimes, learn good interpersonal boundaries, put to the test assertiveness skills and importantly, practice more self-compassion.

References
Aron, E.N. (1999) The Highly Sensitive Person (NJ: Carol Publishing Group)
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) The Empathy Bell Curve. Phi Kappa Phi Forum. http://www.phikappaphi.org/forum/spring2011/articles/pkpforum_spring2011_empathy.pdf.
Baron- ­Cohen, S. (2012). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. Philadelphia: Basic Books.
Eres, R. Decety, J., Louis, W.R., Molenberghs, P. (2015) Individual differences in local gray matter density are associated with differences in affective and cognitive empathy. NeuroImage, 117: 305
McGregor, J. (2017) Coping with Aggressive Behaviour. London, Sheldon Press.
Marsh, A.A, Stoycos, S.A., Brethel-Haurwitz, K.M. Robinson, P., VanMeter, J.W. and E. M. Cardinale (2014) ‘Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists,’ Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.
Orloff, J. (2011) Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (New York: Three Rivers Press)
tibi-Elhanany, Y. and G. Shamay-tsoory, S. (2011), ‘Social Cognition in Social Anxiety: First Evidence for Increased Empathic Abilities,’ Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci, 48, 2.

 

 

 

Blog – April 2018

By Jane McGregor, Ph.D.

Last month we provided a profile of the everyday sociopath. This month we continue that discussion with a focus on some common tendencies.

Faking Illness A lot of sociopaths lie about being ill or about being in recovery from a serious illness. They exaggerate or create symptoms to gain attention, evoke sympathy, or seek financial gain. No matter how bad your situation, the sociopath has experienced it ten times worse. This behaviour is a form of hypochondriasis, though it is unlikely that the sociopath actually believes they have a disease. It is common for sociopaths to feign serious illnesses, rare conditions, or life-threatening diseases like cancer. Whatever the goal, the basis of the behaviour is to seek advantage and personal profit.

Aggression and Antisocial Behaviour When a sociopath is sad or angry everyone knows it, for they can fly into terrible rages. Sociopaths exhibit anger or attempt to gain your pity when they’re intent on deceiving you. They rely on the fact that your judgment will be affected by your conscience and feelings of guilt if you don’t respond to the situation sensitively or fairly. They can be expert covert aggressors, and masters of the clandestine manoeuvre. Their ability to tell lies is matched by their convincing ability to feign outrage. Overt displays of emotion, while fake, often persuade outsiders to accept the sociopath’s view of events. Manipulation must occur for us not to see the aggression and antisocial behaviour for what it is. The sociopath’s methods obscure our view so that she or he can “get away with murder,” as it were.

Although competitiveness is a common trait in sociopaths, it is also commonplace in society. The worlds of school and work in effect promote it, and nowhere is this more apparent than in business and politics.

Cruelty to animals is thought to be common among sociopaths. Nevertheless, sociopaths are likely to use pets as props to convince a new target of their kind-heartedness and trustworthiness.

Lack of Empathy and Remorse Simon Baron­-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, defines empathy as an ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. What causes people to be capable of seriously hurting one another is not rightly understood, but when our empathy is “switched off” and we operate solely on an “I” basis (viewing the world as if we were the only ones who exist or matter), we are much more inclined to regard other people as objects. This is thought to be the viewpoint held by sociopaths.

Baron-­Cohen theorizes that we all stand somewhere on an empathy spectrum (from high to low) in a relatively stable, though not immovable, position. In other words, you may experience quite a high level of empathy in general, but your ability to empathize may display an occasional lapse. The good news is that for most of us our empathy is recoverable. Unfortunately, for those with a long­standing lack of empathy it is not. A side effect of having no empathy is that sociopaths take no responsibility for their own behaviour. It is always about what has been done to them. One of the easiest ways to spot a sociopath is through their attempts to establish intimacy early in your acquaintance by sharing deeply personal information that is generally intended to make you feel sorry for them. Initially you may perceive this type of person as very sensitive, emotionally open, even a little vulnerable. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Sociopaths are addicted to high drama. Life with a sociopath always entails having to deal with numerous problems and crises. But don’t expect the sociopath in your life to feel sorry for anyone but themselves.

Gender Differences

There has been little systematic investigation of sociopathy in women. In fact, previous research has over relied both on a male conceptualization of the disorder and on means of assessment developed, and primarily validated, through studying men. Furthermore, since sociopathy is not routinely assessed in women, the harmful potential of some sociopathic women can be overlooked, especially toward their partners and children.

From the available literature it would seem that when women direct their aggression toward others, their victims are generally those within their domestic sphere of control — a partner, a family member, a child, a friend, or a work colleague. In addition, much of the harm or aggression carried out by women involves manipulation of, or damage to, peer relationships through aggressive competitiveness, the withdrawal of friendship, ostracism, overt bullying, telling lies about the victim to promote her rejection by others, and other acts of interpersonal aggression — all accomplished in order to exclude the victim from the social group. Conversely, when men direct their aggression toward others, its function is to damage the victim’s sense of control or dominance over the perpetrator of the aggression. Male aggression is more visible and more likely to result in arrest and punishment than women’s.

References

S. Baron-­Cohen, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2011).

M. K. F. Kreis and D. J. Cooke, “Capturing the Psychopathic Female: A Prototypicality Analysis of the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP) Across Gender,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 29 (2011): 634–48.

C. Logan, “La Femme Fatale: The Female Psychopath in Fiction and Clinical Practice,” Mental Health Review Journal 16, no. 3 (2011): 118–27. 9. T. L.

Nicholls et al., “Psychopathy in Women: A Review of Its Clinical Usefulness for Assessing Risk for Aggression and Criminality,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 23, no. 6 (2005): 779–802

 

Blog – March 2018  

Traits of the Sociopath

By Jane McGregor, Ph.D

Painting by David Gamble

Sociopaths have certain destructive characteristics in common. However,  not all sociopaths necessarily display each of the following qualities in equal measure. Some seem to “specialise” in certain patterns of harmful behaviour.

◆Superficial Charm
Have you ever come across someone with magnetic charm, yet who also affects an air of importance and has a grandiose view of himself? Sociopathic charm is not like any other. It is not in the least self-conscious. Sociopaths rarely exhibit social inhibitions, so they hardly ever get anxious or tongue-tied. Nor are they afraid of offending you. They aren’t held back by the social convention that ensures most of us take turns in talking. They talk at you, confident that you will agree with everything they say. Often they have a lot to say. A “conversation” with a sociopath can feel like a bombardment.

To the untrained ear, sociopaths’ pronouncements sound authoritative because they tend to use words and phrases intended to make them seem knowledgeable but that upon dissection may prove to be nothing more than nonsense. This peculiarity in their mode of expression can be exacerbated by their use of muddled phrases and mixed metaphors. No one really knows why this is the case, but it seems to be a common feature.

When you first meet a sociopath, you may be impressed by her good manners. She tends to be charming at first, may go out of her way to please you, and often falls back on flattery. These tactics are designed to draw you in. But beware, for she is not what she appears, which is why sociopaths are often called “social chameleons.” It seems counterintuitive that someone so charming can be so dangerous, but many people are duped this way. Being charming is a sociopath’s most potent trait. Targets often later remark that they were overwhelmed by the sociopath’s charm offensive. He may seem larger than life, a go-getter, an adventurer. His grandiose air and smooth conversational style add to the illusion of being in the presence of someone special. He makes you feel boring and insipid by comparison. Everything a sociopath does is calculated to have an effect on you. Just as his charm is superficial, so is everything else about him. The smile looks phony because it is phony. The sociopath has blunt emotional reactions and fakes emotions to appear sincere.

Occasionally you might catch him looking closely at your mouth as you speak, as though mouthing words and rehearsing. One commonly observed habit is a frequent pursing of the lips, chewing the sides of the mouth, or twisting and contorting the mouth in peculiar ways. It is not clear why sociopaths do any of these things. Perhaps they are practising facial expressions, or perhaps there is some physical explanation. But the only natural smile you will see exhibited by a sociopath is a sneer as he derives pleasure from seeing others suffer.

It is hard to recognize the shameless. The sociopath makes it his business to know how a person can be manipulated; hence his use of flattery and charm. It is quite common for sociopaths to create a sense of similarity and intimacy. They will tell you that you are the only person who understands them, that you are their special “soul mate.”

◆Need for Stimulation
Another characteristic of sociopaths is their need for constant stimulation. They become bored easily, perhaps because their emotional repertoire is so limited. Their heads are not full of the kind of emotions that distract the rest of us. It is hard to imagine what life must be like without constant emotional “noise.” The rest of us have it, though we are not always aware of the fact. Occasionally this emotional noise comes to the fore, maybe when we’re stressed or anxious over an exam or an illness, or when experiencing bereavement — that is, when we are far more aware of the emotions stirring inside of us. Sociopaths, on the other hand, have a very limited emotional range and are noted for their shallowness and fleeting attachments. Consequently, they don’t understand other people’s “neediness” and see no point in showing emotions or sharing feelings except as an act of manipulation. Instead, and to fill the void, they tend to seek stimulation from external sources. They engage in “mind games” (struggles for psychological one-upmanship) and employ behaviour to either demoralize or falsely empower their target. In this way they undermine their target’s confidence in their own perceptions. The sociopath may invalidate the other person’s experience — both its significance and the person’s actual recollection of events — making her feel guilty for her views. Such abusive mind games may include discounting (denying the other person’s reality), diverting, trivializing, undermining, threatening, and anger.

Not all competitive people are sociopathic, clearly. What we are talking about is aggressive behaviour in which the sociopath misuses others to dominate rivals and pushes ahead regardless of whether people get hurt. Because they are indifferent to others, sociopaths fail to display a proper sense of social responsibility. They develop strategies that allow them to ignore social convention, reason, and evidence in the pursuit of some personal goal. Sociopaths may well believe they exhibit extraordinary social responsibility, and unfortunately society often colludes in this delusion.

◆Parasitic Nature
Another commonly observed characteristic of the sociopath is a parasitic nature. To someone targeted by a sociopath with strong parasitic tendencies it can feel quite literally as if the life is being sucked out of them. Parasitic behaviour is associated with passive aggression. Passive aggressive individuals do not deal with things directly. They talk behind your back and put others in the position of telling you what they will not say themselves. They find subtle ways of letting you know they are unhappy. They are unlikely to show their anger or resentment. Instead, they conceal it behind a façade of affability, politeness, and well-meaning. However, underneath there is usually manipulation going on. Types of passive aggression include:

  • victimization — when a person is unable to look at his or her part in a situation and turns the tables to become the victim, or at least to behave like one self-pity — the “poor me” scenario blaming others for situations rather than being able to take responsibility for one’s own actions
  • withholding — avoiding performing one’s usual behaviours, roles, or responsibilities in order to reinforce one’s anger to the other party
  • learned helplessness — when a person acts as if he cannot help himself, sometimes to the point of deliberately doing a poor job of something to make a point

The important thing to note is that passive aggression is a destructive pattern of behaviour and a form of emotional abuse. Such behaviours cause great distress to the target, who often feels overburdened with guilt and responsibility.

◆Manipulative Behaviour
Psychological manipulation is a mainstay of the sociopath, who uses behaviour to influence or control others in a deceptive and dishonest way. Advancing the interests of the manipulator, often at another’s expense, such methods are exploitative, abusive, devious, and deceptive. Manipulators may control their victims through some combination of the following methods: positive reinforcement — employing praise, superficial charm, superficial sympathy (“crocodile tears”), excessive apologies, money, approval, gifts, attention, and public displays of emotional responses, such as forced laughter, or facial expressions, such as smiling negative reinforcement — removing a negative situation as a reward; for example, “You won’t have to pay all those bills by yourself if you allow me to move in with you” intermittent or partial reinforcement — when rules, rewards, or personal boundaries are inconsistently handed out or enforced; used to create a climate of fear and doubt punishment — including nagging, intimidation, threats, swearing, emotional blackmail, and crying (to play the victim).

 

Blog Feb 2018

Aggressors rely on others’ passivity

By Jane McGregor, Ph.D.

At times in life we may find ourselves lacking interest in or concern for other people or even ourselves. Some of us reach a point where we are emotionally unable to connect with ourselves and others. It can be a way and means of dealing with anxiety by avoiding certain situations that trigger it.

A lack of responsiveness to our own or other people’s safety can  also be a decision to avoid engaging emotionally for personal reasons. It can also occur if we have difficulty identifying and describing emotions in ourselves. This may be as a result of being unaware of what’s going on inside ourselves (lack of inner self talk); an inability to reflect on their feelings and conduct, which in turn hinders self-awareness.

This lack of interest in others seems to go hand in hand with a culture of self-obsession. Being self-absorbed means that we can become blind, indifferent and apathetic to the people around us. The word ‘apathy’ is derived from the Latin apathīa (freedom from passion or feeling) and Greek apátheia (ἀπάθεια: from ‘a-’, without, and ‘pathos’, suffering or passion).

Often it is a temporary affliction, say as a first reaction to danger. Apathy can be an avoidance strategy employed in the hope that the problem will go away. Or it can be the case that we ignore other people who are suffering because at that moment we don’t view them as our equals. We view them instead as ‘others’, objects and ‘its’. Some argue that we live in an increasingly self-focused and narcissistic culture. Ours is a culture of ‘me, myself and I’, with less room for ‘us and we’. The internet is ‘I-centric’ and gadgets and ‘apps’ reflect the rise of the ‘I’ culture and narcissism of our times: iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad.

All of us can be selfish at times, but some people are so self-preoccupied that they are unable to form healthy relationships.
Being self-preoccupied is very common in adolescents, but most individuals grow out of this over time. Interestingly, and perhaps indicating how much behaviour is socially learned and influenced, a recent study carried out in Atlanta, Georgia, found that children who enter adulthood during recessions are ‘less self-obsessed’. The study found that growing up during bad times ‘dampens narcissism and entitlement’.

It is tempting to look at self-absorption and apathy in relation to the lives of other people merely as a problem of the individual, but it is not. It is a problem of global proportions and extremely hazardous. This was demonstrated effectively in experiments of the 1960s when Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, set out to test the human propensity to obey orders. In the experiment, a participant in the role of ‘teacher’ was asked to administer electric shocks, of increasing strength, to a ‘learner’ whenever the learner answered a question incorrectly. (The ‘teacher’ had been given an electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the ‘learner’ would supposedly receive during the experiment.) The experiment was stopped after the subject supposedly had been given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession (in fact, the learners did not receive a shock and were faking their physical response). In the experiments, 65 per cent of the ‘teachers’ administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock, though many were uncomfortable doing so. Milgram’s experiments have been repeated many times over the years and yielded consistent results: a person of authority can strongly influence other people’s behaviour, with appalling consequences. What we can take from this is that apathy can damage people and political systems.

Apathy and indifference can enable aggression and violence to occur in a culture where we are deterred from helping one another out. Milgram’s obedience experiments indicate that two-thirds of us would potentially commit acts of violence or aggression based on the orders of a person of authority. This is a disturbingly high level of compliance. This propensity was shown to appalling effect in the 2012 docudrama Compliance, which was based on true events. A prank caller poses as a police officer and convinces the manager of a fast-food restaurant that one of her employees has committed a crime, and gets her to carry out intrusive and unlawful procedures on the employee. What Compliance shows is that when obedience and badly suppressed fear become the prevailing conditions and state of affairs, submitting is all too easy. At any time, and in any period, when people supposedly in authority tell us what to do – we do it.

It isn’t just a propensity to follow orders that influences our passivity in the face and presence of violence and aggression. Another factor at play is the bystander effect.

The bystander effect

The bystander effect is sometimes referred to as bystander apathy and is a social psychological phenomenon that sees individuals not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. Researchers have studied the phenomenon and attribute the occurrence of passive bystanding to a ‘diffusion of responsibility’: when people believe that there are other witnesses to an emergency, they feel less personal responsibility to intervene. They assume someone else will help. The end result is altruistic inertia.

Researchers also suggest that we don’t act on occasion due to the effects of ‘confusion of responsibility’, where bystanders fail to help someone in distress because they don’t want to be mistaken for the cause of that distress. What’s more, sometimes bystanders don’t intervene in an emergency because they are misled by the reactions of the people around them. We succumb to what is known as ‘pluralistic ignorance’ – the tendency to mistake one another’s calm demeanour as a sign that no emergency is actually taking place. There are strong social norms that reinforce this – the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality is one such. We adhere to these norms, because it’s embarrassing to get in a panic when no danger really exists! What can further compound the issue of whether or not we will help another person out is how comfortable we are about certain feelings in ourselves.

Some people are fantastically empathetic and helpful when it comes to showing care and compassion for other people, but have very little empathy when it comes to dealing with someone’s outrage. Some close down in the face of violence and abuse; some cut off completely from emotions they are frightened of in themselves. While passivity can be simply the first reaction to perceived danger and an avoidance strategy employed in the hope that the problem will go away, it can also be something more sinister, for example when people passively or actively connive in hostilities they witness. There are many reasons why people join forces with aggressors: they may fear punishment if they don’t go along with the scheme; they themselves may bear a grudge towards the targeted person or persons; or they just feel no real connection with them and shut off from feeling concern because of this. Sadder still, they may go along with the situation on account of boredom or to revel in a sense of schadenfreude! In such cases, apathy becomes not just a lack of empathy but also a betrayal of it.

Just-world effect

The ‘just-world effect’, sometimes called the ‘just-world phenomenon’, refers to people’s tendency to believe that the world is just and people get what they deserve. Because people want to believe that the world is fair, they will look for ways to explain away injustice, often blaming the victim. Those with this belief tend to think that when bad things happen to people, it is because these individuals have done something bad to deserve their misfortune. Conversely, this belief also leads people to think that when good things happen to people it is because those individuals are good and deserve their good fortune.

There are reasons why people cling to the notion of a just world; the most obvious is that we don’t like to think about ourselves ever becoming the victim of violent crime. Thus blaming the victims and viewing their actions and behaviour as somehow causing or justifying violence – say in cases of assault or rape – means that we can go on believing that we will never be the victim of such a crime ourselves, because we can simply avoid the behaviours of the victims, which caused harm to come their way. Another possible explanation is that people want to reduce the anxiety that is evoked by acknowledging injustices in the world. Believing that individuals are completely responsible for their misfortunes means that other people are able to go on believing that the world is just and fair.

Perhaps part of the solution to reducing human cruelty involves understanding that as individuals we make up the cultures and communities we live in and our own actions contribute to, or can challenge the status quo. As individuals we have choice to step aside, stand apart, and stop engaging in behaviour (action or inaction) that perpetuates human-on-human cruelty.

References

1.  Bianchi, E. C. (2014) ‘Entering adulthood in a recession tempers later narcissism’, Psychological Science, 25(7):1429–37.2

2. Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.

3. Lerner, M.  (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum: New York.

4. Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 8: 377–383

 

Blog – January 2018

Narcissism and empathy
By Jane McGregor, Ph.D.


Narcissus by Caravaggio (1594-96)

Narcissism was named after a mythological Greek youth named Narcissus. Narcissus was a hunter known for his beauty. He was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. He became infatuated with his own reflection in a lake and eventually died at the side of the lake because he couldn’t tear himself away from admiring his own image.

People who are narcissistic or severely preoccupied with themselves have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves and see themselves as better than others. Yet, they also can be fragile and unable to handle criticism, and often compensate for this by belittling others in order to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissists, and hinders them from empathizing with other people.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a severe form of narcissism. It is a condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, extreme self-preoccupation and a lack of empathy for others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Individuals with this disorder are usually arrogantly self-assured and confident. They expect to be treated as superior. Many highly successful individuals might be considered narcissistic. However, the disorder is only diagnosed when these behaviours become persistent, very disabling or distressing. NPD usually begins to show in early adulthood and is apparent in various contexts such as an individual’s family life and work. Historically people with severe narcissistic traits were called megalomaniacs and severely egocentric.

Narcissism is essentially a problem of lack of empathy. Empathy is vital for cooperation and friendship. Without empathy there would be no humanity, just a world of disparate individuals without the social glue to hold them together. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s perspective – you place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. When we empathise we not only mirror the distress of the other person, but are moved to respond in helping ways. In other words, empathy helps us take care of one another. No one is empathic all of the time, and some of us are more empathic than others. But some individuals show so little interest in the affairs of others that their lack of interest could almost be called neglectful. What causes people to be capable of seriously hurting one another is not rightly understood, but when our empathy is “switched off” and we operate solely on an “I” basis (viewing the world as if we were the only ones who exist or matter), we are much more inclined to regard other people as objects. This is thought to be the viewpoint held by narcissists.

Heritability
There are scant studies on the heritability of NPD. Molecular genetic studies of personality disorders indicate that genes linked to neurotransmitter pathways, especially in the serotonergic and dopaminergic systems, are involved (Afacan, Chaudhry, Santangelo, Shkolnik, 2017; Reichborn-Kjennerud, 2010). Several studies of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have assessed whether this condition is inherited and can be passed from one generation to another. No shared environmental influences or effects were found. One study by Chinese researchers explored in pairs of twins, the genetic and environmental bases of two personality features seen in narcissism, namely, intrapersonal grandiosity and interpersonal entitlement (Luo, Cai and Song, 2014). Overall, 304 pairs of twins completed the Psychological Entitlement Scale and the Narcissistic Grandiosity Scale. The results showed that both entitlement and grandiosity were moderately heritable, at 35% and 23%, respectively, but traits were mainly independent of each other in terms of genetic and environmental influence.

Genes influence behaviour and genetic factors can indirectly influence or control exposure to the environment (Torgersen et al, 2000). Genetic factors can also control an individual’s sensitivity to the environment, i.e. genetic factors influence or alter an individual’s response to environmental stressors. This is usually called gene-environment interaction. In quantitative genetics, which include family, twin, and adoption studies, the degree to which individual liability to a disorder results from familial effects, or genetic and environmental factors, is estimated (Afacan, Chaudhry, Santangelo, Shkolnik, 2017). Twin studies have been most commonly used to examine the effects of genetic risk factors on mental disorders, including personality disorders, and sophisticated analytical models and statistical tools have been developed (Reichborn-Kjennerud,2010).

Environmental and social factors
Environmental and social factors are also thought to have a significant influence on the onset of narcissism. In some people, pathological narcissism may develop from an impaired attachment to their primary caregivers, usually their parents. This can result in the child’s perception of himself/herself as unimportant and unconnected to others. The child typically comes to believe they have some personality defect that makes them unvalued and unwanted. Overindulgent, permissive parenting as well as insensitive, over-controlling parenting, are believed to be contributing factors. (Berger, 2014).

Cultural elements are believed to influence the prevalence of NPD since NPD traits have been found to be more common in modern societies than in traditional ones (Paris, 2014). Not all people with difficulties to empathise are narcissistic, but they may become less able to show concern for other people or seem selfish. If you grow up in a household with empathetic types all around, you are quite likely to be someone who is comfortable openly expressing affection and being empathetic. If on the other hand you grew up in an environment where there was little demonstration of affection or you were not shown ample parental love, then this can affect not only the way you view yourself (perhaps with little compassion), it can affect your propensity to show sensitivity and empathy for others.

Narcissism and empathy deficits
Narcissism is more common in men than women, and has its roots in childhood. Small children are naturally selfish as a normal part of development in which they work to get their needs met and can’t understand other people’s needs and desires. Then as teenagers, kids are still typically self-centred as they struggle for independence. Children need to develop healthy, lasting levels of self-esteem to be able to protect and care for themselves while caring about others, to resist dangerous influences, and to stay connected to family and society. Healthy levels of self-esteem indicate a child’s belief that he or she is loved and worthy as a person in the family and in society, and thus doesn’t deserve and is more resilient to mistreatment.

Human beings have inner apparatus to help them cooperate and survive – moral-emotion apparatus, for want of a better term. We use this to alert us to dangers in the environment (anxiety, fear, gut instinct, for instance) and to help us act in ways that protect ourselves and other people. It is essentially survival apparatus. Empathy – both cognitive (mentalizing and gauging how another person may respond to a given situation i.e. perspective taking) and emotional aspects (feeling alongside a person)  – are part of this survival apparatus. Compromised empathic processing is a hallmark of narcissism and for some narcissistic personalities narcissism marks what is essentially arrested moral-emotional development. Some narcissists with NPD seemingly exhibit no empathy at all, whilst some narcissists seem able to turn empathy on and off at will.

Narcissism and empathy have long been considered interrelated. From the early clinical conceptualizations of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to the introduction of NPD in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders third edition or DSM–III (APA, 1980), impaired empathic processing has been considered a hallmark of pathological narcissism and NPD. Most often, “lack of empathy” is included as a signifier of the diagnosis and is highlighted in both the clinician’s and lay public’s impression of narcissistic individuals. However, only a few empirical studies have closely examined the association between empathy and narcissism and there is not enough evidence to make definitive conclusions that pathological narcissism is associated with differences in cognitive empathy. Clinical research efforts using self-report and interview measures have failed to identify lack of empathy as a distinguishing characteristic in patients with NPD. Moreover, several factors including low self-esteem, sense of internal control, self enhancement, emotion intolerance, and self-centredness may co-occur and affect the narcissistic individual’s empathic capability and functional pattern (Fonagy and Luyten, 2009; Nezlek, Schutz, Lopes and Smith, 2007; Ronningstam, 2009). Furthermore, some narcissistic individuals may have intact empathic ability, but choose to disengage from others’ pain or distress, while others may have a deficient ability in the recognition of others’ feelings. From a theoretical and clinical perspective, growing evidence suggests that the narcissism–empathy relationship is not all or none, but instead is a more complex relationship reflecting fluctuations in empathic functioning within and across narcissistic individuals.

Recently, research has suggested that people who suffer from NPD have structural abnormalities in a region of the brain that are linked to empathy. Researchers used magnetic resonance (MRI) imaging to scan the brains of 34 people, and measured the thickness of the patients’ cerebral cortex including 17 individuals who suffer from NPD and found that pathological narcissists have less grey matter in a part of the cerebral cortex (the cerebral cortex forms the external nerve cell layer of the brain) called the left anterior insula. Grey matter is primarily composed of neuron cell bodies and non-neuron brain cells that provide nutrients and energy to neurons, rather than sending and receiving information. The left anterior insula region of the brain, which is thought to be involved with cognitive functioning and the regulation of emotion, has also been tied to the generation of compassion and empathy. For patients with narcissism, this region of the cerebral cortex was markedly reduced in thickness compared to the control group. (Schulze et al, 2013).

A review of the evidence by Baskin-Sommers, Krusemark and Ronningstam (2014) for compromised empathic functioning, but not an inability or absence of empathy, in people with pathological narcissism and NPD suggests a neural deficiency in emotional empathy, despite the tendency for narcissistic individuals to overestimate their own emotional empathic capability. However, at this time, there is little evidence to suggest a reliable deficit in cognitive empathy  among narcissistic individuals. Ultimately, the examination of psychobiological, behavioural, and neural underpinnings of empathy provides a basis for future research that may identify the specific dysfunction(s) responsible for the potential disingenuous and indifferent inter- and intrapersonal behaviours of narcissistic individuals.

References
Afacan, Y., Chaudhry, F., Santangelo, V., Shkolnik, A. (2017) Narcissism is Genetic and the Superego Keeps it in Check. JSM Anxiety Depress 2(1): 1021.

Baskin-Sommers, A., Krusemark, E., & Ronningstam, E. (2014). Empathy in Narcissistic Personality Disorder: From Clinical and Empirical Perspectives. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/per0000061

Berger, F.K., (2014), Medical Encyclopedia: Narcissistic personality disorder, MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Fonagy, P., & Luyten, P. (2009). A developmental, mentalization-based approach to the understanding and treatment of borderline personality disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 1355–1381. doi: 10.1017/S0954579409990198

Luo, Y L. L., Cai, H., Song, H. (2014) A Behavioral Genetic Study of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Dimensions of Narcissism, PLoS ONE 9(4): e93403. doi:10. 1371/journal.pone.0093403

Nezlek, J. B., Schutz, A., Lopes, P., & Smith, C. V. (2007). Naturally occurring variability in state empathy. In T. Farroe & P. Woodruff (Eds.), Empathy in mental illness. (pp. 187–200). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Paris, J. (2014), “Modernity and narcissistic personality disorder”, Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 5 (2): 220, doi:10.1037/a0028580

Reichborn-Kjennerud, T. (2010). The genetic epidemiology of personality disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 12(1), 103–114.

Ronningstam, E. (2009). Narcissistic personality disorder: Facing DSM-V. Psychiatric Annals, 39, 111–121. doi:10.3928/00485713-20090301-09

Schulze, L., Dziobek, I., Vater, A. Heekeren, HR., Bajbouj, M., Renneberg, B., Heuser, I., & S. Roepke. (2013), Gray matter abnormalities in patients with narcissistic personality disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research; DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2013.05.017

 

Blog – December 2017

The highly empathic
By Jane McGregor, Ph.D.

Individuals of highly empathic or highly sensitive (the terms are used interchangeably) temperament are often kindly and caring sorts of people. They have a tendency to put others before themselves and it is this inclination that poses the greatest problem. They tend to read much significance into other’s words, tend to be non-assertive and lean towards fear-driven thinking. Highly empathic people often are very sensitive to the remarks and actions of other people. They tend to try to ‘mind-read’ or second guess other’s motives, putting themselves at risk of misinterpreting or reading too much into other people’s words and actions. In addition, they may take other’s words in ways that they aren’t meant, or find themselves wounded by the slightest of remarks. This situation can leave them feeling different, vulnerable and flawed.

Highly empathic individuals are often highly perceptive and intuitive. According to psychologist Elaine Aron, about one in five of us are born with heightened sensitivity to our surroundings, men and women in equal number. Being highly responsive is most likely inherited, and a large body of research suggests that the trait is innate (Aron et al. 2012). In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, the Aron estimates that around 20 per cent of individuals have the characteristic. In actuality people are not routinely assessed for high empathy and there is no universal screening for extreme altruism in any country that we know of. We regard this prevalence estimate as highly generous and suspect the prevalence of high empathy is far smaller; more likely in the range of 1-5 per cent of the general population, though clearly this is only an ‘guestimate’ along with the rest in the absence of robust official data.

Most of us are born with some intuitive abilities and a lot of us have experienced that sinking feeling when we sense something is wrong; that we or someone we care about is in danger; however, we experience intuition and empathy in varying degrees. Empathy is a process of making sense of our feelings (affect) and thoughts (cognition) about a person or persons or situation; the outcome of which is arriving at a prosocial response. It is a tool of survival. It has at least 2 component parts:

Cognitive empath

Cognitive empathy is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This is sometimes called perspective-taking. There can be a dark side to this sort of empathy. In fact, those who fall within the Dark Triad – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths have this ability, while having no emotional concern whatever for their victims (McGregor, 2017).

Affective or emotional empathy

Affective or emotional empathy is when you feel along with the other person. Emotional empathy enables someone to tune into another person’s inner emotional world. Our own experience of feelings (feeling sad, happy, outraged etc.) helps us to feel along with the other person. If our own range of feelings is limited; for example, a sociopath’s feelings may be restricted to base feelings like anger, envy and self-pity; this may mean they have difficulty recognising feelings in others that they don’t readily access or process in themselves. Conversely, a highly sensitive person may have an expansive emotional range to draw upon to aid them in emotionally empathising with other people. (McGregor, 2017)

Putting empathy under the microscope — or rather the modern-day gadgetry of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — Professor Simon Baron-­Cohen from the University of Cambridge, England is a researcher who explores new ideas about empathy. His research suggests that the level of empathy most of us experience varies according to the conditions we face at any given moment, although all of us have a pre-determined level of empathy which we generally return to – our pre-set or default position, if you like – on what he calls the empathy spectrum (Baron-Cohen, 2012). See Fig. 1.

The Empathy Bell Curve
The curve is a ‘bell shaped curve’ also known as a ‘bell curve (Baron-Cohen, 2011).

Fig. 1 The Empathy Bell Curve

The empathy spectrum ranges from six degrees at one end to zero degrees at the other. Baron-Cohen suggests there are at least ten regions of the brain which make up what he terms the empathy circuit. Many of these regions are involved in actively coding our experiences and are automatically active when we perceive others behaving in similar ways or having similar experiences. Neuroimaging (brain scan) studies lend support to the idea that narcissists, like sociopaths, have abnormalities in the empathy circuitry of the brain. It is thought that differences in their brain circuitry account for their lack of reaction to other people’s distress. Whilst scientists have made progress in revealing mechanisms thought to enable a person to feel what another is feeling, the evidence, and our understanding of what helps and hinders empathy, is far from complete. Furthermore, we don’t have a nuanced understanding of the environmental and biological influences or how they interact.

Baron-Cohen (2012) proposes that there is an empathy spectrum (or gauge – see Fig. 2), and each of us are positioned somewhere along it (See Table 1). Most people (represented by the hump in the curve) have middling levels of empathy, whereas few have high empathy (point 6), and few have no empathy at all (point 0).

Table 1. Points on the Empathy Spectrum

Point 0 No empathy and hurting others means nothing to them
Point 1 Capable of hurting other people but feels some regret if they do so
Point 2 Has enough empathy to inhibit them from acts of physical aggression
Point 3 Compensates for lack of empathy by covering it up
Point 4 Low to average empathy
Point 5 Slightly higher than average empathy
Point 6 Very focused on the feelings of others. An almost unstoppable drive to empathize.Baron-Cohen (2012)

Imagine the empathy spectrum as a gauge (see below) with settings on it ranging from zero to six.

Fig. 2 Empathy spectrum as a gauge

People who are cruel and lack empathy are positioned at one end of the gauge (point zero), whereas people who express empathy in abundance are at the other end (point six). The majority of us are positioned some place between these two extremes. Most of us can develop and improve our empathic abilities, however some individuals, particularly those at point zero such as sociopaths may find that lack of empathy (at least of the emotional or affective kind) is a permanent state.

Empathy requires expressing to be empathy in action. Empathy can be expressed in many different ways and need not be an emotional outpouring. It can be action or a well-judged response such as sitting in silence with a person who is grieving, lending a listening ear, or even protesting in the streets over some perceived injustice! It is about caring about people and the world about us!

For the highly empathic, the experience of tuning into other people and their concerns can be an emotional onslaught and labour that leaves them overwhelmed. A common concern for the highly empathetic is that they often report experiencing social anxiety which has debilitating effects on a person’s social and personal life. A study done by researchers (tibi-Elhanany et al, 2011) at the University of Haifa’s Department of Psychology, Israel, found socially anxious individuals often have high cognitive empathy abilities (being able to put themselves in others situations or anticipate others’ moves). Furthermore, they may have highly tuned senses with regard to social cues, high other-awareness and self-monitoring in social situations. Of course, larger scale research is needed to confirm this hypothesis, but the results are rather convincing.

Neuroscientists suggest a neural basis for high empathy and empathy in action as expressed as extreme altruism. A study by Abigail Marsh et al shows that extraordinary altruists (those who go so far as to risk their lives to help others) can be distinguished from other people by the enhanced volume in right amygdala (a small almond shape structure in the brain) and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results mirror the reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions observed in sociopathic/psychopathic individuals.

Author of Emotional Freedom, Judith Orloff, describes the highly empathic as a species unto themselves because they absorb other people’s energy, and become anxious, or exhausted when they don’t have time to themselves. Orloff suggests that the highly empathic sometimes unwittingly avoid relations with other people because deep down they’re afraid of getting overwhelmed. They want companionship but, relationships don’t feel particularly safe. However, once they learn to set boundaries and express their preferences, intimacy and deep connections become possible.

If you are highly empathic and suffer with constant anxious thought, the good news is you don’t have to accept this as an everlasting trait or a permanent feature of your particular makeup. There are ways to recapture control over anxious thought. The answer lies in managing the problem from within. You need to develop ways of getting to grips with the emotional turbulence inside and learn how to turn irrational thoughts into rational ones. The first thing is to tell yourself that you’re not defective. The second is to accept your imperfections. You live in a world that doesn’t always fully appreciate your gifts of perception and empathy, but there are ways to thrive in an imperfect world. It starts with reframing your thinking. Examine your fears. If your thoughts have you prisoner, and it’s time to unlock the doors and walk out! So stop people-pleasing, find the strength to say ‘no’ sometimes, learn good interpersonal boundaries, put to the test assertiveness skills and importantly, practice more self-compassion.

References
Aron, E.N. (1999) The Highly Sensitive Person (NJ: Carol Publishing Group)
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) The Empathy Bell Curve. Phi Kappa Phi Forum. http://www.phikappaphi.org/forum/spring2011/articles/pkpforum_spring2011_empathy.pdf.
Baron- ­Cohen, S. (2012). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. Philadelphia: Basic Books.
Eres, R. Decety, J., Louis, W.R., Molenberghs, P. (2015) Individual differences in local gray matter density are associated with differences in affective and cognitive empathy. NeuroImage, 117: 305
McGregor, J. (2017) Coping with Aggressive Behaviour. London, Sheldon Press.
Marsh, A.A, Stoycos, S.A., Brethel-Haurwitz, K.M. Robinson, P., VanMeter, J.W. and E. M. Cardinale (2014) ‘Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists,’ Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.
Orloff, J. (2011) Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (New York: Three Rivers Press)
tibi-Elhanany, Y. and G. Shamay-tsoory, S. (2011), ‘Social Cognition in Social Anxiety: First Evidence for Increased Empathic Abilities,’ Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci, 48, 2.

 

 

Blog – November 2017

Credit: Jonathon Rosen

Sociopaths in society

By Jane McGregor, Ph.D.

In this month’s blog we highlight the destructive effects of sociopaths in society. Sociopaths are chameleon-like and lurk freely among us. They pose a serious threat to humankind, harming individuals, families and communities the world over, affecting the health and well-being of millions daily. Yet, they exist largely unseen; and this lack of awareness and responsiveness means that the traumas they inflict upon their many targets go undetected.

Sociopaths exist in greater numbers than you might suppose, although it is hard to know for sure just how many there are. Since most estimates are derived from data based on specific sub-groups like prison populations rather than the general population, and the condition has been subject to regular redefinition, estimates for sociopathy in society vary considerably. Martha Stout, a psychologist who treats the survivors of psychological trauma, informs us in her valuable book The Sociopath Next Door that 4 per cent of the general population are sociopathic. This estimate is derived from a large clinical trial involving primary care patients in the United States, which found that 8 per cent of men and 3.1 per cent of women met the criteria for a diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder (AsPD), one of the terms used to describe those displaying sociopathic traits. The frequency of the condition was higher (13.4 per cent for men and 4 per cent for women) for those people with a history of childhood conduct disorder (a precursor of adult sociopathy). Meanwhile researchers Robert Hare and Paul Babiak estimate that 1 per cent of the population have the condition, with another 10 per cent or more falling into what they call the ‘grey zone’. In their book Snakes in Suits, Hare and Babiak suggest that the prevalence is likely to be higher in some groups including the business world, the philosophy and practices of which encourage sociopathic traits such as callousness and grasping behaviour.

Australian psychologist John Clarke has been working along the same lines as Hare and Babiak. In his book Working with Monsters he reports that up to 0.5 per cent of women and 2 per cent of men could be classified as sociopathic (like Hare and Babiak he prefers the term ‘psychopath’). A British study has estimated the prevalence of sociopathy in the general population at just under 1 per cent (approximately 620,000 people in the UK), although like other studies, this study found that prevalence is higher among certain groups including prisoners, the homeless, and people who have been admitted to psychiatric institutions. As you can see, estimates of sociopathy in the general population vary from less than 1 person in 100 to 1 in 25. Even at the more conservative end of the estimates, this translates into a possible 3.13 million sociopaths in the USA. And worldwide it equates to a figure of around 70 million. So the fact that sociopathic abuse remains such an overlooked problem is surprising, if not shocking. The cruelty of sociopaths finds no bounds, for there is no recourse, treatment or punishment to permanently stop them.

Sociopath-induced distress and trauma

Being involved in any sort of relationship with a sociopath (intimately, working with one, having a sociopath in the family or as a friend) is like being brainwashed. Those living with a sociopath usually exist in a state of constant emotional chaos. They may feel anxious and afraid, not knowing when the sociopath will fly into a rage. The sociopath meanwhile carries on untouched, using aggression, violence or emotional bullying to abuse his or her partner. Sociopaths are often aggressive, though not all of them exhibit violent or criminal behaviour. Aggression is not limited to men either; sociopathic women can be aggressive and violent too.

Sociopaths make up 25 per cent of the prison population, committing more than twice as many violent and aggressive acts as other criminals do. Violent sociopaths who cheat on their partners or defraud people are the ones most likely to get caught. They commit more than twice as many violent and aggressive acts as do other criminals and are responsible for more than 50 per cent of all serious crimes. When they get out of prison, they often return to crime. The reoffending rate of sociopaths is about double that of other offenders and for violent crimes it is triple.

There has been little systematic investigation of sociopathy in women. In fact, previous research has been over-reliant both on a male conceptualization of the disorder and on means of assessment developed, and primarily validated, with men. Furthermore, since sociopathy is not routinely assessed in women the harmful potential of some sociopathic women can be overlooked, especially towards their partners and children. From the available literature it would seem that when women direct their aggression towards others, their victims are generally those within their domestic sphere of control – a partner, a family member, a child, a friend or a work colleague. In addition, much of the harm or aggression carried out by women involves manipulation of, or damage to, peer relationships through aggressive competitiveness, the withdrawal of friendship, ostracism, overt bullying, telling lies about the victim to promote her rejection by others and other acts of interpersonal aggression, in order to exclude the victim from the social group. Conversely, when men direct their aggression toward others, its function is to damage the victim’s sense of control or dominance over the perpetrator of the aggression. Male aggression is more visible and more likely to result in arrest and punishment than is the case with women.

As well as inflicting physical trauma on others, there is the added and less visible burden of sociopath-induced emotional trauma, which if left unchecked can lead to anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, or if prolonged, complex PTSD abbreviated to C-PSTD). Chronically traumatized people often exhibit hyper-vigilant, anxious and agitated behaviour. They may also experience insomnia and assorted somatic (bodily) 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, including a deep mistrust of other people and anxiety in social situations. Yet for all these problems, no one knows the true extent or depth of mental anguish suffered by those on the receiving end of chronic sociopathic abuse, because in the majority of cases the physical and mental health problems either go undetected or the root cause is overlooked.

Sociopathic abuse has a substantial public health dimension and as such warrants far more attention than it attracts at present. The public need to be more alert and equipped to counter the problem and to stop sociopaths from interfering in adverse ways in other people’s lives. It is everybody’s business to curb aggression and covert forms of manipulation that lead to psychological harm of people. We each play a part and make up in the culture we live in and therefore as individuals we influence the general sway; either upholding the status quo or helping bring about change. Effective responses and interventions are required to reduce the range and extent of sociopathic abuse suffered by people the world over.

References

  1. K. L. Barry, M. F. Fleming, L. B. Manwell and L. A. Copeland (1997), ‘Conduct disorder and antisocial personality in adult primary care patients’, Journal of Family Practice 45:2, 15¬–1¬8.
  2. J. F. Samuels, G. Nestadt, A. J. Romanoski, M. F. Folstein and P. R. McHugh (1994), ‘DSM-III personality disorders in the community’, American Journal of Psychiatry151:7, 1055–62. This gave a prevalence estimate of 5.9 per cent of all types of personality disorders in adults in the community.
  3. P. Babiak and R. D. Hare (2006), Snakes in Suits, New York: Collins.
  4. J. Clarke (2009), Working with Monsters: How to Identify and Protect Yourself from the Workplace Psychopath Sydney, Australia: Random House.
  5. J. W. Coid, M. Yang, S. Ullrich, A. Roberts and R. D. Hare (2009), ‘Prevalence and correlates of psychopathic traits in the household population of Great Britain’, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32, 265–73.
  6. R. D. Hare (1993), Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, New York: Guilford Press, 83–96.

 

Blog – October 2017

 

A brief history of anger

Extract from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour by Jane McGregor, Ph.D.

Around the year 180 A.D. the Roman physician, Claudius Galen (130 A.D. – 210 A.D.) made the following observations about anger:
“When I was still a young man…, I watched a man eagerly trying to open a door. When things did not work out as he would like them, I saw him bite the key, kick the door, blaspheme, glare wildly like a madman, and all but foam at the mouth like a wild boar. When I saw this I conceived such a hatred for anger that I was never thereafter seen behaving in such an unseemly manner because of it.”

Galen was not alone in his dislike of uncontrolled anger. Aristotle (350 B.C.) also was troubled by unbridled anger, though regarded anger as having a useful role when it arose from injustice. He perceived it as a useful way and means of preventing wrongs, whilst he saw the opposite of anger – passivity – as insensitivity. Emotions were regarded at this time as appetite. Appetite was among the faculties or attributes that were collectively known as the common faculties, and included nutrition, sensation, and locomotion. The uniquely human faculty was the mind, which involved reason and the will. It was thought that the mind could override the appetites. This line of thought influence later civilisations and thinkers. The general hostility towards anger remained even until the Middle Ages.

The writing of philosophers of the ancient period suggests that uncontrolled anger was not uncommon in society, if the plays from those times are anything to go by. It is almost impossible to find an ancient Greek play or tragedy that doesn’t involve somewhere in it a vicious murder, or some fury erupting somewhere by someone. Yet anger was especially unloved by the Stoics. Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded in Athens in the early 3rd century B.C. Stoic doctrine was popular with a following in Roman Greece and throughout the Roman Empire. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions such as anger resulted from errors in judgment, and that a person of moral and intellectual superiority would not suffer such emotions. Visual signs of anger were looked on with disdain; for example, red-faced and red-haired people were regarded as hot-tempered, which was said to be owing to hot and dry humours. The Stoics also regarded anger as worthless expenditure of effort, even in war or sport. It was regarded as a mistake and unwise to get angry. So harshly was uncontrolled anger regarded that suicide was considered preferable to raging!

In medieval times the prevailing view was also on the side of restraint. The idea was that a mind was needed for people to get angry and the mind and will afforded humans control over their anger. This idea was taken up by Christians. A central idea of the Church was that humans had free will and were responsible for their behaviour and the consequences of it. This idea is picked up by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his work, Summa Theologiae, in which he described the habits of the mind that dispose people to evil or virtue. Yet it was also acknowledged that people could find themselves overwhelmed by passion, including anger. In such instances they were held to be insane and not responsible for their actions. During the medieval period it was popular to regard women and children as more prone to emotional displays. This was believed to be owing to a lack of moral education. Men were schooled in the idea that it was their responsibility to avoid getting angry. If someone provoked or slighted another, it was both individual’s responsibility to keep a sense of proportion and strive for balanced awareness by hearing the whole story. When dealing with other people’s anger the individual was advised to consider the situation from the angry person’s perspective. Today we might call this perspective-taking and making use of our empathic abilities. The early Christians were encouraged to teach their children self-control. Humiliation was to be avoided, as was pampering and indulging children, especially boys. Training was done by the father, but other household members would join in too. If a child was easily roused to anger, he would be punished for the loss of self-control.

There really hasn’t been much shift since medieval times with regards to views on anger. Expressions of anger still are often prohibited toward those of higher status, as they may constitute a challenge to the social hierarchy. One of the social nuances children must learn is that of deference, and who is considered an appropriate target for anger. Periodically there are upsurges in anger in society. It makes people wonder ‘what the world is coming to’, because it seems to spread in a socially contagious way. In recent history there was an escalation in aggression witnessed with the Holocaust and more recently, in terrorist attacks in many countries and places throughout the world. By way of example, early twentieth century Europe saw many angry days before, during and after the two world wars. For the political leaders of the period there was much to be gained from displaying anger and moral indignation. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill provided some fine examples of anger expressed for political purposes and expediency. In December 1914 warships entered British waters to fire hundreds of shells on Scarborough and several other coastal towns. Churchill expressed grief at first at the many lives lost, many of whom were children. Then later, in a letter to the Mayor of Scarborough, he branded the Germans “the baby killers of Scarborough” Huge public outcry followed and the expression “Remember Scarborough!” became a rallying call for allied troops.

But the Second World War wasn’t all about rousing anger and passions. A more stoical approach was evident in the wartime slogans such as the recently popularised and commercialised poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for the war. The poster was intended to raise the morale of the British public, threatened with widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities. In the immediate post war period of the 1950s, there emerged a wave of “Angry Young Men.” This was an assortment of playwrights and novelists, and John Osborne who wrote a play ‘Look Back in Anger’, epitomised the era. These young writers had survived the Second World War only to find themselves in a struggle of a different kind in which their imagined future was being held back by outmoded social conventions.

Anger at the older generation and demands for social change continued into the 1960s where young people in the mainstream began to revolt against the norms of the time. Also emerging in the 1960s were the hippies and the anti-war movement, which was initially based on the older 1950s Peace movement in the United States. In actual fact the 1960s hippies was a revival and popularization for a new generation of the Bohemian adventures of the preceding century. ‘Peace’ became synonymous with hippies and there was little place for anger in this sub-culture other than in the form of peaceful protest. The ‘sit in’ and slogans like ‘Make love not War’ were synonymous with the movement.

Even in the late twentieth century there was a tendency for anger to be viewed as a powerful emotion that was best avoided. In part this was because from the 1980s anger was linked to antisocial behaviour. Writers published work highlighting the role of anger in hostilities of the period. The psychologist James R. Averill in his work on anger and aggression claimed that anger was antisocial, negative, unpleasant and very common. It seemed to be a global problem and contagious, which for reasons unknown had reached crisis point. Quite often the problem appears to be linked to economic and social problems. In the 1980s daily life was set amid a backdrop of riots, economic instability including high unemployment and social unrest. A negative reaction to anger and aggression was evident in other countries too. By the late 1980s an important cross-cultural study by Scherer, Wallbott and Summerfield supported the idea of anger as commonplace. The study identified some key precursors to anger. These included breakdown in friendships, threats from strangers, unjust treatment, the violation of norms and damage to property. As anger and aggressiveness emerged as dangerous elements, there was concern about children’s exposure to aggressive behaviour in the media. The aggressive lyrics in popular music, and the graphic violence of video and Internet games by the 1990s, raised further concern about aggression and its pervasiveness in culture.

At the tail end of the century, there was renewed interest in the study of emotions. Emotion theorists, notably Richard Lazarus (1991), theorised that anger was important in preserving self-esteem. He suggested that before emotion like anger occurs, people make an automatic, often unconscious assessment of what is happening and what it may mean for them and other people. From that perspective, anger becomes not just rational but an important component of survival. More recently still anger increasingly has been linked to aggression through biology, in particular neurobiology, but in truth many disciplines engage in study of the emotions. Human sciences study the role of emotions in mental processes, disorders, and neural mechanisms. In psychiatry, emotions are examined to enable advancement in treatment of mental disorders. Emotions are also studied to aid the approach and the provision of holistic health care. Psychologists examine emotions by treating them as mental processes and explore the underlying physiological and neurological processes. In neuroscience scientists study the neural mechanisms of emotion by combining neuroscience with the psychological study of personality, emotion, and mood. Linguists and educationalists also consider the role of emotions in relation to learning and language.

Anger in our times

What makes people angry in daily life? In all probability, as in times past, it is usually other people that rouse our anger the most. People rage like blast furnaces all the time, seemingly over-reacting to what’s going on around them. Our bodies can’t distinguish between ordinary frustrations in daily life and truly life threatening stress so it gears up to the challenge every single time. Our bodies get busy just in case we need put up a fight or make a fast exit and release cortisol in readiness to do something physical.

Social convention of the day still has it that we should ‘Keep calm and carry on’, even if that means paying no regard to our bodily reactions. The rise in popularity in the past decade of the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters originally printed at the start of the Second World War is an interesting phenomenon. Despite 2.5 million of the posters being printed, the poster was never displayed publicly and nearly all of them were pulped. Rediscovered in the aftermath of financial crisis of 2007-8 the words on the poster perhaps reflected something about the British pluck and will to turn economic downturn into recovery.

But subduing our emotional reaction and our anger in a bid to keep calm and not look a fool by over-reacting when there is no real trouble afoot is not without risk. We may be more mindful of a need to calibrate our anger these days, but this has led to many of us feeling confused about our own anger and angry outbursts. On one hand we might view anger as a mobilising force for good (righteous anger or indignation). On the other hand, anger often is regarded as a strategy of manipulation to gain social influence and is viewed with deep suspicion. The end result is that anger is often viewed in problematical terms and as a negative emotion. Hence many people fear losing control, going off the deep end and looking stupid.

This has led to people seeking ways to curb and manage their anger. Men, in particular, are encouraged to find non-violent ways of expressing their anger and anger management classes have become a favoured approach. Self-exploration of the situations that lead to anger is encouraged. Therapists issue advice on stress-reduction techniques and tips to acquire mindfulness (or put another way, a state of conscious awareness). And assertiveness, which doesn’t exactly equate to anger and aggression, but relates to them, is encouraged through training programmes and self-help publications.

Being essentially agreeable and pro-social has been promoted as good for health and wellbeing, and yet researchers involved in a new study published in the Journal of Personality discovered something surprising: Those who are described as “agreeable, conscientious personalities” are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while “more contrarian, less agreeable personalities” are more likely to refuse to hurt others.

Without anger it is hard to believe we would be exercised or impassioned about much in life and it seems crucial for creativity. Volcanic rage is behind lots of creative sorts. In a series of experiments published in a research paper in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad demonstrated that anger promoted “unstructured thinking” on a creativity task. A second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects, before asking them to come up with ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas. Better still, their ideas were considered more original.

Although there are many situations where a person may feel uncivilised if they expressed uncontrolled anger, anger does have its purposes. It acts as a mobilising force and can push us on towards accomplishing goals, even overcoming problems and barriers. In fact, when we see something as beneficial, we want it more when we are angry, or so a recent study by Dutch researcher, Henk Aarts and colleagues suggests. The expression of anger can also benefit and strengthen relationships. Pent up and hidden anger has the reverse effect on relationships. This is because when anger is concealed, the other person cannot know about it, so has less chance of doing things to remedy the situation. Anger also can help us develop insight. If we can notice when we get angry and why, it can motivate self-change.

Anger is also a strong social indicator that things are not right and need addressing. In this way it can prevent violence. A good righteous anger can lead to peaceful protest over out-and-out violence. Without the proper amount of anger, without moral indignation, we would lose the desire to protect our friends and our own nation. Anger can also help us negotiate a better deal for ourselves and other people. But negotiating and staying in control of our anger isn’t easy. This has been a persistent problem for humanity; as the Greek philosopher Aristotle stated “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

References

  1. C. Galen (1963). On the Passions and Errors of the Soul (P.W. Harkins, Trans.) Columbus, O.H: Ohio University Press (Original work written circa 180 A.D.), 38.
  2. Aristotle (1931). The Works of Aristotle (W.D. Ross Ed, various trans.) Oxford, England: Clarendon Press (Original work written circa 350 B.C.)
  3. T. Aquinas (1964). Summa Theologiae (Compendium of theology) (Various trans.) London, Blackfriars (Original work completed about 1273).
  4. J. R. Averill (1982). Anger and Aggression: an essay on emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  5. K.R. Scherer, H.G. Wallbott, and A.B. Summerfield (1986), Experiencing Emotion: a cross-cultural study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  6. R.S. Lazarus (1991). Emotion and Adaption. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  7. L. Bègue, J-L, Beauvois, D. Courbet, D. Oberlé, J. Lepage, and A.A. Duke (2015). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm. Journal of Personality, 83, 3, 299–306.
  8. M. Baas, C. K.W. De Dreu, and B. A. Nijstad (2011). Creative production by angry people peaks early on, decreases over time, and is relatively unstructured. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 6, 1107–1115.
  9. H. Aarts, K. I. Ruys, H. Veling, R. A. Renes, J. H.B. de Groot, A. M. van Nunen and S. Geertjes (2010). The Art of Anger: Reward Context Turns Avoidance Responses to Anger-Related Objects into Approach. Psychological Science. 21, 10, 1406-1410.

 

September 2017 

Using our survival apparatus to deal with  threats and aggression

It rarely pays to take a hostile stance when confronted with aggression, because more often than not the threat of hostility and violence escalates. Nor does it usually pay to remain impassive to one’s own or another’s plight in the face of a threat. Playing dead, as some animals do (termed tonic immobility and is a natural state of paralysis or hypnosis) may be a way of avoiding or deterring predators to get out of a dangerous situation, but as a strategy of deterrence it cannot be maintained long term. So what can we do to help ourselves? There are actions we can take that can influence our responses to other people.

All of us use our moral-emotion apparatus to influence and guide our actions. Some of us use this moral-emotion apparatus more often and to better effect that others. Nevertheless, apart from those who are so extreme and antisocial – the ones with no concern for others (zero empathy) and no conscience, whose traits seem fixed by adulthood – most of us can exercise our moral-emotion apparatus and put it to good use.

Using our moral-emotion apparatus requires utilising our empathic abilities. It also involves the ability to reflect on our own conduct and making use of moral feelings to shape and guide our actions. Empathy is a process that leads to expression of behaviour that is socially beneficial. In essence, empathising is the process by which we engage in prosocial activity.

In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that our greatest hope for building a fairer society is based upon a more generous and accurate view of human nature. Being in tune with others, he notes, are traits linked to empathy that produce the glue that holds communities together. So how is empathy and the process of empathising defined?

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This is sometimes called perspective-taking. There can be a dark side to this sort of empathy. In fact, those who fall within the Dark Triad – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths have this ability, while having no emotional concern whatever for their victims.

Affective or emotional empathy

Affective or emotional empathy is when you feel along with the other person. Emotional empathy enables someone to tune into another person’s inner emotional world. Our own experience of feelings (feeling sad, happy, outraged etc.) helps us to feel along with the other person. If our own range of feelings is limited; for example, a sociopath’s feelings may be restricted to base feelings like anger, envy and self-pity; this may mean they have difficulty recognising feelings in others that they don’t readily access or process in themselves. Conversely, a highly sensitive person may have an expansive emotional range to draw upon to aid them in emotionally empathising with other people.

One downside of emotional empathy is when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions. This can lead to emotional exhaustion and distress. Doctors and healthcare workers often employ purposeful detachment as a way to inoculate themselves against stress and burnout. In such circumstances they use their cognitive empathic skills as opposed to their emotional empathy to aid them in their work with their patients. Of course there is a danger that when one employs emotional detachment this can lead to indifference, rather than to well-regulated caring; so people who work with people, whose business it is to show care and concern for others, need to find ways to maintain a healthy balance in order to provide compassionate care. What this takes is emotional intelligence and the wherewithal to manage emotions in a self-enhancing way.

Emotional intelligence

As we emotionally mature through childhood and into adulthood we learn and take on board moral standards that we absorb from the individuals around us, from society at large and the people who make up the community we live in. All being well, the development of these moral standards passes through several stages through childhood and adolescence, moving from avoidance of punishment, to avoidance of disapproval and rejection and then finally, to avoidance of guilt and self-recrimination. Unfortunately, some people dodge the last step in the process.

All emotions are impulses to act. The emotions of fear, anger, happiness, love, surprise, disgust, and sadness send signals to the brain that release hormones to give strength to the necessary reactions. Though not often viewed this way, we are feeling creatures that think, not the other way around.

Humans are of two minds: the emotional mind and the rational mind. One mind feels and the other thinks. The emotional mind lodges impulsive, powerful, and often illogical feelings,  whilst  the rational mind affords us the ability to think and reflect. The two minds interact. Being alert to our feelings allows them to  inform our conscious thought and can lead to action for coping and surviving. Feelings inform the rational mind, which then moderates the involvement and expression of our emotions. Some of us have greater access to our feelings and a more expansive emotional range than others, so there is considerable individual variation in how we respond to feelings and thought.

The concept of emotional intelligence emerged in psychological research and constitutes three components of the mind: cognition (thought), affect (feeling) and motivation. To make use of one’s emotions in an intelligent way requires us to connect the first two components of the mind: cognition and feeling. The theory of emotional intelligence links cognition and feeling by suggesting that emotions make cognitive processes more intelligent and that one can think intelligently about emotions. Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive accurately, appraise and express emotion; the ability to generate and access feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

People who are aware of their own and others’ emotions gain a large amount of information about themselves and their environment. For example, a singer who is sensitive to experiencing pre-performance anxiety will know that she needs to find ways to keep calm before she goes on stage. Over time she learns to manage this situation so it does not affect her actual performance. Individuals who do not recognise their own and others’ emotions are cut off from this useful information.

Understanding feelings involves having a language of emotion with which to express our understanding of our felt experiences. People feel sadness, for example, after experiencing some sort of loss, and feel happiness after experiencing a gain. Emotion intelligence and management combine to help us understand how emotions merge together (for instance, that we can experience feelings like anger and disgust at the same time,) and how they change over time in given situations (e.g. bereavement can be a process that can see us experience at different times shock and emotional numbness, anger, and sadness). Management of emotion refers to the ability to regulate one’s own emotions. Some techniques for managing emotions work more effectively than others. For instance, becoming intoxicated all the time to deal with intense feelings of grief is usually not an effective way to deal with grief, because even if it temporary blocks the experience of intense feeling, in the end we have to face and accept our loss. Permitting rather than blocking the full sweep of emotional experience is probably the best way for us to come to terms with loss.

Instincts, intuition and survival

Humans are born with, and also acquire along the way a toolbox full of strategies and social impulses to survive. In terms of how we operate in daily life, humans have two, very different systems in relation to the way we operate. One system is our instinctual, and often subconscious way of operating. The second system is our more analytical way of operating.

“Instincts” derive from the word instinctus or “impulse,” and it is the innate inclination toward a particular behaviour in response to certain stimuli. It is instinctive in us to recognise when to run from a perceived danger. This is known as the flight or fight response.

The word ‘intuition’ dates back to late Middle English and it denoted spiritual insight or immediate spiritual communication. It is derived from the Latin intueri, meaning ‘consider’. It is the automatic thought process that doesn’t require analysis. The intuitive system is more hardwired into the human species than commonly understood. Unfortunately, gut feelings can also be silenced. A childhood hijacked by abusive or neglectful people can make it difficult to filter traumatic past experiences from gut intuition or instinct. And strong emotions, particularly negative ones, can cloud our intuition. When a person is depressed, their intuition may fail. And when an individual is angry or in a heightened emotional state their intuition can also fail them.

The main thing that distinguishes intuitive people is that they listen to, rather than ignore, their intuitions and gut feelings. Most of us, if not everybody is connected to their intuition, but some people don’t pay attention to it. There is growing interest in individuals learning to use intuitive cognition. By way of example, in 2012 the New York Times reported that the United States Navy planned to start a programme to investigate how members of the military can be trained to improve their intuitive ability. The idea came from the testimony of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who reported an unexplained feeling of danger just before they encountered an enemy attack or ran into an improvised explosive device.

Being instinct intact actively involves listening to your inner wisdom (all the accumulated data that you take in subconsciously each day, over many years) and trusting your intuition about the people and situations you encounter; it’s not being a cynic but rather, a healthy sceptic; it’s questioning the status quo; it’s going after what you want as opposed to running from what you fear. It is having clear, firm boundaries, without being rigid or unreasonable; it’s knowing how to simply say ‘No’ and to disengage from drama.

References

de Waal, F.,The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Crown, 2009)

Goleman, D., Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence, omnibus edn (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004).

 

Excerpt from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour (Sheldon Press, 2017) by Dr. Jane McGregor

 

 

August 2017 

Resolving apathy 

In this month’s blog we explore the problem of apathy and what those periodically afflicted with it can do to avoid being impassive to other people,  events and situations. Goncharov’s novel Oblomov, from which the above quotation is taken, was written almost a century and a half ago and highlights the perennial nature of the problem. Oblomov was a man so indifferent to life that he gave up his job, found himself in debt, and ended up risking losing the love of his life.

Today we tend to view apathy more often as a problem of youth not of middle-aged or even elderly men and women, but apathy can hold any of us to the spot and stop us acting on our convictions. The key to ridding oneself of apathy is to avoid becoming too practised in self-trickery and more practiced in recognizing your own and others’ feelings. Here I write about recognising emotions in order to express empathy more freely.

Know your own mind

Empathy builds on self-awareness: the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we are in reading and concerning ourselves with our own feelings and the feelings of others. Or put another way, the less we dissociate from our own feelings the less likely we are to dissociate from the feelings and concerns of others.

Some people are fantastically empathetic when it comes to caring but have very little empathy at all when it comes to dealing with someone else’s outrage or anger. It is not uncommon for people to side-step certain feelings and avoid expressing emotions that they are uncomfortable with. Some close down in the face of violence and abuse, and cut off completely from emotions they are frightened of in themselves. Here I explore ways in which you can harness your emotions instead of avoiding them, embrace them instead of being repelled by them, and learn to enhance your abilities to express self-compassion and empathy for your own benefit, and the benefit of others.

Making the most of your emotional intelligence

The psychologist Daniel Goleman suggests all emotions are impulses to act. Needed for coping and surviving, the emotions of fear, anger, happiness, love, surprise, disgust, and sadness send signals to the brain that release hormones to give strength to the necessary reactions. Being alert to our feelings is important to thought and vice versa, and emotional thought leads to action. This situation suggests that humans are of two minds: the emotional mind and the rational mind. One mind feels and the other thinks. In the emotional mind lodge impulsive, powerful, and often illogical feelings whilst the rational mind affords us the ability to think and reflect. Emotion informs the rational mind, which moderates the involvement and expression of our emotions.

Being able to pick up on our own distress helps us recognize another person’s distress and respond in appropriate and supportive ways. Being alert to our own and other’s emotional states requires emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence means we have acquired a good balance between our rational and emotional minds. This is important in the elimination of both apathy and ambivalence where emotional and rational minds are caught in a struggle when passions surge and the emotional mind overwhelms the rational one. Psychologists define emotional intelligence as the ability to reason with emotion. Peter Salovey and John Mayer, both major contributors in this area, divide emotional intelligence into five main areas.

  1. Knowing your emotions. Recognizing a feeling as it happens gives you greater certainty about your feelings, and helps you to make personal decisions.
  2. Managing emotions. The ability to handle feelings builds on self-awareness. Those who excel in managing their emotions are more likely to bounce back quickly from setbacks and upsets.
  3. Motivating yourself. People who can channel their emotions towards a goal can motivate themselves to achieve their goals.
  4. Recognizing emotions in others. People who demonstrate empathy are more attuned to what others may need or want.
  5. Handling relationships. The skill of dealing with other people’s emotions is the basis of the art of relationships.

Altogether the above attributes and skills enhance our interpersonal effectiveness. In order to enhance our abilities in this area we need first to establish our own distinctive style for handling our feelings and emotions. John Mayer suggests people tend to have distinctive styles for dealing with their emotions;

  1. Self-aware. These people are aware of their moods as they have them, are sure of their boundaries, and have a positive outlook on life. They manage their emotions and do not ruminate over bad moods.
  2. Engulfed. These people are consumed by their emotions, feel helpless to escape them, are not aware of their feelings, and therefore they lose perspective. The result is that they feel they have little control over their emotions.
  3. Accepting. These people tend to accept their different moods, and don’t necessarily try to change them.

Thinking out loud

We need to become more clued up about what we feel and think by listening to our internal dialogue (our thoughts and feelings). If you have trouble listening to your inner self when you feel overwhelmed or emotionally fatigued, a preliminary step is listening to yourself think out loud.

To do this, find somewhere where you are able to relax and are unlikely to be disturbed away from other members of the family. Then listen to both sides, or as communication expert Elayne Savage puts it “your voice of confidence and your voice of doubt”. If you only listen to one voice, you are, in effect, rejecting the other. If listening in this way seems an unnatural thing to do at first, try writing a ‘What I have to gain’ list and a ‘What I have to lose’ list instead.

You might discover that you have conflicting thoughts that you struggle to reconcile. This is called being ambivalent or in a state of ‘two minds’. Often in such cases allowing yourself time to ponder and weigh up your concerns and choices is really valuable. The process of reflecting on your thoughts and feelings in this way is often all that is needed to unleash you from that stuck state. But if ambivalence immobilizes you and you are gripped of fear; what then? You can help yourself move forward by naming the fear. So ask yourself, what is your fear?  Try to describe it. Is it fear of rejection?  Fear of failure?  Of success? Or do you fear being judged or punished? Naming the fear out loud and writing it down can sometimes help. Try it, see if it allows you to see things differently and recognize the route out of your state of ‘stuckness’. For you see, ambivalence, like apathy, can render us inactive. Although our feelings, thoughts, behaviours, traits, deficits and strengths can’t possibly be fully transparent, at least by being more self-examining we become conscious of how we feel about everyday concerns and issues.

Don’t let fear hem you in

Sometimes we fear moving forward, not because we haven’t made our minds up about our options but because we fear change itself. For most of us, preserving the status quo matters most. We fear change because with change, there is often loss. And with loss, there is often sadness and grief. Sometimes we fear so much what we might lose with change, that the fear immobilises us and keeps us stuck. We find that we don’t know which way to turn or how to act. But with grief and loss, there can be space for creative engagement, participation, care and concern. When it’s time to face your concerns, find somewhere quiet where you can go into contemplative mode and take heed of what’s on your mind:

  • Approach any fear or anxiety you have with detachment. Become more aware of your fear or anxiety by noticing what you are afraid or anxious of, when you feel like this and where you feel it in your body.
  • In your mind’s eye, really look at this fear or anxiety. How big or small is it? Do you need to confront it? Or is there a way of manoeuvring your way around it?

Ambivalence-busting strategies

Once you have got more in touch with your fears and concerns, the next step is to kick the fear into touch. The following statements and questions to ask yourself are intended to help you dislodge your fear.

  • Recognise that ambivalence is part of everyday life
  • Remember that part of the clarification process is to find out what it is you are struggling with.

So try answering the following questions;

  1. Do I really want to continue down this path? I could retrace my steps and go down a different path.
  2. What if choose to carry on this path and I act on the issues facing me, what is likely to happen then?
  3. What would it mean if I failed to act?
  4. What are the paybacks to me and others if I take action?

Conquering fear

If fear is still getting in the way, it maybe you need to reframe your thinking. Keep these statements handy for times when you really need to conquer that fear.

  1. Value courage (don’t cling to things just for security)
  2. Appreciate the difference being fearful and being cautious
  3. View fear as a call to arms: a signal to take action
  4. Reframe fear as excitement

Article written by Dr. Jane McGregor

References

Goleman, D., Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence, omnibus edn (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004).

Goleman, D., Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (London: Arrow, 2007).

Salovey, P., Brackett, M.A., & Mayer, J.D. (eds.)  (2004) Emotional intelligence: Key readings on the Mayer and Salovey model. (Port Chester, NY: Dude Press).

 

 

July 2017  

Empathy erosion

 

In his book Zero Degrees of Empathy,  Simon Baron-Cohen, discusses the notion of empathy erosion, which he says arises when we have corrosive emotions like bitterness or a desire for revenge. In many cases empathy erosion is a temporary affliction. But what if empathy erodes because of more permanent psychological characteristics?

According to Baron-Cohen there are ten regions of the brain that make up what he terms the empathy circuit. Many of these regions are involved in actively coding our experiences and are automatically active when we perceive others behaving in similar ways or having similar experiences. Neuroimaging (brain-scan) studies lend support to the idea that sociopaths/psychopaths have abnormalities in the empathy circuitry of the brain. It is thought that differences in their brain circuitry account for their lack of reaction to other people’s distress. But while scientists have made progress in revealing mechanisms thought to enable a person to feel what another is feeling, the evidence, and our understanding of what helps and hinders empathy, is far from complete. We do not yet have a nuanced understanding of the environmental and biological influences or how they interact.

Can sociopaths/psychopaths turn empathy on and off?

The generally held view is that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon. Among other things it can be affected by the context of the situation, the relationship between empathizer and the other person and so on. This view is held except in relation to situations where the individual is thought to lack empathy entirely – in other words, those at the extreme end of the empathy spectrum (at point zero). In such cases the traditional orthodoxy has it that these individuals are permanently unable to empathize. But a recent study challenges this viewpoint. In fact, it arguably demonstrates the reverse – that even sociopaths/psychopaths don’t lack empathy and can turn it on when they want to. In 2012 the research neuroscientist Christian Keysers and colleagues from the Netherlands carried out a study that suggests that sociopaths/psychopaths can activate empathy on demand.

The aforementioned study measured the sociopath’s empathy for others. The subjects were then told that the study was designed to measure empathy, after which a surprising thing happened: their empathy ‘normalized’. The research therefore suggests that sociopaths don’t lack empathy, but abnormally suppress it. The suppression mechanism that helps regulate the response in normal people is ‘over active’ in the case of the sociopath, or so Keyser’s findings suggest. When told that they were being studied for empathy, the study participants were apparently able to turn the empathy back on. This study points to reduced vicarious activity in regions involved in performing actions, feeling touch and experiencing emotions that are considered functional markers of empathy, and suggests a possible neural basis for reduced empathy and antisocial behaviour. Some experts have suggested that if this proves true, it raises questions of moral accountability. If certain individuals have a brain chemistry that makes them indifferent to empathic responses and yet they can overcome a lack of empathy when prompted, then the question becomes whether these people are aware of this, and exactly what the mechanism is that turns empathy back on. Further, the fact that sociopathic individuals often display low motivation for change represents an unfortunate challenge in efforts to thwart their antisocial ways.

Abigail Marsh, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, emphasizes that sociopathic individuals are not emotionless. Rather, they lack fear, have reduced fear-related physiological responses, such as skin conductance, and are less responsive to aversive conditioning, in which painful stimuli are associated with unwanted behaviours. Furthermore, many sociopaths are continually in and out of prison, which suggests that imprisonment has no effect on curbing sociopathic behaviours.

When asked to describe a time when they felt fear or anger strongly, the only difference between individuals with sociopathy and the control subjects was their attitude towards fear. Sociopathic individuals had difficulty recognizing fear in faces, posture, and voices and demonstrated a deficit in experiencing fear. These results suggest that dysfunction in the amygdala (including reduced volume), the fear centre of the brain, could be a root cause of sociopathy.

Abigail Marsh and colleagues regard sociopathy as a continuous, rather than discrete, condition that it is on the opposite end of the “continuum of caring”, with extraordinary altruists at the other end. In the studies conducted, extraordinary altruists could be distinguished by the enhanced volume in right amygdala and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results are the reverse of findings of sociopaths where there is found reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions. These results suggest that dysfunction in the amygdala, the fear centre of the brain, could be a root cause of sociopathy. Indeed, sociopaths have reduced amygdala volume and, even among individuals with varying levels of sociopathy, amygdala volume is negatively correlated with sociopathy.

Currently there are no known treatments or responses that produce tangible differences in behaviour or levels of empathy in sociopathic personality types, so the advice is to view the sociopathic encounter dispassionately and, whenever contact is necessary, establish firm boundaries of interaction and communication.

References

  1. Abigail A. Marsh, Sarah A. Stoycos, Kristin M. Brethel-Haurwitz, Paul Robinson, John W. VanMeter, and Elise M. Cardinale. Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists. PNAS October 21, 2014 ,111, 42
  2. H. Meffert, V. Gazzola, J. A. den Boer, A. A. J. Bartels, C. Keysers. Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 2013; 136 (8): 2550

 

June 2017

SOCIOPATHS AND HOW THEY ABUSE PEOPLE    

People targeted by a sociopath often respond with self-deprecating comments like “I was stupid”, “what was I thinking” of “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 s/he conditions people. On initial contact, a sociopath will often test other people’s empathy, so questions geared towards discovering if you are highly empathic or not should ring alarm bells. 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 found in prison. 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 traumatised people often exhibit hyper-vigilant, anxious and agitated behaviour, 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.  Re-exposure as an adult can trigger old emotions and PTSD.

EVERYDAY SOCIOPATHS. 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. The following case history illustrates how people can be systematically targeted until they feel they can barely trust their own sense of reality – what we call “gaslighting”. Sociopathic abuse is targeted abuse. It can wreck lives; victims can become survivors, but at huge cost. 

Let’s take a look at one case. At school, ‘James’ took a dislike to a classmate, ‘Sam’, who was sensitive and popular. He would mock him for auditioning for the school plan or for getting upset over failing a test. The situation deteriorated when it became known that Sam’s parents were separating. Sam appeared to be taking it with fortitude, to the admiration of his peers. He also got attention and sympathy from the school staff, especially James’ favourite teacher: i.e., the one he manipulated most easily. James decided on a plan of covert bullying. He started a whispering campaign implying that Sam’s parents were not splitting up, that he had said they were in order to seek attention. Sadly, this was all too successful and over the next few days Sam was met with silence and verbal bullying from his hitherto-supportive classmates. James continued his campaign, targeting Sam’s close friends over the next few days. They found themselves accused of misdemeanours such as sending offensive emails/texts. Then the ‘favourite’ teacher went on “leave with immediate effect” after accusations of assaulting a pupil. Where had the accusations come from? Guess. This case shows how deliberately sociopaths, from a young age, can target others. Taking advantage of people’s credibility and goodwill, James exploited the situation. With a more erceptive head teacher, this sociopath might have been found out, but he knew who to manipulate and how far he could go.

SEE THE EMPEROR NUDE, NOT IN CLOTHES. 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 really 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 behaviour 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. We have highlighted the importance of seeing the problem for what it is via the tale of the            Emperor’s New Clothes, which represents the collective denial and        double standards which are often a feature of social life. The apath in this context is someone who is willing to be blind: i.e., not to see that the emperor/empress is naked. 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 is not 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 connection to the target. How apaths who might otherwise be fair-minded people, become involved in such destructive business is not hard to understand, but it can be hard to accept. 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. At other times, the apath might not want to see the ‘bad’ in someone, particularly if the      sociopath is useful. Or they might choose not to see because they have enough on their plate and do not possess the wherewithal or moral courage to help the targeted person at that time. Usually, be it active or passive involvement, the apath’s conscience appears to fall asleep. It is this scenario that causes people blindly to follow leaders motivated only by self-interest. Readers might know of Yale University professor Stanley Milgram’s experiments to test the human propensity to obey orders, as participants gave increasingly large electric shocks to subjects. Afterwards, he wrote an article, The Perils of Obedience: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process”. Apaths are often fearful people. They are the ones most likely to go with the flow, to agree that the emperor/empress is wearing new clothes. They might also fail to perceive the threat: a danger is of no importance if you deny its existence. An apath’s response to a sociopath’s call to arms can then result from a state of ‘learned helplessness’. Apaths behave defencelessly because they want to avoid unpleasant or harmful circumstances [including the sociopath turning on them]. Apathy is an avoidance strategy.

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 those who sense when something’s not right, and           respond to their gut instinct. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the empath is the boy who mentions the unmentionable: that there are no clothes. In the 1990s, researchers suggested that there was a positive relationship between empathy and emotional intelligence. Since then, that term has been used interchangeably with emotional literacy. What this means in practice is that empaths have the ability to understand their own emotions, to listen to other people and empathise with their emotions, to express emotions productively and to handle their emotions in such a way as to improve their personal power. 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.

It is odd.  Most of us enjoy watching films and reading books about heroes who refuse to go along with the crowd, which suggests there is something admirable about people who make a bold stand. But in real life, watching someone raise their head above the parapet often makes the rest of us feel queasy. Most  people – the 65-90% (the range of those oft repeated obedience studies)  – prefer the easy life. It is strange how often people see empaths in problematical terms. Empaths use their ability to emphasise and to boost theirs and others’ wellbeing and safety. Problems arise for empaths, however, when there are apaths in the vicinity. Empaths can be brought down, distressed and forced into the position of the lone fighter by the inaction of more apathetic types round them.

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.

SOCIOPATH-EMPATH-APATH TRIAD. 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. Sociopaths rarely vary this tried-and-tested formula because it virtually guarantees them success.

Sociopaths draw in apaths by various means: flattery, bribery, disorienting them with lies. A sociopath will go to any lengths to win her game. The best way to illustrate the interplay, and the ease with which apaths are pulled in, is by another short story.

‘Steve and Robin’ were microbiologists at a prestigious university, collaborating on an important vaccine trial. The department head, Ben, hoped to gain substantially; success could see his status in his field rise and prove the catalyst for a glittering career. His colleagues worked relentlessly collecting data, then Ben drafted a paper for submission to a respected journal. He decided that the outcome didn’t look tantalising, so falsified key results in order to present findings in the best light. On completing the draft, he sent the paper for comment to his colleagues. Steve replied by email that he was happy with the manuscript; he used the opportunity to suck up to his boss. But Robin was aghast, noting colossal errors. With great urgency, he rattled off an email to Ben. Receiving no response to this or a phone call, Robin went to find Ben in person, discovering him in the cafeteria with Steve. But he was too late.  Ben had poisoned Steve’s mind, saying that Robin had challenged him over the accuracy of the results, due to a longstanding grudge. Ben said he had to pull Robin up about his own work several months back. Steve was different, Ben implied. He intimated Steve would be on course for promotion “especially if we get this paper out and secure funding for the next-stage trials”. By the time Ben joined them, Steve, though initially shocked, had been won over by Ben’s swift flattery and insinuations. Robin crossed the cafeteria to them. “Hi, you two got a moment?” Briefly there was an awkward silence. Steve exchanged a look with Ben, who gave a slight conspiratorial smile, now that the transaction was done and the sport under way. “Yes, we were just talking about the paper. By the way, I did see your email, but if you look at the paper thoroughly, I think you’ll find that everything is correct.” Steve replied with a smug look that “I’m with Ben on this one”. Robin was floored. “You can’t be serious? You’re happy for it to go off to be reviewed with all these serious errors? Our reputations will be left in ruins.” He decided to make a stand. He asked for his name to be removed as a co-author but was exasperated to learn that it was sent off to the journal anyway. More frustratingly, it was published.

Meanwhile, the workplace became a source of stress for Robin as he struggled to cope with the backlash from colleagues who saw his intervention as an attempt to sabotage their work. People avoided him and, when they did talk to him, the conversation was stilted. Eventually Robin arranged a meeting with Ben to have it out once and for all. But Ben took control of the agenda. “Robin, I have to be honest with you, many of your colleagues are unhappy about the way you handled things and some have made complaints. They don’t trust you to conduct yourself professionally after you attempted to sabotage their hard work.

Mercifully the reviewers saw what a find trial we’d conducted and didn’t get wind of your attempted slur. “We can’t afford to have a saboteur on the team. So I’ve discussed this with the dean and he agrees there is no future for you here, and there’s no other way to deal with this. You’ve got to go.” Any phase of this story sound familiar?

THE GASLIGHTING EFFECT. In the story above, the actions of Ben and Steve have a ‘gaslighting’ effect on Robin. Gaslighting is a systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality. The syndrome gets its name from the play and films of the same name in which a murderer strives to make his wife doubt her sanity and others to disbelieve her. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented in such a way as to make the target doubt his/her memory and perception. Psychologists call this “the sociopath’s dance”.  It could involve denial or staging of strange events. This is Machiavellian behaviour of the worst kind. Anyone can become a victim of the sociopath’s gaslighting moves: parent and child, in-laws, friends, groups of people including work colleagues. Psychotherapist Christine Louise de Canonville describes different phases that the abuser leads the relationship through: the idealisation stage, where the sociopath shows herself in the best possible light – but this phase is an illusion, to draw her target in the devaluation stage begins gradually so the target is not alert to the sociopath’s transformation to being cold and unfeeling, but will begin to feel devalued at every turn; the more distressed the target becomes, the more the sociopath enjoys her power, and her abuse can become more extreme the discarding stage – the target is reduced to an object to which the sociopath is indifferent, seeing the game as won; the sociopath rejects any connection, moving on to the next target. Gaslighting does not happen all at once so, if you suspect in the early stages of a relationship that you are being gaslighted, you can protect yourself by walking away.

 

Extract from The Empathy Trap: Understanding antisocial personalities by Dr J. and T. McGregor (Sheldon Press). Published under the  different title of The Sociopath at the Breakfast Table in the U.S. (Hunter House).

 

May 2017

16899848053_2504f71ed1_mCommon strategies of online aggressors  

Covert aggression is frequently seen in online communication. It can be veiled as humour. People who engage in it often use sarcasm to put down or belittle the other person. It is not a self-enhancing way of communicating. People who use it tend to avoid emotional situations, have low self-esteem and generally want to keep people at bay. It is used to confirm to the individual that engaging in communication with other people is a waste of time and energy.

There is a shortage of research concerning the issue of online trolling. According to a leading researcher on the language of aggression, Dr Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University, ‘trolling’ is a term used to describe online antagonism that dates back to the 1980s. It is deliberate antagonism undertaken for amusement’s sake. At their most extreme, trolls are everyday sadists or people with personality disorders, such as Antisocial Personality Disorder. The techniques can cause manifold problems for the targeted person, not least high anxiety, fear and distress.

‘Cyberbullying’, a term commonly used, but perhaps not best encapsulating its varied nature and in some ways infantilising it , has been defined as repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers and other electronic devices. This behaviour may involve the sending of harassing messages, the making of derogatory comments on a website, or intimidating or threatening someone in various online settings of public forums, video games, blogs, or social networking sites. Cyberbullying does not necessarily imply a personal relationship where the target of abuse and instigator know each other, as would be assumed in bullying in the real world.

In recent years an increasing number of cases of cyberbullicide, which describes suicide indirectly or directly influenced by experiences of online aggression, have been reported in the mass media. Most of these involve teenagers, who take their own lives as a result of being harassed and mistreated over the internet. Findings of online aggression by researcher Adam Zimmerman suggest that although anonymity may increase the likelihood that individuals will act aggressively, social modelling influences aggressive outcomes. Zimmerman suggests online aggression is  an outcome  of  dehumanization, where certain social conditions reduce an individual’s self-awareness and concern about what other people feel or even think about them. This process weakens the restraints against the expression of undesirable behaviour. He cites a 1970s study by Philip G. Zimbardo, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University – the infamous Stanford prison experiment. In the study individuals who were dressed in guard uniforms and glasses to hide their faces and identity engaged in cruel behaviours towards prisoners that presumably would not have occurred had they not been anonymous. Zimbardo, in a New York Times interview in 2007, suggested that ‘when someone is anonymous it opens the door to all kinds of antisocial behaviour’.

Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University has studied the language of aggression and describes some common strategies used by online aggressors, which are outlined below.

Digression involves straying from the purpose of the discussion or forum. It includes malicious spamming, or introducing entirely irrelevant topics.

(Hypo)criticism involves criticizing others, usually excessively, for an offence of which the critic is also guilty. The word is derived from hypocrite, hypocritical.

Antipathy involves proactively and usually covertly exploiting a sensitive discussion by being deliberately controversial or provocative.

Endangering involves masquerading as help or advice giver while actually causing harm.

Shock involves being insensitive or explicit about a sensitive or       taboo topic such as religion, death, politics, human rights, animal welfare – a classic strategy.

Aggress involves openly and deliberately aggressing another person, without any clear justification and with the aim of antagonizing him or her into retaliating.

Curbing cyber-aggression

The general advice is to ignore rather than engage with online          aggressors. It is not uncommon to use the phrase, ‘Please do not feed the trolls’, along with accompanying signs. This advice has, for several years, been suggested as the way to curb trolls online, but not everyone agrees ignoring them is the right thing to do. Some people argue that if ‘feeding the trolls’ provokes or encourages them in the short term, in the long term, sustained resistance and a confident attitude of intolerance to harassment is the only way to create the impression that something has to and can change.

Extract from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour by Dr. Jane McGregor published by Sheldon Press, 2017.

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April 2017images

Passive Aggression

Behaving in a passive-aggressive way does not mean you are a bad person. Often it’s a strategy used by people who are afraid to be honest and open. Whether we ourselves are passive aggressive, or we are dealing with other people’s passive aggression, the resulting behaviour can be very challenging and can test and strain              relationships.

Passive-aggression was first defined during World War II to             describe soldiers who were not openly defiant but expressed a lack of compliance through passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, and passive obstruction. These behaviours were thought of as immaturity and a reaction to the stress and        discipline of military life.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is the indirect expression of hostility. It often manifests as procrastination, sullenness, or as failure to       accomplish requested tasks. Passive-aggression is a learned way of responding to other people. It can arise and be a consequence of growing up in an environment with strict social rules and little           opportunity to express one’s individuality. If it continues past          adolescence and into adulthood, passive aggression becomes a form of  resistance and a reaction to being unable to express one’s feelings and thoughts freely.

Ways to avoid passive aggression ourselves

  1. Accept anger is not a bad thing to feel or express.

Anger is a normal and natural feeling and it is acceptable to express it. The biggest obstacle to assertive communication is the belief that anger is bad and expressing it is inappropriate.

2.  Be assertive

Instead of requesting help and support in a roundabout way as those who are passive aggressive tend to do, find ways to make assertive requests in a straightforward fashion.

Where a passive-aggressive request might go like this (loaded with sarcasm and put downs):

“I’ve got such a busy day ahead full of important meetings. After doing whatever it is you do all day, would you mind taking this parcel to the post  office for me? If you’re not too busy, of course.”

An assertive request is a straightforward one such as:

If you have time today, would you mind taking this parcel to the post office for me?”

3.  Acknowledge other people’s perspective and feelings.

Showing that you can appreciate the other person’s perspective and acknowledge their feelings helps to foster more respectful communication. This doesn’t mean agreeing or approving, rather it is an act of validation. It is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Someone with passive aggressive tendencies may be used to being rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, and disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance.

4.  Maintaining respectful communication

Being assertive in your communication also means collaborating to achieve a situation where both people are able to assert their points of view but also compromise, when necessary. Maintaining a respectful attitude, keeping eye contact, managing your own emotions and thoughts will help you maintain the “I am okay. You’re ok” position in our communications with the other person may persuade them to steer more towards that position too.

I’m okay, You’re okay
Belief

I believe and act as if we both deserve respect. We are equally entitled to have things done our way.

 

Recognising that your needs matter as much as anyone else’s may involve compromise, but it also means standing up for yourself, and finding ways to express your point clearly and confidently. Being an assertive communicator enhances relationships – other people know where they stand and will help build your self-esteem.

Extract from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour by Dr. Jane McGregor published by Sheldon Press and out this month, April 2017

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March 2017

Perception Management

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…. why we seriously mustn’t judge a book by its cover.

“Evil happens when good people do           nothing”.

Ok – but how? Last month I had a profoundly moving experience when I visited Auschwitz. I wondered how, threats of violence or murder aside, ordinary and otherwise empathic German people did nothing or not enough to help prevent or shorten the holocaust. An important tool for leaders of the Nazi party – and all sociopaths – was and is propaganda. It was vital they managed perceptions and so they misrepresented and misdirected with ‘newsreels’ and posters etc. They presented their country as victims of their enemies (targets) in order to win compliance, acquiescence, support or participation from broad sectors of the population as well as trick the outside world. Among other things they :-

  1. Rubbished their targets (‘Jews are lice’).
  2. Lied, fabricated or exaggerated what their enemies did e.g. SS officers, dressed as Polish soldiers attacked a German medical centre thus justifying ‘retaliatory’ attacks.
  3. Created fantasy situations to be perceived as ‘nice’. In 1941 they produced a booklet glowingly yet falsely describing how they’d put Jews to work, built clean hospitals, set up soup kitchens, provided newspapers and supplied vocational training.

It’s the same when you’re in a relationship with a sociopath. They’ve got their own propaganda machine chugging along, which is vital for them to get the ‘goodies’ i.e. money, sex, status or whatever their predatory selves are seeking. My ex told me how he gave his ex-wife every penny when they divorced. Such a ‘nice’ guy (he wasn’t and it wasn’t true!) and spookily the exact opposite of my first husband.  And the put-downs might be subtle or jokey “You know what he/she’s like.”

Sociopaths are fantastic at reading people, all the while collecting information to fine-tune their secret strategy. They manage the perceptions of their target and those around them so that should they be rumbled, many will doubt any allegations and want to believe the sociopaths story. With online dating, many use ‘props’ – their profile photo may include a child, a cute puppy, an elderly mother – so they must be nice, right?

A paradox too is displaying ‘good’ or heroic behaviour. Dr Harold Shipman, imprisoned for murdering over two-hundred elderly patients, saved the life of his suicidal cell-mate, cutting him down when he tried to hang himself. But we waste precious time and head-space getting caught up in trying to understand this when none of it counts if overall intentions are toxic.

This week in the UK, Ian Stuart was found guilty of murdering his fiancé, successful children’s author Helen Bailey. He hid her body (and that of her pet dog) in the cesspit under their garage after drugging her with his sleeping meds in the preceding weeks, rendering her easier to smother. He stood to inherit almost four million pounds as she’d changed her will in his favour. Both were widowed, she, only eight months previously when they ‘met’ online and police are now looking into his wife’s ‘sudden unexplained death’ in 2010.  Helen had started a ‘grief-blog’ and was targeted and groomed by Stuart on there and a ‘bereavement’ facebook site. He intensely love-bombed her into an early commitment, no doubt creating and becoming the persona he’d learnt she wanted in him. Being love-bombed is both mind-altering and intoxicating and soon they had moved in together. After the verdict, Helen’s sister and friends were in shock that ‘such a nice man’ could do this – he’d successfully managed everyone’s perceptions.

Not every sociopath chooses to go on and commit murder but sociopaths or narcissists can be lethal. The chances are their energy and resource-draining involvement with you could bring devastating chaos into your life. And the techniques they use are similar, regardless of their preferred goals, because they work.

So how can we keep safe?

A sociopath leaks out bits of truth when their mask slips so it’s best to try keeping an open mind although it’s difficult when we’re vulnerable, as with the grieving Helen Bailey. But we need to be honest with ourselves. A sociopath elicits and presses for an early commitment partly because it’s hard maintaining the mask but that’s also when they start to get the ‘goodies’, once a person is committed or dependent.

What can you do if you’ve noticed things which don’t sit right?

  • Listen to your gut –  a great book to read is The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker. It may take practice if we’ve become used to discounting ourselves.
  • Try to look at the context rather than the words being said. This can provide clarity as well as a reality check.
  • Sharing concerns or what we’ve noticed with others who understand can help – and a question to ask ourselves might be “Is this relationship compatible with my self-care and peace of mind?”
  • Sociopaths have no conscience or empathy, even if they sometimes ‘act-as-if’ they do. We need to have empathy, including for ourselves –  AND self-respect.
  • Research. There’s plenty of research available online as well as support groups – never think you need to deal with this alone.

The thing about perception management is once you accept the     nasty truth that some people are like this out there, it’s easier to keep safe.

Amanda Smith, author of Toxic No More is a SoRECS trustee and is on their register of counsellors and therapists for sessions via Skype or telephone. Email onandup1@hotmail.com.

 

January/February 2017

Aggression as a product of an anger system

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At the root of aggression is an anger system. Anger is an essential human feeling and emotion. It is likely that we developed an anger system to protect and enforce our own interests against those of other people or creatures, and threats from the environment around us. Ironically, if we did not have an anger system in all likelihood we would not maintain our social networks or improve them. Anger allows us to express our concern about one another. In expressing our anger towards someone, that person may respond by apologizing or changing their behaviour, and this is how relationships get repaired and improved. This happens at individual level, in families and communities, and at national and international level too. Anger may lead to war and conflict but it also leads society to rectify or respond to social injustices.

Anger is activated by triggers and these triggers vary from person to person and by age, gender and culture. In women anger is often triggered by their close relationships. For instance, they may feel let down by family members and friends. A man is more likely to be angered by objects that are not working correctly, encounters with strangers, and societal issues, according to studies conducted into anger and gender by Professor Sandra P. Thomas from the University of Tennessee.1 Children’s anger is most often roused when they are blocked from doing something they have set their minds on doing. We see this when children get worked up into a state of fury if their toys are taken away.  

Anger, when it is emoted, encompasses everything from mild irritation to intense rage. When cartoon characters get angry, steams comes out of their ears. We say things like, ‘That makes my blood boil!’ In real life the response varies from individual to individual, but we may grind our teeth, clench our fists, go red and flushed. We may experience numbness, or go pale, have muscle tensions or get hot and clammy.

When we react to feelings of anger, chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline surge through the body. In the brain, the amygdala, the part that deals with emotion, goes into overdrive. The time between a trigger event and a response from the amygdala can be a fraction of a second. Blood flow increases to the frontal lobe of the brain. This area controls reasoning and is likely to be what is keeping you from hurling objects across the room and smashing things. So this bodily reaction provides some balance, and more often than not it prevents you from overreacting. But if you are being activated constantly by triggers then this state of response can start to cause damage.

By Dr. Jane McGregor, trustee of SoRECS and author of The Empathy Trap: Understanding Antisocial Personalities, Coping with Difficult       Families, and Coping with Aggressive Behaviour, all published by Sheldon Press.

Notes

1.     S. P. Thomas, (2003) “Anger: The Mismanaged Emotion.” Dermatology Nursing, 15, 4, 351-357. See also S.P Thomas, C. Smucker and P. Droppleman (1998). “It hurts most around the heart: a phenomenological exploration of women’s anger.” Journal of Advanced Nursing. 28, 2, 311-322.

 

December 2016

Aggression and antisocial personality disorders

Aggression in adults can be the result of many factors working together. However, there are a number of conditions that can lead to the development of aggression in adults. Among them are:

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD): ASPD is a personality disorder characterised by a long-standing pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, and impulsive and aggressive acts.  In the past the terms sociopath and psychopath have been diagnostic terms to describe individuals with this type of personality although neither are official titles of any diagnosis any more.

Personalities with ASPD or related disorders tend to have a pathological level of narcissism. Often their self-esteem is poorly regulated and they have a fragile and unstable sense of self. Emotion regulation is compromised by difficulties in experiencing, processing and moderating certain feelings, most especially anger, shame and envy. Relationships with other people are generally dysfunctional because the individual tends to protect and enhance their own self-esteem at the cost of cooperative relationships and intimacy. In consequence their actions are often determined by the dominance of aggression over shame. The disorder may be caused by a decreased sense of morals or conscience.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder in which a person is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and others. NPD was historically called megalomania, and is a form of severe egocentrism. It is a disorder that is characterised by an over-inflated sense of self-importance, as well as dramatic, emotional behaviour that is in the same category and style as antisocial personality disorder. Emotional outbursts and rage are often observed phenomena. Like those with antisocial personality disorder the narcissist lacks empathy. They are unable to relate, understand, and rationalise the feelings of others.

Everyday sadism is a term used to describe individuals who lack empathy and derive pleasure from watching or inflicting physical or psychological harm on others. This type of personality trait is more common than generally supposed for many people have sadistic impulses. The type of personality is, for instance, the colleague who repeatedly humiliates you and smiles whilst doing so, or who seems to reap pleasure from hurting you. Or it could be the person who plants seeds of discord on the Internet (otherwise known as an internet troll) by starting arguments or upsetting people for fun. Sadism is more common than supposed, hence the term “everyday sadism”. Recently researchers from the University of British Columbia conducted two online studies and found evidence that linked internet trolling with sadism.[1] A sadistic disposition is one that craves cruelty. Sadists find the act of hurting innocent people pleasurable and exciting, and they seek out opportunities to satisfy this appetite.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD):

Whilst not in the same league as the other personalities already discussed, and more for reasons of emotionally instability than sadistic bent, people who have borderline personality disorder are prone to lash out at others both verbally and physically during periods of anger and impulsiveness. This could include overwhelming feelings of distress, anxiety, worthlessness or anger; difficulty managing such feelings without self-harming – for example, by abusing drugs and alcohol or taking overdoses; difficulty maintaining stable and close relationships; sometimes having periods of loss of contact with reality, and in some cases, threats of harm to others.

Notes:

1.   E. E. Buckels, D.N. Jones, & D.L. Paulhus (2013). Behavioral confirmation of everyday sadism. Psychological Science, 24, 11: 2201-2209: Furham, S.C. Richards & D.L Paulhus (2013). The dark triad of personality: A 10-year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 3:  199-216.

 

November 2016 – This month we look at the issue of anger

What makes people angry in daily life? In all probability, as in times past, it is usually other people that rouse our anger the most. People rage like blast furnaces all the time, seemingly over-reacting to what’s going on around them. Our bodies can’t distinguish between ordinary frustrations in daily life and truly life threatening stress so it gears up to the challenge every single time. Our bodies get busy just in case we need put up a fight or make a fast exit and release cortisol in readiness to do something physical.

Social convention of the day still has it that we should ‘Keep calm and carry on’, even if that means paying no regard to our bodily reactions. The rise in popularity in the past decade of the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters originally printed at the start of the Second World War is an interesting phenomenon. Despite 2.5 million of the posters being printed, the poster was never displayed publicly and nearly all of them were pulped. Rediscovered in the aftermath of financial crisis of 2007-8 the words on the poster perhaps reflected something about the British pluck and will to turn economic downturn into recovery.

But subduing our emotional reaction and our anger in a bid to keep calm and not look a fool by over-reacting when there is no real trouble afoot is not without risk. We may be more mindful of a need to calibrate our anger these days, but this has led to many of us feeling confused about our own anger and angry outbursts. On one hand we might view anger as a mobilising force for good (righteous anger or indignation). On the other hand, anger often is regarded as a strategy of manipulation to gain social influence and is viewed with deep suspicion. The end result is that anger is often viewed in problematical terms and as a negative emotion. Hence many people fear losing control, going off the deep end and looking stupid.

This has led to people seeking ways to curb and manage their anger. Men, in particular, are encouraged to find non-violent ways of expressing their anger and anger management classes have become a favoured approach. Self-exploration of the situations that lead to anger is encouraged. Therapists issue advice on stress-reduction techniques and tips to acquire mindfulness (or put another way, a state of conscious awareness).  And assertiveness, which doesn’t exactly equate to anger and aggression, but relates to them, is encouraged through training programmes and self-help publications.  Being essentially agreeable and pro-social has been promoted as good for health and wellbeing, and yet researchers involved in a new study published in the Journal of Personality discovered something surprising: Those who are described as “agreeable, conscientious personalities” are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while “more contrarian, less agreeable personalities” are more likely to refuse to hurt others.[i]

Without anger it is hard to believe we would be exercised or impassioned about much in life and it seems crucial for creativity. Volcanic rage is behind lots of creative sorts. In a series of experiments published in a research paper in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad demonstrated that anger promoted “unstructured thinking” on a creativity task. A second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects, before asking them to come up with ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas. Better still, their ideas were considered more original.[ii]

Although there are many situations where a person may feel uncivilised if they expressed uncontrolled anger, anger does have its purposes. It acts as a mobilising force and can push us on towards accomplishing goals, even overcoming problems and barriers. In fact, when we see something as beneficial, we want it more when we are angry, or so a recent study by Dutch researcher, Henk Aarts and colleagues suggests. [iii] The expression of anger can also benefit and strengthen relationships. Pent up and hidden anger has the reverse effect on relationships. This is because when anger is concealed, the other person cannot know about it, so has less chance of doing things to remedy the situation. Anger also can help us develop insight. If we can notice when we get angry and why, it can motivate self-change.  Anger is also a strong social indicator that things are not right and need addressing. In this way it can prevent violence. A good righteous anger can lead to peaceful protest over out-and-out violence. Without the proper amount of anger, without moral indignation, we would lose the desire to protect our friends and our own nation. Anger can also help us negotiate a better deal for ourselves and other people.  But negotiating and staying in control of our anger isn’t easy. This has been a persistent problem for humanity; as the Greek philosopher Aristotle stated “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Notes

[i] L. Bègue, J-L, Beauvois, D. Courbet, D. Oberlé, J. Lepage, and A.A. Duke (2015). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm. Journal of Personality, 83, 3, 299–306.

[ii] M. Baas, C. K.W. De Dreu, and B. A. Nijstad (2011). Creative production by angry people peaks early on, decreases over time, and is relatively unstructured. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 6, 1107–1115.

[iii] H. Aarts, K. I. Ruys, H. Veling, R. A. Renes, J. H.B. de Groot, A. M. van Nunen and S. Geertjes (2010).  The Art of Anger: Reward Context Turns Avoidance Responses to Anger-Related Objects into Approach. Psychological Science. 21, 10, 1406-1410.

October 2016  – This month we look at the issue of bystander           apathy.

Aggressors rely on bystander passivity

At times in life we may find ourselves lacking interest in or concern for other people, or even ourselves. Some of us reach a point where we are emotionally unable to connect with ourselves and others. This is sometimes referred to as emotional numbing. This can           happen as a way and means of dealing with anxiety by preventing       certain situations that trigger it (psychologists sometimes call this dissociation or depersonalization). It can also be a decision to avoid engaging emotionally; typically for personal, social, or other reasons.

A lack of responsiveness to our own or other people’s safety can also occur because some individuals have difficulty identifying and          describing emotions in themselves. They may experience difficulty identifying feelings, as well as distinguishing between feelings.      Furthermore, they may have difficulty describing feelings to other people, and/or have constricted ability to use their imagination or they may be externally oriented. This may be as a result of being unaware of what’s going on inside themselves (lack of inner self-talk, an inability to reflect on their feelings and conduct, which in turn hinder self-awareness). Typically, individuals like this have a             cognitive style of thought process and reasoning.

This lack of interest in others seems to go hand in hand with      selfishism in culture. Being self-absorbed means we can become blind, indifferent and apathetic to other people around us. The word apathy is derived from the word apathīa (Latin: freedom from passion or feeling) and apátheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; from a- “without” and pathos “suffering” or “passion”). Often it is a temporary affliction; say as a first reaction to danger. Apathy can be an avoidance  strategy engaged in in the hope that the problem will go away. Or it can be the case that we ignore other people who are suffering   because at that moment we don’t view them as our equals. We view them instead as “others”, objects and ”its”.

Some argue that we live in an increasingly self-focused and               narcissistic culture. Ours is a culture of “me, myself and I” with less room for “us and we”. The Internet is ‘I-centric’ and gadgets and “apps” reflect the rise of the ‘I’ culture and narcissism of our times – “I” Tunes, “I” Pod, “I” Phone and “I” Pad.

All of us can be selfish at times, but some people are so self-             preoccupied that they’re unable to form healthy relationships. Being self-preoccupied is very common in adolescents, but most grow out of this over time. Interestingly, and perhaps indicating how much     behaviour is socially learned and influenced, a recent study by          researcher Emily Bianchi of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, found that those children who enter adulthood during recessions ‘less self-obsessed’. The study found that growing up during bad times ‘dampens narcissism and entitlement’[i]

[i] E. C. Bianchi (2014). Entering Adulthood in a Recession Tempers Later Narcissism. Psychological Science, 1-9

 

Sept 2016 – Sociopathic abuse is targeted abuse.                                          It is frequently covert in nature. So often the individual or individuals targeted are left to deal with the sociopath unaided as other people turn a blind eye to the abuse or wittingly or unwittingly collude in it. Here’s an article about why we don’t help people out in such situations.  http://welldoing.org/article/wont-help

 

Aug 2016 – SoRECS is to offer training for therapists and counsellors with regard to helping clients overcome sociopathic abuse. Register now for September course.  See http://sorecs.org/training or for more information contact Dr. Jane McGregor via email – jane.mcgregor@sorecs.org

 

July 2016 – SoRECS training for therapists and counsellors. Register now for September course. See http://sorecs.org/training

May 2016 – Our report on the lived experiences of individuals subjected to psychological/emotional abuse is now available to read on this web site. You can find it under ‘Further reading’  from the main menu.

Other news: see the ‘Training’ section for dates for the SoRECS training programme for therapists and counsellors ‘Helping clients deal with and overcome sociopathic abuse.’

 

April 2016 – An announcement.

The closing date for participation and inclusion in the SoRECS study on the effects of psychological abuse is Monday 18th April 2016. Anyone still hoping to take part, please contact Dr Jane McGregor on the email address provided at the bottom of the page (see February blog entry).

March 2016

The study we are undertaking into the effects of psychological abuse is still open for people to engage with (see February announcement below). We are still able to receive data. The study is open to new participants for a further 3 weeks. Thereafter the data will be analysed. We will write a preliminary report and publish it on the SoRECS web site in a few months’ time. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have taken time and trouble to participate in this study.

 

February 2016

Dear Reader,

This is the first monthly blog. In recent months the trustees of SoRECS have set up the charity’s web site. We hope to disseminate information on the topics of empathy, apathy in culture, how to recover from abuse, how to deal with  aggression, callousness and other forms of cruelty apparent in everyday life.

We also hope to engage the public in action research on the aforementioned topics. Our first investigation is about the effects of psychological abuse and trauma. We plan to gather information to help deepen professional and public understanding of the health burden of psychological abuse. To that end we seek volunteers with first-hand experience of overt and covert forms of abuse to participate in our research project about people’s personal experiences of psychological abuse.

The health burden of psychological abuse

Psychological abuse, sometimes termed emotional or mental abuse is characterised as a person subjecting or exposing another to behaviour that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Such abuse is often associated with situations of power imbalance, such as abusive relationships, bullying, and abuse and harassment in the workplace. It is often covert in nature and therefore an invisible problem to those not directly affected.

Psychological abuse can involve gaslighting, which is 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. The term originates from the 1938 play “Gas Light”(later adapted as films in 1940 and 1944), wherein a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy using a variety of tricks causing her to question her own perceptions and sanity. It is a deliberate ploy that occurs between one individual (the covert aggressor) and another (the targeted individual). The endgame is the person who is gaslighted no longer trusts their own perception of the situation. The process of gaslighting distorts an individual’s sense of reality and makes them disbelieve what they see.

The scars and injuries that result from psychological abuse can affect a person’s mental state and affect their health and wellbeing. The emotional trauma of psychological abuse, if left unchecked can lead to anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been documented for instance that chronically traumatised people, such as children who have endured abuse by a parent, sibling or other abusive family member often exhibit hyper-vigilant, anxious and agitated behaviour. They may also experience insomnia and assorted somatic symptoms such as tension headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, abdominal pain, back pain, tremors and nausea. Moreover, exposure to and interaction with an abuser in childhood can leave lifelong scars, including a deep mistrust of other people and anxiety in social situations. The culture we live in exacerbates the problem for often a ‘blame the victim’ mentality is adopted, which means those targeted by abusers must also contend with feelings of shame about the abuse.

SoRECS invites individuals who have been affected by psychological abuse to tell us about their experiences and the traumas they experienced as a result of the abuse. We hope, with your help, to use the information to shed more light on the extent and nature of the problem of psychological abuse and the public health burden attached to it.

If you think you can help, by sending us a personal account of your experiences of trauma after psychological abuse, information on the symptoms you exhibited, information about any treatment you received (what helped and what hindered), and your personal journey to recovery please contact Dr Jane McGregor at SoRECS

Jane.mcgregor@sorecs.org

Please provide a contact email address so we can contact you back. All correspondence will be treated in strict confidence.

SoRECS is not an advice and counselling service . We strongly advise those who have been affected by abuse to seek professional help. However, SoRECS does provide a list of useful addresses and contacts under Recovery Resources section of the web site and a list of reading material under Further reading as an aid to those affected by harassment and abuse.

SoRECS is a not-for-profit organisation. No monetary payments or gifts are paid to volunteers providing information of a personal nature to the charity. All information will be treated in strict confidence. Any data or information used by SoRECS will be anonymised if it is included in any of its publications. SoRECS publications, including its articles and discussion papers, are intended for educational purposes only.

 

SoRECS – The Society for Research into Empathy, Cruelty & Sociopathy