Are you highly empathic - yet seem to deeply attract/be attracted to… psychopaths?
Ever wondered about this ironic dynamic? Here’s a little theory of mine about why highly empathic people (let’s say ‘Empaths’ for ease of use) often end up in abusive, gaslighting relationships with narcissists, sociopaths - and out-right psychopaths*.
I’ve been pondering on this a long time and (un)fortunately, have offered it to a number of clients in therapeutic sessions. The lightbulb moments I’ve witnessed have been a joy to share in, like seeing a beautiful bird released from a cage or at least, in seeing there is a door. So, I’m sharing this pretty simple theory because I think there are a lot of highly sensitive people who will benefit from the perspective. It is based on a combination of direct experience, professional practice and scholarly research.
*(The term ‘psychopath’ is contentious and generally refers to anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). There are nuanced differences between narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths and many under terms under ASPD; I will offer these in another post. For now, I will use the term psychopath to align with describing persons who lack a sense of empathy, are egocentric with a grandiose sense of self-worth, tendency to pathological lying, lack of self-control and act with poor judgement and characteristics of vindictive or even criminal behaviour without remorse for hurt and damage they cause.)
To me, it’s quite simple. It’s all about possession of power. But not in the way you may be thinking. Rather, I’m suggesting that the psychopath is actually the person with a lack of power - and the Empath is the one with the true coveted power in question.
The irony is that both are blind to this, believing it to be the other way around - and this blindness is what gives the toxic dynamic its near solid foundation, on which an emotional cage is easily constructed and maintained. In fact, think of a spectrum where one person has a lack - and the other 'too much', the Empath may even perceive the other party as a very solid, stable, 'unshakable' confident person who could be an emotional anchor in the turbulent seas of high empathy. Opposites attract for a reason.
This is my step-by step theory of how it comes to be. Understanding this, helps trapped empaths to recognise their cage exists - and cease in the co-creation of it.
It goes like this:
Empathy is powerful (It is an amazing sense, a social skill, talent or ‘tool’ that can be harnessed for compassion - or control. This is because empathy invites trust and confidence from others.)
Empaths naturally possess this in abundance - and it is clearly on display when interacting with them. (For example, strangers often eagerly share their very personal stories, their information, hopes and fears with an available Empath. As an Empath, this might be why you end up missing your stop when on a bus or finding yourself as an unexpected counsellor at a party. People confide in empaths. Naturally so, because difficult feelings can be shared - really genuinely felt - and validated in the moment)
Psychopaths have very little or no empathy. (They are missing the ‘empathy chip’. This was/is not a choice. They are in an estimated 1% of the population where the brain is effectively under-developed in this sense)
Although they are not able to feel what empathy is directly, they can conceptually understand it and clearly see the effect it has - and therefore highly value it.
Psychopaths can greatly desire to possess this valuable tool (because it manifests as an ability to quickly engage with others and be readily trusted, believed, invested in)
What if… a person cannot possess empathy? Then why not possess an Empath instead?
The psychopath has a rationale to do this: Empathy is a tool, a covert weapon which is wasted, squandered by those whom they see as “oversensitive” an “weak”. (Of course they think this – they lack 99% of the population is technically oversensitive to them. They cannot understand why the Empath doesn’t wield it just as they would, so conclude there must be some kind of weakness in that person. It’s a bit like when a terrible singer insists that they are pitch-perfect and cannot comprehend the idea of being ‘tone-deaf’)
The psychopath *feels justified in in possessing and then learning to control their Empath because: a) it should help get them what they want in life or business b) it’s a logical and practical solution c) the Empath often seems to be willingly participating/responding to charm d) they have no empathy (and so don’t feel it’s wrong) for their victim anyway
*(…and yes psychopaths do have feelings and emotions – they just don’t appreciate that you do)
The Empath is likely to be easily confused because they cannot ‘read’ the situation as it is. (Empaths they are naturally reliant on their felt sense of empathy - with an assumption of mutual flow of authentic emotional information. They have likely never had to consider that their current interlocutor is faking theirs. In this scenario, they cannot process what isn’t there - and so easily feel the processing error or ‘fault’ is somehow theirs. That they cannot trust their own judgement now. They may even feel guilty or ashamed for thinking something is ‘off’ with the other person - and are quite possibly being encouraged to think and feel this way).
‘Trust’ becomes the central focus of the relationship, effectively hiding the ironic reality. (The Empath’s self-trust is eroded and replaced with reliance on their now abuser. This is where gaslighting sets in. Whether this was actually pre-planned or intentional is another matter)
Empathy becomes paradoxical. Empath ‘feels for’ the psychopath. (…and this is where the trap maintains itself… the situation is maintained through the dutiful nature of the highly sensitive, empathic person, who is driven to stay and to help a poor tortured soul - just not their own)
Where the Empath begins to suspect they are being lied to, manipulated, gaslighted (often based on inconsistent stories, warnings from others, factual contradictions, increasing social isolation and whatever self-trust still lingers), they may begin to feel sorry for their abuser and that it is their ‘duty’ to help them overcome their emotional ‘illness’, their lack. That the ‘true victim’ is the bully who stands in front of them, clearly a damaged soul, misunderstood and rejected by the world. The question may roll around and around like this: ‘I know s/he is lying to me and I’m sure the cruelty is deliberate but can I really ‘blame’ them? If they are after all, emotionally under-developed? Isn’t it my ethical role to offer the empathy, the care and understanding that they didn’t/ don’t get in life? If I don’t stay and help, aren’t I the cruel one?’
A tricky question indeed!
This may surprise you to read but I actually think there is *some* truth, lurking in this rationale. A difficult truth - yet one we need to consider if we want to truly understand this dynamic, retain our empathy in its purest form whilst removing ourselves from (and then avoiding) abuse traps.
The danger we have is that this abuser/victim dynamic all too often results in polarising human beings - and when we do so, we create gaps. Gaps that we can fall in to on both a personal and societal level. For example, unintentional cruelty and deliberate abuse has its own spectrum of ethical implications and how we make decisions (more on this in another post…). Psychopaths are often lonely, unwell people in pain. This is not an excuse for their behaviour but it is a very real factor in the dynamic – and ignoring pain is what an Empath cannot do. Although it may feel apt in deciding there is a 100% polarised abuser / victim dynamic, this over-simplifies the issue and leads to enshrining the false power dynamic, where the empath will always be perceived as on the back foot by both parties. It is a personal paradox to be resolved.
This is the emotional cage that love and desire built together.
I have much more information and ideas on how to understand, process and break free from this inside the membership. If this resonates with you, please do join The IF Crowd. I am available for personal guidance/coaching and also run online workshops and group sessions too for members and client. :0)