I started reading a new book today. A little light reading called The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. I saw it a couple weeks ago while browsing at Barnes & Noble and put it on hold at the library. According to the book, 4% of the U.S. population are sociopaths, or 1 out of 25 people. That number seemed alarming until I started to read the book, which points out that this doesn’t mean that 1 out of 25 people are violent or serial killers. There are more ways to qualify as sociopathic. The one common element is a lack of conscience.
What struck me while reading the book is that I’ve known many people who fit the description. Of course, this is why I felt so compelled to read it – because while looking at it at Barnes & Noble I saw some things in its pages that caught my attention and described some people I’ve known fairly well.
And all of them have been through work.
I find it interesting that my personal relationships are sociopath-free but my work world has always been cluttered with them. I sat down after reading the book for awhile and made a list entitled “Who Are the Sociopaths?” and wrote down all the names I could think of from my work history who might qualify. There are four who I feel very sure about and two more where the jury is out. I just don’t have enough solid info. And two more with other mental issues -one who was definitely bi-polar and another who was a textbook narcissist.
So I’m left with the question of why I’ve allowed myself to continually get mixed up with these people at work. One answer is that they were all in positions of power and often sociopaths crave power and control over people. They like to be bosses. The other is that often they look for people who are responsible and competent so that these people can contribute to the illusion of their success. Somebody’s gotta get the work done and often it isn’t them as they tend to be quite irresponsible in reality.
The book also discusses a personality type called the “covetous sociopath.” This is someone with the inordinate desire for the possessions of others but, since it’s impossible to steal things like beauty, intelligence, success or a strong character, the covetous sociopath belittles or damages the enviable qualities in others so that they won’t have them either, or at least won’t enjoy them as much. If you’ve ever been consistently belittled, ignored or torn down by a boss, you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t take that long to start believing, in just a tiny section of your brain, that maybe there is some truth to what they say (or don’t say) about you.
The one corporate setting I ever worked in (and the most painful job experience of my life) was rife with misfits of every mental disorder. Looking back, it would be easy to use the setting as the basis for a movie like Shutter Island, in which a mental patient believes he’s a detective trying to solve a case, not a patient at all. There was perhaps that level of self-delusion going on. It wasn’t really a business so much as an outpatient program for the weird, disturbed and maybe the criminally insane.
I saw it all there – belittling, crocodile tears, secrets, special alliances, liasons, power plays, more secrets (often whispered in cubicles) and betrayal. The setting contained not one but two sociopaths and another who may have been a borderline sociopath who lied her way into her position as my supervisor by overplaying her experience, took over my department and then proceeded to run it into the ground while blaming all her problems on her staff. Then she fired everyone she didn’t like, hiding behind the skirts of planned lay-offs to clean house. OK, I change that description of her from “borderline” to “full-on.”‘
One of the most telling comments about her inner psyche happened once while we were waiting for a meeting to start. Talking with a woman who had just given birth a short time ago, she said she and her husband weren’t sure they wanted to have a child because, “what if our baby is a loser baby and becomes a loser kis? What if he or she is just some weird loser?”
As one of the casualties of her crusade, I was bitter about the situation for years. I was young and thought losing a job meant the end of me being able to carve out a path in the world. I didn’t see it as a gift – something driving me away from a path that would only lead to more unhappiness. Since I wasn’t willing to leave on my own, her getting rid of me forced me back out into the world. I sometimes wonder what would have happened, what it would have taken, for me to get out from under her without that “lay-off.” And the oddest thing about it all is that I’ve mentally blocked out her last name. I remember her first name but her last name eludes me – even after thinking about it for days I can’t come up with it. I think it’s my mind’s way of trying to excise her.
So, do you know any sociopaths? It’s not as uncommon as you think – not every sociopath is a serial killer or even someone with a thirst for winning who drives to the top of his or her game. It could just be your boss.
From the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, here are the seven characteristics of a sociopath. When a person possesses three or more, a diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder” should be considered.
1. failure to conform to social norms
2. deceitfulness, manipulatativeness
3. impulsivity, failure to plan ahead
4. irritability, aggressiveness
5. reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
6. consistent irresponsiblity (and, I maintain, a love of chaos)
7. lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another person
If this sounds like someone you know, take comfort in the fact that it is one situation in which you really can say it’s them, not you, with the problem. And get away fast.