We watch it on television. We read about it in tabloids. We become armchair experts on the subject, sometimes even joking around and accusing each other of being one. But, what is it truly like to live with a psychopath?
What is a Psychopath?
According to the DSM-IV-TR, the diagnosis of “psychopath” does not exist. That seems hard to believe considering the fact that we hear the word so often in our culture.
Dr. Stephen Diamond wrote a great article on how we often hear about violent behaviors and seem to instantly diagnose the perpetrator as a psychopath, without really taking all the necessary factors into consideration (and usually without the qualifications or experience to make the claim in the first place).
The purpose of this article is not to debate whether psychopaths exist, or whether the DSM-V (2013) should include a diagnostic code for psychopathy. On the contrary, my goal is to approach the issue from the perspective of an everyday layperson (which I am!) as I share my own personal observations on the effect that psychopathic behavior can have on children living in the same household.
Profile of the Psychopath In Public View
The public “face” of the psychopath can vary drastically, depending on associated environmental factors, social factors, whether the individual has had any professional help, his objectives, overall view of life, et cetera.
The psychopath is particularly effervescent in the initial thirty seconds of our first meeting him. He is outgoing and very motivating. At first glance, he seems like the perfect candidate to lead the next movement, the next rally, to be the next mayor, and so on. As he ages and it becomes more difficult to hide his psychopathy (or possibly, he tires of his efforts to hide it), he shows less of that effervescence and starts to appear more stately and possibly even shrewd (by relying on exerted facial expressions and lack of dialogue to minimize any signs of his disorder). To the untrained and unaware eye, he appears to be knowledgeable, capable and very caring toward those people in his charge. The mask he presents to the world is flawless, and this satisfies most people. But these people never stop to ask themselves whether this mask is supposed to be flawless.
Profile of the the Psychopath At Home
Oftentimes, the psychopath will carry on this charming behavior at home, as if it is a carry-over from the public view. It is as if the psychopath has been playing a role in a movie and has done such a thorough job of becoming the character that he forgets to return to his true self when he is not on stage. However, there is the question of how much of the public behavior is discarded.
One of the key characteristics of the psychopath is his lack of empathy. An effective psychopath must learn how to emulate empathy very well if he is to go undetected in public. As a result, the psychopath becomes a very good actor, one of the best, and as such the true self (which he does not desire to share) and the public self (emulating the effervescent persona) start to blur. Unfortunately for those living with the psychopath, the blur is not in favor of the true self adopting the positive aspects of the effervescent persona and evolving into a mentally healthier person. This blur is the evolving and fine tuning of the “acting role” and the “pretend” that the psychopath lives on a daily basis — both publicly and at home.
Being such a good actor, the psychopath learns how to manipulate his facial expressions to match his actions. He has also become an excellent observer of people, and mirrors what he sees in the faces of non-psychopaths around him. But, regardless of how much he practices, he cannot manipulate those “windows to the soul,” the eyes; and this remains one of the most telltale factors in identifying our psychopath.
If the psychopath exhibits narcissistic tendencies, then he has to be the center of attention. All of his achievements must be the focal point of the conversation, not only at that moment, but for years to come — allowing him to continuously relive experiences from the past. If there is a companion psychopath in the home, then the situation can increase exponentially as each plays off the other.
The psychopath is highly intelligent. If he was a “blithering idiot” the public pretend would not be effective. In order to blend in he must utilize his intelligence, especially in the public realm. But, he also needs to rehearse and he often uses the home to practice and fine tune his performances.
A psychopath with narcissistic tendencies needs what is called “narcissistic supply” in order to hone his skill and feed his desires. “Narcissists require others for more than attention: they rely on them for the overarching “narcissistic supply”: anything that builds them up and confirms their superiority, gradiosity, and entitlement. They are terrified of losing it” (Kreger, 2011).
The Effect On A Child
It does not matter if the child is a sibling or an offspring, once the baby is born into a family with a psychopath, he or she is already faced with danger and possible long-term ill effects.
Naturally, the child is not born with a psychology degree when he or she pops out of the womb and would not know what is “normal” and what is abnormal. We could all joke about the varying degrees of abnormality in our families, but the danger for this newborn is that it may take years (after reaching adulthood) for this child to realize that being the narcissistic supply for a psychopath is not mentally healthy. There is no real way for this child, as he or she becomes older and starts attending school, to cry out for help. The environment in which this child is born, and grows up in, is stamped as “normal” in his or her mind and oftentimes, the unhealthy family environment secludes the child from the “outside world” so that the child is unable to ascertain the differences between his or her world and the rest of the world. This is done intentionally, by the family, to ensure that the secret of the psychopath is kept under lock and key. There are different functions of the family, depending on whether they are victims, mentally ill, or enablers, and over time, the family functions as a single unit; the only way for the family to stop functioning as that unhealthy unit is for those who desire to be healthy to break free from the unit and walk the hard path towards mental health.
The child often times becomes the “play thing” of the psychopath. The psychopath with the narcissistic tendency cannot afford for the child to get more attention than he does; he must therefore choose one of two options. He can either ignore the child, or use the child. Ignoring the child only sets the child up as competition, which may anger the psychopath and cause the psychopath discomfort. However, using the child (i.e. narcissistic supply) allows the psychopath the ability to control how much attention the child obtains from the family, to ascertain any control that the child may have over the family, and to hone his skills of manipulation and domination. Assuming that this is his child, or the parent has granted “permission,” the psychopath, in practice of his skill, starts to exert more and more dominance over the child. At this point, we are going to define the child in our scenario as a female, as females may have a slightly different type of response to becoming the narcissistic supply. That said, a male child, under duress, can also exemplify the same characteristics, and we need to remember that “no scenario fits all” so while there may be tendencies, there is no defined absolute gender distinction.
The female child is likely to adore her psychopath, as she doesn’t know any better and thinks, innately, that this is a loving “relationship.” However, when the psychopath starts to use tactics such as psychological torture, in attempts to gain more power and control, she starts to feel uncomfortable. She develops a love/hate relationship with her psychopath. She still adores him (he is good at establishing a charming facade), but she is feeling the effects of mental torture, even though she has not grown old enough to be able to articulate what it is that she is feeling.
The symbiotic relationship between child/victim and psychopath does not necessarily stop when the child reaches adulthood, as the child has already been programmed throughout her life (assuming no professional intervention before that). The psychopath will continue to attempt to exert control over the adult victim, even when they no longer live in the same house.
The family unit, left untouched, and without help, evolves into a sort of weird, unhealthy environment. As time goes on and the psychopath becomes more effective, behavior “leaks” a bit into public view (especially as the victim reaches adulthood), but because the public view of the entire family has been so well honed up to this point, the leaks often go unnoticed or discarded as “one of those things” because the rest of the “picture” looks so “Leave It To Beaver” perfect to the public world. This is another sign that there is something wrong. If it looks too good to be true, it is likely to be the case, especially if some of the inner working “weirdness” is seeping out into the public eye.
The Long-Term Effect On The Grown-Up Adult
While the child is experiencing the love/hate relationship with her psychopath, with no boundaries in place to protect her, she will start to withdraw as the mental torture continues. She has learned the skills of “pretend” from her psychopath and if she is fortunate enough NOT to become a psychopath or become mentally ill herself, she will be fragmented and have a somewhat dual life, similar to what she experienced as a child. She will learn to hide away (emotionally) when she is scared, fearing that mental torture is just around the corner. She will interpret behaviors of others, especially those close to her, as leading to the path of mental torture. It is very likely that she will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the mental torture. She learns how to have relationships, but does not learn the true meaning of “trust,” since her experiences with her psychopath have left her with confusing memories of trust mixed in with mental torture. She will have to sort out the difference between healthy people and unhealthy people, and between healthy relationships and unhealthy relationships. More than likely, she will require professional help to offset the unhealthy training and programming that started at such a young age (actually, from birth). What she is experiencing is not that much different from any form of abuse in childhood, as the child experiencing abuse is likewise ill-equipped to help himself/herself.
What Can Be Done?
The prognosis for a child born into a home with an empowered psychopath is not a good one if the issue is left unattended. Fortunately, better social service programs are in place these days and people are talking more about the role that psychology plays in our everyday lives. It is great that we can now get the information out into the public where people (and especially young vulnerable children) can watch it. The challenge is finding that balance between being over-zealous about labeling every single individual and not helping a child in need — effectively sentencing him or her to a lifetime of pain and difficulty.
Kreger, R. (2011). What borderlines and narcissists fear most: Part a. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 28, 2012 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-walking-eggshells/201110/what-borderlines-and-narcissists-fear-most-part
Diamond, S. (2009). Masks of sanity (part four): what is a psychopath? Retrieved July 14, 2012, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/200908/masks-sanity-part-four-what-is-psychopath
Deborah E is a jazz singer and writer, and when she isn’t involved in a myriad of other endeavors (like starting a “5 Hugs A Day” campaign), she is studying psychology and helping others on her blog at PositivePersistence.com. You can also follow her on twitter @DeborahInfo for daily positive quotes.
- Can Psychopathic Personality Traits Predict Successful Presidents? (psychologytoday.com)
- Bosses urged to watch for workplace psychopaths (abc.net.au)
- Is Your Boss a Psychopath? (psychologytoday.com)
- Assessing “emotional intelligence” will not help us understand psychopaths (psychologytoday.com)
- How to spot a psychopath. (myscienceacademy.org)