When we hear the word "psychopath," we either think this is simply hyperbole for the word "crazy"—or that we're literally talking about Jack the Ripper. But what if I told you that many psychopaths can seem like the most emotionally stable people? Oftentimes, psychopaths can easily blend into our lives, appearing totally normal. But part of the problem is that our psychopath detectors are generally flawed: We believe that if a person isn't completely and totally evil, they must inherently be a good person, and the bad stuff they do isn't deliberate.
As a psychologist, my entire job is to help people make transformations, whether in their mental well-being, performance, or relationships. Technically, everybody is capable of change. Or so I believed—until I found my life in danger, as the man I loved started exhibiting increasingly abusive behavior. It was then that I had to face up to the truth: that some people are incapable of changing. That is why we call it a personality disorder—because it pervades every level of what they are as a person. This was the first hard truth I had to swallow in order to learn how to spot the psychopaths in my life, which in turn helped my friends and later my clients to spot the psychopaths in their lives.
- They're deceitful, manipulative, and/or narcissistic.
- They're aggressive and may have a history of or tendency toward criminal behavior.
- They're callous, show no remorse, and derive pleasure from seeing others hurt.
- They're impulsive, have little regard for the consequences of their actions, and may use illegal substances.
But psychopaths don't just come as one type. Here are some of the surprising, undercover breeds of psychopaths you may run into.
The seven types of psychopaths you might encounter:
1. The Soul Mate
John Meehan, the con man also known as Dirty John, spent his life fooling women and running insurance scams and fraud. Wearing surgical scrubs everywhere, he claimed he was a surgeon when he'd actually been freshly released from prison. You see, Dirty John, like most Soul Mate Psychopaths, was a charmer, and his victims bought his lies. By bombing them with overwhelming love and affection early on, the Soul Mate ensnares victims through accelerating intimacy. Before long, they isolate you from the people in your life. They test your boundaries by violating small ones, calling you sensitive if you call them out. Before long, they erode major boundaries. And because you once tasted the fairy tale, you know it's not a fantasy. What's more, they convince you it's your fault that the fairy tale's disappeared, so you bend over backward taking more abuse.
2. The Leader
We've all met the person who is successful professionally or socially and who does this by bullying, pitting people against each other, and manipulation. Sometimes, their machinations aren't overt, especially if they're particularly sophisticated, charming, and charismatic. Indeed, a recent study found that primary psychopaths are higher in "fearless dominance," which is an egotistic personal style of self-promotion and prioritizing one's needs, and had better work performance when they had sophisticated social skills.
However, few people know the reality of the Leader's life, where their family members are often subject to abuse behind closed doors. In her book Exposing Financial Abuse, Shannon Thomas depicts the lives of women who are controlled via finances—like being forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor during pregnancy or made to eat green beans out of tins, or worrying if they can pay the gas bills— despite their husbands earning a good living and even owning luxury cars. If exposed, these stories can often get played off as ludicrous because public opinion sees the Leader as a good person, and the victim gets cast as untrustworthy or "crazy."
3. The "Bad Boy"
The Bad Boy is the easiest breed to spot. After all, according to the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), this archetype's typical traits—deceitfulness, impulsivity, and reckless disregard for others' safety—can be linked to anti-social personality disorder. They are the main type of psychopath found in the criminal justice system, and their particularly identifiable personality profiles can skew our views on what a psychopath looks like. The Bad Boy has the most unstable life—even if employed, they may not show up at work and may leach off you, and they may also abuse alcohol and substances. However, being with the Bad Boy can be fun and thrilling because the volatility can be exciting. Or the Bad Boy" may convince you that they need saving—they're struggling to get clean and simply need some support from a loving person.
4. The Paranoid
The Paranoid Psychopath believes everyone is out to get them and blames the world for anything that goes wrong. Unlike individuals with paranoid personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, the Paranoid Psychopath also has fantasies of making others pay. Once they have wormed their way into your heart with sob stories, they use their paranoia to justify abusive behavior or as an excuse to indulge in substance abuse. As they convince you they require support, it feels like a tennis match—your head swivels trying to figure out what, exactly, is the problem as they invent more possible causes, only to distract you from the root: them.
5. The Saint
Toward the end as his mask slipped, my ex-partner taunted me, "Nobody will believe you. I meditate. I am spiritual. I work for a charity." And it was with this that I remembered his words years ago: "Psychopaths like to work in the third sector. They can get away with a lot there." Little did I know he was describing himself. You see, it's easy to associate certain roles with being saintly—our brains conflate religious figures, doctors, and mental health professionals with being giving. We're likelier to trust them, and so we take a longer time to figure out if they may be bad for us. And the Saint hides behind these roles—plagiarizing intellectual and spiritual wisdom to serve their own ends and abusing the power dynamic with a vulnerable client. According to psychopathy expert Dr. Robert Hare, C.M., they are known to fudge their qualifications, learn how to fake the skills and jargon, and, when discovered, simply pack up and look for their next targets.
6. The Counterculturalist
"And he said he would kick me off the farm because I've betrayed the values," she sobbed. I was puzzled; it was my third call that week when a woman described an abusive relationship with a psychopath who owned a farm where only people with similar values congregated. We've all met the person who lauds their morality—they champion justice, inclusiveness, and even feminism. It is easy to be swept away and hoodwinked because any creepy, irresponsible, or intrusive behavior can be justified as "countercultural values" or by the person's apparent misery about the state of the world.
7. The Contemptuous One
My friend and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Marshall, Ph.D., says that some psychopaths use arrogance and contempt to make victims feel unworthy, which spurs them to bite the bait. He explains that we have an evolutionary imperative to "want to redeem our power when someone says (we are) less than them, so we can be on an equal footing." But what is the difference between arrogance and conviction? Jonathan explains that conviction comes with the honesty of acknowledging possible downsides; for instance, a person may say they do not have all the answers, but they're confident in their spiritual beliefs. On the other hand, arrogance comes with contempt, where others are seen as stupid and inferior.
The problem with a sophisticated psychopath is that they have mastered the art of deception.
"If someone cares enough about something, chances are they will get pretty good at it," Dr. Marshall says. "Psychopaths work it out quickly from a young age, watching mom and dad in deceitful environments."
With such sophistry comes this ability to seem as if they are caring and empathic people. Indeed, even though most claim that psychopaths lack empathy, they actually lack emotional empathy—the ability to feel how others feel. Instead, they're high in cognitive empathy, meaning they know how others feel—and thus how to manipulate them. Many of them watch films obsessively to study human behavior and appropriate responses.
Clients often tell me they want to know if someone is "fully psychopathic" since it exists on a spectrum. Indeed, no one is 100 percent bad. We will always reference the times they were good to us, even if it's mere words like "I support you." The question we have to ask ourselves is: Is this person good for me? If the answer is no, then it's time to extricate ourselves.
At the end of the day, part of holistic health is being mindful and honest with ourselves about our relationships—and knowing when to walk away from the people who will only harm us in the end.
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