Psychopaths can look just like everyone else. Unlike what television has taught us, most psychopaths are not deranged, imprisoned murderers. Much more likely, they're the co-worker, friend, ex, or family member who makes your brain hurt. You walk away from them feeling confused, self-conscious, and doubting your own intuition. Psychopathy isn't an official diagnosis you can find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but there's been enough research on psychopaths1 for us to be able to identify their traits and characteristics. Here's exactly how to spot a psychopath and the signs of a psychopath to look out for:
1. They're charming—superficially.
A common psychopath characteristic is charm. And don't assume that charm goes hand-in-hand with confidence or arrogance. A psychopath's charm is specifically suited to their target. Sure, some people respond well to flattery and gifts—more obvious manifestations of "charm." But others might have a softer spot for the sympathetic, shy routine. Psychopaths are experts at making their chosen target feel "special."
Whichever persona they choose, one thing is certain: It's not authentic. Psychopaths are shape-shifting chameleons who constantly rearrange their personalities depending on your individual needs. If you notice behavioral inconsistencies, find that other people in this person's life describe them in entirely different terms, or even just sense insincerity in their behavior, honor and explore that feeling.
2. They try to manufacture negative reactions.
Another sign of a psychopath is the propensity to create chaos. Psychopaths intentionally cause chaos, then sit back, play innocent, and blame you for reacting. They will provoke you, and then when you (understandably) react, they'll patronizingly inform you that they're "not having this discussion with you again." Eventually, you'll start to feel like a hypersensitive nut case.
In the workplace, they'll manufacture these reactions in a calculated way, to turn others against you and diminish your credibility. In a relationship, they'll use these reactions to garner sympathy from future potential mates. If you get the sense that someone is baiting you into an argument and then feigning surprise, it's worth a second look. Don't let your natural desire to reconcile the issue keep you from addressing the injustice you feel.
3. You catch them in lies—repeatedly, and with no clear motive.
Lying is a common psychopath characteristic. Psychopaths lie constantly, even when the truth would be a better story—even when there's absolutely no reason to lie. They are so used to shifting personas and stories that lying becomes the default mode for them. If you ever question these lies (even if you have proof), they will promptly turn it back around on you for being paranoid and overanalyzing everything. Whether someone who does this is a psychopath or simply a pathological liar, they are someone you'll be better off keeping at arm's length.
4. They seem incapable of guilt or shame.
Normal people feel intense remorse when they do things that psychopaths do (lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate). But psychopaths don't feel any remorse for their behavior. This is also one of the signs of a narcissist, but a glaring sign of a psychopath? They actually seem to enjoy their terrible actions.
Psychopaths know that their behavior hurts others. That's why they do it. The only time a psychopath will ever apologize to you is to save face or if they still need something from you. It's never actually about remorse. Anyone who enjoys inflicting pain on others or never seems to feel any genuine remorse for hurting others is someone to cut ties with, immediately. That's an emotional black hole.
5. They change allegiances without a second thought, no matter how intense the betrayal.
Another common trait of a psychopath is lack of loyalty. Psychopaths devalue and replace others at the drop of a hat. Although you probably experienced an instant connection of trust and excitement with them, you'll come to realize they can forge that bond with anyone. After once declaring you better than all the "crazy" people in their life, they'll go running back to those very same people and declare you crazy. Psychopaths have no loyalty, no attachment, and no love. They leave behind a trail of destruction, and they blame their victims for it every time.
6. They turn people against each other.
When a psychopath enters the picture, you'll find yourself disliking people you've never even met. Psychopaths are constantly whispering poison and gossip into everyone's ears, making each person feel jealous and suspicious of the others. But they do so under a guise of innocence, using sad stories and pseudo-concern to warp your perception.
Psychopaths want people distracted and in constant competition for their attention, so they seem in high demand at all times. If you find yourself disliking people you would previously have had no reason to form an opinion about (negative or otherwise), look more closely at the source of that emotion. It might be a sign of a psychopath in your orbit.
7. They trigger your cognitive dissonance.
This one involves some introspection. When a psychopath enters your life, you'll notice an intense and ever-increasing sense of dread and self-doubt. Your brain will struggle to reconcile the "perfect" person from the beginning with the inappropriate behavior you're starting to see more regularly. That's because that perfect person never actually existed. It was a persona, created just for you. This is the hardest thing for our minds and hearts to understand.
Additionally, with a psychopath, you're always the bad one. Even though they lie, cheat, manipulate, steal, and con—you're the one with the problem. Psychopaths have this innate ability to make you feel like there's something wrong with you for recognizing that there's something off about them.
If you're having a lot of confusing thoughts and emotions like this, you may be dealing with a psychopath.
Jackson MacKenzie is the author of Whole Again and Psychopath Free, and co-founder of PsychopathFree.com, an online support community that reaches millions of abuse survivors each month. He has his bachelor’s in computer and information sciences from Northeastern University and is based in Boston. Driven by personal experience, MacKenzie's mission is to spread awareness and give survivors a safe place to validate their experiences, so that every empathetic person can find happiness and love after abuse.