Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T, who has a private psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and clinical consulting practice in New Jersey, USA. For more information, visit his website, powercommunicating.com.
Have you ever seen a cat toy with a stunned, cornered mouse? How it will capture the mouse, dangle it in its mouth for a while, release it momentarily, allowing the mouse the pretense of an escape, only to recapture it, dangle it some more from its mouth, perhaps release it again briefly, now to watch the mouse, increasingly frantic, make another escape bid, only to recapture it, now letting the terrorized mouse (and, as if it’s fate) dangle yet some more, in dreadful uncertainty?
If the mouse could think, it might have thoughts like these: “What will this cat do with me? How long will it continue to toy with me? Will it kill me, or let me go? Strangely, this cat seems to be deriving a perverse pleasure in my predicament. My helplessness and suffering seem to be entertaining and amusing this cat. There is something cold and sadistic about this—that this cat could be using, and exploiting, my vulnerability in this way for its personal, shallow gratification?”
The mouse would think, “there is something wrong with this cat.”
In this analogy, the mouse’s imagined experience of the cat captures, I believe, the victim’s experience of the psychopath. Cats, of course, are not psychopaths, and mice, although traumatizable, are unlikely to experience their victimization in quite so thoughtful a way.
But to elaborate the analogy, let us imagine what’s taking place in the cat’s mind. The cat may be thinking, “This is fun. The mouse I’m terrorizing is pathetic. Look how scared and confused it is. It has no idea what’s in store for it. Even I haven’t decided what’s in store for it. I’m enjoying its helplessness, and my total control over it, too much to worry about my plans for this mouse. I find it amusing that its playing dead. Does this mouse think it can fool me? I, and only I, will determine whether the mouse lives or dies. Presently I’m going to release and taunt it again, with the illusion of escape. When I recapture it immediately, it will be trembling with fear, a prisoner to my designs. This is pretty funny. It’s not that I have anything personal against mice. As a matter of fact, they provide me with a great source of recreation.”
The cat in this analogy (and let me stress that I like cats, who don’t really think like this), captures with a chilling fidelity the perspective of psychopaths towards their victims. It is all there: the cat’s utter lack of empathy for the mouse; its view of the mouse as an “object” that exists to be exploited for its benefit; its amusement at having created the mouse’s predicament, now to watch and enjoy the mouse’s futile bids at escape; its contempt for the mouse’s helplessness and desperation, which the cat, of course, has opportunistically established for its own entertainment; its relish in its omnipotence to decide the mouse’s fate, but only when it is good and ready, and no sooner than the cat has mined the mouse’s helplessness for its full recreational value.
In sum, this is the essence of the psychopath: his joy of the hunt, his contempt for his prey, and his intention to take everything he can, and wants, from his victim.
When the psychopath takes you for a ride—that is, when he is victimizing people—it’s really not personal: You’re simply not enough of a person for it to be personal. In the psychopath’s eyes, you are an expedient, nothing more. When he crosses your path, the psychopath is assessing your expediency. He is asking himself, “Is there something this impending-sucker has for me? Is there something I can take from this fool that I want? Something I can take that will make me feel good?”
As part of his assessment, he is evaluating the kind of target you’ll be. If he decides to pass, it won’t be because he likes you, or feels something charitable; it will be because he’s decided that, either you have nothing, after all, worth taking, or that you’ll pose inconveniences and/or risks to his present self-interests that he prefers to avoid.
For the psychopath, you are like a sealed, vulnerable envelope he is constantly espying, with suspected money inside. He isn’t sure how much money, but he’s pretty sure there’s something in it. It might be a little, it might be a lot; it’s possible there’s too little (or nothing) of value worth his bothering with. Surely, though, he is scheming how best to glimpse what’s in the envelope, and how best to lift anything worth taking.
The psychopath is a high, and often imprudent, risk-taker; he’s in it for the catch, not to be caught. You, and all human beings, are mere commodities to him: maybe useful, maybe not. Certainly, once he’s expended your use, to the psychopath you’ll be as useless as a nagging headache.