By Joyce Alexander, RNP (Retired)
I’ve been reading some interesting books lately by some very interesting researchers in the field of psychology—Dr. Barbara Oakley dealing with the themes of altruism, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy, and others who are trying to discover what makes people altruistic and how empathy (or lack of it) affects how we behave toward our fellow men. I’ve come to some interesting conclusions concerning my own part in my abuse by multiple people who were/are high in psychopathic traits, and very low in empathy, compassion and altruistic behavior. I have wondered about my own ability to repeatedly “explain away” the abusive behavior that I experienced from family members and “friends,” and to expect that they would change their abusive behavior. What made me think that I could somehow, by appeasing them, forgiving them, and being kind and caring to these people, make them realize just how much they had hurt me, how much I had suffered at their hands? What made me think that I could effect a change in someone else’s character, or instill character into someone who so obviously had no conscience, empathy or remorse?
In my studying about psychopathic behavior in former associates and in family members who have actually repeatedly done horrific violence to others as well as toward me, including battery, rape and actual murders, I have finally come to the conclusion, like many researchers, Dr. Robert Hare, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr. Barbara Oakley, that there is little if any chance that a person who is very high in psychopathic traits and very low in empathy, without conscience or the ability to feel remorse for their behavior, is going to effectively change, either in their thinking or their behavior. That much finally got through to me. There are some things that are impossible to do no matter how capable you are.
When a person has had a life-long pattern of bad and/or violent behavior, does not have effective empathy, which is necessary for a person to have a conscience (a personality disorder), the likelihood of change is minimal. “The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior” is a truism that is not likely to change, no matter how “politically correct” it is to wish otherwise.
There are some instances when a person has a medical condition (either genetic or acquired) that keeps them from having empathy—autism or brain damage from a stroke or head injury, for example. But not all people who are without “normal” levels of empathy are violent or seem to enjoy hurting others. For those people lacking empathy and conscience, who do seem to enjoy control over others, or simply seem to enjoy hurting others, there is no “hope.”
What about those of us on the other hand, though, who seem to have a desire to help others? It has been shown by medical and psychological research that “helping” others gives a chemical “atta boy” to the brains of those who are the helpers. This chemical “reward” for doing good reinforces the desire to “help” others. We are genetically programmed as a species to “do good.” It is rewarding to us and has helped keep the human race alive because we cooperate, help each other, and are to some extent altruistic.
The “pleasure” centers in the human brain respond to chemical stimuli from various sources—from orgasm, from doing good, from various drugs, and from various activities, such as “the runner’s high” that come from physical exertion. It has even been shown that working with your hands to produce something useful gives a chemical reward to the brain. That may be why people like to knit, crochet, build things, fix food, etc. But why, when the reward for “doing good” to someone, especially someone you love, is also accompanied by such intense emotional and/or physical pain, do we keep on doing what causes us pain as well as the “reward” for doing good? Why are we willing to endure the pain in addition to receiving the “reward” for “doing good?”
Some people high in psychopathic traits seem to be extremely high in narcissism, to the point that it is very obvious that they value themselves so far above others as to absolutely have no idea that anyone else has any value at all. They view others as lower than an object, but to the point that the very existence of other people is an insult to the highly narcissistic person. It seems as if the chemical reward for them for “doing good” is replaced by the desire for control.
If the narcissism is very apparent, people around the narcissist may notice this to the point that they don’t want to be around such a person. He is considered “stuck up” and we have probably been told from grade school on up that we should not “brag on ourselves” because it isn’t polite and others won’t like us. So the narcissism that is very apparent may be “off putting” to others around the person. Many people who are very narcissistic, though, have trained themselves not to appear as narcissistic as they actually feel. In other words, they have learned “good manners,” or to mask their true emotions. Those that don’t learn to conceal high levels of narcissism may not be very “popular.” A healthy level of narcissism, though, is an accurate self-assessment of your own abilities. The person who is very narcissistic may not be actually as smart or as competent as he thinks he is, however.
I’m smart. I know that. I am capable and very able in learning how to do complex tasks such as fly an aircraft, knit, crochet, built things, train animals. I have led a life based on being a “can do” person. I’m somewhat justifiably proud of what I have accomplished in my life. That narcissism is a healthy level of self-assessment of my talents and abilities—yet my narcissism went further than that, I think, into making me think that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish. Because I could do so many things, and do them well, I overestimated my ability to cope with the people in my life who were high in psychopathic traits and dysfunctional in relationships. I was too narcissistic in thinking I was able to accomplish the impossible—fixing dysfunctional relationships and dysfunctional people.
I think in part, my narcissism was because there were so few things I couldn’t accomplish if I set my mind to it and worked hard at acquiring the knowledge and skills to learn a new task, and perform it well. It never occurred to me that I could not also be “successful” in fixing a bad relationship with a person who had no conscience. Just as my psychopathic son, Patrick, who is extremely bright and also extremely narcissistic, never had any trouble in school, decided there was no one on earth as smart as he was, and that because he was smart, he could “get away with” anything. It never occurred to him that there were cops that were “smart enough” to catch him. Even when he was caught in his most violent crimes, crimes he didn’t even try to cover up, it never occurred to him that he would not be successful next time. When he was caught again, his narcissistic idea that he was the smartest, most capable person on Earth didn’t let him realize that he was wrong. His narcissism precluded him having an accurate self-assessment, or assessment of the capabilities of others.
I too was very narcissistic in my appraisal of my own abilities to effect change in these people, no matter how many times I failed in effecting change in them. No matter how many times I failed, or how bad the pain was because of my failure, it never dawned on me that I wasn’t capable of success if I just tried harder in this endeavor. If I just gave more of myself, if I was just more selfless, more giving, surely next time I would succeed. My own narcissism kept me in the game. My own desire to effect change in someone else’s behavior was fueled by my narcissism, by my poor self-assessment of my abilities.
Ignoring the danger
If a horse or a steer was aggressive and I was not able to effect change in the animal’s behavior, I would eventually give up when the animal continued to try to hurt me. I could at some point come to the conclusion that the potential harm to myself was not worth the effort of trying to control the animal’s violent tendencies. Though I am an excellent animal trainer, I know that not even the best animal trainer in the world can make some animals safe to work with, and the danger of trying to continue to do so foolish. Why could I not see that where it concerned dangerous humans?
Why was I willing to put myself, my life and my health, to say nothing of my happiness and peace, at risk in order to maintain a “relationship” with dangerous people for extended periods of time, decades in some cases? Why did I focus on the potential reward of changing their abusive behavior instead of on the pain they caused?
Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the way I was conditioned in my family, that the family “secrets” must be kept at all costs so that the “neighbors didn’t know.” This culture of shame, and covering up the general knowledge in the larger community that our family was not a “nice normal family” was handed down for generations by abusers and enablers working together to hide the family dysfunction. I participated in this “cover up” by keeping information about my son Patrick’s crimes from general knowledge of my extended family and “the neighbors” for years. I participated in the family myth that he had “found Jesus” when I knew otherwise. I participated in “family Christmas” celebrations that were a travesty and were anything except a “Norman Rockwell Christmas.” I think partly because I was so narcissistic that I thought if I just kept up the pretense long enough it would become real … especially if the “neighbors didn’t know.”
My coming out of this FOG (fear, obligation and guilt) was traumatic for me as well as for my family members who were as invested in this fantasy family as I was. That change from the status quo on my part released the “hounds of hell” within the family dynamics and resulted in my psychopathic son, Patrick, sending one of his ex-convict buddies to try to regain control of the family, since he couldn’t do this by emotional manipulation from inside his prison cell. He would kill me, if that is what it took in order for him to regain control. Several members of my family co-conspired with him, or at least knew what was going on and did nothing to stop the attack on me. Maintaining the status quo within the dysfunctional family was of paramount importance for everyone involved. Maintaining the FOG without change felt secure to them. Life was predictable. Change was scary.
Seeing the light
It was only the fear of actually losing my life that made me “see the light,” and see just how dangerously I had been behaving in trying to convince myself that I could effect change in these people. They had no conscience, no empathy, and enjoyed a high level of narcissism that made them believe themselves invincible. I too had felt invincible, and was way too narcissistic in my own self-assessment of what my capabilities were. I could not control these people, I could not change them, and they were too dangerous to deal with.
Now I try to look at myself more realistically, and to see that while I am a smart, capable person, there are some things that I am not capable of, and I need to be aware of these things. While I was realistic and humble enough to realize that there are some animals I can’t safely train, I am now humble enough to admit there are some dangerous people I can’t afford to associate with either, no matter how altruistic I feel or how much reward I get from helping others. The rewards I get from being “helpful” to others must also be tempered with the humility that I am not all-powerful in my abilities with people, any more than I am with animals. Just as I must assess the potential benefit of helping a person or training an animal, I must also assess the potential “costs” in terms I can afford to pay. While I still feel good when I am able to help someone else, I am no longer willing to overlook the repeated bad behavior of others and convince myself that if I am just “helpful enough” that I can change them.
I must take responsibility for my own life, my own behavior, and set my boundaries in such a way that I eliminate those dangerous relationships, no matter how smart or capable I am in other aspects of my life. There are just some things we can’t accomplish no matter how hard we work, and changing someone else is one of those things.