Before I go into explaining in more detail the exercises to help you gather strength and lose fear to leave the sociopath (from my last article) it would be helpful to know how and why we end up reacting to the sociopath and getting attached and controlled in the first place.
Predators are extremely astute at quickly assessing and targeting our vulnerabilities, whether consciously or subconsciously. It’s very empowering to start becoming aware of what those vulnerabilities are that hook us and keep us hooked. Self-awareness, or “mindfulness,” is the most essential tool in going forward. It means to become conscious of our reactions instead of being subconsciously driven, so that we can regain control and inner strength, and become detached.
Perhaps the biggest question we ask ourselves after realizing we have been with a sociopath is, “How did this happened to me?” We may have started out as strong and independent, feeling relatively good about ourselves, had success in our lives, even had successful relationships. But when we were swept off our feet by the attentive, often intelligent, charming, and confident/strong personality that was our sociopath, we thought we had finally found someone who seemed to focus on loving us and was adoringly committed. At the end of it all, we feel foolish and ashamed for being taken in, for not seeing the signs.
When it happened to me, I was an experienced therapist who had worked long and hard in therapy myself to heal childhood wounds. I had recovered as a teenager from addiction and worked in the rehab as a counselor for three years. I had grieved the death of my husband after a long and happy marriage, become a struggling single mother while obtaining a graduate degree so we could survive. I dealt with mental illness in family members. I had great friends and a loving family. I loved my work. I felt strong. I was good. So, after having been taken in by a sociopath, I felt particularly foolish and ashamed. How did a therapist get conned?
I suppose some of that has to do with trusting that people who look you in the eye and tell you something are being truthful, plus believing in the inherent goodness of people – what I’ve now come to recognize as naivety. But, there were other things in me reacting and responding to the sociopath as well – some dormant for a long time – and these vary from person to person. What are those reactions and responses in us that the sociopath targets, that we can identify and change?
They target our loyalty, trusting nature, commitment
They can see that we are naïve to their type. I believe the “love-bombing,” the attention, the being everything we want or need them to be, their perfect glib answers, initially throw us off guard. The only thing we know about this person is what they present to us and that is all good, and we believe them. They have made it through the first level – gaining our trust.
We mistakenly perceive that they feel as connected to us as we do to them. We believe they are experiencing the growing feelings for them in the same way, becoming more committed – especially as they voice that they are. They may be feeling something intense (or not), but it is not emotional connection like we think it is. We explain away their questionable behavior in the only way we know how – we perceive their confidence not as arrogance, their glibness not as deception, their dominance not as being controlling – but as strengths. It is encouraging to them that we accept them, and remain loyal and committed.
They target our caretaker, codependent tendencies
We may have been very much in control in our lives, felt confident, were independent, even have overcome previous codependent tendencies, and built solid boundaries. But, when the sociopath we love starts outwardly exhibiting the need to be in control, our subconscious knows just what to do.
This response is likely to come from a younger version of us, perhaps going all the way back to childhood. We may have had a controlling/abusive parent or older sibling, a non-present parent, or witnessed the parent abusing or neglecting the other parent or a sibling. Maybe someone outside our family abused us or we were bullied. Or, maybe we just got too much correcting and/or criticizing and not enough validation. As children we may have responded by trying to be “good,” trying harder, being the peacemaker. We were over-responsible, blaming and looking at ourselves to solve the problem/chaos, in hopes that it ultimately will get us what every child needs: nurturing, validation. Some of us may have fought for it.
So, when our partner creates the same environment in the relationship (e.g. reacting in anger, dismissiveness, shutting down, dissociating/withdrawing whenever we express a need or are not submissive), we do what we know. We scramble to save the relationship by trying harder, looking for the answer in ourselves, or fighting, in the hope that our needs for nurturing and validation in the relationship will be met. But the sociopath’s message is always the same: “Either conform to what works for me or go away.” Over time we accommodate them more and more to save the relationship. We start to lose what boundaries we have and our very selves.
They target the addict
Some of us respond viscerally to the frequent over-the-top sex the sociopath is so good at, or to the feeling of “love” that comes at the beginning of a relationship. Of course, the sociopath knows how to pour it on in heady doses. If we have addictive tendencies, we will be vulnerable to the “love drug” as a means to feel better.
Through the sociopath’s continual demands for sex, the hormone oxytocin is being released, which creates a powerful feeling of attachment. The sociopath instinctively knows this! This process is genetically encoded for the survival of offspring. Sex also causes a powerful release of dopamine, which is the body’s natural opiate. It all just makes us feel happy and close to our partner, makes unpleasant feelings go away, inside us or in the relationship. We have to ask ourselves, what about that “high” works for us?
They target our own fears about commitment
This is something we may have to dig deep to see in ourselves. While we were consciously “ready” for love, and so happy to have found it in the sociopath, our subconscious beliefs about love were likely not so optimistic. For instance, deep down we might not believe we are lovable or worthy of happiness. Or, we may have experienced a trauma that changed our former faith in love, happiness, or our worthiness, such as divorce, death, multiple failed relationships, being alone, aging.
These subconscious beliefs will make us afraid to fully commit because if we do, we will experience the very painful loss of love that we had experienced before. So, we end up with someone who is not capable of committing, not even really present in the relationship. Then we subconsciously know the loss won’t feel as bad. In a strange way, we are protecting ourselves.
They target our inner victim
I remember thinking at times, “Why do I feel like I did when I was living with my abusive father?” (wounds I had healed long ago with my father). But then, there was that feeling of it being very familiar. My “victim consciousness” got triggered. When she did, she went off and isolated, curled into a ball of despair. (That is, until my “fighter” kicked in later on.)
We all have a victim in us to some degree – whether we were victimized by abuse and/or neglect in our families, abuse outside the home, bullying, rejection, or learning problems. As a child, we were powerless to protect ourselves or know how to feel good with ourselves. Our partner who abuses, threatens, dominates, etc., violates our personhood, and by definition, victimizes us. This triggers the inner victim, which may have been long dormant, but who will feel and react exactly the way it did before – feeling powerless to influence/stop the perpetrator, questioning his/her own worth, feeling shame – all crippling.
They target our empathy
This is the biggest hook! Subconsciously the sociopath can intuit our “childhood wound,” as we can intuit theirs. They may tell us about how they were abused and/or neglected by their parents or others. Indeed, they may have horrific stories of how their parents or others victimized, humiliated, and abandoned them. When we hear this, our own childhood wound of abandonment, abuse, loneliness, or neglect, is triggered, and so we feel intense compassion and sorrow for the wounded boy/girl in them.
Their wound is deep down in them, and it is unhealed because, while they may speak sadly about how they were unloved or victimized, they are not actually emotionally connected to it. They chose at some point to bury it under rage. But we very much are! This can make us determined to love and never leave that poor boy/girl who no one ever loved and who everyone else abandoned.
Our sadness for that wounded boy/girl will also encourage us to overlook too much. We may not judge him/her by normal standards or expectations, and may excuse his/her behaviors based on what s/he’s been through. At this point, because we identify and connect to our partner’s wounded child, to leave him/her now, we would be putting ourselves in the place of the parents or abusers who wounded them (and us). We are put in a terrible conflict between not abandoning them, and our own survival.