“How can you be so young and know so much about narcissism and psychopathy?” I’ve been met with this question frequently as an author in my twenties who writes about psychological abuse and covert emotional predators. The answer is, on the surface, simple: the child of a narcissistic parent becomes primed to meet more predators in adulthood. We tend to have porous boundaries, a high degree of empathy, resilience and intuition that gets used against us by toxic people. So we often go through a lifetime’s worth of experiences early on that give us hard-won wisdom and insights about toxic people at every point on the spectrum.
I’ve met toxic people across various contexts – from romantic to platonic to professional. From the familial to the foe. From the garden-variety narcissist to the eerie psychopath or sociopath (colloquial terms for those with antisocial traits and a lack of conscience).
I took my findings from childhood and supplemented my real-life experiences with an educational background in psychology and sociology in adulthood. I spent years communicating with and surveying survivors of covert emotional abuse about their experiences.
As a result, I learned not only to identify predators, but to study them, to find ways to counter their manipulative tactics and help other survivors like myself detach and heal.
Here are eleven things I learned about sociopaths, narcissists and toxic people by the age of twenty-seven – that I think everyone should know:
1. There is a spectrum of toxicity, but those who are on the high end of that spectrum, like malignant narcissists, are unlikely to change.
You couldn’t change them no matter how hard you tried – so don’t blame yourself for their behavior or waste energy trying. While there are some people with toxic traits that can change their behavior and are willing to do so, the ones who are disordered will continue in their toxic behavior regardless of how much you try to point out their wrongdoings and transgressions.
2. Contrary to popular belief, not every toxic person is toxic because of a tragic past. Nor do they all suffer from low self-esteem.
Some are born toxic, continue to be character disordered and have no conscience or remorse for their actions. Their brains are inherently different, revealing deficits in areas of the brain related to empathy and compassion. They may know right from wrong but they simply do not care. Many grandiose narcissists on the high level of the spectrum deem themselves superior and feel entitled to anything and everything. That’s why they deliberately destroy lives and sabotage people – because they can and they are rewarded by it. The highly disordered do not always destroy others because they are “suffering in pain.” They do so because they know they can get away with it.
3. You can’t rationalize a sociopath’s behavior and feel pity for someone who actively tries to destroy you time and time again – it will only keep you stuck in the cycle of abuse.
When you’re led to feel guilty about setting boundaries with them or cutting off contact, that makes it all the more difficult to detach from them and realize you don’t deserve their treatment. Feeling pity for them in place of healthy boundaries is usually a waste of energy you could be feeling for their actual victims or showing compassion for yourself.
4. Empathy deficiency is on the rise, so we need to stop assuming that everyone has our best interest at heart.
Researchers like Martha Stout estimate that 1 in 25 Americans are sociopathic, meaning they have no conscience. Narcissism is on the rise too among the younger generation. With the prevalence of toxicity among us, education and awareness about psychopathy and narcissism is needed more than ever. Pretending that everyone has a conscience or the ability to empathize will only lead to continued rationalization of destructive behavior – at the expense of your own basic needs and rights.
5. The only way to “win” with a toxic person is to not to play their game – or at least, refusing to play on their level.
Otherwise, you risk losing your own humanity in the process if you’re continually consumed by one-upping them. It’s very difficult to “battle” someone with no remorse or empathy. Cutting off all contact and communication – what we call “No Contact,” is the ideal way to deal with highly toxic people. It’s not always possible, but it’s the ideal. Once you start to breathe fresher air, you’re less likely to tolerate toxicity in the future.
6. When No Contact isn’t possible, Low Contact is the next best step.
This means keeping only the minimum amount of contact with the toxic person (only when necessary) while setting firm boundaries and becoming emotionally unreactive to the narcissist’s mind games. Remember, your emotional reactions are their fuel.
7. Self-validation is key when you’re moving forward.
You have to be able to say to yourself every day, “I did the right thing by leaving. I didn’t deserve their abuse.” When you’re addicted to gaining the approval and validation of a toxic sociopath or narcissist, you’re still ensnared in their sick and twisted manipulation.
8. There are people who won’t believe you and unfortunately, you won’t convince them.
Sociopathic predators are very skilled at fooling and duping others. They can be very likeable and charming. They can provoke their victims into reacting after months or years of covert abuse, only to use those reactions as proof that their victims are unstable. The malignant narcissists who walk among you are probably people you know and like – and if you haven’t personally been victimized by them, you’re none the wiser to who they truly are behind closed doors.
9. Enablers of narcissists and sociopaths can be toxic too.
When manipulators use others to carry out their dirty work for them, their actions can be just as destructive and toxic as those of the original perpetrators. Enablers exist on a spectrum, just like toxic people – all the way from the confused, blissfully ignorant bystanders to the malicious fellow con artists. Some people truly believe that the manipulators in question are “good” and since predators have a great deal of social proof that others like and approve of them, they are able to continue on their façade with alarming ease with the support of people who stand by their side.
10. You’ll know you’re in the presence of someone toxic just by the way you feel. So don’t discount your instincts.
If you don’t always feel this way with others but with them you feel off balance, hurt, confused, constantly mistreated and devalued – you’re in the presence of an emotional predator. Empathic people know when they’ve made mistakes and own up to them. They don’t avoid accountability for their actions, even if they inadvertently hurt people. Sociopaths do – and they do not care who they hurt. They do not care about your feelings. They do not care about your needs. So always remember that if you’re consistently not feeling good – or you’re feeling “love-bombed” one second and terrorized the next, this is not someone who is emotionally safe.
11. The truth does eventually come out, even if you’re not there to witness it.
When victims of covert malignant narcissists finally move forward, enablers are left in the dust as well – though they don’t know it yet. Narcissists and sociopaths only treat their enablers well so long as they serve them. So, eventually, they turn on the people who helped them carry out their dirty work too when they are no longer useful. All those who supported the perpetrators will one day remember the day their victims tried to get them to see the truth. Unfortunately, by that time, it’ll be too late.