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Dr Jane and Tim McGregor

Addiction Today

Wed, 30 Oct 2013

The empathy trap: therapists and counselors almost by definition areempathic, to facilitate clients’ recovery – but this quality can mean thosecarers are targets for sociopaths, aided by what Dr Jane & Tim McGregorcall “apaths”. The first UK article on this cruel sport shows how toidentify and thus avoid it.

People targeted by a sociopath often respond with self-deprecating commentslike “I was stupid”, “what was I thinking” of “Ishould’ve listened to my gut instinct”. But being involved with asociopath is like being brainwashed. The sociopath’s superficial charm isusually the means by which s/he conditions people.

On initial contact, a sociopath will often test other people’s empathy, soquestions geared towards discovering if you are highly empathic or not shouldring alarm bells. People with a highly empathic disposition are often targeted.Those with lower levels of empathy are often passed over, though they can bedrawn in and used by sociopaths as part of their cruel entertainment.

Sociopaths make up 25% of the prison population, committing over twice as manyaggressive acts as other criminals. The reoffending rate of sociopaths is aboutdouble that of other offenders, and for violent crimes it is triple.

But not all sociopaths are found in prison. There is the less-visible burden ofsociopath-induced emotional trauma which, if left unchecked, can lead toanxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Chronically traumatized people often exhibit hyper-vigilant, anxious andagitated behavior, symptoms such as tension headaches, gastrointestinaldisturbances, abdominal pain, back pain, tremors and nausea.

Exposure to and interaction with a sociopath in childhood can leave lifelongscars. This can apply to people in therapy – and for those who in recoverytrained as therapists, re-exposure as an adult can trigger old emotions andPTSD.

This article is not about sociopaths per se but about surviving the harmthey cause.


Many sociopaths wreak havoc in a covert way, so that their underlying conditionremains hidden for years. They can possess a superficial charm, and thisdiverts attention from disturbing aspects of their nature.

The following case history illustrates how people can be systematicallytargeted until they feel they can barely trust their own sense of reality -what we call “gaslighting”. Sociopathic abuse is targeted abuse. Itcan wreck lives. Victims can become survivors, but at huge cost.

At school, ‘James’ took a dislike to a classmate, ‘Sam’, who was sensitive andpopular. He would mock him for auditioning for the school play or for gettingupset over failing a test. The situation deteriorated when it became known thatSam’s parents were separating. Sam appeared to be taking it with fortitude, tothe admiration of his peers. He also got attention and sympathy from the schoolstaff, especially James’ favourite teacher: ie, the one he manipulated mosteasily.

James decided on a plan of covert bullying. He started a whispering campaignimplying that Sam’s parents were not splitting up, that he had said they werein order to seek attention. Sadly, this was all too successful and over thenext few days Sam was met with silence and verbal bullying from his hitherto-supportiveclassmates.

James continued his campaign, targeting Sam’s close friends over the next fewdays. They found themselves accused of misdemeanours such as sending offensiveemails/texts. Then the ‘favourite’ teacher went on “leave with immediateeffect” after accusations of assaulting a pupil. Where had the accusationscome from? Guess.

This case shows how deliberately sociopaths, from a young age, can targetothers. Taking advantage of people’s credibility and goodwill, James exploitedthe situation. With a more perceptive head teacher, this sociopath might havebeen found out, but he knew who to manipulate and how far he could go.


To deal with sociopaths effectively, you first need to open your eyes. InThe Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, two weavers promise theemperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are stupid andunfit for their positions.

When the emperor parades before his subjects, all the adults, not wishing to beseen in a negative light, pretend they can see the clothes. The only truthfulperson is a child who cries “But he isn’t wearing any clothes!”.

You, too, need to see sociopaths as they really are. We are conditioned to keepquiet, which often means turning a blind eye to or putting up with abuse.

The boy in the tale represents those who see the problem behavior for what itis and find the courage of their convictions to make a stand. Sight becomesinsight, which turns into action. Awareness is the first step in limiting thenegative effects of contact with a sociopath.


Let’s look at what we term the Socio-Empath-Apath Triad, or Seat. Unremittingabuse of other people is an activity of the sociopath that stands out. To wintheir games, sociopaths enlist the help of hangers-on: apaths.

The apath. We call those who collude in the sport of the sociopathapathetic, or apaths. In this situation, it means a lack of concern or beingindifferent to the targeted person.

We have highlighted the importance of seeing the problem for what it is via thetale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, which represents the collective denial anddouble standards which are often a feature of social life. The apath in thiscontext is someone who is willing to be blind: ie, not to see that theemperor/empress is naked.

Apaths are an integral part of the sociopath’s arsenal and contribute tosociopathic abuse. Sociopaths have an uncanny knack of knowing who will assistthem in bringing down the person they are targeting. It is not necessarily easyto identify an apath; in other circumstances, an apath can show ample empathyand concern for others – just not in this case. The one attribute an apath musthave is a link to the target.

How apaths, who might otherwise be fair-minded people, become involved in suchdestructive business is not hard to understand, but it can be hard to accept.The main qualifying attribute is poor judgment resulting from lack of insight.They might be jealous of or angry at the target, and thus have something togain from the evolving situation.

At other times, the apath might not want to see the ‘bad’ in someone,particularly if the sociopath is useful. Or they might choose not to seebecause they have enough on their plate and do not possess the wherewithal ormoral courage to help the targeted person at that time. Usually, be it activeor passive involvement, the apath’s conscience appears to fall asleep. It isthis scenario that causes people blindly to follow leaders motivated only byself-interest.

Readers might know of Yale University professor Stanley Milgram’s experimentsto test the human propensity to obey orders, as participants gave increasinglylarge electric shocks to subjects. Afterwards, he wrote an article, The Perilsof Obedience: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs and without anyparticular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructiveprocess”.

Apaths are often fearful people. They are the ones most likely to go with theflow, to agree that the emperor/empress is wearing new clothes. They might alsofail to perceive the threat: a danger is of no importance if you deny itsexistence.

An apath’s response to a sociopath’s call to arms can then result from a stateof ‘learned helplessness’. Apaths behave defenselessly because they want toavoid unpleasant or harmful circumstances [including the sociopath turning onthem]. Apathy is an avoidance strategy.

The empath. Often, the person targeted by the sociopath is an empath. Empaths areordinary people who are highly perceptive and insightful and belong to the 40%of human beings who sense when something’s not right, who respond to their gutinstinct. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the empath is the boy who mentions the unmentionable:that there are no clothes.

In the 1990s, researchers suggested that there was a positive relationshipbetween empathy and emotional intelligence. Since then, that term has been usedinterchangeably with emotional literacy.

What this means in practice is that empaths have the ability to understandtheir own emotions, to listen to other people and empathise with theiremotions, to express emotions productively and to handle their emotions in sucha way as to improve their personal power.

People are often attracted to empaths because of their compassionate nature. Aparticular attribute is that they are sensitive to the emotional distress ofothers. Conversely, they have trouble comprehending a closed mind and lack ofcompassion in others.

Very highly empathic people can find themselves helping others at the expenseof their own needs, which can lead them to withdraw from the world at times.

It is odd. Most of us enjoy watching films and reading books about heroes whorefuse to go along with the crowd, which suggests there is something admirableabout people who make a bold stand.

But in real life, watching someone raise their head above the parapet oftenmakes the rest of us feel queasy. Most – the 60% majority – prefer the easylife. It was interesting to discover, when doing the research for this book,how often people see empaths in problematical terms.

Empaths use their ability to emphasize and to boost theirs and others’ wellbeing and safety. Problems arise for empaths, however, when there are apaths inthe vicinity. Empaths can be brought down, distressed and forced into theposition of the lone fighter by the inaction of more apathetic types roundthem.


Often empaths are targeted by sociopaths because they pose the greatest threat.The empath is usually the first to detect that something is not right andexpress what s/he senses.

As a consequence, the empath is both the sociopath’s number one foe and asource of attraction; the empath’s responses and actions provide excellententertainment for sociopaths, who use and abuse people for sport.

The world of the empath is not for the faint-hearted. In the context we arediscussing, empaths often find themselves up against not only the sociopath butoften a flock of apaths as well. Apaths are afforded pole position in thesociopath’s intrigues.

But this prime spot comes at a price for, in what we call the “sociopathictransaction”, the apath makes an unspoken Faustian pact with thesociopath, then passively or otherwise participates in the cruel sport.


The usual set-up goes like this: the empath is forced to make a stand on seeingthe sociopath say or do something underhand. The empath challenges thesociopath, who straight away throws others off the scent and shifts the blameon to the empath. The empath becomes an object of abuse when the apathcorroborates the sociopath’s perspective.

The situation usually ends badly for the empath and sometimes also for theapath, if their conscience returns to haunt them or they later become an objectof abuse themselves. But, frustratingly, the sociopath often goes scot free.

Sociopaths rarely vary this tried-and-tested formula because it virtuallyguarantees them success.

Sociopaths draw in apaths by various means: flattery, bribery, disorientingthem with lies. A sociopath will go to any lengths to win her game. The bestway to illustrate the interplay, and the ease with which apaths are pulled in,is by another short story.

‘Steve and Robin’ were microbiologists at a prestigious university,collaborating on an important vaccine trial. The department head, Ben, hoped togain substantially; success could see his status in his field rise and provethe catalyst for a glittering career.

His colleagues worked relentlessly collecting data, then Ben drafted a paperfor submission to a respected journal. He decided that the outcome didn’t looktantalising, so falsified key results in order to present findings in the bestlight. On completing the draft, he sent the paper for comment to hiscolleagues. Steve replied by email that he was happy with the manuscript; heused the opportunity to suck up to his boss. But Robin was aghast, notingcolossal errors. With great urgency, he rattled off an email to Ben.

Receiving no response to this or a phone call, Robin went to find Ben inperson, discovering him in the cafeteria with Steve. But he was too late. Benhad poisoned Steve’s mind, saying that Robin had challenged him over theaccuracy of the results, due to a longstanding grudge. Ben said he had to pullRobin up about his own work several months back. Steve was different, Benimplied. He intimated Steve would be on course for promotion “especiallyif we get this paper out and secure funding for the next-stage trials”.

By the time Ben joined them, Steve, though initially shocked, had been won overby Ben’s swift flattery and insinuations

Robin crossed the cafeteria to them. “Hi, you two got a moment?”Briefly there was an awkward silence. Steve exchanged a look with Ben, who gavea slight conspiratorial smile, now that the transaction was done and the sportunder way. “Yes, we were just talking about the paper. By the way, I didsee your email, but if you look at the paper thoroughly, I think you’ll findthat everything is correct.” Steve replied with a smug look that “I’mwith Ben on this one”. Robin was floored. “You can’t be serious?You’re happy for it to go off to be reviewed with all these serious errors? Ourreputations will be left in ruins.”

He decided to make a stand. He asked for his name to be removed as a co-authorbut was exasperated to learn that it was sent off to the journal anyway. Morefrustratingly, it was published. Meanwhile, the workplace became a source ofstress for Robin as he struggled to cope with the backlash from colleagues whosaw his intervention as an attempt to sabotage their work. People avoided himand, when they did talk to him, the conversation was stilted.

Eventually Robin arranged a meeting with Ben to have it out once and for all.But Ben took control of the agenda. “Robin, I have to be honest with you,many of your colleagues are unhappy about the way you handled things and somehave made complaints. They don’t trust you to conduct yourself professionallyafter you attempted to sabotage their hard work. Mercifully the reviewers sawwhat a fine trial we’d conducted and didn’t get wind of your attempted slur.

“We can’t afford to have a saboteur on the team. So I’ve discussed thiswith the dean and he agrees there is no future for you here, and there’s noother way to deal with this. You’ve got to go.”

Any phase of this story sound familiar? 


In the story above, the actions of Ben and Steve have a ‘gaslighting’ effect onRobin. Gaslighting is a systematic attempt by one person to erode another’sreality.

The syndrome gets its name from the play and films of the same name inwhich a murderer strives to make his wife doubt her sanity and get others todisbelieve her.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information ispresented in such a way as to make the target doubt his/her memory andperception. Psychologists call this “the sociopath’s dance”. It couldinvolve denial or staging of strange events.

This is Machiavellian behaviour of the worst kind. And anyone can become avictim of the sociopath’s gaslighting moves: parent and child, in-laws,friends, groups of people including work colleagues.

Psychotherapist Christine Louise de Canonville describes different phases thatthe abuser leads the relationship through

  • the idealisation stage, where the sociopath shows herself in the best possible light – but this phase is an illusion, to draw her target in
  • the devaluation stage begins gradually so the target is not alert to the sociopath’s transformation to being cold and unfeeling, but will begin to feel devalued at every turn; the more distressed the target becomes, the more the sociopath enjoys her power, and her abuse can become more extreme
  • the discarding stage – the target is reduced to an object to which the sociopath is indifferent, seeing the game as won; the sociopath rejects any connection, moving on to the next target.

Gaslighting does not happen all at once so, if you suspect in the earlystages of a relationship that you are being gaslighted, you can protectyourself by walking away.

To learn more, including how to recover from exposure to a prolongedsociopathic transaction, buy The Empathy Trap: Understanding antisocialpersonalities by Dr Jane and Tim McGregor (Sheldon Press, ISBN978-1847092762).

Comment: DR JANE McGREGOR is a freelance trainer and lecturer at theInstitute of Mental Health, University of Nottingham. She holds a PhD in publichealth and worked in the NHS and voluntary sector, mostly in the field ofaddiction treatment.

TIM McGREGOR is freelance consultant and trainer, and a mental-healthpractitioner of many years’ standing. He has worked in the NHS and voluntarysector, most recently as a commissioning adviser.


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