As I travel and teach, a continually recurring question that people ask me is: “What about psychopaths?” In asking this question, people’s curiosity ranges from “Am I validated in my pain about my ex-lover?” to “Does empathy work with everyone?” and “Are people going to take advantage of me if I am empathetic?” and, “Do I need to be hypervigilant about the possibility that my trust and love could be misplaced in someone who is unable to receive them?”
The answers to these questions are both complex and ordinary. The ordinary responses are, “Yes, sort of, no and no.”
The road to more complex answers begins with clear observations of the behavior that people use the label “psychopathic” to describe. Here is a selection of such characteristics:
Being charming without follow-through
Having a habit of not telling the truth
Trying to get people to do things for you without making clear requests
Not feeling regret when you’ve done something that someone tells you has hurt them
Not having empathy for others
Feeling continually bored and needing stimulation
Living off the work of others without contributing in return
An incapacity to take the long-term view
Taking action without regard for consequence or morality
When we are in relationship with people who are showing up in these ways, our neurobiology crashes, so it would make sense that we might feel anxiety about “psychopaths,” and about whether our intimate partners have these characteristics. It makes sense that we would want to avoid placing our love and trust in such a person, to protect our hearts and our life energies.
So the simplest way to check whether we are in relationship with someone who does not have the capacity to be in relationship back with us is to ask, “Do I have a sense that I matter and am seen here? Are actions taken by the other that let me know I’m being held with consideration?”
I would like to humbly propose that the deeper question here is whether you believe that real relationship is possible, and whether you can imagine that you get to choose to spend your time with people who treat you with kindness and warm curiosity. Do you get to value honesty and depth? Do you get to prioritize clear requests? Is it possible for you to expect to be met with empathy and acknowledgment? And if you are not, do you get to say “no” to this relationship? There are many reasons that people act in one or more of the ways shown above. People do not have to be “psychopaths” to be not so fun to be around.
Is empathy ever a waste of time? No. We may not long for intimacy with everyone, and we may want to have choice about how we spend our life energy, but empathy heals the world when we are willing to offer it. I have spent 10 years volunteer teaching NVC at a medium security women’s prison in Oregon, and during that time statistics would indicate that I have taught psychopaths in a number of up to 25% of the thousands of women who have passed through my classes, yet I have never met one woman who was not moved by the experience of being held with empathy and resonance.
The question, “Does empathy work with everyone? And if so, am I obliged to “do empathy” with everyone I meet?” has importance here, as we can easily be drawn into relationships where we might experience relief if we get to be the empathy-giver, forever hoping that the other person will change with enough empathy, and be moved to turn toward us. It’s predictable, we have a role, we know what to do, and we’re probably good at it. And, here again, I’d like to advocate with each of us to ask, “Is this satisfying? Does it feel good for the empathy to flow in just one direction? Or are we living within the childhood habit of paying for our right to be present with our service? And if this is so, are we willing to risk something different?”
Finally, we come to the worry of whether people will take advantage of us if we are empathetic. A deep practice of NVC moves us into both empathy and expression, and lets us recognize and track conversations where both are happening. We start to become hungry for the tangible give and take of contingent connection. The crumbs that used to satisfy us are no longer sufficient. Glossy charisma and empty words begin to lose their charm. Our hunger for aliveness prevents us from staying in uncomfortable and un-life-giving relationships, which means that we are no longer available to serve others unless our service contributes to our own well-being.
The main point here is: as we move more deeply into our resonant empathy practice the question of recognizing psychopaths becomes less significant, while the question, “Do I have a sense of mattering in this relationship?” becomes more and more compelling, and the answer brings us not only safety in all of our connections, but moves us toward a living exploration of the deep ecology of self and other.