Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

A shout-out to our workplace anti-bullying work

Great literature may help us to understand trauma

Great literature may help us to understand psychological trauma. In a newly published essay (link here), “Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry,” I summon Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Homer’s The Odyssey for that purpose. Drawing upon Moby-Dick, I consider the injured Captain Ahab as a workplace trauma sufferer and abusive boss. Examining The Odyssey, I see Odysseus experiencing grief and exhaustion as he tries to return home after 10 years of fighting a war.

The piece has just been posted to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, a fully online university devoted to Great Books and Great Ideas, where I am a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas.” In this side-gig role, I am contributing writings to HMU’s publications and taking part in various discussion groups.

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Gift”: Recovery and renewal for trauma survivors

In her first book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017), Dr. Edith Eger recounted the major events of her life, framed by her experiences as a teenaged survivor of the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps during the Second World War. She shared the many steps of her own recovery and healing, and then described her work as a therapist helping others who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.

Dr. Edie (as she is known) has followed The Choice with The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life (2020), a compassionate, potentially transformative book that draws heavily upon her experiences and those of her patients to offer guidance on recovering from trauma. Here’s a description of the book from her website

Eger explains that the worst prison she experienced is not the prison that Nazis put her in but the one she created for herself, the prison within her own mind. She describes the twelve most pervasive imprisoning beliefs she has known—including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance—and the tools she has discovered to deal with these universal challenges. Accompanied by stories from Eger’s own life and the lives of her patients each chapter includes thought-provoking questions and takeaways….

Choice therapy

Dr. Edie describes her therapeutic approach as “choice therapy, as freedom is fundamentally about choice.” She identifies four core psychological perspectives that inform her eclectic method:

  • Positive psychology, i.e., moving from “learned helplessness” to “learned optimism”;
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, i.e., “the understanding that our thoughts create our feelings and behavior”;
  • Unconditional self-love, i.e., moving away from the “misconception that we can’t be loved and genuine”; and,
  • Understanding “that our worst experiences can be our best teachers,” contributing to “healing, fulfillment, and freedom.”

On victimhood

Dr. Edie’s first lesson is the big one, leaving the “prison of victimhood.” Among her observations:

  • “Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.”
  • “Many of us stay in a prison of victimhood because, subconsciously, it feels safer.”
  • “Why did this happen to me? Well, why not you?”
  • “This is the first tool for moving out of victimhood: approach whatever is happening with a gentle embrace. It doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happening. But when you stop fighting and resisting, you have more energy and imagination at the ready to figure out ‘What now?’ To move forward instead of nowhere.”

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

For many reasons, I recommend The Gift to those who are struggling to recover from bullying and mobbing at work, especially when the abuse has resulted in major harm to well-being and livelihood. Dr. Edie has a unique voice that blends compassion and, when necessary, tough love, and both qualities can be helpful in helping folks to recover and renew from work abuse. For those trying to get “unstuck” and out of a place of rumination, this is a very good start.

Below I’ve linked to several relevant earlier articles, including two about Dr. Edie, whom I had the distinct privilege of meeting at a conference back in 2017.

Related Posts

  • Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor (2018) (link here)
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here)
  • Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here)
  • Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015) (link here)

Sharing insights about workplace bullying and mobbing in SafeHarbor, Part III

This year, I’ve been writing about my visits to SafeHarbor (link here), the online site created by Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, to serve as “a community dedicated to the people affected by workplace bullying and those devoted to helping them.” I’ve also shared some past blog articles that I’ve posted for SafeHarbor members.

During my visit to SafeHarbor this evening, it struck me how a combination of knowledge, understanding, and — yes — technology has brought us to where a site like this can exist and sustain. Members can start discussions, comment on existing threads, and link articles, thereby contributing to an educative and supportive dynamic that can overcome distance and physical separation.

When I joined forces with Gary and Ruth Namie in the late 1990s, the internet was still in its infancy, with the first generation of online discussion boards offering a glimpse of what might come. While I have very mixed feelings about the omnipresence of digital technology in our lives, I am glad that we can harness it for good purposes such as this one.

Once again, here are more past blog articles that I’ve posted to SafeHarbor:

  • Not “Set for Life”: Boomers facing layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012) (link here)
  • Are calls for resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming? (2016, rev. 2019 & 2022) (link here)
  • Typing your workplace culture (2009; rev. 2022) (link here)
  • Music as therapy (2021) (link here)
  • On the social responsibilities of writers (2019) (link here)
  • Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014) (link here)
  • Let’s follow an Eightfold Path to psychologically healthy workplaces (2019) (link here)
  • Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (2011; rev. 2020) (link here)
  • “How can I make a living doing workplace anti-bullying work?” (2019) (link here)
  • Five signs of the eliminationist instinct in today’s workplaces (2015) (link here)

Sharing insights about workplace bullying and mobbing in SafeHarbor, Part II

In my last post, I wrote about my visits to SafeHarbor (link here), the online site created by Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, to serve as “a community dedicated to the people affected by workplace bullying and those devoted to helping them.” I also shared some past blog pieces that I’ve posted for SafeHarbor members.

Creating safe online spaces surrounding difficult and sometimes painful topics is a challenge, and the success of SafeHarbor so far has been the generation of a spirit of support, understanding, and kindness. Gentle is the word I would use to describe the online voices of those serving as facilitators and discussion leaders. This does not preclude respectful differences of opinion. But it does set a peaceful vibe that runs counter to the experiences that brought many to the site.

Here are more past blog articles that I’ve posted to SafeHarbor:

  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009, rev. 2014) (link here)
  • How harmful thought patterns about workplace bullying and mobbing may accelerate the aging process (2019) (link here)
  • When a prominent employee is fired for creating “an abusive work environment” (2018) (link here)
  • We understand human dignity only if we also comprehend humiliation and abuse (2015) (link here)
  • Workplace mistreatment: The importance of cross-situational empathy (2015) (link here)
  • Shame-based organizations: When workplaces resemble dysfunctional families (2015) (link here)
  • “Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers (2017) (link here)
  • “Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013) (link here)
  • Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor (2018) (link here)
  • What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest? (2015, rev. 2019) (link here)

2012-2020: When gaslighting went mainstream

I first wrote about gaslighting behaviors in connection with workplace bullying in December 2012. Since then, gaslighting has been a recurring topic on this blog. (See below for a list of related pieces.) In preparing an essay I’m writing on the nation’s political psyche during the years 2015-20, I was curious about the degree to which gaslighting has become a mainstreamed concept in our public discourse. I did a quick series of Google searches on “gaslighting” by year, starting in 2012 and going through 2020. Here is what I found:

Google search: “Gaslighting”

Year          # “hits”

2012          26,100

2013          29,000

2014          34,500

2015          49,500

  2016          320,000

2017          87,000

 2018          126,000

 2019          155,000

 2020         204,000

Several conclusions and informed speculations become evident:

  • Clearly, the year-to-year pattern in hits indicates that gaslighting has been increasingly invoked in discussions of relationships, work, and civic life.
  • The difference between 2012 and 2020 represents an increase in Google hits by approximately 800 percent.
  • The 2016 spike may well have been fueled by that year’s U.S. presidential election, and possibly the 2020 increase was prompted by that year’s presidential election as well.

I’m glad that this term has taken hold, because it helps many workers understand the crazy making dynamics of their workplaces. That’s an important step toward both healing from abusive work experiences on an individual level and reforming workplaces on an institutional level.

RELATED POSTS

On gaslighting specifically

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully (2020)

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

Related posts (most mention gaslighting)

Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm (2019)

Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017)

How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (2017)

Workplace mobbing: Understanding the maelstrom (2016)

Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse (2014)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

Targets of workplace bullying: The stress and anxiety of figuring out what the h**l is going on (2014)

January 6, 2021: Workplace violence of Constitutional proportions in Washington D.C.

Screenshot from the Washington Post

Quite understandably, the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol Building is being framed largely in the context of America’s divisive political dynamics and the final days of the administration of Donald Trump. This was, after all, an unprecedented event, a violent occupation of one of the nation’s most important houses of government, at a time when the Congress was meeting to approve electoral votes for the next President and Vice President. It was preceded by a lengthy rally led by Trump and his minions, spurring members of white supremacist groups and conspiracy cults to storm the building, in an attempt to stop the Constitutional transfer of power inherent in every national election.

This event will rightly prompt a long and deep investigation, and many questions about how this could happen and what parties were responsible remain unanswered for now. True, the loss of life was minimal compared to other signature events threatening national security, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However, this could’ve been much, much worse, with considerably higher fatality and casualty rates, hostage taking, and an extended occupation, had things transpired even a little differently.

I’d like to add another perspective on the Capitol attack, and that is to see it as a significant act of workplace violence, prompted by leaders who favor bullying and mobbing behaviors as ways of getting what they want. Anyone who is interested in preventing and responding to workplace violence should consider January 6 as a massive leadership, organizational, and systems failure and, quite possibly, corruption. I am confident that once we grasp the enormity of this event, it will become a case study of failed workplace violence prevention and response in public sector workplaces.

We also may eventually learn more about psychological trauma emerging from that day. It is likely that a good number of people who were lawfully in the building will experience post-traumatic symptoms. This includes elected officials, staff members, security personnel, media representatives, and others. Especially for them, working in that building may never again feel safe or secure.

It is no exaggeration that January 6, 2021 will be remembered as one of the most disturbing days in U.S. history. For those of us who study abuse, aggression, and violence in our workplaces, comprehending the events of that day will take on this added dimension.

Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

Next Avenue on posttraumatic growth: PTG following PTSD

Barbra Williams Cosentino, writing for Next Avenue (link here), writes about recovery and renewal in a valuable piece on posttraumatic growth:

The concept of Posttraumatic Growth, or PTG, was developed in the 1990s by psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi, now distinguished chair of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth in Bluemont, Va., and his colleague Lawrence Calhoun.

It’s different from PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a constellation of psychological and often physical symptoms experienced after profoundly upsetting events such as a natural disaster, an assault or a terrible illness. Posttraumatic growth can be the reward for pain and suffering, a positive ending which can lead to rich and unanticipated rewards in terms of emotional, social and even spiritual health.

Cosentino reports that Tedeschi and Calhoun have developed a Posttraumatic Growth Inventory instrument, which measures how those who have suffered from trauma can grow in several dimensions. In more tangible terms, this can lead to a variety of positive changes:

Internal changes in perception, self-awareness and one’s sense of competence often lead to positive actions. Trauma survivors of any age may switch careers, find intensely rewarding hobbies, go back to school or take early retirement and travel.

Fortunately, individuals can facilitate their own posttraumatic growth in many ways, according to Tedeschi:

  • Learning the ways trauma can lead to a disruption of core belief systems
  • Developing emotional regulation skills which allow you to manage negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt and anger
  • Talking about the trauma and how you have been personally affected by it
  • Producing an authentic narrative about the trauma and our lives afterward so you can accept the reality and envision moving on
  • Providing service to others who experienced similar or different traumatic events

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing: Getting “unstuck”

I especially recommend Cosentino’s article for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing who are experiencing the challenges of getting “unstuck.” As I wrote in 2014 (link here):

One of the biggest challenges facing many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying is getting unstuck. Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Our emerging understanding of posttraumatic growth offers genuine, tangible hope for those who are recovering from severe work abuse. Practitioners and researchers working in this mode are onto somethingas I like to say, and the results have the potential to be life-changing for countless numbers of people.

MTW Revisions (August 2020)

Dear readers, I’ve gathered some posts that I’ve revised over the years and have not shared in previous “MTW Revisions” features. This particular collection emphasizes workplace bullying and toxic or difficult work environments. I hope you find the selections interesting and useful.

Weighing the exit option for a toxic job (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “But until more employers start to take abuse at work seriously and the law steps in to create stronger legal protections, leaving a bad job — voluntarily or otherwise — will remain the most common “resolution” of severe workplace bullying. Whenever possible, those who are experiencing toxic jobs should try to get ahead of the situation. It is not an easy thing to do — at first glance, it may feel downright impossible — but it’s much better than waiting for others to impose the choices.”

What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “One of my central observations is that many of the “best” workplace abusers — the ones who get their prey and continually evade being held responsible — are calculating, committed, and smart planners. With task-oriented surgical precision and detachment, they plot and scheme. Like the serial killer who manages to escape capture, they’re usually a step or three ahead of everyone else, with a scary sense of anticipation.”

When employees leave your organization, how do they feel about it? (orig. 2013; rev. 2019) (link here) —  “If you’re looking for a quick “status check” on the culture of your workplace, ask this simple question: When employees leave the organization, how do they feel about it?

Is closure possible for targets of workplace bullying and injustice? (orig. 2011; rev.2016) (link here) — “Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance.”

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (orig. 2011; rev. 2020) (link here) — “In darker situations, gatekeeping can be a form of intentional exclusion, perhaps a passive-aggressive, bullying-type tactic. It’s a way of keeping someone in their place, blocking them from advancement, or preventing them from making a unique contribution.”

Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace? (orig. 2010; rev. 2016) (link here) — “Emotional detachment does not come without its costs, as anyone who understands workplace bullying can comprehend. After all, indifferent slackers aren’t the ones typically targeted by abusive bosses or co-workers.  Oftentimes it’s the high achiever, or at least someone who is engaged in her work, who is marked for mistreatment. Telling this person to turn off the passion for her work is indeed an instruction to numb her soul, even if for the purpose of avoiding deeper injury.”

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