We have spent a lot of time on this blog describing exactly how psychopaths think and behave. But as interested readers wanting to avoid these characters, you probably want to know exactly how they choose their next victim and how exactly they manage to wriggle their way into people’s trust so easily. How exactly do psychopath choose and groom their victims?
Psychopaths tend to go after people who have strong virtues and character traits that they don’t have, either because they want these traits for themselves, or they want to destroy and undermine these qualities they can see in others but don’t have for themselves. They also see intelligent, perceptive and moral people as a threat, since they are the people most likely to see through their glibness and superficiality.
As regards grooming, psychopaths use a combination of glib charm, “feeling” a person out, telling them what they want to hear, and playing the perfect match, to work their way into the confidence of someone and gain their trust.
Once firmly embedded in a relationship, the psychopath then turns and slowly begins to devalue the victim, before coldly discarding them and moving onto a new target, where the cycle repeats all over again.
The bottom line is that if you are high quality person with strong emotional traits like empathy, kindness, strong conscience, willingness to speak out, the psychopath will be out to get you in a work or personal environment. This is why you need to be on guard, looking out for traits like manipulativeness, insincerity and glibness in new people you meet in work especially.
Let’s look in more detail at some of the traits psychopaths look for in targets, and then how they groom and take in someone once they have selected them.
Psychopaths Target High Quality & Empathic People
The first thing to emphasize here is that psychopaths are naturally drawn to people who have qualities they don’t have themselves. This can mean emotional qualities like empathy, personal attributes, wealth, prestige, charisma, popularity, or anything else which makes you attractive and successful.
Now this is where the picture gets a little more complicated, since the motive for the psychopath being drawn to you can differ in different cases, since there is a fine line between fascination and simple envy. Let’s look at each of these possible motives in turn:
1. Fascination – Psychopaths do view the world with a cold detachment, being emotionally void and dull themselves, and are in some cases fascinated by these “things” called emotions and other human qualities that the rest of us seem to have.
It can sometimes be the case that they want to be close to people who have these traits that they don’t, to see if they can absorb and pick up these traits themselves. They are parasitic people who like to feed off the success or energy of others, and so are drawn to people who have something they want for themselves.
2. Envy and Destructiveness – It is also true however that the worst psychopaths have given up this game of “installing” the virtues that others have just by being around them. Once they realize this is not how it works, their mindset turns to pure envy and destructiveness, simply wanting to destroy any goodness they see in others that they can’t have for themselves.
The mindset becomes “If I can’t have what you’ve got, I’m not going to let you have it either”, and they begin a process of subtle but relentless undermining, trying to reduce the victim to someone they don’t envy anymore. See further below for more on this devalue phase of a toxic relationship.
See also the excellent Unslaved Podcast for a more great discussion of the fine line between admiration and envy, and how psychopaths can suddenly flip and cross this line, showing an initial fascination which then turns to envy and contempt as they seek to destroy the person they initially groomed.
Psychopaths Target People With Weak Boundaries & Self Doubt
Another target psychopaths tend to look for in targets is all the qualities we mentioned above, but also some aspect of diffuse boundaries or self doubt.
In other words, psychopaths like to groom targets with qualities like empathy, kindness, sincerity, warmth etc, which they can feed off, but also some very specific weaknesses they can also exploit down the line, such as:
- Self doubt – leaves people open to gas-lighting, one of the psychopath’s favorite tactics.
- A tendency to doubt one’s own perception and memories.
- eg. “Did X happen”, “Did I leave my keys there?”
- Always getting people to double check things
- Always asking other people’s opinion in things before saying something, launching projects etc.
- Prone to always doubting and blaming oneself in conflict or arguments, taking all the blame on oneself even if it wasn’t warranted.
- A psychopath will quickly pick up on these aspects of self doubt.
- An innocent nature – always assuming the best of people.
- An overly trusting and open nature, naturally inclined to open up very easily to others. Such people very quickly give the psychopath all the information they need to use against the person later on.
- A naturally kind and generous nature.
- A forgiving nature, always willing to give another chance.
- An agreeable nature – not naturally given to arguments or strong disagreements.
- Not generally liking to “cause a scene” or kick up a fuss.
- In more general terms, some aspect of a weakness in boundaries that the psychopath sees they can exploit, where they will continue to tolerate unacceptable behavior, and buy into any excuses the psychopath gives.
There is no big surprise here that the reason the psychopath looks for these qualities is because they know they can exploit them down the line in the devalue and discard stages, able to get away with increasingly outrageous behavior and always wriggle out of it, using the person’s kind and forgiving nature against them to always get another chance, all the while chipping away at the victim’s boundaries even more.
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Grooming Victims By Creating The Manufactured Soulmate
Once they have identified someone who could be a good target, the psychopath then begins the process of charming the person, getting into their good books, and then playing the perfect match to create the illusion of an intimate or perfectly compatible relationship.
Recovery author Jackson Mackenzie describes this entire process as the creation of a manufactured soulmate. See his superb books in our Resources section for a thorough breakdown of this process. Here are the main points:
- The psychopath is looking to robotically create the perfect partner for you individually. They are very good at modifying and tailoring their act for each specific victim they choose.
- They will walk and talk in rhythm with you, finish your sentences, match your humor, show apparent interest in your interests, do everything you want sexually. They are making you think you’ve found the perfect partner.
- They will lovebomb you with a barrage of initial warmth and glib charm to get you hooked on them and thinking the relationship is “cool” and there is a real “connection” and mutual interest there.
- They are feeling you out, telling you everything you want to hear, finding out what you like, being the perfect person you want them to be. It will feel like you’ve found a “soulmate”, someone who “gets” you perfectly.
- Crucially a psychopath is not feeling any of this back, but merely viewing the entire process with a cool detachment, having usually done this many times before with their previous victims.
- They are also finding out your weaknesses, vanities and insecurities so they can use them against you later on.
- The psychopath will create a life where seemingly the fun times never end, and the constant sense of them giving you that little bit more, that little bit extra that you can’t get from other people or relationships.
- In summary, they can very quickly guage and read someone and create the image of someone who’s everything they ever wanted and more.
- This grooming process is often very slow and subtle, with the smarter psychopaths able to put up an image of themselves as very kind, sweet, even innocent. This can be very difficult to see through unless you know what to look for.
- See our articles on the psychopathic bond and how psychopaths get you hooked for more on this initial process of getting you addicted to them.
The Idealize Devalue Discard Cycle
We will not focus massively on this, since this is no longer grooming but outright abuse as the psychopath has now got bored and wants to drop the person and move onto someone else. It is merely to emphasize that all the charming, grooming and playing the perfect match is synthetic and merely designed to set you up for the devalue and discard stages down the line.
In these latter stages, the psychopath starts to pull back this sense of bliss and perfection they had created in the target, slowly withdrawing and becoming more icy and distant, but feeding them with just enough of their charm act to keep them hooked and interested.
The psychopath is using intermittent and unpredictable rewards to get the person hooked on them and chip away at their self esteem. As the victim continues to push back into the psychopath emotionally to rekindle the feeling they had, the psychopath continues to withdraw and now has the victim under their control, as they continue feeding them sporadic psychological “breadcrumbs” of warmth and kindness, but with lessening and unpredictable frequency.
This tactic often has the effect of eroding the identity and self esteem of the target, since their self image now becomes tied to whether they get the psychopath’s approval or not. They start to think there must be something wrong with them, otherwise the psychopath wouldn’t have gone so cold and distant, but really the psychopath had planned this all along and is treating it like a game.
Eventually, the psychopath gets bored and drops the target cold, moving onto someone else and often flaunting this new person in the old person’s face to rub it in. The psychopath viewed the entire process with a cool, amused detachment and leaves their victim with a whole load of emotional wounds, since they thought they had a real relationship with this person.
In general terms this is a how a psychopath uses manipulation to groom their victims, bombarding them with initial charm, getting them hooked on their approval and then slowly withdrawing and discarding them and starting the cycle over with someone else.