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Lunatics and Other Life Hazards

One of my efforts is to teach people about general wellness, personal safety and self defense. Most adults are physically unfit, and according to FBI statistics, about one in 200 people are victims of physical assault each year. Between one in three and one in ten people will be victims of assault during their adult lives, depending on lifestyle and locale. I'm not so concerned for my own welfare, but I am concerned for the welfare of my wife and children, so I have developed and teach a system of conditioning exercises and self defense. But the truth is that nearly everyone will have to deal with psychological assaults in their lifetime -- probably many times over. Strangely, I have seen little or no material on how to deal with these, let alone from the perspective of someone grounded in Catholic theology. Most people respond to psychological (and physical) assault by giving in, but I generally do not, and it has caused a great deal of conflict in my life over the decades. It has taken many years of study and reflection to understand the dynamics involved in these encounters, and it is my hope that this material can help others who have similar struggles.

I don't teach self defense in isolation, but as part of a complete program that teaches personal physical conditioning. When we get to the section on actual self defense, it begins with instruction on personal safety, personalities, strengths, vulnerabilities, and the like. When we get into actual techniques of self defense, we start by studying why people attack and how they do so. What methods and weapons do they use to select, isolate and assault their victims? Understanding these things helps one avoid assaults in the first place, and deal with those that have escalated beyond our ability to avoid them. And so we begin here with a similar discussion, but from an interpersonal, relational, psychological perspective.

The Person or Self

Learning self defense requires learning (and sometimes-painful honesty) about ourselves; how we are made, our strengths, our weaknesess, etc. As human beings, we each have at least two intertwined capacities that constitute the "person" or the "self"; these are the physical and psychological capacities. We relate to and understand the world and others through interaction via these and other facets of human nature. The physical brain plays a pivotal role in this connectedness between our capacities, but the truth is that there is not a clear line segregating the two; some philosophies believe that facets of our psychology are even tied to and spread throughout individual organs or parts of the body. Fill a room with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and the like, and ask them to discuss where the brain ends and the mind begins; you'll probably need bouncers. Whatever the actual relationship, our physical and psychological capacities are similar to each other in the general sense that they can be healthy, unfit, or severely damaged. And though they operate according to their own rules, each affects and is affected by the other. People who are under intense psychological stress often exhibit physical symptoms. People who experience a physical trauma may develop related, psychological damage. Another way of expressing this is to say that both capacities are expressed through and affected by the experiences of the self.

By psychological capacity I mean the intangible element of human nature that encompasses awareness, thought, emotion, knowledge, wisdom, and virtue; those facets that collectively constitute our intellect, character and personality, and that drive our words and actions. Some might call it your particular soul or nature. (Please note that I am purposefully not going into one's "spirit" or essential being, or that relationship.) Just as one can have overdeveloped arms but anemic legs, so one can have overdeveloped knowledge, but anemic emotions, wisdom or virtue -- a state that is quite common today. And it is not an accident that I have used the word capacity. One could substitute the word potential. We each have different levels of capacity and natural limitations. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of the human person is that he is limited. A healthy person recognizes his own limitations and weaknesses, and daily struggles to do what is right, to manage, strengthen and overcome these. A healthy person takes responsibility for his actions, their consequences, and understands that his present state in life is, more than anything else, a result of his own choices. A healthy person has a developed, balanced psychology. This doesn't mean we are perfect and never make mistakes. Sometimes we fall, but we get back up, try to repair any damage we caused, apologize, and continue forward. This is the state of the human person touched by original sin but who is genuinely attempting to live a life of truth. He is imperfect, how recognizes and forebears other people's imperfections, and he is able to deal with most difficulties that life may throw him, even if he still has a few sensitive areas and fails from time to time.

Unfortunately, many of us are not merely limited, but actually psychologically unfit, flabby or slightly out of balance, operating significantly below our potential. Think of it in physical terms: Many adults are physically unhealthy as a consequence of lifestyle, genetics or both. I would argue that a large proportion of us are psychologically unhealthy for similar reasons; lack of exercise in virtue, general laziness, a poor psychological diet (e.g., what we watch, listen to, say and do), and a society that does not reward and encourage ethics, etc. Quite the opposite sometimes. The psychologically unfit are otherwise functional adults who behave rationally under most circumstances. They may otherwise be very intelligent or successful. However, they do not have the psychological constitution to handle moderate psychological challenges. This kind of weakness can usually be helped without special treatment. For example, most adults cannot climb a 20-foot rope. Set the floor on fire and it wouldn't make any difference. They simply lack the strength necessary to lift their bodies that far off of the ground; they may even justify their weakness by saying "climbing ropes is silly." But if they genuinely recognize their weakness, make a plan for improvement and set their minds to it, they can overcome it. The same is true psychologically: If we aren't too far gone, in moments of clarity we might recognize our own shallowness. With disciplined effort, and perhaps help from friends, family or faith, we can improve our psychological health. Our minds, personalities and emotions simply need good food, character-building challenges, exercise, and rest just as our physical bodies do.

Some people have serious psychological weaknesses not through any fault of their own, but as a consequence of genetic problem, or serious damage that they received through an accident, illness, or physical or psychological attack. People with these kinds of experiences can be very difficult to deal with and deserve our patience and assistance insofar as we are able to provide it (without enabling further dysfunction). For example, while leading a youth group I had one youth who was constantly hitting and starting fights with the other boys. One evening he was literally on top of and hitting another boy; I grabbed him and pulled him off, at which point he totally flipped out. I'm not certain, but that event along with other clues led me to suspect some kind of abuse took place in his home.

But we then come to people who are not merely psychologically out of shape, but genuinely disordered, severely imbalanced. By disordered person I don't mean someone who is mentally retarded or severely unintelligent; I'm referring specifically to someone who has given himself over to serious weaknesses in character, who actively, habitually, purposefully engages in unethical words and actions. In other words, one or more key elements of his psychology are really "out of whack." Yes, that is the scientific, technical term. You could also use "whacked in the head," which is among my favorites. To go back to the physical analogy for a moment, this isn't merely someone with weak arms -- this is someone with severely deformed arms, or no arms at all, or razor sharp claws where arms and hands should have been. Like the unfit, they may be intelligent and successful, but they lack the very capacity to deal in good faith with others, to be virtuous. It may or may not be that person's fault. He might be a victim of abuse or some other trauma, or maybe his state is the result of a series of personal choices on his part. And there are not crystal clear lines of demarkation between healthy, unhealthy and disordered personalities. Indeed, an otherwise healthy person may have a single, but serious weakness that can be triggered resulting in an unreasonable, even violent response.

It can happen that a psychologically disordered person is highly virtuous -- doesn't just talk about it, but actually is virtuous -- but otherwise immature or unstable. This is rare (and not too difficult to fix), so I'm going to focus on those who are more common, people who are highly functioning but ethically disordered in one way or another. Psychologically disordered people display traits commonly associated with what are collectively referred to as "personality disorders." The more acute ones are called psychopathic or sociopathic disorders (or worse). In general, they display many of the following characteristics:

Anatomy of an Assault

Psychological and physical assaults are obviously two different things, but they operate according to similar principles, and both are attacks upon the self. If someone physically attacks you, he is not attacking "your body." He is attacking you. He is using you as a means to his end. It just so happens that the method of attack, the tools he is employing, and his targets are material, physical. A psychological attack can be just as devastating (or just as irrelevant) as a physical attack. Either can result in both psychological and physical wounds.

There are no "feelings police." Society has pretty clear laws established concerning physical assaults, and little or nothing to cover psychological ones. The truth is that the police don't actually prevent hardly any assaults, anyway. They simply investigate them after they've already happened. It is up to the defender to handle most assaults, physical or other.

People attack others for a variety of reasons, including:

Even otherwise healthy and balanced people will attack when stress from the first three motivations is strong enough. If you do your best to be a good person, not to threaten others and back them into a corner, not to allow others to go without basic human needs while you have plenty, etc., these are unlikely to be a problem. The real people to look out for are the predators -- those who actually seek opportunities to attack others. The predators will attack you if they perceive you to be weak and vulnerable, when they think they can get away with it, or if you are a threat to them.

There is an interesting quote by G. K. Chesterton. In his book titled Orthodoxy he writes briefly about people who are said to have "lost their minds." He writes that, actually, quite the opposite is true. What the person has lost is good judgment, emotional empathy, virtue. His "rational" mind is all that is left. "His mind moves all the faster for not being delayed by things going with good judgment." You have probably encountered this in others from time to time, and after their hit-and-run attack, find yourself bewildered that you didn't see it coming, that it happened so fast, and that someone would knowingly say and do such things in the first place.

While working for the Archdiocese of Portland I attempted to take a little time each day to meet with people in other departments, introduce myself, and get to know them. This was often well received, but sometimes it wasn't. For example, the director of the media relations department responded to my introduction by having me sit down and then stating rather bluntly that any communications I made had to go thourhg him and I'd better not do anything to cross him while I worked there, or he'd "get me." Without any apparent provocation, the director of finance went out of his way to accuse me of being unchristian, and attempted to harm my relationship with my boss because I'd gone out and made a necessary purchase without his approval (which I didn't need). And the Chancellor personally, routinely attempted to pit people against each other and the Archbishop. These situations were totally unanticipated by me. Each of these people, at one time or another, did what they could to try to embarrass me or get me fired, even though I'd never done a thing to harm them, and didn't even work for them.

A predator triggers upon perceived weaknesses in others. When he has the right advantages and is capable of striking without serious risk to himself, he will strike. It is almost involuntary. It seems sometimes like these people simply can't control themselves; they have to abuse others when the opportunity presents itself. They are simply not restrained by the things -- the good judgment -- that restrain you and I.

The initial attack usually takes one of three forms: Some kind of insult to your character or work, an illegitimate request of some kind, or even a legitimate request made in a demeaning way. It might be direct or implied. A few examples might help:

  1. Insults: Psychologically disordered people derive a lot of power by breaking down other people. The insults can be about anything ranging from your appearance, performance, actions, etc., and are usually slights against your character. They usually have just enough truth in them to cut.
  2. Illegitimate Requests: This is where someone makes a demand of you that he has no right to make. For example, a vice president of a different department once requested that I send him regular reports of my work for his evaluation. However, he had no authority over me. When I reported this to my supervisor, I was told to just go along with it because "Steve is a little crazy." I later learned that he had threatened the life of former executives in the company. He influenced a lot of company actions in weird ways; often through fear.
  3. Legitimate Requests: In our various relationships we have genuine duties to each other, and sometimes we have to remind people of their duties (give them directions or commands). The psychologically healthy person does this for the benefit of the person in question and the company (or family) as a whole, and in a way that respects the other's dignity. The psychologically-ill person does it to feed his own need for power over others, and in making even legitimate requests ends up doing so in a way that demeans those over whom he has authority.

One of the key clues that you are dealing with a psychological predator (in addition to him demonstrating no sense of proportion), is when he accuses or implies that you are engaging in evil that you hadn't even thought of, when the situation departs from reality, and when the attack appears to come from nowhere. A customer called me some months ago to make a complaint. I'm usually pretty open to complaints because I see them as opportunities to improve, but this one was a little different. She pointed out that a year earlier, the prices on some of our gold items were significantly lower than they presently were. She openly asked me if we changed our prices depending on the season, in order to take advantage of people, to "gouge" them. Honestly, I was quite offended. First, I don't have any problem with a company chooses to set its prices. When demand for something increases, it is reasonable to increase the price. In our own case, we simple set prices according to a formula that recognizes our overhead costs and the cost of the materials we purchased. Though I don't see anything wrong with doing so, I don't think we've ever set our prices (increased them) with demand. In fact, we have discount formulas in place that decrease customer prices with the size of the order.

Another customer once complained that we charge an additional "rush" fee to expedite custom orders. The reality is that custom, skilled work takes time, and so we estimate 2-4 weeks to complete custom orders due to this time and due to our attempts to complete orders in the order in which they were received. But we recognize that some people have an emergency situation and simply need the order sooner, so we offer the option of paying an additional fee, which will move their order ahead of all others and, effectively, "asks" us to focus our attention on that order alone, getting it done as quickly as possible. Well, without any warning or past experience, one customer decided that we actually complete all of our orders in a few minutes, and then sit on them for 2-4 weeks, and that our "rush" fee was a kind of extortion to get extra money out of people. It was something I hadn't even thought of, and wouldn't dream of doing, but it was what one particular person immediately assumed of us, and then took the time to tell us what she thought about it... and about us.

Disordered people see others as their adversaries, and imagine (or fabricate) complex conspiracies arrayed against them. They then attack people around them for no reason and, in doing so, actually make adversaries out of people who would otherwise have been friendly and supportive. In other words, they create the very problem that they fantasized about. They don't consider what good they can do for others, but how others can be used for their own good. Virtuous, healthy people don't go through life meditating upon the ways that they could take advantage of others, or even upon the ways that they've been taken advantage of. Their task is simple: What good thing(s) can I do today?

If you find yourself being psycholigically pressured, you need to make a guess. If the attack is the result of one of the first three issues -- basically a misunderstanding -- do what you can to just smooth things over. Apologize for any offense. Make it clear that you only mean well and will do what you can to help or make things right. However, if you determine that the attack was a calculated, predatorial one, then you have a very different situation on your hands. More on this, below.

Dealing with psychologically disordered people can be truly bewildering, and you risk becoming one of them if you engage them for too long. Because I deal with so many people each month, and a percentage of them are disordered and consume a great deal of my attention, I constantly have to remind myself that the majority of people are nice, good people.

As human beings we all have similar vulnerabilities, quirks, weaknesses, and sensitive points. The difference with abusive people is that they have had a lot of practice hitting others in these places, engaging in manipulation, and don't hesitate to do so; healthy, balanced people don't think about attacking and manipulating other people, rarely do it, and so are generally overwhelmed by people who do so regularly. However, there are some things to know and remember when you experience this:

  1. No, it probably isn't you.
  2. No, you are not alone.
  3. No, you can't win.

It probably isn't you

Take a deep breath. It feels like quite the opposite, but when attacked by one of these people, it really isn't even about you. It is about a disordered person trying to dominate others; you just happened to be his chosen target.

By my count roughly one out of thirty people has some kind of personality disorder severe enough to potentially cause considerable problems for those around them. The worst of them actively stir up animosity through open bullying and other manipulative tactics. Others are, for all appearances, perfectly normal until something doesn't go just right. Then the inner monster reveals itself (often to be hidden again just as quickly as it was revealed). The former person usually justifies his actions as being necessary to achieve a desired outcome. The latter type is more subtle, causing harm through an incessant series of seemingly harmless events (which is how they will generally be seen in isolation). Both types of people are psychologically disordered and use a variety of unethical tactics to manipulate those around them, and show little or no real empathy for those they harm.

The irony, of course, is that the people who do these things claim to be the reasonable, honest, ethical ones. We've had many, many people threaten us with various unethical (and often illegal) actions for no reason at all, while simultaneously presenting themselves as holy, moral, and only acting in self defense. Earlier this week we had an unfortunate experience with a customer during which he threatened to falsely defame us. As is usually the case, while threatening his unethical action, he simultaneously presented himself as an innocent and virtuous victim, and someone who is "up the ladder" from us. I'll do whatever I can to resolve a problem, but as soon as a threat is on the table, all cooperation on my part ceases. Once he realized this, he changed his tactic, and actually wrote, "you get to make the decision as to whether you're an ethical business person or not." If I did what he he was demanding, then I could consider myself "ethical." If I didn't, then I'm a Bad Person. Similar reasoning was peppered throughout his correspondence. This is a common tactic used by abusive, manipulative people: The position the situation (and you) such that you either give into their abuse, or you are somehow a bad person. Both options are, of course, complete nonsense. But it can be bewildering when you are in the thick of it.

Which should make each of us ask ourselves, am I being irrational? Am I psychologically unfit? When dealing with such people, they will make you feel that way -- weak, guilty, embarrassed, enraged, irrational -- especially if you try to engage any of their arguments. Here is a good rule of thumb: First, take a break. Go for a brisk walk and clear your mind. If you don't manipulate and bully others, if you tend to overlook problems and failures -- or focus on finding solutions instead of pointing fingers and threatening others -- then you are probably okay. However, if you consistently find fault with others, even over little things, if you tend to compromise ethics under pressure, if you twist words or events to your advantage, or if you attempt to bully or manipulate others, then there is probably something wrong with your personality that you need to address.

Now, the fact that you and I have faults does not give anyone else the right to abuse us. Don't ever forget that!

I say "it isn't you," because disordered personalities will make you feel like you are the problem. If you are compliant, you will feel weak and beaten. If you resist, you will (probably) experience a new wave of attacks. Most good people are compliant if for no other reason than that we don't want to "cause trouble" (or bring more upon ourselves). Even though you know that the attacks are wrong, their statements and implications may eat at you for hours, days, even months. It can cause long term stress and health problems if you don't learn to deal with it. This is because disordered people are very skilled at targeting others' vulnerabilities, at manipulating others, and at injecting just enough truth into their claims to make them seem plausible. Their ability is the result of practice and a lack of empathy and conscience (though they may appeal to conscience to manipulate others).

You need to understand that, even though the disordered person may sound convincing, he might even be apologetic, he is actually trying to dominate you. He has no interest in truth or reality. His only desire is the feeling associated with controlling other people, with getting his way, with "winning." In many cases, he isn't even aware of his own dysfunction, or that what he is doing is wrong, and he'll couch his words and actions in talk about ethics, being a team player, sometimes even God, prayer or religion. I can't count the number of times that I've encountered truly disordered people who conclude their hit-and-run attacks with a "God bless you" or otherwise mask their actions in some kind of piety... even priests.

You are not alone

One of the tactics that the more aggressive psychopaths use is to isolate you through fear, threat of additional abuse, or risk of embarrassment. This usually takes one of three forms. They either intimidate everyone, so everyone is afraid of standing up to them. They engage you in private, where no one else sees it, while having a very different public face. Or they may have such mastery of their chosen venue of attack that you are totally helpless. If you bow to them, then maybe you won't get any more beatings... for awhile. For example, I had one manager at Intel who called me into a private office, threw one of the biggest screaming, cursing fits I've ever seen, threatening various actions against me and my coworkers, but in public always presented himself as 100% self controlled, ethical, etc. I wrote a complaint to his superiors about his behavior at the time. It was ignored, as his general public persona was so different from his actual private actions. In fact, they ordered me to have another private meeting with him in which he basically repeated all of his prior threats.

Part of the risk of embarrassment is an implied or express statement that no one will believe you, that you will appear weak, silly, a whiner or a trouble-maker if you complain, or that there will be some greater retaliation. In the above experience at Intel, the manager told me in our second meeting not to waste my time making any more complaints, because he would deny making the statements, he'd see to it that people on my team lost their jobs, and that the factory management would just ignore me anyway.

There is another thing that sometimes happens. If they are able, disordered personalities will attempt to deceive others into attacking you, gang style. I've experienced this personally with a few of our customers (and even with owners of competing businesses). It usually begins with a private, personal attack of some kind. If you respond firmly, your response then gets used by the attacker to portray himself as an innocent victim. He'll twist and manipulate anything you said to make you look like a really bad person, pass that information on to others, and incite them to pile on. E-mail and the internet have made this very easy (along with any number of other unsavory things). The people who pile on are usually among psychologically unfit, and buy his story without stopping to ask whether or not it is true. As usual, there will be just enough truth in it to convince people who are too lazy to dig deeper, but reactionary enough to send you some hate mail or obscene phone calls.

You can't really "win"

It is our very nature as human beings -- psychologically fit or or not -- to have vulnerabilities. In fact, it would be a sign of psychological illness if you were not hurt by blows to sensitive points. For example, one day while practicing leg sweeps in a martial arts class the instructor came over and said that we were doing them incorrectly. He immediately slammed his shin into mine. I curled up on the floor in excrutiating pain while he stood there, expressionless. He later explained that he had a knee injury that resulted in losing feeling along his shin, and wanted to make sure that I knew what it would feel like if I ever really tried to do a leg sweep incorrectly. Unfortunately, the most disordered are so psychologically deformed that they not only target vulnerabilities and sensitivities, but they lack the same sensitivities that you or I might have; trying to strike back at them in the same way is rarely effective.

Some people say that the most common physical assault is a finger jab or push. It can hardly be called an assault because, in and of itself, it rarely causes any physical harm; it is what I refer to as a precursor or a provocation, and how you respond to it may determine whether it turns into something much more serious. Most psychological attacks are the social equivalent of the finger jab or push -- they are attempts to taunt, intimidate or provoke you -- and how you respond will have a similar result. The "correct" response, if there really is such a thing, depends upon the severity of the threat; unfortunately, that often isn't clear until it is too late to respond usefully.

There are no winners in a physical assault -- only survivors. The defender's goal in a physical assault must be to escape by whatever means necessary with as little injury as possible, not to "win." If an attacker has cut off routes of escape, the defender may inflict serious, even mortal, wounds to facilitate escape or preserve his own wellbeing. But even those who have defeated attackers and escaped assaults pay a huge price, usually in deep psychological wounds if not physical ones as well. The same holds true in psychological self defense. It hurts to get hit. It hurts to hit back. Psychological assault can cause most of the same symptoms as a physical assault; elevated blood pressure, adrenaline dumps, loss of emotional stability, mental distraction, intense agitation, stroke, even heart failure. If you get caught up in the fight you can lose yourself momentarily and might say or do things that are not justified.

In a physical attack you have many choices, one of which is to aggressively defend yourself. This means that you attack right back (or even first), with greater force, skill, ferocity and whatever weapon you have available to you. If you succeed at this there is a very real chance that you'll find yourself and not your attacker in the back of a police car. The same is true of a psychological assault. If you take the steps necessary to end or confront the psychological assault, especially if you do so pre-emptively, you may very well find yourself perceived as the unjust aggressor. There are a couple reasons for this; if nothing else, to outside people it isn't always immediately clear who was "defending" and who was "attacking." As mentioned elsewhere, there aren't really any winners in such a conflict, but some lose more than others. The "biggest loser" is the one who first loses the will or ability to continue to fight. If someone attacks me, I have no desire to harm them, merely to do what is necessary to remove their will or ability to continue to fight. But every person and situation is different, and what works in one circumstance, time or with a particular person, might not work the next time it is tried. So what are your realistic options?

In violent conflict, four options are generally recognized: Fight, flee, comply or posture. I'm going to break these down further.

  1. Ignore or dismiss them
  2. Avoid them
  3. Change the venue
  4. Deflect
  5. Call for Help
  6. Apologize / Compromise
  7. Give in / Negotiate
  8. Stand strong
  9. Posture
  10. Counter attack

Ignore them: The less determined psychos will leave you alone if they don't get any response after a few testing pokes. Not getting the desired thrill, they move on to other food. The key here is don't engage or answer their arguments. If you do so in any way, it will escalate.

Avoid them: When possible, it is almost always the best option to just avoid people who would otherwise do you harm. Be aware of the people and situations that could get ugly and stay away. If you are never around someone, he can't directly affect you. However, some people can't be avoided completely -- family or coworkers -- or they surprise you.

Change the venue: Sometimes you can't avoid a person, but you can exercise some control over the context of your interactions. An abusive person usually acts that way when he feels in control. If someone is abusive on the phone, by e-mail, or in private meetings, but they aren't in public places and meetings, try to have any meeting be in public. Sometimes just the opposite is true -- someone who is abusive in public is less so in private. It depends on the person, his motivation and personality.

E-mail in particular is prone to misinterpretation due to the lack of tone and body language. Try to take any e-mails in their best possible light. If you find e-mails routinely being misinterpreted or offensive, try communicating by a different means.

Deflect: I've seen some people successfully deflect an aggressor by saying something like "well, I beg to differ," and then moving on quickly to another topic. You could also just ask plainly and directly, "why are you doing this?" If the person is only mildly disordered, this might make them recognize what they are doing and try to correct it. (It would probably have little effect on a seriously disordered person.)

Call for Help: Most people are psychologically unfit. Because of that they will stand silently while you are attacked, too confused or afraid to do anything. Sometimes, they are even more likely to be drawn into attacking you than helping. But sometimes they can be snapped out of their daze by a genuine call for help. But sometimes involving other parties can also just make things a whole lot worse.

Apologize: People who attack others always believe they had a good reason to do so (even if that reason only exists in their own personal fantasy land). If you've actually done someone wrong, you should genuinely apologize to them anyway. If you've not done anything wrong, and are being attacked without any reason, sometimes it can help to muster up an apology out of charity for them. Of course, you don't want this to become a routine occurence.

Give in / Negotiate: Sometimes it is best to just give it up. Just as you'd give your wallet or purse to the man holding a knife to you, maybe it is best sometimes to just say "ya, you're right" to a nut and move on. A lawyer friend of mine says it this way: "Your first loss is your best loss," meaning that sometimes it is easier to take small hit than to put up a fight and deal with the possible consequences. But like apologizing, this isn't something that you want to have repeat itself. Sometimes people who see you as a pushover come back for seconds... thirds... fourths....

Stand Strong: Here you are not fighting back, just pointing out the reality of the situation. "What you are saying is not true." "Your actions are unethical. I will not cooperate with them." This is the psychological equivalent of looking a would-be physical attacker in the eye, making it clear that you are aware of him, and that you aren't going to be taken by surprise or easily. But be succinct and straightforward. Don't threaten or escalate. Do not get drawn into any of their arguments or tactics. Those are just traps.

Posture: Posturing is standing strong while issuing a threat display of some kind. This is not a bluf; never make a threat display that you aren't willing to immediately carry out. "What you are saying is not true. If you continue to do this, X is going to happen." I actually do this out of courtesy for others. Some people are used to pushing people around and I believe in letting people know what the consequences of their actions will be before I hit the "launch" button.

However, it can backfire. Posturing is sometimes not a good idea because it is a form of escalation, but with some people it works. I sometimes have to explain to lunatic customers what the consequences will be if they do not stop harassing us, or if they refuse to pay their bills. In almost every event, they complain that they were just being as nice as pie, minding their own business, and that I am a bad person for threatening them. But after that they usually snap into line and don't bother me any more (as long as I ignore the lies in their responses). The exception is the real nuts. Posturing will push them right over the edge and they may devote all of their attention to making you miserable for a very long time. Your posturing will be proof to them that everything they said about you was true; that you are an evil person who intends them ill, and that you did all along. They are unwilling or perhaps unable to see how it was their aggressive actions that caused and perpetuate the conflict, and that you are merely defending yourself. It is actually kind of pitiful.

As always, whatever potential consequences you are communicating need to be entirely ethical, justified and proportional. If not, then you are becoming the abuser.

Counter attack: This is the last option, and should be used only when the others have been tried and failed (or are certain to be useless), and the attack is serious. Just as it hurts to get hit, it also hurts to hit (if you are a healthy person). It takes an incredible amount of energy and restraint, and you risk becoming that which you hate. "Self defense," when all other avenues are exhausted, is not about defending; it is about attacking. If you take such a step, you must do so with the full knowledge that your words and actions may be interpreted by others as an irrational and unprovoked attack in and of themselves. The person harassing you will do everything in his power to make himself out as the victim, and to make you sound absurd. Just expect and plan for it. Then you won't be surprised when it happens. Consequently, you should have a clear, detailed record of events ready should an authority be called in.

Speaking of recording events; it is important that you be able to show a pattern of repeat behavior, preferably affecting several people and not just you. The attacker will be able to explain away individual events: You misunderstood, it was such a little thing, it was taken out of context, it doesn't really matter, etc. If it is only you experiencing the problem, the attacker will be able to make it appear that it is actually you who are the problem -- not him. But a clear pattern of weekly (or daily) events affecting multiple people is less likely to be ignored or misinterpreted by managers. For example, most of our abusive customers do not return if I confront them, but a few do. I usually don't remember who they are, unless we have a repeat problem. This happened recently, and it was the pattern of behavior that reminded me of a past confrontation. When I looked back at the records, I discovered that I was dealing with the same person who did the exact same things to us years ago.

You need to be proportional and rational in your response. For example, if someone calls you a name, you obviously may not break their kneecaps. It is generally best to avoid unnecessary conflict: Just walk away. But what realistic recourse is their against a psychological assault? In a real (physical) self defense situation, you never try to match strength for strength. Instead, you take your greatest, strongest weapon and drive it into your attacker's weakest, most vulnerable, sensitive point. We don't want to destroy anyone, even those who attack us; we merely want them to stop. You can't make them change -- you can't make them become different or better people -- but you do have the right and the ability to do what is necessary to compel them to stop harming you. The socially disordered use isolation, ambiguity, secrecy, distractions, deception, implication and half-truths to attack others. These are their strengths, their weapons. Because these are your attacker's strengths (not to mention entirely unethical) you will not use these to counter attack. Rather, use clarity, simplicity, openness and honest truth -- their weaknesses.

In the workplace, report the pattern of events to your superiors, calmly, clearly and in brief. Don't refer to attitudes, but to specific words, actions or behaviors, and how those are preventing success or otherwise creating a hostile work environment. Get as many witnesses as possible. Don't wait until the tenth event, when you are totally fried and about to kill someone; you'll come across as irrational and unstable. Personally, I'd start the reports on the second event (assuming that the first may have just been a misunderstanding). Expect to be ignored.

If allowable, place a tape recorder on your desk and clearly start recording when the person starts in on you. In some cases it might be appropriate to hide the recording device, but this can sometimes land you in more trouble. Call someone else into your office and explain "so-n-so wanted to say something to me; I just wanted to make sure someone else was here to witness it." These things alone may eliminate or dramatically reduce the frequency. In a small company either the behavior will change, or you or the perpetrator is going to end up unemployed, probably in short order. In a large company, it is hard to say. I've seen about one third of such problems actually be resolved through multiple complaints to a company's human resources department. If it happens repeatedly, you've made accurate and reasonable reports, and the company does not handle it, you can sometimes sue the perpetrator and the company; maybe you'll get to spend the rest of your days recovering on a beach somewhere, but maybe the stress will kill you or your marriage. Choose carefully.

If the problem is the company owner or similar, then I'd just leave the company and start over somewhere else; companies with leadership like that will run their own course and you don't want to be a part of that. If you are constantly around or subject to psychologically disordered people, you run a very good chance of joining them. Small business owners know, unfortunately, that customers are just the same as the workers (and the workers know that owners are just as crazy as anyone). We're all cut from similar cloth. I've had workers turn on each other. I've had workers turn on me. In one case it was just differences in personality. In another it was actual psychological disorder. We interact with about 10,000 people per year. Out of those, it is almost a guarantee that I'll have a serious conflict with one or two customers per month. Some entirely innocent event will prompt an otherwise normal-looking, secularly successful person to go absolutely bonkers and start lobbing accusations, threats and other grenades. Given my place as the company owner, if we have made any mistake, I do whatever I can to apologize and make it right. If there was no mistake and the person is threatening harm out of the gate, I usually take the stand strong and threaten a counter attack approach; basically just explain I'll be happy to work with him in a spirit of good faith and mutual respect towards a solution, but also what the consequences of his actions will be if he follows through with them. Most of the time I get no reply or a reply that goes on and on about how mean and threatening I am. I simply ignore these and move on to other work. I used to try to reason with such people, to actually address their complaints and try to help, but after ten years of doing so without success, realized how futile that was. You can't reason with an irrational person; they can't be helped via e-mail; in trying all you will do is become irrational with them. I also don't want to reward unethical behavior by giving them their way, just as I wouldn't reward such behavior in my own children.

Some differences cannot be reconciled. As reasonable, honest people, we assume that other people are going to behave the same way and are unpleasantly surprised when they do not. When they don't we assume that there must be a misunderstanding, and if we could only work together to get through it, everything will be okay. We give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they are reasonable people, just like us. But there is a problem: The socially/psychologically ill don't work that way. They aren't reasonable, and they won't or maybe even can't work with others in good faith. They are incapable of doing so. They state, assume or imply that whatever you say or do is a lie not merely because they don't trust you, but because that is how they work. Honest people tend to expect other people to be honest. Liars and deceivers expect and assume that other people are liars and deceivers. When dealing with lunatics, you have to put aside your normal expectations. Instead, expect your attacker to behave without any regard for ethics, reason or truth, and they usually won't disappoint you. Expect them to lie, but do not join them in their lies. Their statements and accusations will contain just enough truth to make them almost impossible to contradict. For this reason, if you choose to stand firm or counter attack, be prepared to pay a heavy price; you could lose your job, your reputation, respect of your colleagues, or worse. Lunatics will feel no remorse about utterly destroying someone who stands up to them if they are capable of doing so. In fact, they'll feel it was totally justified and necessary to "make an example of you." They'll believe that they've actually done a good thing.

People generally don't attack you unless they (1) feel very, very threatened and backed into a corner (which you shouldn't do to anyone, anyway), or (2) have a huge advantage over you, probably ones you don't even know about. Maybe the advantage is a friendship with (or dirt on) the boss. Maybe it is just a willingness to say or do whatever it takes to destroy someone else. Maybe it is a total lack of connection with reality and too much free time. You usually won't know until it is too late, and it is very hard to win a fight with someone who has a big advantage over you, or is willing to go further than you are to win.

So what should I do?

  1. Do what you can to develop a healthy personality. Try to be an honorable, balanced, virtuous person. Forebear and forgive others' faults. Exercise. Work hard. Seek what is in others' genuine best interest. Insofar as it depends upon you, try to be at peace and work cooperatively with others, demonstrating as much charity as you can.
  2. If you are experiencing a stressful situation, try to objectively determine if you are in the wrong or have done something that caused it. If so, address that. If not you have to answer these two questions as objectively as possible. Does the other person demonstrate several of the traits and actions at the beginning of this article? Is this a repeat event representing a pattern of behavior? If the answers to both of these questions is yes, then there is a good probability that you are being psychologically assaulted (or are about to be). Either way, take a deep breath, relax, try to remain calm.
  3. If the other person is a sociopath you probably will not be able to change or help them. To them, you are food, entertainment. You have to recognize that you are dealing with a mentally sick person. He deserves your pity as much as your anger. This sounds corny, but you need to try to transcend them and the situation. What I mean by that is, now that you actually recognize the reality of what is happening, of how disordered the other person is, and how he works, and if you have developed a healthy personality, you have incredible power! Much more than you ever had. More than your attacker has. In the weeks that went into writing this page I personally dealt with two more psychological assaults. One was very troubling and I felt myself getting sucked into the sociopath's world, his arguments, his accusations. It was very disturbing until I realized, reviewing my own text, that this person was nothing other than the psychological equivalent of a school yard bully, taunting me and poking me in the chest, pushing me down, doing everything in his power to get me to lose control and flail away at him -- at which point he was ready to drop a bomb on me (he is a lawyer). It was all a trap. And so I stopped myself before striking, stepped back, took a deep, relaxing breath, went for drive, did some exercises, and went on with life. When he writes or calls with another taunt, I don't even answer it. I just move on to the next thing. He is irrelevant to me. I actually feel kind of sorry for him.
  4. But not all of us have this luxury. If your sociopath is someone at work, he may be unavoidable. If this is the case, then you must study his behavior to determine his motivation, take a guess at which item from the list of options has the best chance of working (and is the least risky) and try it next time he strikes. See what happens. Maybe your response will be effective. Maybe not. If not, try something different the next time. The thing to realize is that you have options, you have truth, you have honor, you have power. You know his number. You know his game. He has none of these things (and it is probably why he hates you and wants to destroy these in you). Most things in this life are voluntary; no one has any power or control over you unless you give it to them. You might as well tell him, "I know exactly what you are doing, how you are going to try to go about it, and I really couldn't care less."

Don't be a baby

I say this only because some people take any criticism whatsoever as if they are being unfairly sliced and diced (itself a sign of psychological weakness). Quite often we deserve criticism for our failures. I sometimes get beat up by customers over things that I had absolutely no control over and choose, rather than to rassle them, to just accept the bruises as a kind of payment for other failings in my life.

The Christian Way is not one of comfort and constant affection from others. It is one of joy, peace, and suffering. This does not justify unwarranted abuse that a disordered person might heap upon you, nor am I suggesting that a refusal or difficulty with accepting severe abuse is somehow a weakness of character. What it is, though, is an honest recognition that, the closer we draw to Christ, the more we share in his suffering -- the suffering of an innocent on behalf of the guilty. Sometimes I can bring myself to embrace and find peace in this. Other times I fail.

Some people, if they know or suspect that you are Christian, have a clever little twist they add to their game. If you reject, identify or question their abuse, they will imply that you must not be a very good Christian. "A Christian would have responded differently." This is just another manipulative tactic. I'm going to revert back to the physical assault simile for a moment to demonstrate something. If I am being assaulted by someone who likes to punch and kick, I am either going to stay entirely out of their range, or, if I can't do that, close the distance and cling to them like a rug. I'm not going to stand an arm's length away, blocking their attacks, taking hits, counter-attacking, etc. When someone is attacking you, you have an incredible amount of control over the outcome. Do not play the game according to their rules. You will be playing into their strengths, and you will lose. Do something entirely unexpected (but not unethical). I've sometimes told attackers that I don't agree with what they are doing, and I think their accusations are entirely without merit and honor, but that I completely embrace any pain they want to inflict because I fail God and man in many ways, and am certain that I deserve chastisement for my other failings. I don't do this to show off or be coy. I'm absolutely serious. The response is stunned silence, and I rarely hear from them again.

Be Brief

Implication, nuance, and convoluted arguments are the play fields for the disordered. You are not going to win an argument with these people. When communicating with them it is critical that you do not engage them on their terms, but be as brief and clear as possible. Do not enter into lengthy, complicated arguments. Don't volunteer unnecessary details. For example, a few times a year we are contacted by disordered customers who want to start a fight about this or that. There was something about their order they didn't like -- it arrived later or earlier than they expected, I didn't pick up the phone by the third ring, etc. -- and they are taking it as a personal insult. If we did anything to cause the problem, my first response is to apologize. If they are being disproportionate in their anger, I point out that I will be happy to work with them in a spirit of respect and good faith, but that I am not going address insults or silly arguments. If they are being threatening, I terminate all communication with the statement that we will not work with someone who is threatening us, no matter the situation or the consequences. If they'd like to work together, they need to retract and apologize for their threat, then we'll be happy to move forward (a disordered person can never bring himself to truly do this). No matter what they say I usually respond with a very short note about how we are going to stick to truth, reality and the basics; if we can't do that, then we can't have communication. I usually then list three brief points that are the heart or cause of the conflict and explain that we cannot go forward until these are resolved.

About the only time I will address their individual arguments is if they are drawing third parties into the mix. Then I address these arguments in detail, expose them for the lies that they are, and send a blanket message out to everyone they've involved. In this I don't call anyone any names. I don't resort to implications or subtleties. Everything is plain and simple. This doesn't make any friends, and it might not be what you should do if we are talking about a coworker, but in my position it works. I've actually had situations where some of the third party dupes later wrote and apologized for their part, and said that they didn't realize they were just being used by the attacker.


It doesn't matter whether you are attacked physically or psychologically; both cause psychological wounds. If you don't allow these wounds to heal, or if you are repeatedly under attack, they can turn into physical illness or disease. Find a way to be at peace. Exercise, pray, have good friendships. Be very aware of and careful not to take your stresses out on your loved ones.

Institutional Disorders

Even when individuals are otherwise psychologically sound, the organizations within which they work may exhibit and bring out in them -- even encourage -- behavior that would otherwise be categorized as "antisocial" or worse. I don't have any statistics to back this up, but my personal experience indicates that this is more common in public, governmental and non-profit organizations that have little direct accountability than in common businesses, and it goes for small organizations as well as large ones. The sad reality is that when people know that they can be indivdually, quickly and easily held to account, they are less likely to engage in unethical behavior.

The parallels are surprising once you examine them. For example, I experienced such behavior at the hands of our McMinnville Planning Department in 2007. It began with a letter from them in which they claimed (wrongly) that we were violating some ordinances regarding the placement of a temporary tent on our property, and that we were operating businesses from home without a permit. They threatened me with up to $500 per day in fines if I did not correct the issues. I met with their senior planner the next day. He said that a neighbor complained about the tent and our businesses. He required that I remove or move the tent and questioned me rather deeply about The Rosary Shop and other activities. In the end, he required that we get a permit for The Rosary Shop, even though we have basically no local customers, no signage, no noise, fumes, or anything that would make it apparent. He said that these issues were required according to the various ordinances, and that he was required to enforce the ordinances as written.

I visited with all of our neighbors and apologized for any problems I may have caused. All claimed that they had no problem with the tent or with us. Several mentioned strange interactions they had with the Planning Department, and suggested that I take a closer look at the ordinances. Some said to just ignore the department and put the tent back up. I reviewed the ordinances to learn that the Planning Department was, in fact, misapplying them. After more investigation and thought about this I wrote a letter of complaint to the city mayor and council about the Planning Department's actions.

Later that day I received a call from the Planning Department's director. He said he was sorry if I was threatened or took offense at their letter. He said that, in the future, they would try to make a personal contact first. When I pointed out that the ordinances actually do not apply to our tent, he said that he disagreed, and was referring the matter to the city attorney. He said that the actual complaint was about noise and dust from my woodworking.

A few days later, I received an e-mail from him stating that the ordinances do apply to the tent. Again, he was simply wrong, and I pointed this out.

I received no other communication from the Planning Department, but a friend wrote to the mayor, as well. The mayor responded to him by saying that the matter had already been taken care of -- "City staff told Seth he is welcome to finish his project" -- and that the real problem was between me and a neighbor. Neither of these assertions are true; they are simply diversions from the actual issues I raised in my letter of complaint to the mayor and city council. The Planning Department made no further contact with me whatsoever, and for all I know persists in their intention to financially destroy us.

This small issue demonstrates several of the behavioral disorders commonly found in some individuals, and the dynamics that can occur:

  1. In their first contact I was threatened with complete ruin if I did not comply with their demands. It turns out that those demands were entirely without merit.
  2. In person they were kind and soft spoken. In writing they were clearly ready to destroy me if I did not do what they required.
  3. They made a big deal out of nothing. This all started over something that was not even a violation of the ordinances -- a tent in my driveway.
  4. We were singled out and made to feel isolated and powerless against the public institution. Others were afraid to help out, for fear that the Planning Department would turn its attention to them.
  5. The Planning Department director said something that sounded like an apology, but it really wasn't. His words were really the equivalent of saying he was sorry that I overreacted.
  6. The Planning Department has (or should have) intimate knowledge of the ordinances, and misuses them to badger and threaten people.
  7. When confronted regarding their actions, they admit nothing, but change the subject so that it appears that the person who they have agitated is, in fact the problem.
  8. Attempts to involve a third party for assistance backfire.
  9. They deceive other parties so that it ends up being a group attack upon an isolated individual.
  10. Resistance to their attack resulted in a situation where I not only had to deal with the stress of their initial behavior, but now appear (I suspect) to be a kook in the eyes of the mayor and city council.
  11. As demonstrated by several neighbors, the Planning Department's treatment of me was not a one-time event, but part of an ongoing pattern of behavior.
  12. Their response contained just enough truth to confuse/deceive others, take the focus off of them, and twist the matter around on me.
  13. They repeatedly claimed that I was violating various ordinances, even when that was plainly untrue.
  14. I found myself mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by their actions, unable to respond effectively, and gradually felt myself becoming a little irrational myself (thankfully, I've learned to wait a few days before hitting the "send" button on e-mail).

Truth be told, I made several tactical errors in my own handling of the matter:

  1. I gave the Planning Department the benefit of the doubt. Rather than going on 100% offense from the beginning, I started by trying to cooperate with them.
  2. I attempted to reason with them and come to a rational solution, assuming that they would be reasonable and ethical in their responses, take responsibility, and actually address the problem.
  3. My letter of complaint was perhaps too long (two pages).

All of this is simply to point out that antisocial behavior is not limited to individual people, but can become institutionalized, integrated within organizations.

Religious, Non-Profit and Charitable Organizations

Strangely, you find an unusually high number of disordered people in the ranks and pews of these organizations. You'd think it would be just the opposite, but the reality is a painful one. A monk explained the reason to me like this: We all, on some level, recognize our own need for healing and wholeness. We, or some part of us, want to do and be good. In healthy people, this often manifests itself by involvement in the Church, or in other non-profit or charitable activities. The exact same is true for dysfunctional people. They are drawn, often by a subconscious awareness of their own disorder, to places and organizations where they can be closer to goodness and healing. The problem is that they do not acknowledge or attempt to counteract their disorders, and end up messing up the people around them because of all the baggage. Meanwhile, "average" people spend their efforts building careers in the secular world. Consequently, you end up with a higher percentage of very good and very disordered people in charitable organizations -- kind of polar opposites -- with fewer average personalities.

Stand up for others

Not every dispute involves dysfunctional people, but many do. For example, people of good faith and honor might respectfully disagree about a topic, event or matter, yet be able to continue to work together in a spirit of respect. They agree to disagree and go on with life. A sign that a dysfunctional personality is present is when such collaboration is made impossible (although such inability to work together might also result from the seriousness of the subject of disagreement). If you are a bystander in such a dispute, both the disordered person and the healthy person may ask for your assistance. It may be very difficult to tell which is which. The dysfunctional person will lie about the matter, but include just enough truth to make it difficult to detect the distortions. The healthy person may be very agitated from the abuse, making him appear irrational.

If you refuse to participate in any way whatsoever, then you leave the innocent person dangling in the wind. If you pile on, you cause more harm. The absolute last thing you want to do is to get deceived by the disordered person such that you end up piling on an innocent party. If you are able to do so, try to objectively determine the truth of the matter. Find the initial event that caused the whole problem. The dysfunctional person might not necessarily be the one who caused the initial event, but the one who blew it entirely out of proportion. Watch and listen for half truths. The dysfunctional, problem person will incorporate half truths and hyperbole in his accusations. The honest person usually will not, even though he may be very angry and desire retribution.

If you can determine which party is behaving ethically and with honor, you should do what you can to ethically assist them. Dysfunctional people isolate others and deceive groups into attacking the isolated person. Your assistance could make a difference for good. But it could also result in you getting attacked, as well, so make sure that your affairs are in order.

You can assist the innocent person in two ways:

  1. Report to his superior that you are aware of the dispute but have observed that person X is not responsible for the problem; he is merely trying to defend himself from unjust and untrue attacks from Y, and that Y is actively disrupting the work environment with his behaviors.
  2. If you are up to it, confront the agitator with a statement that you have researched this matter, concluded that the agitator is making false accusations (list them), and that the agitator is actually the one responsible for the problem. If you can do so truthfully, include comments that you appreciate the agitator's work ethic or various successes, but explain that the present dispute is harming the company and needs to come to an end. In any event, prepare to be the next target. You may want to have other people with you when you do this.

Pray for those who persecute you

In our culture there is a saying about "beating some sense into him." If that saying is true, I've personally been within arm's reach of a number of people who really, desperately needed a good beating. In fact, as I look back, that person was sometimes me. Seriously, if you've been on the receiving end of someone's abuse, it might feel really good to take them out back and beat them with a stick for awhile (or retaliate in some other way), but that doesn't help anyone. Unfortunately, it usually takes a good friend or family member to help the psychologically weak, and people with genuine disorders often require professional therapy.

Remember, if you ever find yourself rejoicing in someone else's downfall, even if he had it coming in spades, you are demonstrating that it may very well be you who is becoming the sociopath.

Christ did not command us to like everyone; He commands us to love them. These are two very different things. This doesn't mean that you have to choose to be around them, or go along with their attempts to manipulate or harm you. You have a right to defend yourself and others from unjust harm. But it does mean that, insofar as it depends upon you, you should do what you can to be at peace with everyone, even those who may not wish the same for you.

In the end, it is all about love

Love is a misunderstood and routinely misused word these days. But the truth is that a person's psychological health is directly related to his capacity to receive and give love -- that is, give of himself for other people's good. A person who, through neglect, abuse or other event, never learns to love is usually one who causes a great deal of difficulty for himself and others throughout his entire life. We have a responsibility to love people, even adversaries. This does not necessarily mean liking them, agreeing with them, or even putting up with their abuse. But it does mean genuinely desiring their wellbeing and doing what you can to bring it about.