There is a misconception that smart women in our society don’t fall for sociopaths or narcissists. Yet over the course of five years writing on this topic, I’ve conversed with highly intelligent and insightful women from all walks of life who’ve fallen prey to a sociopath’s schemes. Lawyers, journalists, counselors, CEOs of companies, wise mothers, skilled entrepreneurs, psychiatrists, life coaches, doctors, authors – you name it!
It doesn’t matter what industry they hail from or what university they attended or how articulate they are or what life wisdom they have to share; no one is entirely immune to a sociopath’s charms, no matter how brilliant they may be. Even experts like Dr. Robert Hare, creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, admits to being duped from time to time – even while possessing all the knowledge and expertise possible to protect himself against these predators.
That’s because falling for a sociopath, a narcissist or a psychopath has very little to do with a lack of intelligence, knowledge, strength or character. In fact, the more we possess these desirable traits, the more likely we’ll be targeted. It has more to do with the strength of the predator’s false mask, the qualities that make us “useful” to a manipulator, as well as our internal wounding.
Here are five reasons why smart women (and men) fall for sociopaths:
1. Our tendency to project our own morality, empathy and conscience onto people makes us vulnerable to manipulators.
We are socialized to give people the benefit of the doubt, to rationalize abusive behavior and look for reasons to excuse the toxicity of an individual. Intelligent individuals tend to be more introspective, so they may even try to share in the blame for the mistreatment they endured and “look within” for any and every possible explanation.
This introspectiveness can be used against us by sociopaths. We sympathize with the plight of predators and are prone to pointing to what must be their “low self-esteem” or traumatic childhood that led to them behaving this way. While we’re busy excusing their behavior, they’re busy getting away with it.
As Dr. Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door notes, simply being human makes us vulnerable to these types because we have a conscience and a natural inability to recognize when we’re dealing with the conscienceless. We can’t “fathom” that someone might lack empathy or remorse because that’s simply not how we are wired, so we assume everyone else feels similarly. It takes a lot of deprogramming to even begin to recognize that a manipulator may not have our best interests at heart – and that they do not care about who they hurt in the process of getting what they want.
2. Past traumas may have conditioned us into associating love with abuse.
While this factor doesn’t apply to everyone, there are survivors who have also endured childhood abuse or bullying in addition to their relationship with an emotional predator. These subconscious wounds can make us more susceptible to tolerating abusive behavior as well as denying or minimizing when it occurs because we have more porous boundaries and have learned to associate love with violence or danger.
This can also work vice versa: a victim who has had a loving childhood can also fall prey to these predatory types because they haven’t encountered a conscienceless individual before and may not know what to look for to identify one.
3. Predators naturally gravitate to those who have the qualities and resources they need. Many survivors are targeted because of their intelligence and success, not in spite of it.
Think about it: a wealthy, successful, articulate, empathic and beautiful woman is a “shiny object” to a narcissist or sociopath who wants some eye candy on his arm or an extra source of income. The most sadistic of these predators rejoice in taking down a particularly strong target and making her feel weak.
The more you have, the more likely you’ll be a target, because manipulators want to tap into your internal and external resources. That’s why smart women tend to fall for sociopaths – not just because they find themselves gravitating towards these predators, but because these predators gravitate towards them.
4. Our vulnerabilities have very little to do with our intelligence or the rational parts of our brain – they have more to do with our wounding.
Sociopaths and narcissists sense the emotional gaps in our lives; they prey on our losses and wherever they think they can temporarily meet a void. If they know that we’re recently out of a breakup and feeling especially lonely, or that we’re grieving a loss of a loved one, they know how to mirror our deepest desires and fill that empty space.
They learn all of our strengths and weaknesses while love-bombing us, so they know how to morph into what we’re most desperately looking for. The traumas they inflict on us, through the idealization, devaluation and discard cycle, affects the emotional parts of our brain. It affects our subconscious, which can trigger hardwired beliefs and insecurities we may not even be aware of. Even the smartest of individuals may know deep down they’re being duped, but their desire to be loved (a very normal human desire, mind you) may take precedence over what they know to be true.
5. Skilled manipulators have a lifetime’s worth of practice – and their victims may have a history of doubting themselves.
Even the most discerning of individuals can gaslight themselves when meeting a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Women especially are gaslighted by society to distrust their perceptions and invalidate their own emotions. Narcissists tend to be charming and can fool even judges, psychiatrists, law enforcement officials and experts. We believe in and invest in the false mask because the abuser’s true self does not come out until later in the relationship. By that time, these emotional con artists are already off gallivanting with their latest victim.
If you were the victim of an emotional con artist, know that it was not your fault. You can own your agency and power in rebuilding your life without blaming yourself. You can attain the knowledge and self-trust to practice being more discerning in the future, to learn the red flags and to work on healing any wounds or vulnerabilities that make you extra susceptible to these types.