How And Why A Psychopath Pushes Your Buttons

In an earlier post, entitled Relationship Boomerang, I explained that it’s very difficult to get rid of a psychopath even after you break up with him because such an individual rarely lets go of his dominance bonds. He’s usually in the beginning, middle and end phases of numerous relationships simultaneously. He recycles former relationships, to reclaim possession of previous partners. At the root of psychopathy is the most extreme and malignant form of narcissism. In The Mask of Sanity, Cleckley calls the psychopath’s egocentricity and incapacity to love “complete” and “absolute.” A narcissist often dominates others because he wants validation from them. A psychopath, however, carries this personality disorder to an extreme: he dominates others, and puts them down, in order to destroy them. For a psychopath, the ultimate ego trip is shattering the lives of others, not simply proving himself superior to them. He cannot derive pleasure from recognition by others unless it also causes them harm or humiliates them. This is why psychologists state that psychopaths suffer from the most dangerous, predatory and malignant form of narcissism that exists.

Today I’d like to go over how and why a psychopath pushes your buttons, to provoke some type of reaction from you long after your relationship is over. The why is easy: a psychopath regards his partners as his personal property, to use and dispose of as he pleases. Since eventually he gets bored with all relationships, he periodically revisits some of the previous ones, to harass former parters or to sink his claws into them once again.

He does so by testing out different strategies and seeing which ones get the desired reaction. Often, he alternates between nice and complicit interactions (or overtures) and insults, which correspond to the idealized or devalued mirror effects I went over in my previous post, The Psychopath’s Mirroring Effects. One message (or spam) he may praise you, the next one he’ll put you down. This is partly because a psychopath’s moods and attitudes arbitrarily oscillate between idealizations and devaluations of the same person. I call these fluctuations “arbitrary” because sometimes they may be motivated by your actions, sometimes not. For instance, a psychopath may idealize you when you comply with his wishes and regard him as an ideal partner (before you open your eyes, that is, and see him for what he is).

But even during the honeymoon phase, when you’re infatuated with him, he may at the same time devalue you: see you as a gullible individual whom he can use and dupe. This is why even during the honeymoon period, when a psychopath desires and pursues you, there are frequent moments of devaluation, at least in his own mind. Usually, however, during the seduction phase the psychopath hides those negative thoughts far better than when he’s grown tired of you and is ready to move on. As the psychopathic bond unfolds, the moments of devaluation necessarily become more frequent until they eventually set the tone for the entire relationship. At that point, the psychopath puts much less effort in maintaining the “mask of sanity” and shows himself more and more for the evil person he is.

Once the relationship is over, the psychopath will continue to periodically harass you and test the waters, to see if he can reestablish the dominance bond over you, or simply to annoy you. If his oscillations between nice and mean overtures leave you confused, just remember this: both are equally meaningless. They’re just the psychopath’s way of pushing your buttons. This process is not innocuous. Couple his lack of conscience, vengefulness and boredom and what you get is high risk of getting seriously harmed if you go back to the psychopath. Some women were lured to their deaths by giving their vengeful psychopathic ex-partners a second chance, even when those men claimed to still love them. Whether a psychopath is saying negative or positive things to you or about you to others, these claims are  both empty of genuine content.

For a psychopath language is purely instrumental, not a way of communicating his real and deep emotions. The psychopath lacks the capacity to feel such emotions. So whether he’s saying I love you or I hate you; you’re beautiful or you’re ugly; you’re smart or you’re dumb, it’s really all just various ways in which he tests the waters to see if he can get a reaction from you and relieve the boredom that plagues his daily life. Once again, the psychopath’s need to push people’s buttons by making contradictory statements  is related to the shallowness of his emotions and his purely instrumental use of language–completely disassociated from any meaningful understanding of truth and falsehood or concept of right and wrong–to get what  (and whom) he wants in life.

Since the early 1940’s, when Hervey Cleckley conducted his study of psychopathy, psychologists have tried to understand the physiological basis for this dangerous personality disorder. During the nineteenth century, psychopathy used to be called “moral insanity.” It could also be called “the malady of lovelessness,” since it’s caused by shallow emotions. Robert Hare shows that the root of the problem lies in the fact that for psychopaths neither side of the brain processes emotion properly.

To psychopaths, emotionally charged statements such as “I love you,” “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” “I’ll never do it again,” mean absolutely nothing. They’re just words they use to deceive and manipulate others. Of course, they’re not random words. Psychopaths see that other people attach a special meaning to them. They notice that when they say “I love you,” “I’ll always be faithful to you” or “You’re the woman of my life,” they get a positive reaction. These hollow phrases help them seduce others, establish their trust and use them for their own selfish purposes. Psychopaths lack the capacity, however, to experience, and thus to fully grasp, the meaning behind emotionally charged words. Hare observes:

“Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.” (Without Conscience, 129)

To verify these findings, Hare and his research team conducted experiments on psychopaths versus non-psychopaths. They connected their subjects to an EEG machine, which records the electrical activity of the brain. Then they flashed on a screen strings of letters. Some of them formed real words while others formed only gibberish. They asked their subjects to press a button as soon as they identified a true word. A computer measured the time it took them to make the decision. It also analyzed their brain activity during the performance of this task. They found that non-psychopathic subjects responded quicker to emotionally charged words–such as “death” or “love”–than to non-emotional ones, such as “tree.” By way of contrast, emotionally charged words had no effect whatsoever on psychopaths. Hare elaborates,

“For most of us, language has the capacity to elicit powerful emotional feelings. For example, the word ‘cancer’ evokes not only a clinical description of a disease and its symptoms but a sense of fear, apprehension, or concern, and perhaps disturbing mental images of what it might be like to have it. But to the psychopath, it’s just a word.” (Without Conscience, 133)

According to both psychological and physiological research, psychopaths function far below the emotional poverty line. They’re much shallower than what we generally call “superficial” people. This has a lot to do with the faulty wiring in their brains. Hare explains that in most people the right side of the brain plays a central role in processing emotion. By way of contrast,

“Recent laboratory evidence indicates that in psychopaths neither side of the brain is proficient in the processes of emotion. Why this is so is still a mystery. But an intriguing implication is that the brain processes that control the psychopath’s emotions are divided and unfocused, resulting in a shallow and colorless emotional life.” (Without Conscience, 134)

The shallowness of their emotions explains why psychopaths are so callous as to use and abuse even those closest to them: their partners, their children, their parents, their lovers and their so-called friends. It also clarifies why they can’t see anything wrong with their mistreatment of others. Even when they rape and murder, psychopaths feel no remorse. Their theatrical apologies and promises to reform are as empty as their vows of love. When they cry in court after having been sentenced to prison for their crimes, they either feign emotion to gain sympathy or cry about the fact they got caught.

While research shows that psychopaths are incapable of real emotional bonding with others, this doesn’t imply that they’re out of touch with reality. When they harm others, even when it’s opportunistically and in the heat of the moment, they’re cold-blooded and deliberate about their actions. They’re also aware of the fact that their misdeeds are considered morally wrong by society. But, fundamentally, they don’t care. In fact, breaking the rules (without suffering any consequences) is the name of their game. As Hare clarifies:

“As I mentioned earlier, psychopaths do meet current legal and psychiatric standards for sanity. They understand the rules of society and the conventional meanings of right and wrong. They are capable of controlling their behavior and realize the potential consequences of their acts. The problem is that this knowledge frequently fails to deter them from antisocial behavior.” (Without Conscience, 143)

Whenever any discussion of criminal or deviant behavior takes place, the age-old debate between nature versus nurture tends to come up. The question thus arises: are psychopaths bad because of their social environment or are they born that way? The simple answer to this question is: they’re born that way and they can be made worse by a bad environment. Unfortunately, they can’t be made significantly better by anything at all.

Psychological and sociological research shows that, in fact, psychopaths are much less influenced by their environment than non-psychopaths. This conforms with the general finding that psychopaths have rock solid egos, which are more or less immune to negative input. As we’ve seen, although they enjoy affirmation and praise, as all narcissists do, they don’t care when they’re criticized or punished. While a corrupt environment and abuse is unlikely to cause psychopathy, it can lead a psychopath to express his constitutive emotional callousness through violence. (Without Conscience, 175)

Martha Stout seconds Robert Hare’s conclusions that nature–or the physiological incapacity to experience and process emotion properly–has much more to do with psychopathy than nurture. Stout observes, “In fact, there’s evidence that sociopaths are influenced less by their early experience than are nonsociopaths.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 134). She elaborates,

“The sociopaths who have been studied reveal a significant aberration in their ability to process emotional information at the level of the cerebral cortex. And from examining heritability studies, we can speculate that the neurobiological underpinnings of the core personality features of sociopathy are as much as 50 percent heritable. The remaining causes, the other 50 percent, are much foggier. Neither childhood maltreatment nor attachment disorder seems to account for the environmental contribution to the loveless, manipulative, and guiltless existence that psychologists call psychopathy.” (The Sociopath Next Door, 134)

In other words, psychopathy constitutes a physiological deficiency that causes shallowness of emotions and all the negative implications which stem from it that we’ve explored so far. This deficiency is genetically inherited only half of the time. The other half of the time it may be caused by accidents, brain damage, drugs or other, unknown causes.

The saddest implication of the scientific research on psychopathy is the fact that there’s no cure for it. No medication or treatment has yet been discovered that can give a psychopath the neurological capacity to process emotion properly. Consequently, nothing can turn him into a functioning, caring human being. He will always remain an absolutely narcissistic and malicious human being.

It’s up to you to decide if you wish to sacrifice the rest of your life to a man who, at best, may become somewhat less impulsive and dangerous with medication, but who was, is and will always remain incapable of appreciating you and of reciprocating your love.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction


  1. Hi Claudia, saw the link on lovefraud blog and came to read. This is spot on! Thank you for confirming for me that the man I’ve been calling a narcissist is, in fact, a psychopath. It’s taken too long to reach this point. Great blog, thank you.

  2. Thank you for your comment. A psychopath is usually worse than a narcissist, but whatever that man is, if he’s got
    such a serious personality disorder he’s not worth keeping.

  3. What is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? Is Stout using the terms interchangeably?

    For my reading, I’ve been under the impression that psychopaths are almost always made such by their experiences during the first four years of life when the emotional part of their brain is developing. In fact, I read Dr Hare saying that out of 100 psychopaths, 99 had a vile upbringing, but 1 was well loved and cared for but somehow developed into a psychopath. Perhaps due to massively bad events or influences later in life.

    It’s my understanding that psychopaths get worse with age because it takes more and more to gratify them as time goes by. They get better at their game, the stakes get higher for their victim, and so forth. Does this agree with your research?

    I’ve used this progression or worsening as an identifying hallmark. How would you describe the difference between an emotionally damaged person [a jerk] and a physiologically damaged one [a psychopath]?

    This is an excellent post. Thank you.

  4. Anna, I’m using the terms psychopath and sociopath interchangeably. Some people prefer the term sociopath, since it alludes to the influence
    of social upbringing influencing behavior. But I prefer the term psychopath, since it seems that there’s a physiological dimension to psychopathy.
    It’s related to faulty brain wiring in processing emotion (which results in shallowness of emotion and incapacity to bond emotionally to others).
    Yes, usually psychopaths get worse with age and experience for the reasons you mention. But they may be able to mask their disorder better, for
    the same reasons.

  5. Hi Claudia,

    Your articles and posts are hugely helpful and comforting. I was in a 5 year relationship with a woman who during the course of the relationship dumped me 5 times; pretty much on an annual basis. She told me 3 years into the relationship that her ex was “the love of her life” directly after telling me she could only see me once per fortnight. I later learned that her partner was not in the remotest bit interested in reconciliation. What followed in 2008 was several months of total emotional chaos – She wanted to be with him, then me, then him; it was like plucking a never ending ending daisy. She told me she could be the mother of my child- and on and on went this constant shifting, and alonside this she joined dating sites. We reconciled at the start of 2009 after I suffered a severe head injury and almost died. She promised that “whatever life brings we will see it together”. Two months later I was dumped again; then we reconciled again. I then became privy to very seductive and outrageously flattering emails she was sending this guy on facebook. She denied that she was even remotely interested; and I foolishly believed her. My question is my research into making sense of her incredibly confusing behaviour led me to discover that she has borderline traits at least; with narcissism thrown in for good measure. When she dumped me for the 5th and final time I later learned she immediately started dating this same guy. I got absolutley no closure whatsover; and it was and still is although Im over the worst- the most painful and disorientating experience of my life. Would you agree with recent research that borderline’s have a psychopathic personality construct? Your articles resinate so much with my experience.

  6. Michael, thanks for sharing your experience with us. I love the comment “it was like plucking a never-ending daisy”. It’s worth quoting! To answer your question, pretty much all personality disordered individuals have narcissism at their foundation.
    Not just occasional selfishness, which all human beings have, but a consistently self-centered and self-absorbed perspective which is what narcissism is all about. That’s why they can behave so callously, without any regard for the feelings of others.
    That is why you find so much in common between the description of psychopaths, narcissists, and borderline personality disordered individuals. But there are many significant differences as well, which Sandra Brown describes in the second edition of Women Who Love Psychopaths, where she outlines the symptoms of each personality disorder. What’s relevant to victims, however, is less which personality disorder your (ex) partner has, but the fact he or she has a personality disorder whose foundation is a narcissistic worldview. That’s enough information to make you run away and stop plucking the petals or the daisy. Claudia

  7. Thanks claudia,

    I’m familiar with Sandra’s book and i would recommend it to all those who have lived through a pathological relationship. Sandra refers to how the cluster b family share traits; or there seems to be more sameness then difference. Your idealise and discard article rings so true re my experience. When I first met my ex she could not do enough; after one night and she gave me her phone number, and I decided to call her later that same week and the first words out of her mouth were “oh thank god its you”! almost as though I was her long lost soul mate!
    Even towards the end she told me she wouldnt want to lose me from her life and we had a special sexual connection; then she simply unplugged from me and plugged into someone else; no grieving, no sadness, no nothing! I was absolutley devastated. By the latter stages of the relationship I literally could not tell whether she was lying, or she believed her own lies or what the hell was going on. I also began to notice that I was either all in, or all out; if I raised any issue with how i was feeling I was out in the cold again.
    I think one of the many key features of the dynamics of these relationships is that as partners we mistakenly believe that as time passes we are building a narrative with them; the relationship is deepening through experience and we put up with so much. We believe their BS. Only in the end do we fully realise that they have not acrued any experience- quite the opposite; all the love we gave them falls right through them like a sieve. I think this is because they lack an emotional cradle or core self so it all just falls right through them. Her new partner ran for the hills as she devalued him quickly; we had brief contact towrds the back end of last year and i hoped for some closure; I got none as she refused to discuss anything with me. What shook me is that she could not recall my age- I had lost a year! she could not recall my fathers name (she met him 3-4 times), I have a black birth mark 3 inches in diameter above my left buttock, she couldnt recall where it was; she forgot my brothers name; my home telephone number! It was as though I was deleted from her experience!

  8. Michael, your post is very serious, but you made me laugh with all the details you give! If anyone wants to recognize you from a lineup I’ll know what to tell them. As far as what you say about the shallow emotions, it’s true of pretty much all personality disordered individuals. They detach as quickly as they attach, since everything revolves around the satisfaction of their immediate desires. If you no longer fulfill those needs, or if someone else momentarily does it better, then you suddenly become completely irrelevant to them. Often they also turn against you, as if you betrayed them somehow for no longer fitting their agenda. In fact, the more extreme the idealization was, the more extreme the devaluation will be. I want to write a post about that too. Claudia

  9. Perhaps a tad too much info re birthmarks and buttocks! lol.
    having said that her lack of recall around basic demographic information about me was astounding. an excellent article entitled “a soul with no footprints” captures beautifully this mind blowing realisation / awakening.
    “They detach as quickly as they attach, since everything revolves around the satisfaction of their immediate desires. If you no longer fulfill those needs, or if someone else momentarily does it better, then you suddenly become completely irrelevant to them”.
    Very succinctly put Claudia; I still find it confusing how these people can manage to pull off the appearance of a well rounded adjusted person, insightful etc; and yet once the mask slips bit by bit you recognise this person seems to have zero insight (particulary in relation to how their behaviour has impacted on you) in any way shape or form. I often ruminate about this question- do they actually have insight and are cognizant of their impact; or does their narcissism genuinely blind them to even seeing, feeling, and comprehending the pain they cause?

  10. Michael, like I said, this personal info might become relevant if you’re ever in trouble and find yourself in a police lineup:). I think that psychopaths, narcissists and people with borderline personality disorder–all narcissism based
    personality disorders–have an acute sense of what works. They are sharp observers of human conditioning: of people’s vulnerabilities and reactions. They don’t feel depth of emotions, but they closely observe the emotional reactions of
    all those who are capable of it, in order to play upon their emotions. However, this attention to your emotional reactions and mirroring them, responding to them in a way that gets a positive response from you, fades with time, as their interest
    in you and in manipulating you fades with time. Once these personality disordered individuals lose interest in you, they don’t put as much effort into faking reactions that would work on you. That’s when you start to see them for the shallow and self-absorbed human beings that they truly are. Claudia

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Comments RSS