“I think my house-mate is a psychopath,” said a recent caller, Megan, to the podcast Every Little Thing, who went on to ask in an anxious tone, “How can I tell if he’s going to try and kill me?”

Turns out, the “house-mate” is a cat. Megan’s cat, Pushkin, meets most of the criteria on the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised) test. Pushkin is a psychopath. Listen to the episode for a laugh and some interesting insights from Jon Ronson, author of “The Psychopath Test”.

I don’t like the word psychopath very much though I’ve used it many times myself. It’s not necessarily a helpful word. It’s grossly misused in everyday speech to describe people who vary from mildly dislikable to verifiably criminal.

No psychological or psychiatric organization has ever used the word for a formal diagnosis though it is often used in the justice system. Even when it used in formal settings, the “diagnoses” can be confusing or even contradictory.

Psychopathy has even been used to diagnose corporations. The 2003 documentary, The Corporation, the film makers used Robert Hare’s PCL-R test as part of their diagnosis to show that corporations behave like psychopaths.

Hare has since taken issue with this because to paint all corporations with the same diagnosis, “is like using the traits and behaviors of the most serious high-risk criminals to conclude that the criminal (that is, all criminals) is a psychopath.”

On the other hand, some traits of psychopaths might be desirable. Kevin Dutton wrote “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers can Teach Us about Success” (2012) – here’s a great summary of it on Scientific American by the author.

For instance, wouldn’t you want the “neural steel” that some of his interview subjects have that allows them to not worry about what other people think of them?

While I don’t like the term, “psychopath”, the fascination with the term tells us something about ourselves. Apart from the human urge to flirt with danger and categorise everything, I think we feel a need to control our environment and the people in it.

We need this because we are afraid of being hurt. And for good reason. The work environment can be a dangerous place (not to mention our homes!), so if we had a way to see danger coming before it hurt us, this would be vital.

If “psychopathy” teaches us anything, it is that we don’t have a way to see danger coming. Not only is it virtually impossible to diagnose danger (especially dangerous people), we are all too often wrong when we try.

Sometimes, even when we see it, we’re unable (or even unwilling) to see it: how many times have you made excuses for someone who ended up being a problem for you?

There-in lies what I think is a far more effective way to protect ourselves from dangerous people: learning to trust ourselves. Easier said than done, I know, but this is a more promising line of development since it is something very much within our control.

And the most important part of learning to trust your own instincts is cultivating practices that make your instincts more apparent and vital to your everyday life:

  • Cultivate the practice of listening to your own feelings – take 2 minutes at the beginning of a meeting or the end of the day and sit with your feelings. Identify them, feel them, play with them.

  • Learn to set clear boundaries and communicate them to the people you work and live with. This is a life-long project. Here’s a starter resource I like on the web from PsychCentral.

  • Learn to forgive yourself when you discover that you’ve allowed someone to infringe a boundary (even when it’s something you only discover by virtue of the infringement).

  • Learn to use language that more effectively deals with conflict, like “I-messages” or Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” so that you can confront problematic behaviour (especially manipulation) long before it spirals out of control.

  • Build a network of trusted colleagues and friends who can help you reflect on the problems (and problem people) you deal with. Don’t write off talking to your friends as “gossip” because it isn’t. Talking to a trusted friend or colleague in confidence is one of the best ways to maintain perspective. Manipulative people will try cut you off from that network!

If someone (or everyone) at the office seems crazy, it may well be because they’re driving you crazy. Check your boundaries, phone a friend and make sure the crazy doesn’t get the best of you. You can’t fix them, but you can make sure that you are not broken.