Understand Your Hot Buttons and Weak Spots [Snakes in Suits]

We all have hot buttons and weak spots. Hot buttons are those things that provoke an automatic—often emotional—reaction from you, get you excited, or set you off. For example, you may react with envy and depression when your colleague gets promoted, and with sudden frustration or anger when someone cuts you off in traffic, gets credit for your work, or is critical of the way you dress. You may react with pleasure when complimented on your looks, with anticipation and joy when your candidate is ahead in the polls or when a player on your team hits a home run. Hobbies are often hot-button topics and tend to provoke positive reactions out of most people. Likewise, passion for one’s work can provoke intense energy and excitement, especially when someone takes an interest in what you do for a living.

When someone presses one of our hot buttons, our attention may be diverted from more important things in our social environment, and our evaluation of a person or situation may be colored by the feelings and reactions triggered by the hot button. This reflex-like tendency—to let hot buttons get the better of us—is not lost on the psychopath or any manipulative person. They will identify your hot buttons and will push them to test their utility. They will use this information to establish in you a mood that is conducive to their current interests and schemes.

It is difficult, except in the most blatant situations, to tell whether someone has purposely pushed your hot button or has inadvertently done so without any particular intent to manipulate or use you. In fact, many legitimate friendships are started when someone has pushed a hot button in an effort to genuinely befriend you. A psychopath’s attempt to use your hot buttons against you— for example, to make you lose control in front of someone of importance—will quickly be labeled a mistake by him or her, if challenged. You may even receive a public apology. However, if the psychopath’s motive is to embarrass or humiliate you in front of others, then the damage is already done to your reputation, as described in chapter 11.

Often, the psychopath will press your buttons privately, convincing you that he or she understands and shares similar feelings—a ploy to build rapport. For example, you may complain about being irritated or hurt by some inconvenience, slight, or perceived insult by another employee. The psychopath need only say, “Oh, my God. She didn’t!” and you will begin to feel that the psychopath understands and possibly even shares your feelings about the offending event or person. The astute psychopath will then listen to you spill your guts about things, events, and people, thereby ingratiating himself with you and providing information that can potentially be used to manipulate you later on in the relationship.

Learning all you can about your hot buttons is a first defense against having them pushed unscrupulously. Unfortunately, it is far easier to become aware of one’s hot buttons than to learn to control them. Feedback from others, including family members, close friends, or professional colleagues (through 360-degree assessments), is the best source of information about your hot buttons, especially those of which you are not aware. Practice, with the assistance of a trusted friend or professional coach, can help you learn to control or at least moderate your reactions. Eventually, you will improve in your ability to quickly recognize a hot-button reaction as it starts, allowing you time to put on the brakes and to regain control of your reactions.

Like all predators, psychopaths are attuned to the weak spots of those with whom they interact. There are many types of human weakness, and the astute psychopath knows most of them. For simplicity, we will focus on three common categories: flaws, lacks, and fears.

What is wrong with you—too heavy, too thin, or too shy? We often see flaws in ourselves that others do not see. Some are real, but many of these exist only in our imaginations. Psychopaths are adept at identifying those things that you like least about yourself, and at using them as currency in their dealings with you.

The psychopath will try to convince you that he or she accepts you as you are, despite any flaws you think you have. This is a very powerful and reassuring message for someone to hear and is the foundation for the psychopathic bond. Eventually, the psychopath may reveal that he or she shares the same flaws with you, deepening your sense of connectedness and anticipation that a strong personal relationship can be built.

Having a realistic picture of your flaws is important for your defense against psychopathic manipulation. This usually involves paring down the list in your mind to those that really matter, and then challenging those that remain on your list. You may decide to improve some and accept others. Once you make these assessments and decisions about your flaws, it becomes more difficult for others to manipulate you through them.

What is missing in your life—self-esteem, love, understanding, excitement, or enough chocolate? Believing we have less than we should of something influences our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We sometimes resent those who have more than we do. We begin to doubt our own abilities to provide and achieve. We may decide we are failures. We feel the need to fill the void, sometimes at any cost.

Craving the things we lack leads to a vulnerable state, psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes physically. In this state, people are consumed with thoughts and dreams of fulfilling their desires, making them easy targets for psychopaths who are all too ready to help. For example, promising to give you what you crave—but with no intention of delivering—is a common technique used in pyramid scams and street games, such as three-card monte. In these economic schemes, often perpetrated by manipulative psychopaths, you are led to believe that you can make a lot of money, but you usually lose everything before realizing you have been taken. In another example, a psychopathic puppetmaster may entice you to join him in a criminal act to help him pay a debt or to get even with someone. The crime may involve stealing money, supplies, or trade secrets from your company; damaging property belonging to others; or even hurting your own family members. This is especially appealing if the psychopath convinces you that you will never get caught and that the victims will only get what they deserve. Perhaps, but you now are indebted to the psychopath. This will come back to haunt you.

Giving Them What They Deserve

Grifters are well described in the movies. Typically, they are portrayed as highly intelligent and creative individuals who target only greedy “marks” who deserve what happens to them. Their elaborate schemes make for good entertainment, almost a morality tale in which the grifter feels justified in using the mark’s larcenous nature as a lever for the swindle. The grifter may be a rogue, but a charming one who otherwise is ethical and unlikely to swindle decent people. The reality, of course, is not so benign. Many of the grifter’s victims are simply gullible, trusting, or naïve, and hardly deserve to lose their life savings to a charming rogue simply because they present weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Paul Newman’s character in The Sting may be likable but has few counterparts in the real world.

What are you afraid of—intimacy, loneliness, or speaking in front of a group? All of us have fearful moments, times when we are plagued by questions and doubts. Unless these thoughts are debilitating or intrude in our day-to-day lives, they are within the range of normal. Yet our fears, once identified by the psychopath, provide clues as to how we will react in certain situations and events, and thus become potent tools for manipulation. Defense against this use of our fears is difficult, for they are the product of both nature and nurture, and therefore not easy to modify. A certified counselor or mental health professional may help us to appreciate how vulnerable we become in the face of what we fear and to adopt protective strategies.

Excerpt from Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak, Chapter 10 “Hot Buttons and Weak Spots. PERSONAL SELF-DEFENSE”  Get it in iTunes


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