The Born Freelancer on Working for a (Possible) Sociopath

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in bornfreel2the comments. 


“I just like f***ing with your heads”.

That was the undeniably truthful but totally unexpected explanation I received once upon a time from an employer who had exhibited increasingly incomprehensible and contradictory behavior.

True, we freelance creative staff had almost unlimited freedom. And the money was very good.

But to balance that, we constantly found their verbal promises to be worthless.

Support staff were routinely verbally abused and always within earshot of the creative staff.

Writer-friendly contracts were frequently later found to contain writer-unfriendly loopholes.

Our work was never quite good enough. It was always accepted but we were made to feel that it had somehow failed to reach the ever-shifting required standard.

Meet the boss

Our employer was all charm and our best friend one moment, inspiring us to do whatever they wanted.

In the next, they could broil silently in a cold rage, daring anyone to make eye contact.

The upshot was a general undermining of self-confidence. We were all made to feel somehow incompetent, and grateful for the work, without any logical reason for feeling so. But it could all be traced back to our employer’s paradoxical ways.

Some freelancers put it down to the employer’s low blood sugar. A few, more sympathetically, suggested bipolar issues. Still others, less charitable, said they were just nuts and to take the checks and run.

The beginning of enlightenment

I never saw myself as the direct recipient of any obvious hostility – aside from routinely having ideas appropriated, verbal agreements refuted, and money left owing. (Later I realized how I had been manipulated into thinking all that was normal and acceptable.) I was, after all, producing the required goods on time and to the best of my abilities.

However, I could feel an unspoken tension all around me. I felt like I was walking on eggshells every time I went into the offices or had to deal with the boss. It kept me feeling decidedly off-balance. 

I figured I had to grow up and just take it.

The whole matter came to a head during a particularly volatile editorial meeting. One of the support staff was violently bawled out for no rational reason in an inexcusably appalling way. They fled the meeting humiliated and in tears. The rest of us sat there numb and dumbfounded.

Later, when I angrily confronted the employer and explained that the staffer had just been following established directions, they said that they knew and just laughed. 

It’s disturbing to think about this even after all these years.

They must have been in a particularly good mood as a result of creating such emotional mayhem for we then had what was probably our one and only honest conversation. When I asked what was the point of upsetting everyone, of causing such misery and emotional turmoil, they replied with those odious words now forever scorched into my brain:

“I just like f***ing with your heads”.

Putting it together

It was around then that I began to finally put it together and decided I had been working for my very first sociopath. (Of course they are especially hard to spot and so I may have missed a few up to that point.) Right or wrong in my layman’s diagnosis, it at least gave me a coherent framework with which to work.

I could now understand that my employer’s abhorrent, aberrant behaviour was the result of something far beyond normal boundaries. That knowledge empowered me and returned much needed self-confidence.

I began to plan my exit and meanwhile adopted a survival strategy that would enable me to keep my sanity while finishing up my contracted work.

What is a sociopath/psychopath?

I’m not a psychiatrist so my understanding is based upon online and public library resources. You’d be surprised how much material there is to read!

They are not like the majority of us. Their brains are hard wired in a dark and twisted way. Other people are just objects to use, abuse and discard. They have no empathy or feelings that connect them to the rest of humanity. They thrive on emotional confrontations, on constant stimulation, on repeated lying and misrepresenting themselves, on the seeking out of prestige and power and on having the ability to manipulate people’s lives. 

Don’t ever expect to find sympathy or understanding from them. And to forgive them is only a sign of weakness in their minds. 

And now the really disconcerting fact: It seems a great number are drawn towards work in the media (radio and TV) and journalism.

I guess when you think about it, that many of them should find our industry attractive and that it facilitates their unhealthy self-gratification should come as little surprise.

How do you spot a sociopath/psychopath?

This is never going to be easy. 

They are unusually intelligent and adept at disguising their true natures. You need to be vigilant for their constant lies and the ever-changing reality that they manufacture around them.

Their sociopathy can manifest itself in so many different ways – some subtle, others much less so. But it can be ruthless and relentless. I’ve worked with simple egomaniacs and narcissists but the level of indifferent malevolence that a sociopath can inflict has them all beat. 

What to do if you suspect you are working for/with one

Get away, as far and and as fast as you can. Things will only get worse. 

As freelancers we can choose our employers.

If your instincts say something is wrong, look into it. Even if your suspected sociopath might not fit the comprehensive clinical definition it can at least give you a cogent framework from which to base your subsequent decisions.

Don’t automatically think the problem is with you or that you are simply imagining things. They might well be deliberately engineering your perception of reality to control you. Look up the term “gaslighting” to understand how this works.

If you do find yourself temporarily working for one, or with one, be aware that you simply cannot trust them. Never believe anything they say. Document all your work, your agreements, your conversations, your circumstances.

One day it will be your word against theirs and they will otherwise hold all the cards. Don’t waste breath trying to reason with them or appealing to their (non-existent) better nature. Avoid emotional engagement on any level. Seek support from friends, family, and fellow employees as well as your lawyer and union.

S’long sociopath!

In my case, I managed to stay relatively sane and finish my contracted work by avoiding almost all direct contact and by never again showing any emotional response to their actions and words. By denying them that emotional conflict I denied them their requisite stimulation.They soon turned to other victims who were unprepared and therefore more emotionally responsive to their manipulations.

Afterwards, I chose never to work for them again despite numerous attractive offers. I would always affably but firmly decline. All the mind games and pointless emotional turmoil were not worth it to me at any price.

Eventually, one day at a public event we passed within speaking distance of each other and so I said hello. They calmly looked right through me as if I did not exist. 

They knew I had them figured out. 

The takeaway

A small minority of individuals can be considered truly sociopathic. The estimated percentage of the total population differs depending upon which source you read.

However, given their purported greater preponderance in the media (television and radio) and journalism, one day you may encounter an employer – or fellow employee – who seems unfathomable in an inexplicably toxic way. They may have you begin doubting yourself, your abilities and your core values.

Once you’ve exhausted all the more obvious possibilities it may prove useful to consider the issues I’ve raised in this post. 

Forewarned is forearmed.

Posted on June 16, 2016 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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