Has the mere voice of someone ever made you panic? They’ve not hurt you visibly yet you can’t help your anxiety from spiking in their presence. Seeing them is emotionally taxing, let alone the thought of holding a conversation with them. This paralysing fear points to one and one person alone, and you will go out of your way to avoid them – whether in the workplace or at home.
If this scenario resonates with you, then there is a Dark Triad in your midst. Described as manipulative, cold and selfish, these people inflict trauma on others as they go through life, doing it ever so subtly that you end up second-guessing yourself. Psychologists call them socially dangerous for a reason.
It is possible to escape their clutches by taking conscious steps. Read on to find out what an antisocial triad is and how to deal with them, with advice from clinical professionals.
What is the Dark Triad of personality?
Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy are the darkest of personality traits. Lumped together, they make a formidable triangle of red flags. Two psychology researchers, Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams, called the concoction the ‘Dark Triad’ in a 2002 paper, published in the Journal of Research in Psychology.
Triads are concerning because they are exceptional at blending into the crowd, so you wouldn’t know what hit you until much later. Here is what each trait means:
- Narcissism: This personality disorder is characterised by dominance, superiority and entitlement.
- Machiavellianism: A term inspired by Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli’s study of corrupt politicians, this trait describes those with manipulative tendencies.
- Psychopathy: When you throw in low empathy with thrill-seeking cravings, you get psychopathy.
And there is no doubt that they live among us. One Dubai-based clinical psychologist Gulf News spoke to, Dr Roghy McCarthy, says she deals with such patients on the regular – from former militia men to spouses in denial.
You could have a Dark Triad in your life, at home or even in the workplace, not knowing that they’ve been the cause of your mental distress and abuse for so long. Two anonymous Dubai expats in their early 20s shared their personal encounters with individuals who exhibited some, if not all, of the traits in the triad.
He used to do things that were obviously very suspicious, but whenever I asked, he’d turn around and tell me it was all in my head.
In the case of the 26-year-old, her former partner was manipulative to the point that it contributed to her diagnosed panic attack: “I experienced ‘gaslighting’. He used to do things that were obviously very suspicious, but whenever I asked, he’d turn around and tell me it was all in my head. He wanted to change everything about me – even with the way I talked and dressed. He was very good at hiding things, too.”
The effects of gaslighting are long-lasting; chances are you will find it difficult to trust anyone again, with constant paranoia driving you up the wall.
‘I had severe anxiety and depression’
For the 23-year-old expat, it turned out to be her boss who gave her severe anxiety and depression: “With my ex-manager, I would often apologise for things that were not my fault. She would look for mistakes that didn’t exist because her instructions were always vague. My manager was going through a lot personally – she had just lost her father – and then spiralled by taking credit for other people’s work. I think this deep dissatisfaction with her life was projected on to us a lot.
There was this one time I opened up to her, the next day she brought up my personal life to criticise my performance.
“There was this one time I opened up to her, the next day she brought up my personal life to criticise my performance. During the first few months of work, I would have a full blown panic attack in the mornings and cry before logging in. This was until she was investigated by the HR and finally left the company.”
Daily interaction with dark personalities can leave you feeling like you’ve lost control over your life, all because of one person. We compiled six signs that will tell you it’s time to revisit your interpersonal relationships.
6 tell-tale signs you know a Dark Triad
How do you spot someone who is skilled at masking their bad side? Dr Mohammad Fraij, clinical psychologist at the Saudi German Hospital Dubai, says even therapists get deceived by such patients, who put up a “perfect façade emotionally, physically and mentally”.
Thankfully, years of research have helped psychologists pin down the most obvious cues. Use our list to help recognise and avoid a potential triad near you. But remember, this is not a checklist where all the boxes have to be ticked – even if one of the six signs resonate with you, your concern is valid.
1. They lure you with false affection
“These individuals are typically very good at hiding their traits and luring others into their world very effectively,” Dr Joseph El-Khoury, chief of department of psychiatry and behavioural health at American Hospital Dubai, told Gulf News.
These individuals are typically very good at hiding their traits and luring others into their world very effectively.
Luring tactics include showering one with lavish gifts early on in a relationship, one of the biggest red flags according to Dr Fraij.
2. They can be anyone you know
In her 42 years of practice, Dr McCarthy cites cases between best friends, spouses and work colleagues. Those who served in the army also make up a good portion of her patients. Dark Triads are not the stuff of movie villains; in the real world, they are bosses, husbands, mothers and anyone else you can know.
“They are also very diverse in how they present socially,” added Dr El-Khoury.
3. They tend to seek control in any way possible
Unfortunately, this trait also helps dark personalities become leaders. A 2013 peer review published in the Social and Personality Psychology Compass notes how, at first, Dark Triads might succeed as toxic bosses since they can charm higher-ups and intimidate competitors. Over time, though, they will eventually fall because of their poor social skills in the workplace.
4. They cannot feel true shame or remorse
We all know someone who casually tosses an insult and then says, ‘Relax, it’s just a joke’. The joke isn’t funny because it is verbal abuse directed at you – think jabs at your appearance and feelings. Dr McCarthy says this is one of the first signs of a patient, usually female, involved with a triad who lacks empathy.
The same peer-reviewed journal paper says that male subjects consistently scored higher on triad tests over the years.
If you hurt them, they will always remember and remind you of your mistakes constantly.
5. They are unpredictable and keep you on edge
Dark Triads derive pleasure from confusing the other party. Dr McCarthy gives selective memory as an example: “If you hurt them, they will always remember and remind you of your mistakes constantly. But if the opposite were true, they will claim not to remember anything.”
Studies also show that triads rarely commit to long-term relationships.
6. They create and feed conflicts
Dr El-Khoury says triads are also fond of triggering conflicts, while pretending to be neutral observers or rescuers.
How do I deal with a Dark Triad?
The obvious answer is to identify the signs and disengage. Our anonymous interviewees did just that; one kept interactions with her boss minimal and stopped apologising, while the other quickly put an end to their relationship.
If the triad is a colleague or a classmate, then “maintain boundaries and keep communication as clear and public as possible,” advises Dr El-Khoury.
But what happens when the individual is a family member? There is no avoiding them, but you can try to convince them to attend psychotherapy and medicate, says Dr Fraij. There are limits to counselling, too. Dark Triads might tweak their behaviour to an extent to fit in society, but there is no guarantee they will have a real change of heart.
Nature or nurture?
To spark an age-old debate, are we born with personality disorders or is our environment to blame? People develop antisocial personalities through a combination of both. Genetic depression and anxiety can play a role as much as childhood trauma, for instance.
There are also degrees of severity, so it is not a matter of these people being ‘evil’.
“Anything in psychopathology is both nature and nurture, meaning the interaction of genetics, personal experience and circumstances. With personality in particular, it is formed early in life and before the age of 18,” said Dr El-Khoury. “There are also degrees of severity, so it is not a matter of these people being ‘evil’.”
There is no cure nor a concrete answer for why Dark Triads exist among us. Though, early detection is key to nipping it in the bud – for both the triad and those around them. Take a moment to re-evaluate your relationships now – are the alarm bells ringing?