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Les Pitiables

Still wearing that hard hat? It's time to add work gloves and safety goggles, and perhaps jump in the reinforced driver's cage of a bulldozer. We're about to discuss the most dangerous people of all: les pitiables. According to Martha Stout, PhD, an expert on sociopathy who taught at Harvard Medical School for more than two decades, the key to recognizing sociopaths is that they consistently mess up other people's lives while actively soliciting pity. Most people don't want to be pitied, but sociopaths adore it. If you consistently feel pity for someone who causes you many problems, develop and bear a protective grudge. Now.

For example, Lucy's sister Sue was a walking disaster area. When she borrowed Lucy's car, it got rear-ended. When she babysat Lucy's children, the kids set fire to the curtains. When Lucy gave her sister money (Sue was always broke), the cash got lost or stolen. Through it all, Sue's misery made Lucy's heart ache with pity.

Can you say "huge red flag"?

Sue was plying the sociopathic trade of getting Lucy to pity her for the very things she did to mess up Lucy's life. Finally, Lucy learned to hold a healthy grudge: She stopped buying into Sue's woeful stories, leaving children with her, or giving her money. She still loved Sue, but she wasn't willing to risk having her house go up in flames.

The Hyde Transformers

A final reason for holding a grudge is what I call a visit from Mr. Hyde. Your instincts will tell you to react to such events by putting emotional distance between you and any person who displays the capacity to be truly monstrous—even if, most of the time, these people are jovial Dr. Jekylls.

Kelly's new boss, Cheryl, was funny, charismatic, and smart. True, she often showed up late for meetings, or seemed not to remember promises, but Kelly admired Cheryl in spite of those things. So she was shocked—actually, everyone was shocked—when Cheryl suddenly lost it during a staff meeting.

"We were discussing something insignificant," Kelly remembered. "I don't even recall what it was that set her off." But Kelly will never forget Cheryl's behavior. "She started screaming at us, saying we were all working together to 'bring her down.' Her face was bright red. She was sputtering. Then she turned on one woman who'd recently had a miscarriage, and said, 'You put that lump of tissue in your uterus ahead of me.' Our jaws were on the floor. That was just way beyond the pale."

On this bizarre note, Cheryl dismissed the meeting. A few hours later, she walked through the office chatting, so charming and relaxed that Kelly began to wonder if the tantrum really happened.

Next: When to wear your grudge armor

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