A researcher specializing in narcissism and psychopathy shares the red flags of the female psychopath.
They can be your exes, therapists, nurses, schoolteachers, professors, colleagues, friends, and foes. Female psychopaths may be rarer than male psychopaths, but they still do considerable damage. A 2021 meta-analysis using studies totaling 11,497 people revealed that psychopathy has a prevalence rate of 4.5% in the general adult population, (this rate goes down to 1.2% if using the gold standard Psychopathy Checklist by Hare) with rates being higher in males. However, psychopathy researchers have argued that this gender difference may be attributed to the fact that scales measuring psychopathy were originally designed to capture psychopathy in males from the prison population. Psychopathy researchers also estimate that around 30% of people in the general population may have some degree of psychopathic traits even if they are not full-fledged psychopaths; this can also be harmful depending on how these traits and behaviors affect others. Since female psychopaths tend to be less physically violent and more interpersonally manipulative (perhaps due to their socialization) but also tend to have callousness, dishonest charm, and lack of emotion as more of their central features according to studies and greater emotional intelligence than male psychopaths, they may simply fly under our radar. So what do female psychopaths actually look like? How do they behave? If they’re not serial killers, career criminals, or overt bullies, what are the tell-tale behaviors that do give them away? Here are the red flags to look for:
They’re superficially charming, wear many masks, and mirror socially acceptable responses to emotions to escape detection. They are easily bored, take sadistic pleasure in people’s pain, and like to create chaos for fun.
Much like male psychopaths, female psychopaths are just as charming. They use their cognitive empathy to mirror the socially acceptable emotional responses they observe in others to escape detection – they can wear many masks, adapting like chameleons to the context at hand. Some even adopt a demeanor of being nurturing and maternal or embody damsel in distress tropes and pity ploys to garner sympathy. But within, they are cold, callous, conniving and cruel. This may be revealed more subtly through a saccharine sweet tone of voice that is betrayed by a microexpression of bitterness or a smug sadism when putting down others. There is usually something “off” and inauthentic about the female psychopath’s mannerisms even if they appear otherwise friendly – that is because their hidden contempt and condescension still slips out from time to time, especially if they see you as a threat and have made you a target. They derive satisfaction and pleasure from duping and conning people – and feel thrilled when causing others pain. They are skilled at deception, grandiose, and at times impulsive and irresponsible. Early on in childhood, they may exhibit cruelty to animals, bully other children, or even engage in criminal behaviors. They use their charisma to climb the corporate ladder with ease, even if they lack the skills to truly succeed long-term; some even engage in fraud. They figure out the weaknesses of others that they can exploit to their advantage. They are prone to boredom, so they manufacture chaos, pitting people against one another for a greater sense of power and control. They victimize and bully the innocent, making prey out of the people they feel threatened by or are envious of. They do this in real life as well as on social media; research with both male and female participants indicates that sadism and psychopathic traits are related to higher levels of online trolling activity. You will likely notice both female narcissists and psychopaths online demeaning and insulting others, especially other women they are jealous of.
They enjoy partner poaching.
In a 2022 BBC interview with female psychopaths, one of the female psychopaths interviewed described how she took great pleasure in having an affair with a married man. When she became bored of the relationship, she ended it by sending his naked pictures to his wife, including one featuring herself with the woman’s husband. When people asked her why she would delight in flaunting this to the wife with so much nonchalance, she replied that it was her callousness that permitted her to do so. Female psychopaths go out of their way to engage with partnered men as a chronic pattern and take sadistic pleasure in doing so. Research shows that partner poaching is associated with psychopathic traits in both men and women. Female psychopaths can be especially prone to targeting the male partners of their friends as they gain a thrill from trying to “one-up” people in their social circles and dupe these friends while hiding in plain sight.
They engage in relationally aggressive behavior to sabotage others and are particularly envious of those they target.
Research shows that both narcissistic and psychopathic traits are associated with malicious envy – envy that drives destructive behavior toward others. If they are not outwardly violent, female psychopaths channel their aggression into their social relationships, particularly their friendships and work relationships with other women. They interfere in the friendships of others, spreading gossip and rumors with malice: this enables them to play people against each other so they can be the “dominant” friend in the group that others rely and depend on. In the workplace, they may not target those who they need the support of: for example, they will likely not be aggressive toward a boss who pays their salary, but they will target other employees who seem to be surpassing them and attempt to undermine them in a way that depicts themselves as innocent. They sabotage their talented peers and flirt with their bosses and co-workers in the workplace to get ahead. They steal work and give themselves credit. If they work with vulnerable populations, they may even re-victimize vulnerable clients; for example, a therapist who is also a female psychopath might learn her client’s triggers not for the purpose of helping them heal, but solely for the purpose of manipulating and provoking her client so they remain in therapy. A psychopathic female nurse may administer the wrong dose of medication to watch her patient suffer or bully her colleagues who she deems more attractive or talented than her.
They view life as a competition, ensnaring people in their mind games to “win” – and they lack remorse for their transgressions, no matter how heinous or violent.
Whether they’re a relationship partner or friend, female psychopaths enjoy playing mind games. They gaslight others after insulting them covertly with backhanded comments, ensuring they capitalize on plausible deniability when they are confronted. They enjoy tearing down someone who is celebrating success or exhibiting healthy pride. Prone to pathological lying, they use numerous diversion tactics to escape accountability for their actions and pretend to be the victims of those who call them out. They love bomb, devalue, and provoke jealousy in their partners and friends so they can be the one who establishes dominance. They misuse their sexuality to their advantage. They lead parasitic lifestyles, leeching off the resources of others. They cheat on their doting spouses and cheat with the spouses of others purposely. In the most extreme cases, they murder their husbands or help to murder the wives of the husbands they’re cheating with. These murders could be goal-directed and intended to secure money from a life insurance policy, orchestrated for retaliation or they could be used to annihilate a sense of threat, remove a “challenge” in the way of one of their perceived goals. Mothers who are psychopathic will abuse their children and use them as pawns; they may even be jealous of their daughters, showing excessive hostility toward them. In the worst-case scenarios, they will murder their own children if they feel their children are an “inconvenience” to their life. They feel entitled to have the attention on them, even if they don’t “crave” the attention like female narcissists do. For them, it’s all about profit or pleasure: if attention alleviates their chronic boredom, they’ll take it. If it meets one of their goals, they will ruthlessly do whatever it takes to meet that goal. They are focused on what benefits them without much remorse for any harm they’ve caused.
If you’re dealing with a female psychopath, it’s important to gain professional support and cut ties. If you can’t avoid them entirely, you must minimize contact – do not disclose any personal information to them that can be used against you. Your mental well-being is paramount. You deserve to be free and you deserve to heal.