I have a wealthy, successful relative who complains about “having to pay to support the mentally ill.” Irony: It’s not like I’ve got a copy of his brain scan, but were I a betting woman, I’d take out whatever was in my wallet and lay it right down on SOCIOPATH.
Sociopaths aren’t rare. They’re not always particularly splashy, either. It’s not like all you have to do is look for stray clown makeup smears. They’re hiding in plain sight. They’re one out of every twenty-five people.
I’ve got several sociopaths on the fringes of my life and you’ve probably got at least a couple hovering around yours, so it pays to know how they roll. Once you recognize the signs, you stop taking things less personally in general (that woman who cut me off at 85 miles an hour could be a sociopath) and shimmy away with jazz hands when necessary (I’m never going to be in a room alone with that guy at work).
Most sociopaths are regular-seeming people, which falls right in line with our wish to believe that they are. No one wants to look at their brother or workmate or — God forbid — spouse, and think, Hey, you with the fishy stare and the suspiciously overblown tales of adventure! You gots a piece missing! Sociopaths go to Trader Joe’s and compare the sugar content of different coconut milks. They loan lawnmowers to their neighbors. They can be uproariously funny and charming. Their only defining characteristic; the thing that makes them different from us, is a total lack of conscience. They were born without one, just like some people were born without toes or fingers — or born with a damaged one, after which an array of social/environmental factors = done deal.
Sociopaths don’t experience shame or remorse. They can’t love. The deficiencies in a sociopath’s neocortex and primitive limbic system — the execs in charge of emotion and socialization — are organic and permanent.
My relative complains about “supporting” the mentally ill because he has no empathy. He cannot imagine himself in someone else’s place. To him, the mentally ill are unworthy of care, and he’s able to say this bluntly in front of family members who themselves suffer from mental illness. He’s able to say other things, too, like, “You should quit teaching in a public school with all those Indians and Mexicans.” If anyone else said that, I’d file it under “racist asshole,” but there’s an extra layer here: His brain is not like ours. I could turn to him and go, “WHAT YOU ARE SAYING IS WEIRD AND WRONG. PLEASE STOP SAYING THESE WEIRD, WRONG THINGS” — but it wouldn’t faze him, because there’s a piece missing. And you know who doesn’t notice? The women in our family, all of whom are excellent observers of character. They love him too much to admit what he is. They don’t want to think in full paragraphs.
Whatever sociopaths do, they do in order to get something they want. To a sociopath, you are one of three things:
1. A target (you have something he wants — money, influence, sex; or he just enjoys making you jump)
2. An obstacle (you’re in the way of something he wants — power, recognition)
3. Background noise.
Say “sociopath” and most people think PSYCHO KILLER, QU’EST-CE QUE C’EST, but most sociopaths don’t want to kill anyone. There’s nothing in it for them. They usually want the things the rest of us do, plus a few predatory extras. That’s why sociopaths are over-represented in business (and how Westerners admire the driven corporate powerhouse!) but you’ll also find them in the “helping professions” — education, nursing — because not all sociopaths have the connections, the skill, or the wherewithal to make big bank and/or dominate large numbers of people. Instead, they prefer to cause chaos and mayhem in individual lives. Remember that cold-eyed teacher who enjoyed humiliating children? The sexually aggressive date who was “just doing what men do”? The couples counselor* who told you, as you cried over a broken relationship, “There are three kinds of women: Controlling, more controlling, and most controlling, and you’re in the last group”?
Sociopaths know that a total lack of conscience/inability to love falls outside the realm of the normal, so they learn to mimic human emotions. Love, mostly. Their skill at mimicking love poses a particular problem for regular people. Happily for lesbians, female sociopaths are rarer — but then, it’s possible that no one wants to see them. It might be easier for a psychiatrist to diagnose a less-scary personality disorder than to call a woman conscienceless. Because that shit is unnatural. Women have to have empathy, right? Without it, they couldn’t be responsible for taking care of everyone else’s feelings!
After that last interaction with my relative, I went reading around and compiled the top 10 sociopathic bad-news signs (so you don’t have to). Do you have someone in your life who:
1.Takes impulsive risks for the thrill of it? Not bungee jumping or joining a klezmer band, but risks that put her (or your) property or safety in danger?
2. Is easily bored and needs constant, increasing levels of stimulation (sexual and otherwise)?
3. Lies for the fun of lying, and is completely shameless when caught?
4. Talks a lot, but without depth — mostly just glib, witty, superficial conversation?
5. Brags about how everything he’s accomplished/how much money he makes/important people he knows? Does he tell a lot of stories in which he is the hero, and other people seem to be window dressing or props? (I call this the One True Human Syndrome).
6. Can establish the illusion of deep intimacy at the beginning of a relationship? Does she claim to understand and love you more deeply than anyone else ever has or could? Do you feel like she sees into your soul? Like there’s something “magic” about her? (Remember, there’s all different sorts of magic. Hers involves the ability to assess your weaknesses, strengths, insecurities and needs, and then to craft her persona accordingly in order to use you for her benefit).
7. Behaves with a sense of entitlement, as though the rules are for regular people and don’t apply to him?
8. Can’t keep a job, an address, a commitment? (see above).
9. Tries to make you feel sorry for him in order to keep you engaged? Pity is a great manipulative tool used by those with no empathy as a weapon against those with it.
10. Can justify any and all of his own behavior, because nothing is ever his fault?
Most importantly, do you have a person in your life who just plain makes you feel bad whenever he’s around? Does something just feel…not right? Trust that feel. Don’t talk yourself out of it. Don’t sweat the exact diagnosis. Your limbic system is perfectly functional and will not lie to you. Disengage. Run run run run run run away.
*I was one of her clients.
Here be the books:
Babiak, Paul and Hare, Robert. Snakes in Suits: When Sociopaths Go To Work. HarperBusiness, 2007.
Blair, James. The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.
Ronson, Jon. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. Riverhead, 2011
Schouter, Ronald and Silver, James. Almost a Psychopath. Hazelden, 2012.
Stout, Martha. The Sociopath Next Door. Three Rivers Press, 2006.