How Should We Respond to Sociopaths?

Mask of a beautiful woman with empty eyes
Image from Confessions of a Sociopath at Amazon


Everything I said in my post on Jian Ghomeshi is true.

But anger is not the way. People I respect have told me to try and hear others’ needs and wants instead.

But dammit, this one is a sociopath! Ego, charm, obliviousness, contempt – I’m not a mental health professional, but I’ve never seen a clearer case of a hollow heart. How do you sympathise with that?

Or so I told myself. Because once I really tried, I remembered that I do know what it feels like to be a sociopath, thanks to the chilling book Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas.

Worse yet – I remembered seeing myself in that book.

For the longest time I didn’t want to believe it. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt; guilt is a way of life for me. Sociopaths don’t get nervous; people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to reassure me. Sociopaths crave power; power scares the hell out of me.

But … but sometimes I’m not like that. And that horrified me, until I saw the pattern. My emotions switch off precisely when I have been hurt or disappointed past comprehension, by someone I love past reason.

None of my friends have ever seen this side of me, because they simply aren’t capable of hurting me enough. It’s only happened when I felt betrayed by three very special people, and it’s not like my usual temper, which fizzles in five minutes flat. This is more like my heart amputating them for a day or more.

I think this state of mind is what they call cold rage. And yet there is no anger. The normal responses to betrayal would be fury and sadness, but those emotions become temporarily mythical for me. Same with fear, anxiety, embarrassment. The only feeling that comes and goes is irritation. In this mood, I have pulled off my shirt in front of men just because I couldn’t be bothered to tell them to turn around. If you know me, this will be nearly impossible to imagine.

Book cover: Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

There is no lying or grandiosity, but I think brutal truths and contempt are closely related. Otherwise it’s a terrifying match with Confessions of a Sociopath. Including the weirdest symptom described by M.E. Thomas: total disregard for personal safety. She threw out all her kitchen knives, because she found herself incapable of paying enough attention to her fingers not to slice them to the bone. This is not a symptom the psychiatrists talk about. They think sociopaths are reckless novelty-seekers. I think my ex had it right when he said it’s more like they don’t care about anybody, including themselves.

This is not a nice way to live. You’re not suffering, but you’re spiralling toward self-destruction, sabotaging all chances of emotional support. And if you believe M.E. Thomas’s description of herself versus her soft-hearted brother, the cause is partly unbelievable emotional neglect in babyhood. It makes me wonder if you can turn anyone into a sociopath if you hurt them enough, early enough.

Book cover: Without Conscience by Robert D. Hare

It breaks my heart, too. But nobody so far has managed to cure a sociopath with love and sympathy. Prison therapy actually backfires – those guys are more likely to re-offend! One of them had a telling nickname for therapy. Finishing school. [source]

M.E. Thomas has thought hard about how she came to be a law professor who ‘only’ ruins lives in legal ways. She gives all the credit to her parents, for their clear rules and consequences, both positive and negative. Her meagre store of self-control and planning ability goes back to that stability and predictability, an environment they created solely for their selfish convenience.

That is what sociopaths need, from the horse’s mouth. Consequences. It’s not a cure. But it mitigates the damage to everyone, including themselves.

And so I say this without anger: Jian Ghomeshi does not need our sympathy or forgiveness. What he needs is simply to know that he can’t get away with this again. He doesn’t need our anger. We don’t need to bore him or entertain him.

Book cover: The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker

We do need to understand him and his kind. Which is a frightening task. Gavin de Becker, security expert to presidents and celebrities, says that in order to understand a killer, we have to believe that we too are capable of killing. So I think the first step is to look into ourselves. That’s what I learnt from david stein, who originated the motto Safe Sane Consensual. He says that for any ethical issue, the most important question is not whether others are doing it wrong, but whether we ourselves are at fault.

So I ask you now: how alien is this mindset? Am I wrong to think that cold rage is something most people can experience if pushed hard enough? I know that anyone can be taught to feel like a sociopath towards the enemy we’ve learnt to regard as non-human. Auschwitz, Nanking, Rwanda. History has shown that we all have the neural circuitry to do this.

And M.E. Thomas thinks the next concentration camps might be for her kind. She asks: Why is it that normal people advocate such sociopathic measures against sociopaths?

I think the answer is obvious. They are the bogeyman in the dark. Inhuman, unknowable. That’s how we are wired to react to incapacitating terror. Pick up the axe, close our eyes and lunge.

But emotional blindness and deafness are just as mentally crippling as anger. And I have also learnt that sociopaths don’t get very much out of living their lives that way.

Most of us are lucky enough to have a choice. If we open our eyes, we can do better.

Edit: To clarify, I don’t think I’m a psychopath. But I do think that anyone in a cold rage is temporarily experiencing that state of mind, at least with respect to the object of the anger.

Many thanks to Sciophilous for beta-reading this blog post!

9 thoughts on “How Should We Respond to Sociopaths?”

  1. I like this post. But there are two things I disagree with.

    (1) I doubt very much that you’re even closely, even flickeringly for a second, a psychopath or sociopath. Being loveless and guiltless don’t seem to be your special characteristics.

    Cold rage, and shutting down emotion when you’re hurting, is a different thing.

    (2) This isn’t a disagreement with your post, just some anecdotes on my experiences with psychopaths. (Weirdly, I’ve been a psychiatric nurse, but that’s not where I met either of them.) Anyway, the media often portrays psychopathy and sociopathy as a kind of superpower, that frees people to do all kinds of horrible things with a merry quip.

    But they’re actually disabilities, because we need love, pity and remorse to work cooperatively with other people. I’ve had friendships, though that’s only an approximate word, with people who don’t perceive other people’s feelings as “real”. They decided, on ethical grounds (one was a Kantian, one was utilitarian; it didn’t really matter) that they wanted to mix with ordinary people, work with them, have consensual sex with them, and so on.

    So they learnt human behaviour by rote, never by feeling it. For example, if someone says a party starts at 7.00, you arrive about 7.30. (They always arrived at exactly 7.30; “more or less” was not a concept they could use.) Ask two questions of other people before you tell them what you’re doing; try to keep to that ratio. And so on. Most people don’t think about things like that; but some people have to be told them, and then keep them as rules.

    Point is, they were both highly intelligent, observant people who meant well and were trying to behave ethically and trying to fit in. And yet, they still couldn’t pass for very long at all. Strangers would spot very quickly that something was really odd about them, and get uneasy.

    Obviously, there’s some overlap between psychopathy and sociopathy, and autism and Asperger’s. The common ground is the difficulty in reading or relating to the emotions of others. But autistic people and people with Asperger’s aren’t necessarily loveless or without guilt.

    I liked my two psychopath sort-of-friends partly because they’d thought out their morality for themselves. Every moral belief they had, they’d worked out intellectually from first principles. Also, they were smart, well read and interesting. They were still pretty difficult company, and being with them involved having to invent new and unexpected social rules on the fly. (“No, if you want to discuss the beauty of the waitress, you have to drop your voice; also, now we have to tip her a lot. No, not right now; when we leave.”)

    The media image of a psychopath is someone really charming and manipulative. I don’t think that’s real. A psychopath trying to be charming has difficulty keeping the front up for long. And the charm works best in situations where other people’s judgement is impaired, and slightly odd behaviour is more tolerated, like some clubs or bars or parties. It’s very hard to mimic what you really can’t imagine feeling.

    High-functioning, ethical psychopaths have a pretty hard road.

    (3) This is the second disagreement. I don’t know Jian Ghomeshi, and never even heard his show. I don’t know if he’s a sociopath.

    I don’t think that you have to be a sociopath to be a selfish, nasty asshole. He could be both of those things, but I’m only sure about the second.

    If I were going to be sorry for him, it might be on the basis that he probably really does have a minority sexual taste, and he possibly did have trouble coming to terms with it when he was young.

    But then (sympathy off from here on), because of what celebrity can do to people, he thought he’d found he didn’t need to work out genuine ways of getting consent. Fame, plus trying it on, would both get him what he wanted, and shield him from the consequences of his violent approach.

    In Australia we have sportsmen who bash and rape women. They don’t claim bdsm as cover, they just say they got drunk, boo hoo, and it was out of character, and so on. But they’re just over-privileged assholes who live in a bubble within which they often get away with bashing and raping women. And they get surprised when the bubble bursts. I think that’s more like Jian Ghomeshi’s case.

    I like the sympathy you express for psychopaths and sociopaths. It’s a hell of a hard life from what I’ve seen, and I’m glad I’m not in their shoes. (I’m pretty sure I’m not.)

    1. To clarify, I don’t think I’m a psychopath. But I do think that anyone in a cold rage is temporarily experiencing that state of mind, at least with respect to the object of the anger. And unfortunately for some years my life situation was causing me to experience a lot of that. I’ll add this to the bottom of the post.

      I agree that you don’t have to be a psychopath to be a selfish and nasty, but I have wondered if it is a continuum.

      It is startling how well your observations mesh with M.E. Thomas’s. She agrees with you that psychopaths can have moral codes, though she also said they tend to be idiosyncratic. Presumably because they’re not felt from within and it’s hard for them to learn from others.

      Tonight I was talking with a friend about the fact that psychopathy rates are so much lower in East Asian countries. I have a feeling it’s because they get the necessary consequences from group pressure and stronger norms; you’re not expected to figure out your own moral code. Further evidence that environment can make more-or-less ethical sociopaths.

    2. And I forgot to say thank you! It’s nice to know at least you agree with me broadly.

      Edited to add: Are you 100% sure your friends were psychopaths? They sound like Aspies to me.

      I have thought about writing a post on how I understand sociopathy to differ from sadism and autism spectrum. Because I know somebody who thought he was a sociopath for a while, and I wouldn’t want people like him to worry.

  2. Yes, I am 100% sure. I realised, after I’d hit REPLY, that what I’d described sounded closer to Asperger’s, but that’s because
    (1) some overlap is common, and
    (2) those are the bits that I picked when I gave examples of their behaviour.

    But I guess the distinction is that psychopaths/sociopaths don’t feel love or guilt, while Asperger’s people may have those emotions, but have trouble understanding other people’s emotions.

    And, once you’ve taken the pejorative part out, that people with those conditions are necessarily dangerous, then it’s possible to acknowledge that there’s a fair bit of overlap. At present we have Asperger’s people saying, “We are NOT psychopaths!”, and while shows like Dexter are on tv I can see why they need to say that.

    (I can’t imagine wanting to see an episode of Dexter, by the way. Entertainment? Side-issue.)

    I don’t think they’re “natural” categories anyway, in the sense that they’re not specific diseases like, oh, conjunctivitus; they’re just masses of observations that psychologists have tried to gather together into a semi-coherent categories, with a name and definition.

    So the boundaries are a little squirmy-wirmy, in the Whovian sense.

  3. Er, I overstated the overlap a bit. There is overlap, and the boundaries can be a bit porous, especially in specific individuals, but they’re also different. “Trouble reading other people’s emotions” is not “lovelessness and guiltlessness”.

    1. Agreed. I think autism spectrum and psychopathy only look similar sometimes. They don’t come from the same thing, and we shouldn’t respond to them the same way. I think.

  4. i read this book and am still pondering it, weeks later. It hit so close to home, so many idiosyncrasies and underlying motivations were what i grew up with. From my mother’s announcements every. single. time. she had goosebumps, as if pitifully trying to prove she had feelings for anything outside of herself. To my brother’s fits of rage that you could never show fear or risk your life. We could talk for hours on this! i am, ironically, the lucky one.

What do you think?