The Sociopath Enigma

Image

 

We love Sociopaths.  With an almost ghoulish glee we watch the latest dramas broadcast for that thrill of the unknown or unknowable, the darker side of human nature.  Being the observer without being involved.  You only have to look at the shows that are so popular:  Dexter, Bones, NCIS, CSI, Wire in the Blood and many more.  All of them having appearances by, or headlining the psychopath.  The movies are there to tantalize too; Hannibal or American Pscyho.

If you believed everything you saw on television you would think that all Sociopaths are violent criminal masterminds with blood on their hands.  The actual fact is that most people with Anti-Social Personality Disorder (The clinical diagnosis that includes the Sociopath and the Narcissist) would demonstrate no overt violence.  A good majority of them never draw attention to themselves in any negative light.

In the most simple terms, a sociopath has a lack of  conscience.  There is no, or little, emotional connection to those around them, or the world at large.  The connections they make are about personal gain, or “winning the game”.

If every person suffering from ASPD was imprisoned for a violent crime, our prisons would be bursting at the seams.  Consider that one in twenty-five people classifies as having enough of the indicators to be classed a sociopath.  Based on a total UK population of  58 and a half million people, 4% of those are Sociopaths; That is a total of 2,340,000.  Of course it is not all doom and gloom.  That means that 96% of people are not Sociopaths.

The tricky thing when picking out the Sociopath is that their rules are not our rules and their triggers are not our triggers.  We tend to see our world very much in shades of our own.  We measure other people’s behavior on how we think we would act in the same situation.  Quite often the person devoid of any conscience will think very differently about goals, perspectives and cares little for the opinions of others.

The catch is that you can never be sure that you are in the presence of a sociopath, because they look just like everyone else.  They don’t have a t-shirt proclaiming their lack of conscience and they don’t have to let you know by any law.  The sociopath has two very powerful weapons in their arsenal.   The first is the superficial charm.  They can be very engaging people, stand out from the crowd.  They can be the sort of person you meet and feel like you have known them for years.  Paul Ekman himself once said that he would know a sociopath straight away, because he would want to invite them to dinner within five minutes of being introduced.  For most, the sociopath would appear to be “such a lovely person”.  The sociopath is a manipulator with such Machiavellian ability that even when you suspect that something isn’t right, they will have you doubting yourself.

I have been in direct contact with a sociopath, who to this day is probably unaware of this fact.  Let us call him A.  A never really seemed to want much out of life.  But the idea of working for a living was something that just didn’t seem to fit with the life style that he wanted.  He would like to spend his days pottering about the house about a hobby or just watching television.  He had lots of acquaintances, indeed he seemed to develop new ones on a weekly basis, and they were always ready to offer a hand out to get him through when he was struggling.   He claimed depression and this was the reason that he was unable to work, and oh how he wished he could be better so that he could get on with his life.  A had a partner, let’s call him S.  S doted on A.  He would do just about anything for him and was always there when he was needed. Despite this A still managed to develop these friendships that turned out to be so much more.  When S became aware of these assignations, he was told by A that there was nothing to them, and it was just idle gossip from people who wanted to hurt A.  A would often say how pathetic he felt and how depressed.

This is the key to the second weapon that the sociopath uses, and the most powerful.  They use our pity against us.  They make us feel sorry for them.  They manipulate the words and how they feel so that our heart goes out to them.  A performed this feat regularly and potently.

We have since parted ways and had I known then what I know now I would never have got into a situation like that.  The one person I do feel sorry for in all of this is S.  S probably had no clue that he was simply a meal ticket.  When S and A split, S was probably made to feel that it was all his fault, that there was something he had done to make the break up happen.  In reality S was no longer any use to A and had been cast aside.

The sociopath uses our very nature against us. They know far better how we work than we do and they use our compassion and conscience as a weapon against us to further their own chances of “winning the game.”

The American Psychiatric Association states that someone should be classed as a Sociopath of they have at least 3 of the following seven characteristics:

Failure to conform to social norms.

Deceitfulness and Manipulation

Impulsive and failure to plan ahead

Irritability and Aggressiveness

Reckless disregard for the safety of oneself or others

Consistent irresponsibility

Lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.

Without doubt A had 6 of those seven characteristics.

 

Even today I still look back on the situation as it was and think that I should have known better.  But the fact of the matter is, that even if I had, A would have manipulated the situation to make me doubt myself, even with all my natural instincts.  Key to that fact is that the sociopath having no conscience would not show remorse or guilt for any of their actions.  One of the most valuable factors in detecting deception.  Risk of discovery for the Sociopath is also reduced.  By experience they know they can talk themselves out of a situation, so even if they are caught out, they will have you doubting your own ideas.

 

 

Advertisements

The Fear

Fear is one of the base seven emotions and as such is shared and demonstrated in the same way by practically every person on the planet.  I say practically as there are some rare medical conditions that result in a person being completely fearless.  I will discuss this at a later point.

Fear is an essential part of our emotional make up.  It is there to engage us into action when something threatens our well-being as a form of self preservation and to warn others there is something that could be considered a threat.  Surely this is a good thing?  But fear is associated with the Flight, Fight or Freeze response and can have consequences of its own.  Not to mention the issues that can be raised by prolonged exposure to fearful situations, the most common of which is stress.

Stress itself is not an emotion in its own right, rather it is an emotional state that can have a number of emotions associated to it.  Lots of people cite that stress is bad.  This is not strictly true.  Some stress can be quite positive, driving us forward, and given motivation to our actions.  Extended stress without respite however, this can be problematic.

Imagine someone applying for a job.  It is the sort of job that they always wanted, they would really enjoy doing it.  It is for a company they would fight tooth and nail to get in to.  Stress has already begun.   As the date for interview gets closer the stress increases.  Is this fear?  Not really.  If we look at the idea of an emotion they are usually of rapid onset and of short duration.  Perhaps what is being felt in the build up to interview is better described as apprehension.  An emotional state that falls under the fear family.

Fear is about self-preservation.  It’s origins are in the Limbic system of the brain, responsible for the hard coded emotional responses.  This part of the brain can start a physical reaction before the cognitive side of our brain, the Neo-Cortex even gets involved.  There is no reason to fear, it is an automatic reaction to a perceived threat: surging adrenaline, increasing heart and respiration rate sending blood rushing to the limbs ready to fight or flee from danger.

Notice also that I say “perceived threat”.  There doesn’t actually have to be a threat only something that appears to be a threat.  Mistaking a shadow in a darkened house for a prowler is a perceived threat, once the cognitive part of our brain gets involved and re-assesses the situation it may then be confirmed as no longer a threat.

Stress can be a very damaging situation if it is not handled correctly.  There are situations where we have no control over the stress we may receive.  This is possibly the worse kind of stress.  Lack of control or the ability to change the situation can increase the stress this causes the stress to escalate.

Eventually stress reaches the breaking point.  The body and mind can’t take any more.  Once this point has been reached it is very difficult to turn around.  Thinking about the situation can bring on panic attacks.  Essentially, the body goes into a full fear response.  The body is reacting to a perceived threat of more stress than it can handle, that is contrary to its well-being.

Once an emotional script has been written it is very difficult, sometimes impossible to change that script and an alternative has to be created by the use of supportive therapy.

Understanding the reasons for fear can give us an insight into the reactions that some people have.  Fear can be one of the most difficult emotions to handle and control because of its very nature as a preserver of life.