The Ten Thousand Things
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My question is quite short.
It is simply: Is there actually any way I can help myself?
To explain, I am a sociopath.
I am twenty years old, living in England. I had a normal upbringing in a
It dawned upon me quite suddenly when I was at the funeral of someone
'close' to me (a man I definitely respected and liked) and I noticed that as
everyone was sad, I felt nothing. I didn't feel anything evil, but simply
nothing. Looking back on it, I basically faked being sad (in a kind of
stoical way because I couldn't cry) because it felt like that is how I
I was reminded of a program on Anti-Social Personality Disorder I'd seen a
bit of, and I did some research online. I am by no means a fool and it did
not take me very long to diagnose myself as a sociopath; the evidence was
These were the things that apparently makes up a sociopath that I
immediately identified with:
I am a compulsive liar, a proficient thief, a good manipulator and actor
with a sharp tongue, people regularly call me arrogant, I dislike authority,
I am constantly compulsive, I used to terrorise my animals as a child. The
best one I read was 'may actually state that their goal is to rule the
world', something I've done many a time. There were others, but you get it.
Anyway, all I can find is help for people dealing with sociopaths, most of
which starts and ends with 'get away from him and stay away'.
I've also noticed phrases similar to 'a sociopath cannot be helped because
he never wants to be helped because he always feels self-righteous'.
But given that sociopaths are meant to often be of high intelligence, and I
am by no means stupid, I do not think that the above quote can be correct,
because it suggests that sociopaths are always so self-righteous that they
are naive to what they actually are.
However I, alone, have identified what I am and I understand that I have a
complete lack of empathy, and have never loved another human. It's funny to
think that I've only just realised I am a sociopath, yet stating that I have
never loved in my entire life sounds like something that would be hard to
miss. I'm not sure I can describe in words what I thought of myself before I
had this online epiphany, but needless to say, this realisation has changed
how I think of myself and the world; It's like I'm having an internal
I am undecided whether being a sociopath is a good thing or a bad thing,
given that I don't believe I've experienced the 'normal' way of things.
However, all I am wondering is if there is a way that a sociopath can 'learn
to love', or at least to change at all, or am I destined to pretty much not
care what happens to anyone else for the rest of my life?
I am truly intrigued to see the response, if I get one.
Judging from your letter, your self-diagnosis of sociopathy may be correct. The list of traits you used to reach your diagnosis touches nearly all the points of the commonly understood definition of sociopathy. Nevertheless, in my estimation (others disagree) the real test, and singular criterion for making a diagnosis of sociopathy (psychopathy) requires asking only one simple question: is that person capable of feeling guilt? If the answer is yes, she should not be diagnosed as a sociopath, no matter how reprehensible her behavior. If the answer is no, that person probably is best understood as a sociopath, no matter how exemplary his behavior.
To put this a bit differently, the capacity for regretting an action (which means feeling remorse simply because one did "wrong," and one knows it) is not universal among humans. The ones who lack it--and who seem not to be reformed by means of exhortation or persuasion--are called "sociopaths." This has nothing to do with how they behave.
Yes, some sociopaths may be naive to their condition, as you wrote, but such naivete is not common. Most sociopaths, lacking the anxiety and guilt which they see all around them, eventually come to understand very well that they are without the conscientiousness which seems to factor in, sometimes even decisively, to what those (guilty) non-sociopaths say and do. In fact, many, if not most, sociopaths have learned, just as you say you did at the funeral, to mimic or imitate the conscientious behaviors of others in order, for purposes of their own, to fit in or blend in with the crowd.
In her book, The Psychopath Next Door, Martha Stout opines that around 4 percent, or one person in every twenty-five, falls into your category, so your condition is not so rare as you might think. The American Psychological Association estimate is lower (3 percent of all males), but even using the lower figure, one understands that people such as yourself are found everywhere but normally go unrecognized due partly to their skill in simulating a "normal" personality, and partly to the kind of psychological blindness which causes many people to assume, on no real evidence, that other people are pretty much like them.
Now to your question. In my experience, there are four main obstacles to successful treatment of sociopathy, 1) lack of knowledge about what sociopathy is; 2) ability of the sociopath to fool the therapist; 3) inability of the therapist to understand the sociopath; and 4) the sociopath's ambivalence and resistance to change. I will take them one by one:
In the first place, no one understands what sociopathy really is. The term "sociopath" is a description, not an etiology. In other words, "sociopath" is simply a name for a someone who evinces certain traits such as callousness to the feelings of others, or the ability to manipulate another human being as a pawn without guilt or regret. But naming explains nothing about the causes of sociopathy. Is sociopathy a disease or "condition" as the "pathy" in its name implies? Is, for example, sociopathy a kind of high octane narcissism which insulates and isolates the sociopath from feelings and emotions, leaving only the ego and the gratification of its desires as the sole active principle in motivating actions? If so, we might understand sociopathy as one step along a spectrum of alienation from ones fellow sentient beings: a level of dis-function more alienated than narcissistic personality disorder, but less alienated than, say, schizophrenia. But since one in every twenty-five people is a sociopath (to use Stout's figure), perhaps "sociopathy" is better understood not as a disease at all, but as a normal human personality variant which, having served its possessors well in the struggle to survive and multiply, has perdured over the countless eons of human evolution and consequently persists as part of the psychological portrait of present day humanity. And make no mistake about it: society may label sociopathic behavior as ""cold" or "criminal," but in many social roles, for many purposes, the sociopath is useful. Society knows this, and makes good use of the sociopath.
This is what leads me to ask if sociopathy is not a normal variant which evolved and endures because it works. For example, in a combat unit, who would be the sniper? Who could sit in a tree waiting all day to kill a perfect stranger in cold blood? The sociopath, of course. Who could be James Bond?
But even in more mundane circumstances sociopathy might confer advantages not just on the sociopath, but for society in general. How about a surgeon who can cut into human flesh without feeling anything--who can do the job, in other words, without hesitation, nerves, or fear? So, if sociopathy is genetically deeply rooted in the human psyche, how can it be "cured," or even "treated"? Those words apply to disease states or abnormal ones, not to personality traits which are genetically embedded and widely dispersed throughout the human population.
A second obstacle to treatment is the ability of the sociopath to feign, simulate, imitate, and lie. Many sociopaths, finding themselves in psychotherapeutic treatment, would have little trouble in pulling the wool over the eyes of all but the most alert and understanding of psychologists.
And seeing how easily the so-called "expert" can be fooled, the sociopath in treatment would soon lose respect for the therapist (if indeed he or she ever had any respect for the therapist), and with that loss of respect would render any further work problematical at best.
The third obstacle to treatment is an inability on the part of non-sociopathic humans, including psychotherapists, to empathize with the sociopath. Although I understand quite well, David, that you lack any deep feelings of emotional connection with the people around you, it is difficult for me to put myself very far into your actual experience. I cannot not see others--not just humans, but any sentient beings--at the most basic level, as similar to myself in this: the ability to feel pain, and so to suffer. This is not a choice, and does not seem to rest upon any kind of socialization (although that is a thornier question). I seem just to have been born that way. It is remarkable to me, for example, that people continue to find sport, amusement, and so-called "recreation"--here we are not speaking about traditional means of survival, but simply the pursuit of personal pleasure--in killing defenseless animals (Dick Cheney), or in prompting animals to maim and kill one another (Michael Vick), but that's another story.
I once spent a year interviewing rapists, murderers, and other violent criminals at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. During that time, I met and got to know rather well a variety of frank sociopaths and psychopaths. But even with that experience as background, I cannot fully comprehend hurting an innocent person--perhaps for pleasure, perhaps for expediency--and then feeling nothing. No regret, no remorse, no guilt, just nothing. So if you were to come to me for therapy, and if you told me that you feel nothing much for anyone besides yourself, that you can steal, lie, cheat, manipulate, and use people with no guilt or remorse at all, how might I approach our work in a way which would be fair to you? Yes, I would understand your words on a logical level, but probably not with much emotional depth. I could theorize that your sociopathy is a kind of intense manifestation of narcissistic personality, and so try to treat it by exploration and analysis of the narcissistic wound, but an approach that evokes jargon right off the bat seems experience-distant at best. You see the problem here, I assume.
The last obstacle to psychotherapy for the sociopath is the sociopath's own ambivalence and resistance to change. You suggest this in your letter when you say, "I am undecided whether being a sociopath is a good thing or a bad thing." I admire this statement for its honesty, and for its reasoning (that you have no basis for judgment since you do not know what "normal" humans really feel). I think such ambivalence is the case for many sociopaths. On the one hand, sociopathy, like some kinds of narcissistic personality disorder, confers some undeniable advantages in getting over in ordinary life.
Think of how many "successful" people: leaders of industry, religious hucksters, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, military commanders, politicians, etc. have advanced to lofty positions due in no small measure to their possessing the very same sociopathic traits you mentioned in regards to yourself. Not caring one whit about anyone but yourself seems to work pretty damn well in the mass marketplace, battlefield, corporate boardroom, or, for that matter, in any other place where ruthlessness and the ability to lie, cheat, and manipulate may serve as assets. So why would a sociopath even want to change?
There is some pleasure, I understand, and no small amount of power, in slipping through the cracks, in being invisible, in stealing without getting caught, in manipulating others into serving your ends. But on the other hand, what about love? There's the rub. Although you have never felt love, you are not entirely sure that those who say they do feel love are only fooling themselves. As a skilled and successful manipulator of people, you know that many humans fool themselves constantly--which is part of why they are so easily fooled by you--so it is tempting to put their "love" into that category too, self-deception, but something in you is just not sure at all.
Perhaps there really is a repairable gap in your feelings, some narcissistic damage that calls out for healing, some brain problem which needs a cure, or some maladjustment that requires a tune-up. And this gap, or lack, or call it what you will, apparently blinds you to just that side of life where so many people seem to find relaxation, direction, and even apparent fulfillment. So you speculate, and you wonder. And the wondering has grown stronger. You expressed it like this:
". . . all I am wondering is if there is a way that a sociopath can 'learn
to love', or at least to change at all, or am I destined to pretty much not
care what happens to anyone else for the rest of my life?"
Here is my response, David: I do not know. I do not know if the ability to love can be born, grow, and blossom in someone who has never felt love. I do not know, but, love being love, and logic being . . . well, just logic, I would never rule it out. If someone came to me personally with that question I might consider taking it on, but I would say first that sociopathy has no known effective treatment--not known to me at least--so we would be working ad lib, so to speak, and with no guarantees of anything. Then we would need an agreement about the ground rules of our relationship: keeping appointments dependably, real respect for the therapist's time and professional necessities--that kind of thing--and that a violation of the agreement would constitute grounds being dropped from therapy immediately. Maybe, if the self-diagnosed sociopath were motivated enough--your words about having an "internal philosophical breakdown" seem to indicate that level of motivation--and could live with the ground rules, something therapeutic could take place. I just don't know.
Click on the links for an honest description of psychopathy writtten by an self-diagnosed psychopath, for insight into the tragic point of view of a the parent of a psychopathic child., for a discussion about so-called mild psychopathy, and for a letter from a violent, psychopathic soldier who asks if he can be helped.
Some interesting conversations among sociopaths and psychopaths have been taking place on the "dr. robert forum"
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