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Dr. Robert,

I've recently come to the conclusion that I am a sociopath (or psychopath if you prefer the word, though as technically accurate as it might be I find that its complete pervasive association in our media and entertainment industry with serial killers has tainted its meaning), and I have a few questions for you about what this might mean for my life, or if in fact my self-diagnosis is in fact correct.

First I would like to tell you a little about myself. I'm 24, female, I live in western Washington, and I've been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I haven't been diagnosed antisocial, but I'm sure if I were to tell a psychologist the entire truth they would slap that label on me in a heartbeat. Thank you, no, BPD is enough of a stigma all by itself. Having two personality disorders with such terrible reputations would make it virtually impossible to find help for the borderline symptoms that I really do need therapy for.

I grew up in a fairly normal single-mother only-child family in the country, and aside from my mother being a persistent flake and flipping out on me at times I didn't have any kind of horrible childhood. I had anger issues and was violent as a child, but I learned better right about the time when it looked like the next horrible, explosive, violent, and sometimes armed outburst would land me in juvie. I also did a lot of the typical sociopath childhood things, tormenting animals, stealing (from stores and friends), getting in fights at school, playing malicious pranks, and the likes.

I believe that I'm a sociopath for one, basic, simple reason. I have no conscience: I do not have and have no recollection of ever having felt guilt or remorse for anything I've done "wrong". Well, that and I meet most of the typical indicators. Criminal versatility (though only in petty ways), parasitic lifestyle, difficulty forming connections with other human beings, being manipulative, using people, enjoying hurting people (emotionally, I learned better than to use physical violence), I grow bored with everything very quickly and continually require novelty, and so fourth and so on.

But there are a few things that make me question this self-assessment. My emotional turbulence can easily be dismissed as borderline (especially since when I'm not in an emotional high or low I tend to revert to cool, cold, emotionless rationality) and thought nothing further of, but at times I do have some capacity for empathy. I look away when people are brutally killed in movies, I very much do not want to view gruesome injuries, and I don't really like it when people I care about are in pain. Actually, I'd boil my level of empathy down to the idea of, "yikes, I'd hate to think about that happening to me." Is that enough to call it empathy? Also, I never feel it unless it's someone I can identify with, which means usually some sort of entertainment medium since I rarely identify significantly with other people, especially if I know them well enough to realize how much they're not like me.

Does this level of empathy preclude my being a sociopath?

The other thing that I really wonder about is love. I really do believe I was in love with a woman (I'm bisexual) up until recently. Certainly I cared greatly about her, I wanted to help her and protect her when I could, I comforted her (awkwardly, it's hard to give comfort when you can't really empathize), and I felt really really good just being next to her. It was almost like she completed me. Almost. When she broke up with me (we had a very tempestuous relationship, she was almost as unstable as I am), I took almost a whole week getting over her, something that's very out of character for me. Actually, I was rather clingy and co-dependent. If I am a sociopath though, wouldn't that mean that this wasn't really love the way people usually feel it? Or does feeling this way mean that, despite the rest of it, I'm not actually a sociopath? I'm sure you can see how this is a little confusing.

More importantly than whether I qualify for a diagnosis, though, what does this mean for my future relationships? Despite generally seeing myself as a good person and a good partner, objective reflection reveals that this is probably not the case. I thought I was good to her, and to my friends for that matter, because unless I think carefully about my actions I don't see anything wrong with the way I behaved. I guess that's part of the not having a conscience thing. Realistically, trying to look at the situation from a more objective standpoint, I was a rather crappy girlfriend. I manipulated her constantly--actually, I'm incapable of having interactions with people without manipulating. It's like breathing to me, I'm almost always weighing my words to project the proper image, and even when I'm at my most miserably depressed I tailor my expression of my emotions to what I think is beneficial. I don't think most people do this, at least not on this level, but I'm not really sure.

Anyway, I manipulated her, was almost always overly critical to the point of bordering on verbally abusive (though I worked on being better about this during the relationship, it was hard, it's a deeply ingrained habit), I never really cared about what she wanted--we always watched my movies, did my activities, and almost never anything that I didn't enjoy. Or rather, I cared about what she wanted so long as it wasn't a big inconvenience to me, actually wanting to make a meaningful sacrifice (even one so small as sitting through a show or movie that I really didn't like at all) is an alien concept to me. I lied to her sometimes, and I very often broke promises, not because I made them planning to break them, but because whatever my intentions my word means nothing to me. Naturally, I felt no guilt at letting things slide that I said I'd do. This made working on changing my behaviors, which I did try to do (just too little too late to save the relationship), rather difficult. That, and the fact that I had a hard time thinking of her entirely as a person so much as an object with which I enjoyed interacting. In general I have trouble with people in that way, I often hurt or offend by accident simply because I can't see them as real people with separate thought processes from my own. If it doesn't bother me why should it bother them?

And yet, even having said this, I have a hard time believing that I was a bad girlfriend. Though I know intellectually that these things are bad, I don't feel that I was bad for her. And don't get me wrong, in some ways I was very good for her. I was caring, emotionally supportive insofar as I could be, I took care of her when she was sick. I almost always restrained my urges to be intentionally, horribly cruel to her for my own amusement. I never cheated on her, despite wanting to a number of times. I helped her out a lot with money (though I admit usually with the expectation of it being paid back), and I taught her to be a stronger person, to stand up for what she wanted because I wasn't going to do that for her. She's not as passive, as much of a doormat, as when I met her. And I was happy when she was more assertive, I respected her for it, even if it meant that things didn't necessarily go in the direction which I desired. This is probably part of what ultimately resulted in her dumping me. Oops.

This leads me to my big question: should I even bother trying to be in a normal, happy relationship? I do want to be in love again, at least, when I'm not feeling totally emotionless I do. Is this a hopeless desire that I could never achieve? Do you think it's possible for me to be in a relationship where I'm not a negative, damaging influence? Where the benefits of being with me are genuinely worth it, despite the fact that I could never care for them even a tenth the amount that I care for myself, that with every breath I'm working to manipulate them into further serving my desires.

Don't take this to mean that I want to "get better" or "grow a conscience" or anything of that nature. Despite the loneliness inevitable as a result of my condition, and it really is lonely to feel like you're barely a member of the same species as the rest of humanity (and to know that if most people knew the truth about you, they'd feel the same way), I could never imagine wanting to feel guilt or remorse. I consider a conscience to be an innately maladaptive trait no different than those that result form my BPD. But I do want to be in love, and even if they can never know the whole truth about me, I want them to care about me, and to have it be a good relationship that will last. Is this impossible? Am I doomed to drive away those I care about, to find success only in the superficial, false relationships that I usually maintain for the purposes of funding and entertainment?

As a thought, do you suppose it would help if I sought out a partner who is like myself? Another sociopath, but one capable of the semblance of love that I can manage. It's something I've considered, but I'm worried that I would end up like the men I usually date. Used and discarded.

Thanks for your help,


ask dr-robert

Hello, Amanda--

Your letter reminds me of one I received from a sociopath, self-diagnosed like yourself, who asked me, "Is there a way that a sociopath can 'learn to love'?" Now I understand that your question is a bit different from his in that you say you have no interest in changing or getting "better," whereas he wondered if he could change, and even, perhaps, learn to love. In fact, you (incorrectly, in my view) look down upon the human faculty of conscience as "maladaptive" and somehow equivalent to your borderline personality disorder, implying that you certainly would not be interested in adding another dysfunctional trait to your repertoire. So you, apparently, do not want to learn to love anyone, but simply would like to "be in love again," as you put it, which, to me, is not the same thing at all. By the way, whether or not you would be diagnosed as sociopathic—and, at a distance, I would hesitate to make a firm diagnosis of any kind—I do agree that many of your traits seem to be those which are considered sociopathic or psychopathic.

Nevertheless, your wanting to be in a "normal, happy relationship," as you put it, moves me to try to reply personally to your questions, and not simply to refer you to his letter and my answer to it which is what I would have done had you not expressed that desire.

Let me begin with your statement about the faculty of conscience being "maladaptive." This, it seems to me, is clearly mistaken. According to the latest understandings of evolutionary psychology, all the mental and emotional traits which exist today in the human mind, were, at least at some time in evolutionary history, not maladaptive, but, quite the opposite. They were highly adaptive. This is just basic Darwinian theory. Those traits, carried by combinations of genes, which do not further survival of an individual to the point of reproduction tend to die out, while those which do lead to reproduction are copied and combined with the genetic material of another "survivor," and thus are passed down into the next generation. After countless eons of such filtering, most of the "maladaptive" traits are gone—filtered out—leaving the adaptive traits active in the genome. In other words, all of us living today are the offspring of survivors—the successful ones who managed to live long enough to reproduce, and who managed to help raise their young well enough so that they could, in turn, reproduce. In that sense, we are all the descendants of the "winners," the champions. If you really would like to have a "happy relationship," as you say, it is important that you understand this, for, since you lack conscience and empathy, such an intellectual understanding might provide a basis for at least respecting a lover: he or she is, at least genetically, a "winner." And no, Amanda, I do not think that the idea of, "yikes, I'd hate to think about that happening to me" is enough to "call it empathy." Empathy, as I understand it, is not an idea, but feeling the emotions of another person as if they were one's own.

I understand that you are in a minority position, and so it must be tempting to disparage conscience, compassion, empathy, and the ability to love as "maladaptive" traits, but please use your intelligence to understand that they are not maladaptive, for if they were, by now they would not be present in the genome.

Now this raises the question about your two special conditions, borderline personality disorder, and sociopathy. If only adaptive traits survive, how can it be that some human beings have borderline personalities, and that some lack compassion for others? In some ways, the answer is complex, a bit too complex for this discussion, but a lot of the complexity revolves around the idea that what might have been adaptive in the stone-age world--only sparsely populated by primates of any kind--during which most of human evolution took place may not serve the same adaptive functions in today's complicated, densely populated world. However, leaving that aspect aside, in my view, your borderline personality is not at all adaptive—that is why it is called a "disorder"--and is probably not a "trait," conveyed via the genome, but rather a response to troubled relations with early caregivers. This is controversial, but in my opinion, the borderline personality probably has its roots in narcissistic wounds sustained in early childhood. Such wounds could occur in any of numerous ways—too many to list, really, so I will choose just one illustration to give the flavor of it. Suppose, for example, that a baby began nursing, but then the mother became ill or depressed and could no longer manage the feeding schedule. In the infantile mind, the loss of the breast might feel like a rejection, and the baby might also feel that this rejection was due to a lack of self-worth. In other words, mom has stopped loving me because I am a bad child. Once that pattern of thought has become established, other random events might also be seen as adding proof to it. Later, for instance, if a sibling receives a gift that seems better than the one that our child receives, the child might feel that this is due to her lack of value.

Now, each person's sense of self and self-worth is built up (or not built up) as the result of many thousands of such individual instances. A child who receives sufficient emotional support usually will become an adult with a strong sense of self-worth, but a child who lacks that kind of support may become an adult with a sense of self that is full of "holes" like a Swiss cheese. In other words, that adult, having a core self which is not solid but filled with gaps and "holes," will look not within but to others—to relationships—to fill those gaps. That is why such a person is so super-sensitive to any aroma of rejection, for the "rejection" is seen not just as unfriendly or unkind, but will be perceived as a threat to the very integrity of the self which might, if not supported properly, disintegrate entirely into a kind of "insanity." And this is a very sticky situation, because that kind of adult is looking, constantly and hyper-vigilantly, for the kind of support that he or she lacked as a child. In other words, that kind of adult wants, in a way, to be treated like a child: never disappointed, always cared for, always protected from the cruelties and realities of ordinary life. And such a person demands that kind of treatment from other adults. But, although some of the other adults might be able to offer that kind of support to an actual child, few would be able or want to offer it to another adult. Hence, this wounded ego, which wants an extraordinary level of support and consideration--an impossible level really--by its very demand that such treatment be provided, is setting itself up for rejection. Then, when the inevitable rejection comes, the ego, the "self" begins to come apart, to disintegrate, and the anger, mood swings, and all the rest follow.

All of us experience changes, losses, and rejections in life, but if we have a more or less firm sense of self, we are able to roll with those punches, and keep going. The borderline personality type often cannot roll with any punches, and so, instead of moving on, may be come fixated on a "rejection," and then blame the person who did the "rejecting." As you have experienced, this blaming often damages personal relations drastically, making it impossible for anyone save the most determined friend or therapist to continue interacting with the borderline person.

The sociopathic or psychopathic personality, on the other hand, is, in my view, not a disorder at all, but simply a personality type which is adaptive, although not popular with those who wish that everyone felt guilty when doing "wrong."

I make this distinction between borderline personality and sociopathy because you must understand that if your intention is, as you said, to have a "happy relationship," you really have two separate challenges with which to deal. Your emotional instability and tendency to take the vicissitudes of ordinary social interaction too personally--the borderline aspect--is, in my view, the more difficult of those challenges. As a therapist, I have had a number of relationships (not romantic, of course, but therapeutic) with borderline types, and only my determination to carry on prevented those alliances from coming apart in anger and recrimination. So, if you want a relationship able to support both parties to it through their various changes (which is part, in my view, of what makes a relationship "happy") you will have to try to understand that even a very happy relationship has unhappy moments which require the patience, understanding, and determination of the partners (or at least one of them at a time) to be gotten through. If you are not willing to practice such patience, understanding, and determination, or if you are unable to do so, then regardless of your sociopathy, you will never have a happy relationship. To put this a bit differently, happiness is not constant. It comes and goes like the wind in the trees. Since this is true for anyone, only those who have the patience to get through a time of no wind, no happiness, will still be there to enjoy the wind when it does blow again.

As to your sociopathy, I consider it, as I said, a normal, albeit somewhat unusual personality type (perhaps two or three percent of the population are like you in that way). Since I am not sociopathic, it is not easy for me to imagine how you would "be in love," but I assume that you mean that you would feel attracted to another person, desire that person to be emotionally faithful to you, have sex, enjoy spending time with him or her, etc.--all the things that non-sociopaths do when "in love." The difference, I assume, would be that you would not, as non-sociopathic lovers usually do, wish all the best for that person even at the cost of your own satisfaction, but that your love would be entirely, or almost entirely selfish: as long as it served your needs, OK, otherwise, "Sayonara, Baby." That seems to have been what it was like with your ex. And that seems to be what you describe when you say that, "I could never care for them even a tenth the amount that I care for myself, that with every breath I'm working to manipulate them into further serving my desires." That's not what I would call love, but if it is what you desire, I say "go for it."

I don't know if any of this helps you, Amanda. If I were sociopathic as you say you are, I suppose I wouldn't care if it helped you or not. But I do care.

Be well.

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