“How did he really feel?” and “What did he want from me?” are two questions that often haunt victims of sociopaths. The reason we are haunted by these questions varies but often stems from the habit of over-focusing on the sociopath instead of ourselves. That being said, victims also have a healthy ‘need to know’ that can help with recovery and healing.
I struggled with these questions in my own healing. I remain baffled by my observations of enjoyment of affection on the part of sociopaths. Early on, I told my own therapist that I had come to the conclusion that sociopaths exploit those close to them to the point of death, then, cry at the funeral. At the moment the tears are shed, I believe they do represent a grief of sorts. The feelings of loss experienced by sociopaths are however, short lived. Victims also have to beware because, although sociopaths are said to be incapable of feelings for those in their lives, they do become obsessed with them. Psychologists have not yet explained this obsession. If they don’t attach, why are they obsessed? Those who have read my other entries know that I believe that sociopaths do attach. It is what they do with attachments that is disordered.
How did he really feel?
In response to the picture of a sociopath crying at his victim’s funeral, my therapist said, “He feels what he tells himself he feels.” To help you understand what my therapist meant, I will explain what is known about how people usually experience feelings.
There are two components to feelings. The first is a physical sensation. When we experience a feeling we feel something in our bodies in relationship to that feeling. Think about loving someone close to you and sense how your body feels. Is it warmth in your heart? That is usually what people report.
There is much evidence that these physical sensations are disordered in sociopaths. Sociopaths do not generally experience the physical and hormonal changes that go along with feeling emotion. If they do experience them, it is to a lesser degree. Physical responses are blunted.
The second component of feelings is called attribution. Attribution is a cognitive process. When I feel that warmth in my heart as I see my children, I attribute the sensation to my love for them. Thus the physical sensation alone does not make emotion. Emotion is physical sensations and our interpretations of these sensations. There is also evidence that the parts of the brain responsible for attribution do not function properly in sociopaths.
There is one emotion that many sociopaths experience in a not so disordered way. This emotion is anger. Sociopaths do have blunted physical responses to anger. Despite this blunted responsiveness, they seem aware of angry feelings and make correct attributions about what makes them angry. Again, science has not even addressed, much less explained this observation.
Since the physical sensations and attributions that allow for the experience of emotion are disordered in sociopaths, their inner world is very different. They are left to make sense of themselves and others without the tools most of us use. Other parts of the brain fill in the missing processes. The person who is credited with first describing sociopathy in depth is Hervey Cleckley. He proposed that sociopaths are at least of average if not above average verbal intelligence. This makes sense because they have to use their verbal intelligence to make up for their lack of emotions. They do indeed feel what they tell themselves they feel. Scientists say they mimic other people’s emotions, yet again there is no real proof of this.
What did he want from me?
This question is easy to answer intellectually, but very hard for victims to accept emotionally. There are three pleasures we get from our love relationships. The first is pleasure in affection. The second is sexual pleasure. The third is pleasure associated with dominance and control. Sociopaths experience sex and dominance as enormously more pleasurable than affection. Therefore, they are in relationships to get sex and power, pure and simple.
If you love deeply and feel affection for others, you cannot fathom the inner world of an emotionally disordered person whose primary pleasures are sex and power. To understand another’s world you have to imagine yourself experiencing what the other experiences. You can’t do this with a sociopath.
Louise Gallagher said in her post The six steps of healing from a psychopath that the first step is acceptance. We have to accept that we can only know in part how sociopaths really feel and what they want from us. We can understand intellectually, but never emotionally.