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Why you can be addicted to a sociopath

Understanding helps us heal from our painful experiences. Understanding also helps us avoid repeating those experiences. What is understanding? Understanding is knowledge gained by our higher-verbal brain that helps it to manage our lower non-verbal brain. Understanding is, therefore, a path to our own impulse control. In the next few weeks, I am going to present a series on the science of motivation. I hope that a new understanding of motivation will help you in your quest for healing.

Where does motivation come from?

The first thing to understand about motivation is that it does not originate in our higher verbal brain (the cerebral cortex). It originates in our non-verbal, lower brain or limbic system. This part of the brain performs the functions of what Freud called the unconscious mind.

The unconscious mind is very much like wind. It is unseen yet very powerful. We know it exists because we see its effects and we can feel it. Yet, we do not know exactly where its force is coming from. Just as an experienced sailor uses his understanding of the wind to travel, one who understands motivation can use its energy to go far.

Motivation starts with the anticipation of pleasure

Motivation research began with the discovery of the fact that rats will press a bar to obtain various rewards. This discovery allowed scientists to study motivation in mathematical terms. For the first time, we had a measure of desire and therefore motivation. If a rat pressed a bar many times, he showed a strong desire for a particular reward. With these measures we discovered that motivation starts with the anticipation of pleasure. Something about pleasure is rewarding in that pleasure causes behaviors to be repeated.

We soon discovered that all the things that act as rewards and that increase motivated behavior are sources of pleasure. These things are food/water, sex, entertainment, possessions, affection, social dominance and substances of abuse. When a behavior causes us to get these things, we repeat that behavior. Thus, by some brain process, an association is made between an action and its outcome—getting a source of pleasure. All rewards influence motivation by affecting the same brain process.

Pleasure is necessary for learning an association between action and obtaining reward. This association, once made, causes behaviors to be repeated. Repeated behaviors are motivated behaviors. Pleasure, therefore, is the beginning of motivation. The things that give us pleasure are necessary for survival and we physically need them. We want and crave these things and we like them because they are sources of pleasure.

Needing, wanting and liking

There is an interesting interplay between needing, wanting and liking. For example, when a person is starving, food is much needed, and thus very pleasurable. Food becomes less needed, and thus less pleasant, for someone who has already eaten. The motivation for a particular type of reward is not constant but waxes and wanes, as does the pleasure from that reward. One piece of chocolate, for instance, can be quite tasty and rewarding. But even a chocolate connoisseur will probably only experience disgust if he or she is forced to eat two pounds of chocolate at once!

Recently, scientists trying to understand addiction have discovered something truly remarkable. That is, although pleasure is required to establish a behavior pattern, pleasure is not required to maintain that behavior pattern. Wanting related behaviors can occur in the absence of pleasure and are called compulsions. The bottom line is that wanting to do something and liking to do that something are not the same.

Cues from the environment become associated with pleasure in the early stages of establishing a motivated behavior. Later, these cues trigger wanting to do the behavior even in the absence of pleasure obtained by that behavior. Addiction is the best model for understanding this aspect of motivated behavior. Long after the addict has stopped feeling pleasure from the addictive substance, things that remind him of using trigger drug cravings and the compulsion to use. The brain pathways that are active in craving, wanting and pursuing addictive drugs are the same ones involved in all motivated behavior. This is why addiction affects all motivated behavior.

Motivation and healing from a relationship with a sociopath

Where am I going with all this psychology? I am trying to convince you that your compulsion to be with a sociopath can continue even after the relationship has stopped giving you pleasure. The sociopath knows instinctively that all he/she has to do is hook you in the initial pleasure phase, and you will continue to feel a compulsion to be with him/her. Sociopaths typically change in their relationships once they sense the other person is hooked or attached.

Just as cues trigger craving in addicts, reminders of the sociopath can trigger a longing for that initial relationship. Furthermore, just as complete abstinence is the only hope for recovery from addiction, staying away from the sociopath is the beginning of recovery.

Even though the maintenance of addiction and attachment to an undesirable person are the same, I do not believe that attachment to a sociopath is a sign there is something wrong with you. The sociopath and the substances of abuse hijack a brain pathway meant to serve survival. Once hijacked, the survival system becomes a path to destruction.

If a sociopath has hijacked your attachment pathway, start to break the compulsion today. Use your conscious mind and stay away from the person, don’t answer emails or phone calls. Remove from your life as much as possible reminders of the relationship. Distract yourself with other pleasures. Lastly, do not isolate yourself from other people. Since the sociopath has hijacked your attachment pathway, if you are “starved” for affection, your craving for him/her will only increase if you are lonely.

Next week we will discuss the brain pathways and hormones involved in the love bond.



131 Comments on "Why you can be addicted to a sociopath"

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  1. eileen says:

    You should really – work out, yes 😉 – and tell your dad the truth. It helps when your friends and relatives know what you’ve been through. It’s an eye opener for everyone as well – the more people are aware of what sociopaths do the better…I told everyone I knew who had met him (“you know that lovely guy you saw me with – he had other women at the same time took money from me lied about everything and has become a menace since I found him out”) – it’s unlikely they ever see him again so it’s nothing to do with him – but it’s important to share the knowledge. Enjoy the workout!



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  2. one_step_at_a_time says:

    dear eileen and style:

    “My ex sold me a similar story of family abuse, with him emerging not only as a victim but as a hero protecting his siblings…then blah blah blah whatever – whatever” MINE FREAKIN’ TOO.

    SYMPATHY, EMPATHY, ONE STEP’S SUCKER SIGN ON HER FOREHEAD!

    The spath i tangled with had a bunch o’ sock puppets and she GAVE THEM PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDERS…GEEZUS!

    Style, I find it ver therapuetic to ‘send them up’, so if you want to get into poking some fun at that POOOOOR sad thang, I’m game!

    I actually had a little fantasy today about creating a ‘sock puppet’ video for you tube. 🙂 🙂 🙂
    and there would be a ‘really big shoe’ in it also. (the other one that ‘HE’ was always fearing was going to fall on ‘his’ head) it feel alright but not on him/her. IF FEEL ON F**KIN’ ME and the COUNTLESS OTHERS she HAS DUPED.

    (of course there would only be ONE sock needed. preferable something I could wear in my work boots for the winter….snort!)

    need someone to do the voices for me. accepting audition tapes now.



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  3. style1 says:

    Well.. I worked out and feel better.. but still am sad…
    My Dad is 85.. I have told him some things about the guy.. but not all.. the deal is that he gave such a good impression o how much he cared for me.. and he was on the board of a bank and his CV was impressive and he behaves so well and is attracted.. that my Dad was sold.. he even offered to pay for our wedding.. to which neither of us said a word.. but he also told him that I had been though so much and that if he hurts me that he will have him killed.. which of course, was just his way of saying don’t hurt my daughter… I do recall when Dad said that he was eating but he kind of gulped…
    The whole thing is still bizarre to me at times.. I was looking at photos of us last year… and while I wasn’t happy … it looked like we were.. we looked like the darling middle-adged couple..
    I will tell Dad more when I see him next.. he just wants so badly for me to have a good man in my life.. all my men have turned out to be jerks on some level..My first one.. could give Tiger a run for it.. Married him right out of college.. and he lived a double life.. I mean it goes on and on and just one creep after another.. but sophisticated creeps.. educated, looks good but bad.. and I was always the one harmed…. it’s amazing that I am still standing.. it is my faith in God and I liv well and honorably… I have even had to file a sexual harrassment lawsuit against a prominent financial advisor in out community who contacted me to write a book with him..



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  4. kim frederick says:

    I thought I’d reach into LF’s bag of tricks and bring this one back.

    Hens,dear heart, this one is for you….and all the rest of us as well.

    I was thinking about you last night as I tried to sleep, and wondered what it was that was triggering your sense of lonliness, and why you were missing him so much.

    I feel that way once in a blue moon, now…not often, but occasionally, and it always helps to insist that I be honest with myself. I won’t allow myself to stay long in rose colored glasses land….

    When I pull my focus away from the very few and far between moments of contentment, and the fleeting sense I had of happiness; when I force myself to see it for what it was: a rollar-coaster ride through hell, I quite missing him, and become truley grateful it’s over!

    Hens, I don’t think you miss HIM, so much as you are just lonely and wanting that special connection that we all want…

    But like the above article says, the pleasure we truley got out of the relationship was gone long ago…all that’s left is the craving.

    In healthy relationships, we still derive real pleasure, not just a harrowing, crazy making memory that teases and taunts, often drawing us back into hell.

    Hope you’re feeling better, Hens.
    And here’s hoping all my LF friends have a wonder filled day.



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  5. Buttons says:

    Kim, you are so awesome – this relates to everyone’s healing process, I think. God bless you!



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