Sociopaths have been described in many ways that, at least, from time to time, might describe some of the rest of us: As glib, manipulative, exploitative, superficial; as seeing and relating to others as objects rather than persons.
Sociopaths, in other words, don’t have a patent on these qualities. You can be a nonsociopath and be glib and superficial. You can be a nonsociopath and be a constitutional bullshitter and sometimes manipulator: Just go visit the used-car salesmen at your local dealership, and see for yourself (sure, some of them may be sociopaths, but not most).
Naturally, when you begin to combine these qualities—especially adding “exploitative” to the mix—and identify them as an individual’s default style of interaction, you’ve entered potentially sociopathic terrain.
In my experience, I’ve found other qualities—but also not in isolation—to be somewhat distinctively suggestive of sociopathy. One—the quality of emotional vacancy—really captures my attention when I observe or experience it.
I’m working clinically, at present, with two male individuals, Allen, 20, who already has a long legal rap sheet (minor criminal violations), while the other, Ted, 31, has no arrest history, but has been fired from various jobs for leaving a string of female colleagues and customers troubled by his sexually invasive behaviors.
Allen has diagnoses in the system as an antisocial personality with a probable earlier diagnosis of conduct disorder. Yet he is not, I’m quite confident, a sociopath.
Conversely, Ted has had no significant mental health diagnoses I’m aware of, yet I suspect he has a touch, if not more than a touch, of sociopathy in his personality. (I suggested this to a team of providers involved with Ted, who hadn’t considered it but were disarmed and intrigued by it.)
What is it about Ted that got me thinking along the lines of sociopathy?
Yes, he is socially facile—gregarious, glib, a schmoozer, described by others as “outgoing.” But while relevant, let’s be honest: this (alone) could describe a fourth of the population.
But what further raised my eyebrows was Ted’s reaction to his pattern of leaving women feeling disturbed by his aggression—specifically, he makes excuses, rationalizes his behaviors; consistently denies and/or minimizes his actions; and tellingly, conveys no empathy for the experience of the women.
His concern, in other words, begins and ends with how these incidents will impact his subsequent employablility; there isn’t the remotest (genuine) interest in his effect on his victims.
This is one aspect of the emotional vacancy—expressed in this instance as a lack of empathy—that I suggest can signal possible sociopathy.
Ted, incidentally, is not cruel, or driven to hurt others. He insists he doesn’t “get off” on leaving women feeling uncomfortable and threatened, and I tend to believe him.
His sociopathic quality, if I’m right, is reflected less in an intentionally hurtful agenda than in his emotional indifference to the unintentional hurt he inflicts in the self-centered pursuit of his momentary needs.
Ted is more impulsive than calculating, more thoughtless than scheming. He sees a woman undressing, for instance, in a dressingroom and he wants a view. He knows intellectually that it’s the wrong thing to do. But he wants the view.
He knows that if the woman sees him peering in on her, she will be upset. As I said, he doesn’t relish, it seems, the idea of upsetting her so much as he cares too little about her discomfort, her sense of violation, to deter him from taking what he wants—a view of her.
There is a second aspect of Ted’s emotional vacancy that I find possibly indicative of sociopathy: When I’m with him (unlike my experience with Allen) I feel that I am not really there for him. Yes, he is inquisitive, wants to know how I’m doing, what’s up with this and that? He schmoozes, as I’ve said.
But it’s a bit like the experience you might have with a politician who, trolling the crowd, looks you in the eye and asks questions of interest and shakes your hand, but all the while you feel like he’s really looking through you, or beyond you, to the next hand he’s waiting to shake, the next vote he’s canvassing. You feel that a second later he will have blotted out the memory of the interaction and, on parting, you.
I have this experience of Ted—nothing malicious-intended. He’s not taking anything tangible from me. Just that, in my interactions with him, I somehow don’t feel completely real…to him.
Not all sociopaths are alike, we know that. And I’m certainly not suggesting that many sociopaths, at least for a while, can’t leave you feeling just the opposite—as special, as if you’re the only person in their universe.
But there are sociopathically-oriented individuals who don’t do this well—whose emotional emptiness and soulessness somehow rub off on, as if get transferred into you, leaving you (on the receiving end of the interaction) feeling vaguely as if something’s amiss, not whole, that something was, or is, missing.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)