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How a deficits disorder can cause so much grief and pain

Sociopathy, many experts agree, is a deficits disorder.

The sociopath, in this view, is missing something—things like empathy, remorse, and basic respect for the boundaries of others.

When you think of a deficit—something missing—you don’t necessarily think dire consequences.

You may think, instead, things like less…incomplete…limited.

For instance, the idea of intellectual deficit might spark the association, mental retardation.

Instead of invoking fear, this tends to elicit our understanding, even empathy. The mentally retarded individual is missing something that most of us have—a normal intellectual capacity. You think, this is unfortunate, for that person.

When you think of kids with attentional deficits, you’re likely to bring some extra patience toward the challenges their condition presents. Your accomodation is based on recognizing their behaviors as originating in a deficit.

When dealing with the Asperger’s Syndrome population, you understand their social inaptitude as arising from a neurologic difference. And so in responding to the Asperger individual’s peculiarities, you allow that he or she, on a social level, is operating with less than a full deck.

In general, when speaking of disorders of deficits, we tend, or at least try, not to take the consequences arising from the disorder personally. We recognize the deficit as something the person doesn’t ask for and, at best, struggles to control.

This isn’t to deny, or minimize, the impact of the individual’s difficult behaviors. But in locating that impact in a deficit, we can potentially experience it as less personally injurious.

Sociopathy, however, presents an interesting challenge in this regard. Research increasingly implicates brain differences in sociopaths. Sociopaths, we are learning, fail to experience and process certain emotions like nonsociopaths. Their capacity to learn from aversive consequences appears to be compromised. And they show evidence of certain enduring forms of attentional pathology, involving defective inhibitory and impulse control.

The sociopath, in a word, appears to be a psychologically handicapped individual.

Yet it’s hard to empathize with the sociopath, who himself lacks empathy. And how not to personalize his actions—actions that can cause so much personal pain? And how not to personalize that pain, even if it results from the sociopath’s deficits?

It brings to mind the concept of processing a vicious dog attack. The dog is vicious. It attacks you. It knows it is attacking you. We can even imagine that it knows, on a primitive level, that it is wounding you. The dog needs to be leashed, kept away from others. Improperly secured, it sees you walking down the street, primitively registering your vulnerability. And then it attacks, remorselessly.

While it’s true that we can ascribe to sociopaths (and not dogs) a capacity to evaluate their prey and plot their means of attack, we run the risk, I think, of giving the sociopath too much credit.

After all, if the sociopath’s deficits destine him to interpersonal exploitation, does his exploitation become personal simply by virtue of his capacity to plot it?

Sure, the vicious dog, unlike the sociopath, may lack calculation and plotting skills. But for all intents and purposes, unless locked-up, both will inevitably attack and/or violate. The vicious dog, if it doesn’t attack you, will attack someone else. And if you are lucky enough to escape the sociopath’s transgressions, someone else won’t be.

From this perspective, the sociopath’s deficits will take forms of interpersonal exploitation just as surely as the child with ADHD can be expected to obnoxiously disrupt others, heedless of their boundaries.

From this angle, it’s possible to construe the sociopath’s aggression as tantamount to a hurricane’s damaging your house. The wreckage may be great, and traumatic; but it is the wreckage, ultimately, of an irrepressibly violent, impersonal force.

Arguably, this defines the sociopath: an irrepressibly [interpersonally] violent, impersonal force.

We hope, through our awareness, prudence, and luck, never to suffer its destructiveness. But if less lucky, we can remind ourselves that the sociopath, in the final analysis, is about as pointless, worthless, and arbitrary as a natural disaster.

(My use of “he” in this article was for consistency’s sake, not to suggest that men have a patent on sociopathy. This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)



233 Comments on "How a deficits disorder can cause so much grief and pain"

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  1. Buttons says:

    Thanks, again, OxD. The youngest son has been “living” with his best friend’s family since January, apparently. Spath son set his brother up in an efficiency apartment with 1 chair, no bed, and doled out money when he wanted to reward his brother. Youngest son spent Thanksgiving alone in an empty apartment and, for some reason, ended up back with spath brother. Finally, the abuse became so bad that he began staying with this family. Now, this family has 2 kids of their own to care for, and they want my youngest son out – not with malice, but because they are having their own family issues.

    This kid is going to get here with a boatload of issues. He’s a chronological adult, to be sure, but he has ZERO self-esteem, ZERO experience making any decisions (even bad ones), etc.

    So…..my goal is to be here as a mentor, rather than a parent. But, I really need to figure out how to present an objective attitude. The business about this poor kid spending Thanksgiving ALONE (first Holiday since ex spath’s death) really made me cry – the spath son promised him that he would come by and take him out and just never showed up. I don’t want to REACT to that in front of the son. I want to empathize with him, but I don’t want to “lose” it.

    If I’m making any sense, at all, I’ll be amazed! 😀



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  2. OxDrover says:

    Yea, I get what you are saying for sure, and maybe you can practice some calm and “affirming” statements like:

    “I can tell you are very upset about that.”
    “can you tell me how that event made you feel?”
    “what do you want to do about this?” (or what do you think you might be able to do to fix this?)

    When he tells you about something that upsets him, just AFFIRMING that he has feelings and that feelings are okay is a good step.

    If he expresses feelings like “I would like to kill john” you might say, “I can understand how very angry at John you are, but maybe it would be better if we didn’t say such violent things.”

    Maybe you can get him to express some GOALS for “where would you like to be in a year?” Own apartment? Have a car and license? Whatever. Then sit down with him and talk about how to go about working toward these or even smaller goals.

    Saving money, money management, choosing spending options, prioritizing, delaying gratification, etc.

    There are some “group home” living situations here that might be better for your son, and the group homes teach independent living skills for individuals like your son.

    How to grocery shop, how to manage money, how to cook simple meals, how to clean house, wash clothing, etc. so you may be starting from GROUND ZERO in the life skills area. You might also look and see if there are DAY programs rather than group homes that teach life skills as well. You might be able to get him into one of. I wouldn’t give up on finding him that sort of situation until I had explored all the other options.

    I hope the s-path son does not show up and undermine your progress either. Good luck and God Bless! ((((hugs))))



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  3. Buttons says:

    The spath son is 3 states away and is currently under investigation by various law enforcement agencies. From growing pot to forging military documents, he’s treading some VERY thin ice. If the hammer does come down on spath son, I triple-dog-dare him to call me! Triple-dog-dare!!!! It’s not going to be with glee, satisfaction, or malice that I say, “No. Nope. Not. Won’t. Will not.” It would be an opportunity to shut that door on my own terms.



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  4. Buttons says:

    OxD, I’m going to memorize the responses that you posted. Affirming, acknowledging, YES. And, the “what do you think you should do about it” puts the ball in his hands. YES!



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  5. OxDrover says:

    Dear Buttons,

    One of the things I did with my foster kids and my own too, was to make sure they KNEW HOW to cook and clean, do laundry, repair clothings, polish shoes, and saw doing those things around the house as part of family living, not as some chore to be avoided (or paid for). Some of the foster kids really RESISTED learning how and it was a big chore to keep on teaching them over and over—sometimes I wanted to scream at their passive aggressive “dumbness” LOL

    Opening a checking account, writing checkis, opening a savings account, budgeting money, etc.

    I also set it up with them that they gave me 1/3 of take home for standard room and board. 1/3 went to savings, and 1/3 was for expenses while they lived here (that might have to be adjusted depending on the situations but that was my “standard” division of their income.

    Most financial advisors advise that about 1/3 of a family or independent person’s income go to rent/utilities, at least 10 percent to savings, etc. Of course if the income is quite low it may actually take 1/2 to put a roof more substantial than a tent over their heads. Believe me, since my retirement if I didn’t have a paid for house to live in, I couldn’t afford a 2 bedroom wobbly house trailer on 1/2 of my income.

    Since my house is paid for though, the insurance and taxes + utilities works out to about 25% or 1/4 of my cash income so I am staying within that “budget” but ONLY because I have no house payment. If I was making a payment or paying rent it would be 100% of my cash income!

    So working him through a budget of income vs wants and needs will give him I hope some good grounding in decision making. I wish my son C had practiced more of what he KNOWS is the right way to budget and spend, but he does not control his impulses. Part of that may be the ADHD but it is controlled in any areas he WANTS to control his impulses in. LOL So I see that he does have a CHOICE!



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  6. Buttons says:

    Dang, OxD….these are things that we wanted to put into place, as well…..spooooooky! The room/board funds will assist in increased utilities, but our house is paid for, as well, and neither of us is retired, yet. What doesn’t go towards the utilities and groceries, we intend to put into an account for him so that he’ll have cash on hand when he wants to get his own place, buy a car, pay tuition, etc.

    Learning the budget is something EVERY person should be taught, and this kid’s father probably left a mountain of debt when he died, so he doesn’t know anything other than taking out loans to meet financial obligations – IF he even learned that from the ex spath! His spath brother hasn’t held down a job since his discharge in 2006 and “somehow” manages to buy a BMW, and other personal luxuries….sheeeeeesh.



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  7. Buttons says:

    Oh, and this business about excusing everything (in OUR former family) on an ADHD diagnosis makes me furious! I would have been the 1960’s poster child for ADHD and medicated to the nines had it been en vogue, then. Instead, I was pointed in the direction of creativity and artistic expression. I was constantly outside playing with neighborhood friends, and I had to learn how to focus through trial and error.



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  8. OxDrover says:

    Dear Buttons I was/am “hyper as heck” and when my ADHD kid was growing up I NEVER let him use his ADHD to excuse his behavior. When I was medicating kids professionally I had parents call me and say “Well, so he threw a chair at the teacher, what can you expect, he’s adhd?” My answer was THAT HE RESTRAIN HIMSELF FROM THROWING CHAIRS AT TEACHERs!!!!! LOL ROTFLMAO

    No, ADHD doesn’t give anyone a pass, but it is pretty well shown that ADHD kids become more or less addicted to video games as a way to escape reality, and my son sure qualifies as that, however, this is NOT the FIRST TIME he has chosen to buy games over living at my house! (as an adult) BUT the RULES HAVE NOT CHANGED….lie to me and you are out, this time though, it is OUT FOREVER. SORRY, CHARLIE! As the old Starkist tuna ad used to say! NO more “second chances.”

    Someone doesn’t have to be a psychopath to be dishonest, or to be foolish or UNwise, but you know, that’s NOT MY PROBLEM. I am WISELY disengaging myself from FOOLISH and UNWise people—and ALL dishonest people. This is the “ASRSE-HOLE FREE ZONE!!!!!” The funniest thing about that phrase is that it was coined about 10 years ago by an now X friend who is one of the ARSEHOLES I threw off this place! ROTFLMAO I have a feeling he will not be the last though. So far, son C is the last!



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