Lovefraud recently received an e-mail from a young man, we’ll call him Kyle, who has just broken up with a woman whom he now believes is a sociopath. Based on the behavior he described, I’d say the guy is right. The woman cheated on him, and when confronted, either downplayed her behavior, said it was none of his business, or verbally attacked him. She had no interest in resolving problems. “Her solution to everything was to run, wait awhile, and then pile on affection as if nothing ever happened,” Kyle wrote.
Kyle has been researching sociopathy to try to grasp what is really going on with this woman. Here’s more of his e-mail, which I have reproduced with his permission:
First of all, I don’t believe criminal behavior, monetary fraud, substance abuse, or any other overt signs of social misconduct are primary symptoms of sociopathy. I suppose that’s the big question though… what is a primary sign? My theory is that the sociopath is incapable of developing personal values through the process of induction, meaning they are unable to look within themselves to gain a sense of self-esteem. This results their inability to experience empathy. After all, if one cannot generate a sense of self worth from their own reasoning how can they be expected to relate to others who do?
It seems in every case I have read about, the sociopath is an extravert. I think this is natural as the person must constantly be in contact with others because they find no satisfaction in themselves. Sociopaths also seem to be universally intelligent. (Perhaps these are the factors that differentiate a sociopath from a psychopath. Again, forgive my ignorance on the subject). What results is a charming individual who preys on other people to satisfy an endless hunger for temporary esteem. Because they cannot make sense of the internal values which should be generating this esteem, they simply try to get it from others, essentially reversing cause and effect.
In the end, this system never quite works, so they develop an incredible defense to avoid the fact that every close relationship falls apart. Every interaction is bounded by a series of rules/parameters. So long as the victim stays within these, things run smoothly. However, close human contact results in an emotional trade off that is impossible to control. Normally this is a tremendously good thing: trust, loyalty, and compassion are established. However, these all rely on a person’s sense of self worth, and the sociopath is not able to understand that. Sooner or later the relationship becomes too close and loses all stability. This is the point where the sociopath is “found out.”
In dealing with the woman, I felt a certain childlike quality to her emotions throughout our relationship. Though she was highly developed socially, in a lot of ways I almost felt like I was dealing with a puppy who just killed a small bird in the front yard. I think my mistake was in believing that I would be different. If I held my hand out she wouldn’t bite it. But I think this quality is misleading, as that naiveté is something the sociopath will avoid at all costs. They simply refuse to learn from their mistakes, or even acknowledge them in the first place. It seems to be a rare combination of a highly developed intellect and a poorly developed emotional response.
Perhaps at some point every sociopath learns to guard that core of insecurity at the deepest level and as such cannot even look at that, let alone analyze it and learn from it. In time, they develop an incredibly complex mechanism to guard this, adding another component with each deception. By early adulthood, these deceptions become so many that the cost is just too great to turn back, and it’s just so much easier to keep going that the thought never even crosses their mind.
These people are not normal
Kyle has correctly observed many traits of a sociopath: Criminality, fraud and substance abuse are not necessarily the prime indicators of this personality disorder. Sociopaths do not experience empathy. Sociopaths are extraverts. They are highly developed socially, but emotionally immature. They do not learn from mistakes.
However, his theories on why sociopaths are the way they are suffer from a fatal flaw: They are developed from the perspective of someone who is normal.
The hardest part of understanding what happened during our entanglements with sociopaths is coming to terms the extent to which these people are not normal.
Lovefraud readers have described sociopaths as not human. Aliens inhabiting human bodies. As cold as these descriptions may sound, they’re probably the easiest way to grasp what you are dealing with in a relationship with a sociopath.
So how different are they? Let’s take a look.
What sociopaths want
Normal people want love and harmonious relationships with others. Normal people want to feel competent in some form of endeavor. Normal people want to contribute to the world in some way.
Sociopaths want power, control and sex. Since they do not really value human relationships, they only want to win.
Kyle is correct in stating that sociopaths cannot look within themselves and develop personal values. He is incorrect in assuming that this causes the sociopath distress. Yes, these disordered people are empty inside, and they may be vaguely aware that they are missing something. But most sociopaths do not have issues with their self-esteem. If anything, they are grandiose, and their views of themselves are ridiculously inflated. They feel absolutely entitled to anything that they want, simply because they want it.
Self-esteem and sociopaths
Kyle speculates that sociopaths must be in constant contact with other people because they are trying to borrow self-esteem from others. This is not the case. Sociopaths view people as pawns to be manipulated into giving them what they want. Every social encounter is a potential feeding opportunity, a chance to convince someone to provide something.
Many people, of course, eventually catch on that they are being used, and stop serving as supply to the sociopaths. Sociopaths are aware of this—they’ve experienced it many times. So they are constantly on the lookout for new targets. When one victim is depleted, he or she must be replaced with another.
This leads to the answer to Kyle’s question, which is, “what is a primary sign of sociopathy?” Dr. Leedom has said lying. Steve Becker has said exploitative behavior. Put them together and you can say deceitful exploitation is central to the disorder.
Insecurity and sociopaths
Kyle suggests that sociopaths are insecure and build defense mechanisms to protect themselves from being hurt. By the time they’re adults, these defense mechanisms are so elaborate and complex that sociopaths can’t return to their authentic selves.
Again, he’s trying to interpret the sociopath based on how normal people may cope with personal issues. This is a mistake.
Wikipedia defines insecurity as, “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be unloved, inadequate or worthless.” Sociopaths probably should see themselves as unloved, inadequate or worthless, but they don’t. They may seem to be exhibiting insecurity, but in reality it’s one of two things:
- Frustration that they’re not getting what they want.
- Manipulation tactics to get what they want.
Sociopaths have no feelings, so there are no feelings to hurt. They can certainly pretend to be hurt, but it is a ruse designed to guilt others into giving them what they want.
So if sociopaths are not trying to protect their deeply felt insecurities, where does this disorder come from? In most cases, the temperamental traits that lead to sociopathy are genetic. That usually means one of the parents is a sociopath, and sociopaths are notoriously bad parents. If a child is born with the traits, bad parenting can make them develop the full disorder.
But even if a child with the traits gets good parenting, the disorder can develop. Parents who have a child at risk of developing sociopathy need to take extra steps to help the child overcome his or her predisposition, but the parents may not realize it. And in some cases, even the best parenting is not enough to overcome negative genetics.
It is also possible for a mostly normal child who has extremely an extremely bad growth experience—such as being moved from foster home to foster home as a baby—can develop the disorder.
Accept and avoid
Please understand that I am not picking on Kyle. He’s obviously given a lot of thought to his experience with a sociopathic woman, and is trying to understand what happened. He has a reasonably good handle on normal behavior and normal motivations.
His letter simply provided me with an opportunity to illustrate that what we know and understand about normal human behavior simply does not apply to sociopaths. Thank you, Kyle, for allowing me to quote you.
In the end, we may not be able to truly comprehend sociopaths. The way they go through life is just too foreign to our natures. We must simply accept that they are very, very different from us, learn to recognize the symptoms, and if we see them, run for the hills.