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Games Sociopaths Play (In Psychotherapy)

What can we say about the games sociopaths play in psychotherapy? We might start with: Sociopaths don’t seek counseling, ever, from a genuine motive to make personal growth.

This isn’t to say sociopaths don’t end up in therapists’ offices. They do, either because they’ve been mandated to attend therapy, or because they view counseling, somehow, as enabling their ulterior, manipulative agenda.

But never does the sociopath, on his own, awaken one day and say to himself, “I’ve got some  personal issues I need to examine seriously, for which pursuing psychotherapy is probably imperative—otherwise my life and relationships are going down the drain.”

I repeat, sociopaths will never, ever, seek counseling for purposes of genuinely confronting their damaged, and damaging, personalities. This is so reliable a principle that its converse equally applies—however antisocial his history may be or seem, the client who seeks counseling with a genuine motive to deal with a issue(s) disqualifies himself, perforce, as a sociopath.

And yet we know that sociopaths (some, not all) will play therapy games. But what therapy games?

I’ve alluded already to the court-mandated therapy game, which prescribes the sociopath’s manipulative cooperation toward meeting the court’s mandate that he participate in some sort of counseling—whether anger management, group therapy around domestic violence issues, or counseling for sexual offenders.

This isn’t to suggest that all, or even most, court-mandated clients are sociopaths, far from it;  even those who are court-mandated, the great majority of whom will be going through the motions psychotherapeutically, aren’t sociopaths. However, one can be quite certain that the court-mandated sociopath will most definitely regard the therapy process with absolute disdain; and, in my experience, unlike the unsociopathic client, the sociopathic client will be more likely to posture his sincere participation and recognition of his need for help. That’s to say, his tendency will be to “play” the system, more than even merely cooperate with it.

Then we have the sociopath who’s been read the riot act by, say, a seriously exhausted partner, and who agrees to participate in counseling. We might call this the appease his partner therapy game. In this case, the sociopath has reasons for wanting to preserve the relationship (or otherwise delay its dissolution)—reasons principally related to the conveniences the relationship offers or, just as influentially, to the inconveniences that a split or divorce would pose.

In these, and other, therapy games, the sociopath’s range of cooperative participation in therapy is rather wide—on one hand, he may present as compliant and receptive, effectively concealing his underlying insincerity and deception.  Alternatively, because after all it’s incredibly inconvenient that he should have to take time out of his life to appease his exploited partner, he may make no disguise of how put-out he feels, and may visibly brandish his indignation, agitation and resentment.

The latter attitude, especially in cases of couples therapy, makes for a dangerous dynamic, wherein the risk of abuse, post-therapy sessions, rises. One hopes the therapist recognizes this risk and terminates the couples sessions, which are contraindicated where  abuse is present and flagrant, whether overtly or covertly.

Of course it should only be so easy for any us to smoke out the well-disguised sociopath, who may just be a fantastic, convincing actor, and seem to seriously want to examine and own his misbehavior.

He may seem utterly sincere, for instance, in the therapist’s office, specifically in his contrition and his motivation to establish, or reestablish, himself as trustworthy. His agenda, even to the most astute clinician, may seem pure when it’s impure and merely effectively camaflaged.

Other therapy games sociopaths play include the I’m seeking therapy voluntarily charade, which can throw partners and therapists off, since we’ve established that clients who unmanipulatively, and voluntarily, engage in therapy, virtually by definition rule themselves out as sociopaths. This leaves us the tricky business of ascertaining the sociopath’s true motives for seeking therapy.

In other words, it’s not enough that he presents himself voluntarily for services, because his presentation, if he’s sociopathic, will necessarily be deceptive. And in any case, his status may be less voluntary than he purports; he may deny, persuasively, the court’s involvement when, alas, the courts (or probation) may be involved. 

But even in cases where the court isn’t involved, although technically he may have sought services voluntarily, in reality (as we’ve noted) the sociopath may be complying with a different sort of mandate—the mandate, for instance, of a furious partner, or an exasperated employer, whom he’s willing to mollify purely from selfish motives.

And so, once again, we have the illusion of a client who appears motivated to seek help and make a kind of sincere reckoning, but who, instead, uses therapy to manipulate his way out of the doghouse and restore the old leverage with which he’ll continue, sooner or later, to exploit in his customary style. 

Finally, for now, we have sociopaths who play the dedication to their spiritual development game. These are typically well-educated sociopaths with a polished psychological rap, who posture as committed spiritual seekers. Some of these sociopaths may go so far as to make a sort of cult—a seeming life mission—of their alleged spiritual development, raising irony and farce to new levels.

This category of sociopaths validates another principle that applies to sociopaths in general: While they are absolutely incapable of genuinely pursuing their personal and spiritual growth, yet smoother, more glib sociopaths can be highly capable of ungenuinely, insincerely, manipulatively pursuing their so-called personal growth.

Think of the predatory trollers (and rollers) at AA and NA meetings, and all other sociopaths, who posture one way or another as honest, open books seeking to confront their trauma responsibly and seriously.

Summoning guises like Mr. Sensitive, Mr. Wounded, Mr. Relationship Builder, Mr. I’m In Touch With Vulnerability, Mr. I’m In Recovery From Co-Dependence, and countless other pseudo-evolved raps, these sociopaths can be magnets—and they know it—for genuinely vulnerable women seeking sensitive, emotionally available, vulnerable men with whom to partner in their own recovery.  

I’ve outlined briefly, here, several of the more common therapy games that sociopaths play. They are by no means an exhaustive account. In concluding, I realize there are several points and issues that scream (at least to me) for elaboration. I intend to address them in more depth in upcoming Lovefraud columns.

(This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of the male gender was for convenience’s sake, not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)



333 Comments on "Games Sociopaths Play (In Psychotherapy)"

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  1. confused1 says:

    I’m still here. Boy have things been messed up if one could imagine that they be more messed up than I thought… I dont even know where I left off…. he couldn’t handle telling anyone about our engagement…. couldn’t handle the “pressure” of the “ring”? Or was it that his x wife told me he proposed to her that spring as well? Funny somewhere between the on again off again and the cheating and lying but BLAMING me for our relationships failure….. he put a block on both my son and my phone….. I didn’t understand why and then his x wife told me that she couldn’t believe he moved in this girl that he supposedly just met in his home and that she had 2 teenage girls. ” I guess its ok to be a father to someone else’s children? And it was not even the woman I caught him cheating on me with! My son said how come he moved them in and never us? I asked him that about a month ago as I thought it was a good question…. He did not answer me but instead just looked at me and smiled!
    I loved this man for 16 years the advice that I got from here saying my lover was dead and that pretend that he was a zombie ghost I could not understand as I very much feel… I understand it much better now as although hes the father of my son (biologically as he is not a father figure to him anyway…) I found myself years later after endless tears realizing hey they were right! He is like a soulless freak although to the blind eye he is quite charming OH and a great father (gag)
    Sorry I have been gone for a while but its sure seems like Ive been through hell and back. I hocked the ring as what it represented was a big lie.
    Me, I should change my screen name to stupidhurtpissedoff1 lol oh and I bought a bullmastiff :)

  2. Truthspeak says:

    Confused1, I am SO sorry that all of this has continued to happen.

    Sweetie, you are NOT stupid, so please don’t describe yourself as such. You were in love with an illusion, just like a great number of us were. Consider an EMPOWERING ID, like “GettingYzer,” get it? Yzer? Y – zer…..wiser…..

    At any rate, congratulations on the bullmastiff! They’re wonderful dogs.

    And, whever you can, avoid talking to the kids about the spath. Yeah, they need to know the truth, but try to avoid informing them of adult issues. There are many things that kids just can’t process – they don’t have the maturity or Life’s Experiences to reference.

    Hugs to you….

  3. david says:

    Sorry to read that people here have children involved in dealing with a Sociopath. I am not married and do not have children. The stress must be horrible. I could believe Sociopath are an illusion. Well put. They just make themselfs as they go. My Narcissist, sociopath did that. (it) tuck other people experiences or life storys for his own.

  4. panther says:

    Oh gosh…just wanted to say that I witnessed this just last week in a group therapy here in Germany, but I think this woman was a Narc not a sociopath/psychopath. She definitely had very low empathy.

    The moment I joined the group…something struck me as very odd. This strikingly gorgeous young woman who was talking more than the therapist, interrupting people to tell them “how it is” and waving her finger in their face with her own advice. Then the therapist, much to my surprise, looked at this woman with ever-adoring eyes and said, “Ahh, she’s like our second therapist. Isn’t it great what she’s saying.” I was bewildered. This young woman repeatedly shut down other members in the group to the point where most people didn’t speak at all and she dominated every discussion. Yet the therapist was seemingly bewitched by her (they had had one-on-one sessions together previously and were apparently “friends” now).

    I later made the mistake of saying that we as a group should be more aware of other people in the group and make sure that we are considering the feelings of others in the room. I intentionally said “we” because I feared this girl would feel attacked. Of course she did. It instantly was all about her, and she told me, “I am who I am and I shouldn’t have to change myself to accommodate other people’s weaknesses. You all just wish you could be as confident as I am, and I want that for you all too, can’t you see?” I looked around the room to see silent faces shying away just looking at her and then looking down. One person got the nerve to speak up and said to her, “Well, actually, you never let anyone else speak.” BOOM. Explosion. And…the therapist said that we were attacking her because we were jealous of how confident she is! The therapist defended this woman. I didn’t say another word at this point because I was so flabbergasted.

    I’ve read so much about how these personalities manipulate even the psychologist, but I was floored to see it in action, and to realize that I had spotted the dynamic within minutes yet the trained professional thought this young woman could do NO WRONG.

    No surprise…later this woman made it her mission to “befriend” me by telling me how beautiful I am and “flirting” with only me all day (she said this). When I responded with a “huh?” because I was thinking ooooooh ridiculous amounts of flattery of course! I remember this old trick! She vetoed me and…well…convinced the therapist that I should not be allowed in anymore group sessions. Also, the woman who spoke up and said that this woman doesn’t let anyone else speak got kicked out too! She came up to me and said, “Do you know what she told me the first day I met her? She said that no one had better mess with her, cause everyone who has ever messed with her got kicked out.”

    I just had to share this because it’s so fascinating and disturbing at the same time. What is most amazing is that learning and studying about these personalities DOES make us able to see them. Unfortunately the therapist hasn’t read and/or lived through what I’ve/we’ve been through and she didn’t see it.

    Anyhow…..!
    :) Good morning from Germany.

  5. kim frederick says:

    Panther, Yep. Sounds like you “got” one. Don’t know how productive that therapy can be for you. Sorry.
    Maybe it’s time to move on and find a new group?

  6. panther says:

    Hi Kim,

    You know, I wasn’t around to see what might have happened with LL, but I do know that I wasn’t here a very long time before I left. I think it was something like 3 months. It just dwindled off because I needed to stop thinking about sociopaths in order to heal.

    I guess I cannot really be of any help with that question because I haven’t been around consistently enough to see people come in for a month or two and then start telling people off. I can imagine that happening, though. I do remember really short flash in the pans where people came in with stories and then later admitted they themselves were the sociopath/psychopath from the story!!!! There was a guy I remember who told this horrible story….yet didn’t mention his role in it. Curiously I asked him what part of the story was he involved in….OOOOPPPSSS he had no problem saying flat out something like, “Oh, I am a psychopath. I’m the one who did all that to her.” THAT was quite a major WTF!!! moment!!!!

    And Kim I wanted out of that group the moment I walked in and saw this dynamic. I have left the group and I am looking now for other options. It’s unfortunate because every other person in the group was really sweet. I had known some of them from other therapy activites (the hospital hosts different kinds of group therapies, like art etc) and I would have loved to be around them. But the last thing I want right now in my life is to have to deal with another narc/spath/P etc!

  7. darwinsmom says:

    Panther,

    Yup were spot on about that dynamic. You know how my therapist solved the possibility of a patient pulling hte wool over everyone’s eyes, including the therapist? They were two therapists! They brought in people whom they diagnozed for identity issues of their own personal practice, when there was a spot open (if a previous group client decided he could live on without group therapy) and because they were two, including sitting at the opposite sides of the room, it becomes more difficult to manipulate or assume power. When her colleague died, she ceased giving group therapy, until she could find a replacement. Not even sure, she ever did find a new therapist to partner with in group therapy. There was also one big major rule. Two people who knew each other from group therapy were forbidden to relate outside group therapy. If they wanted to meet up outside of therapy, they both needed to cease the group therapy. Nor could they have individual sessions with their therapist during the group period. And you couldn’t start group therapy if there was someone in the group who already knew you. I also know my therapist even refuses to take on a client for individual therapy when that person is acquainted with another client following therapy. Instead, she refers them to someone else. All these safeguards would make it very hard for a sociopath to infiltrate, stalk or use the group to find new victims.

    Actually, when I think of it, it’s very common in group dynamics that can have some therapeutic value to have two coaches, trainers or therapists leading it. When I trained a group of 8 new tourleaders, we’d be two trainers. We tourlead individually, but we train by two, since the training can evoke personal stories and group discussions on basic communication, etc… And certainly on personal evaluation session regarding the last tourleading trip (a debriefing session) sometimes people must be able to open up about their bad trip (non drug related).

    I can hardly imagine doing such sessions as just the sole coach. It must be as exhausting for a therapist as well. And on your own it’s impossible to see and observe everything. Because that therapist was alone, Panther, it was very easy for that toxic patient to take up that role of second therapist.

  8. panther says:

    Hi darwinsmom,

    That’s a pretty good idea having two therapists. The group I was in had none of those rules. Not a single one. There were lots of people socializing outside of therapy and some members had individual therapies with the psychologist. My boyfriend had been a patient of the therapist for a short time and from what I could gather secondhand about their sessions, she was a genuinely empathetic individual, so I don’t blame her for the situation. I mean I don’t think she’s another disordered person hiding behind a psychology degree. I know firsthand just how easy it is to be duped by those types of personalities. It really did seem like she was enchanted with the woman. The way her eyes beamed as she gazed adoringly at her was awkward and weird….and eerie. I know that stare. That’s the one I used to give my ex, the sociopath. It’s the damn trance look!!!

    Your therapist was very wise to use safeguards against those sorts of situations. Unfortunately, I think most professionals are not aware of just how easily this can happen. I think they believe that their education should make them able to see something more easily and that they’d catch it. I don’t think it’s arrogance, but just naivety, like a lot of us had before learning once and for all what the hell sort of people are really out there.

  9. darwinsmom says:

    panther,

    I think she is adamant about those safeguard because it’s one of her expertise fields – recovery processes from abuse in the past… So, yup she ‘gets it’ all the way when it comes to spaths.

    Yup, exactly that ‘trance’ look. Fills my heart with pity whenever I see it in someone who’s in the claws of a spath.

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