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.)