Are sociopaths who cry “sensitive sociopaths,” or just extra clever sociopaths? What’s going on when sociopaths cry? Is their crying ever sincere, or always insincere? Is it ever deep, or always superficial? Always calculated, or sometimes spontaneous?
In short, what’s the deal with sociopaths and the crying game?
There are some sociopaths—more classical, Cleckley-like sociopaths—who can “cry on demand,” by which I mean cry, as if spontaneously, from a consciously manipulative agenda. Many of these sociopaths can summon displays of emotional vulnerability, like tearful anguish and contrition, with the skill of the gifted character actor.
In some cases, to extend the metaphor, some sociopaths—in the moment—may be so in character as to “virtually believe” in the authenticity of their presentations. These sociopaths may conjure tears, for instance, and then see the tears they’ve conjured as evidence, as ratification, of the sincerity of their response.
I use the term “virtually believe” to denote the sociopath’s capacity, in these cases, to almost delude himself into believing that he’s as sensitive and vulnerable as his presentation would suggest, when in fact—that is, when in reality—he’s, of course, shallow and fraudulent.
Conversely, there are also sociopaths who, producing seemingly spontaneous displays of vulnerable emotion, remain aware of the inauthenticity of their theatrics. That is, these sociopaths recognize that they are acting even as they may be successfully convincing others that they’re not.
What partly covers, or protects, sociopaths who engage the “crying game” is the inherent challenge of separating spontaneity and authenticity. That is, we tend to assume that what’s spontaneous is also authentic—indeed, that spontaneity itself virtually proves authenticity.
But this is a fallacy, which is to say that what’s spontaneous isn’t necessarily authentic. The sociopath’s ability, for instance, to conjure tears spontaneously—that is, at any given, self-serving moment —certainly doesn’t certify his emotional display as authentic.
But is this to say that sociopaths’ tears and crying are always, by definition, inauthentic? I wouldn’t say so, at least not definitively. But I would suggest that where, arguably, the sociopath’s tears are not a product of sheer manipulativeness and inauthenticity, the emotion(s) driving his tears will, by definition, be shallow and invariably selfish.
So, for instance, the sociopath choking up in the courtroom upon hearing the verdict “guilty” that will lock him away for life, may be conveying real emotion—he may really feel bad, upset; however, to the extent that he’s really suffering, we can know that he’s suffering not from what he took or stole from his victim(s), but from what he feels has been taken or stolen from him (for instance, his freedom).
He will suffer, in a word, as victim, not victimizer.
And should he appear to “grieve” his situation—versus protest it with his narcissistic rage—again let me stress: he will be grieving as victim, not victimizer. And his grief, like everything else about him, will be shallow, and dissipate quickly; and then he’ll reinhabit his usual state of emotional nullity.
But again, even in cases where his disarming loss of emotional composure—his tearfulness, for example—isn’t purely manipulative and play-acting, we can surmise that, often, this will reflect less the sociopath’s genuine, deeply felt emotion, like sadness, than a buildup of tension and stress associated with developments unfavorable to his interests (for instance, a jury’s return of “guilty”)—all of which may culminate in an emotional discharge of tension, which occasionally may take the disarming form of a passing squall of tears.
(Thanks to Lovefraud member Newlife, inspirer and friend, for prompting my initial consideration of this subject, which I intend to expand in a near-term post. As always, my use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake, and not to suggest that females are incapable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed. This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)