When I think sociopath, I think this: as a pattern, he is willing, with awareness (hence, with intellect intact) to hurt people, or leave them feeling violated, in order to pursue his gratifications and interests which, for him, are always more important than the pain his pursuit of them inflicts on others.
Malice (as I’ve written about elsewhere) may or may not be a motive or factor. It’s true that for some sociopaths the gratifications they seek are predatory-based; for these sociopaths, the process of exploiting others becomes central in their violating behavior.
But this isn’t true for all sociopaths, many of whom are not driven, primarily, by a malicious or sadistic agenda.
For many, if not all, sociopaths, the core motive driving their behavior is to satisfy a present impulse, desire, or felt need. But the problem with sociopaths—and surely one of their distinguishing, defining qualities—is the alarming indifference they bring to the collatoral damage they cause others, about which, at least intellectually, they have awareness.
This speaks, of course, to the sociopath’s deficient empathy and tendency to callousness. But again, the deficient empathy by itself isn’t so telling; more telling are the empathic deficits in connection with the pattern, and the sociopath’s intellectual comprehension, of his grossly violating behaviors.
I stress that it is this confluence of the sociopath’s intellectual awareness of the damage his pattern of violating behaviors causes others, coupled with his striking emotional indifference to his damage-causing behaviors, that seems to announce we are dealing with a peculiar personality called “sociopathic.”
For the sociopath, interpersonal commitments can be maintained so long as they don’t interfere with the pursuit of his targeted present gratifications, or relief. But just as soon as the sociopath perceives a commitment or agreement to interfere with his present agenda, it becomes, for him, effectively null and void. The previous commitment and agreement are now utterly discardable and meaningless.
Whereas the nonsociopath would feel some shame, some uneasiness, to suddenly, unilaterally blow-off, and render nonbinding, a commitment he made to someone else, the sociopath feels relatively untroubled doing so. Why?
One reason is this: Whatever, in the sociopath’s mind, emerges as interfering with his present, immediate interest(s)—be it previously accepted obligations, commitments, responsibilities, and, yes, relationships—these become experienced, for the sociopath, as presently obstructive, and thereby antogonistic to his current agenda.
Therefore, he now feels the right, in effect, to protect himself against the assault of intrusions and unwelcome constraints to his agenda, whatever their source. He protects himself (and his interests) by, metaphorically, flipping his middle finger at these unwelcome disturbances to the pursuit of his immediate interests.
The sociopath feels entitled to do this! In his mind, things, or you, have gotten in his way. This makes him, in a sense, the victim, and you, or whatever now obstructs his agenda, his victimizer.
Yes, this is an extremely narcissistic position, and yes, the sociopath embodies narcissism in its most virulent form.
Let’s look at an arbitrary example: If you were to ask a sociopath, “How could you have just, blatantly, without shame, left your ‘date’ waiting at that restaurant, where you arranged to meet at 8 pm, and never showed up, and never even called to say you weren’t showing up,?” here are some things he might say, versus what he might have really been thinking:
He might say, “You are right. That was inexcusable. I should not have done that.” (Reflecting his intellectual awareness of the social inappropriateness of his behavior.)
But he might be thinking, “I left her there because I had a chance to go out with that cashier I’d been scouting at the CVS for the last couple weeks; and I sure as hell wasn’t gonna let that opportunity pass. I wasn’t gonna let her (my date) stand in the way of my pursuing a better, more exciting opportunity.”
Or, he might say, “Yeah, I should have at least called. That would have been right.”. (Reflecting his intact intellect)
But he might be thinking, “Calling her would have taken time out of my life at that moment, when I was concentrating on my present priority, which was to impress and seduce this cashier. I did not want to be hindered in my present agenda. I should never have to be hindered in my agenda, and anything, or anyone, that hinders me by introducing inconvenient expectations of me is obstructing me and antagonizing me. So if she was pissed off and hurt that I blew her off, too bad. She became a nuisance.”
When the sociopath feels the need to rationalize—and he is so narcissistic that he may not even feel the need to do so—this is the kind of rationalizing he does. His present needs are always preeminent, and he feels little, if ever any, conflict about this. He is comfortable making, experiencing, his present needs as preeminent regardless of what this means to the needs, and expectations, of others around him.
In a split second he is willing, if necessary for his own, latest chance at gratification, to devalue and ignore his obligations to others. And he does this from the sense that this is his most basic privilege; it makes absolute, comfortable sense to him.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)