Sometimes I like to revisit, churn all over again, a prior concern around sociopathy. A number of colleagues were recently stressing the defective quality of empathy in the more sociopathic clients they work with, while I found myself stressing the quality of remorselessness in the more sociopathic clients with whom I work (and have worked).
In my view, remorselessness is a much more serious indicator of sociopathy than lack of empathy per se. I know I’ve stated this in previous pieces, but well…here I go all over again.
Many people lack empathy for a great many reasons, depending on how one even defines empathy. But clearly this is true—many of us have a relatively difficult time emotionally stepping into another’s shoes and genuinely, emotionally inhabiting (as it were) his or her experience; that is, feeling their experience with them, for them.
I’d venture to say that a rather high percentage of the general population fails pretty badly at meeting this pretty classical criterion to be considered “empathic.” Of course, nothing is black and white: sometimes we find ourselves experiencing empathy in surprising circumstances, almost unaccountably; otherwise, sensing that empathy is clearly indicated in certain situations, we might find ourselves in suprisingly, uncomfortably short supplies of it?
And so the experience of pure empathy eludes many of us, perhaps even the majority of us, often…more often than we might even want to admit.
However, remorselessness is a whole different kettle of fish. A typical case involving a nonsociopath goes like this. One partner, a good communicator, says to her husband, “What you said to me last night in front of our company was humiliating. You have no idea, I’m guessing, how much that hurt me and pissed me off. If you ever do that again, I swear I may never forgive you.”
Her husband, if he’s really honest, might say, “You know what? I really don’t have any idea. I didn’t see, and still don’t, why what I said was that big a deal. I was trying to be funny. I didn’t think you’d take it so personally.”
This husband, we might say, lacks empathy. We don’t even need to know what he said that aroused his wife’s ire to surmise that, here, in this example, taken from a couples session I facilitated recently, he is demonstrating less than optimal empathy.
But he also added, sincerely, “I’m sorry. I am. I’m sorry I hurt you so much. I won’t do that again.”
His wife was only somewhat appeased by his apology because, while it expressed remorse, it didn’t reflect much, if any, empathy. And she wanted more than remorse. She wanted empathy.
I believe it is entirely possible, even common, to express remorse, sincerely, even in the absence of empathically appreciating the impact of the original behavior for which you are expressing the remorse. This is because, if you are not a sociopath, you can really feel bad for hurting someone even without quite understanding why what you did was so hurtful.
Now, in the example above, the partner chastised for his previous night’s insensitivity could have responded differently, reacting to his wife’s feedback with, “You know what? Too damned bad. So you felt hurt? Well…get over it.”
This would be a response not only lacking in empathy but also in remorse. As an isolated, occasionally defensive, hostile response, it wouldn’t necessarily suggest the presence of sociopathy; but as a patterned kind of remorseless reaction it may very well signal the presence of sociopathic tendencies.
In the vast majority of cases, the relatively non-empathic individual reacts with some form of true remorse upon learning he or she has been experienced as damaging, even if it comes as a real, confusing surprise to learn this. Again, the typical response might be along the lines of, “Really? I had no idea.” (reflecting defective empathy) “But I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you like that.” (reflecting remorse).
Where remorse is missing from acts that have been experienced as hurtful, we find ourselves in much more seriously disturbed territory. Sociopaths, of course, may feign remorse, although many times not. But feigned, shallow remorse—remorse that serves his self-interest, not yours—is worth less than no remorse.
A chronic theme of weak, or absent, remorse is thus much more indicative of the sociopathically oriented individual than the measure of his empathy. Oddly enough weak, or even sometimes missing, empathy, doesn’t necessarily preclude some form of meaningful connection with another (although it won’t be empathically-based).
But weak, or missing, remorse fatally does preclude such a connection, ensuring only the possibility of a damaging, exploitive experience.
(This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake only, not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaiors discussed.)