Sitting with an antisocial or sociopathic client is an interesting experience—for a while, anyway, until it grows tedious…almost boring. There is the initial curiosity about, and fascination with, the client’s antisocial behaviors…their nature…breadth.
Perhaps there’s even a certain rubbernecking interest in the train-wreck of moral turpitude these clients present—with their staggering patterns of ethical and moral debaseness. Admittedly, it can be breathtaking, on certain levels, to behold the magnitude of their abuse of others’ boundaries and dignity, accompanied by missing feelings of accountability and remorse.
And the interest in the experience with such clients persists a bit longer when you are dealing with someone who is “intelligent.” There’s something just inherently more compelling, at least initially, about an “intelligent” sociopath who guiltlessly transgresses others in the gross, chronic way that sociopaths do, versus the less intelligent sociopath, whose intellectual limitations seem to dim, however unfairly, the spectacular nature of his violations.
But after a while, as I say, sitting with the sociopathic client, however intelligent he may even be, grows tedious. It’s not unlike the experience of discovering that someone you expected to find extremely interesting (and perhaps did, initially) is, at bottom, really a boring individual with little to say or offer. There’s something anti-climactically disappointing in the discovery of the individual’s gross limitations.
With most sociopathic personalities, in my experience, this sense of disillusionment—of of having to face the reality, ultimately, of their emotional vacuity—occurs in the work with them. As different in temperament and intelligence as they may be, ultimately sociopaths prove to be highly ungratifying clients to work with. This is because, regardless of their ability to talk the talk, they are, ultimately, unable to make themselves genuinely accountable for their actions, the fact of which, after a while, simply grows tiresome.
The sociopathic client just doesn’t feel, in a heart-felt way, so many of the things he “allegedly” is ready to own, or the reforms he is “allegedly” ready to make; and when this becomes clear—as it always does—a certain tedium, boredom enters the sessions.
This boredom, I think, arises in the recognition of the futility of making a real connection with the sociopath; also in the futility of his making any sort of real connection to the pain he’s caused others, and will continue to cause others, despite his superficial assertions of regret and remorse.
And so this is where the big yawns threaten to emerge with regularity. It’s the feeling of having your time wasted, which is exactly what the sociopath is doing. He is wasting your time, as he wastes everything from which he doesn’t derive a personally, selfishly compelling benefit.
It is that moment of untruth—that moment when it becomes clear that, no matter how verbally interesting and, perhaps, even engaging he may be, the sociopathic individual finally lacks anything substantive to say, feel, or aspire to. Lacking this substance, the possibly initially engaging experience with him yields, ultimately, to the sense of being futilely engaged with an emotional cipher.
That is, for a while his charisma, charm and engaging qualities, if they are present, may compensate for the missing underlying emotional substance. But there is a shelf-life for this compensatory entertainment before the tedium of his barren inner emotional life begins to weigh down the experience of him. There is a limit to hearing the same repetitive pronouncements of intended change, pseudo remorse and responsibility.
There is also a limit, beyond which it becomes increasingly oppressive to sit with the sociopath, who in one breath may claim responsibility for his violations of others, while in the very next withdraw his pseudo-assumption of responsibility and abruptly rationalize the very behavior that, only moments before, he seemingly repudiated?
This is the sociopath at work. Sitting with him can be an interesting experience. But as his particular, underlying emotional disability surfaces, the interest leads, surpisingly quickly, to a feeling of ennui…almost oppression.
(This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake only and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)