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When amoral characters just aren’t sociopaths

You can sit with a sociopath and know he’s a sociopath, and sit with someone who perpetrates the behaviors of the sociopath, even as comfortably as the sociopath does, and yet know he’s not a sociopath. How? How can you know?

Is it something intuitive?  I address this from a clinical perspective, not a personal or intimate one. But still, I find it somewhat interesting to feel, or recognize, this distinction, and maybe you’ll find it more relevant than I imagine.

Of course, the history says a lot. Whenever you are dealing with someone who is raising his kids with some real love, holding down a job, paying his bills, not abusing his spouse and maintaining a history (past and present) of friendships, these are indicators that whatever else he is up to, he is probably not a sociopath.

And so, strangely enough, in sitting with an individual who is perpetrating “dubious” behaviors, and is doing so perhaps even as a lifestyle versus, say, as a sudden, temporary departure from his normal self —strangely enough, in sitting with such a person, one sometimes gets the sense if this individual, in his essence, is “clean,” or “dirty?” Meaning, is his dubious behavior reflective of a corrupt essence, or does it somehow feel divorced from his essence?

Depending on the answer, one’s experience of the individual can be dramatically, significantly different and diagnostically very telling.

If this sounds simplistic, even untenable, I understand; and yet I’ve found it to be–for me, at least–a rather reliable experiential factor in ruling-out sociopathy.

I’ve worked with individuals who have done, or are doing, some pretty rotten, disturbing things, yet who clearly are not sociopaths, whereas I’ve also worked with individuals whose behavioral resumes may favorably compare to the former individuals’, yet who clearly are sociopathic.

Now what do I mean by “clean?” Of course, I don’t mean it in a physical sense. I mean that the individual transmits a certain authenticity, a certain genuineness that the sociopath doesn’t. He also possesses what I’d describe, very importantly, as a willingness and capacity to be known. Further, he possesses the capacity to really own his suspect actions: he does not deny them; is less likely than the sociopath to rationalize them; and is less likely to blame others for the liberties he takes with them.

He may, or may not, feel guilt for what he does that he knows is wrong from an ethical (if not legal) standpoint; and it’s often the case that if he doesn’t feel guilt he won’t pretend that he does; and yet, unlike the sociopath, he may feel genuinely uncomfortable with his lack of guilt.

He may say something like, “I know I should feel guilty about this, but I don’t. I really don’t. Sometimes I wonder, is there something wrong with me?” And he will say and mean this sincerely.

Conversely, there is something, as we know, very slippery about the sociopath—slippery in the way he discusses, or evades, responsibility for his behaviors. The sociopath’s emotional superficiality becomes evident in the office fairly soon; and, for that reason, one grows bored with him, soon.

If he doesn’t feign guilt or regret for his actions—that is, even if he admits to feeling no guilt, notably he is neither uncomfortable with, nor curious about, his lack of guilt. (In contrast, as I suggested, the guiltless non-sociopath tends to be somewhat more struck by, and curious about, his guiltlessness.)

The sociopath, I can’t stress enough, is not someone you can get to know. This is a subtle, very revealing experience. Something obstructs the process of getting to know him. First of all, he does not make himself knowable in a genuine sense.  He is not engagable at a deep enough, and genuine enough level, to be “known.”

It is surely also true that something else, something perhaps more elemental, obstructs here: the sociopath is gapingly missing personal substance. And personal substance is required to be known.

There is emptiness there, which nothing can fill. At best the smoother sociopath can disguise this massive deficit with superficially entertaining, diverting qualities. But in the clinical setting, these disguises are less effective, their effect shorter-term.

He can’t hide for long the fact that he can’t make himself known; or that, at bottom, there is so little of him to know. If he weren’t so sociopathic, he’d feel ashamed of this, mortified.

Of course if he felt that shame, that mortification, he wouldn’t be a sociopath.

(This article is copyrighted © 2011 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 attitudes and behaviors discussed.)

 



73 Comments on "When amoral characters just aren’t sociopaths"

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  1. stolen_innocence says:

    I started reading this article with a little fear that “maybe he isn’t!!!!” And then for the first time I really though…what if he isn’t…who gives a hairy rats arse…then I kept reading and read this….

    FightAnotherDay says:

    Whether Steve is absolutely correct or not, what I gained from this article is that when meeting some one, you should TRY to get to KNOW them deeply. I am very out-going, and like many of us victims I was more concerned about being liked by my (unknown) P than what he had to offer me.
    Like Steve says, “the smoother sociopath can disguise this massive deficit with superficially entertaining, diverting qualities.” I was distracted by my P’s humor, stories, tall-tales, and pity ploys.
    I of course was always “waxing”, telling my P my dreams, my ethics, my tastes.
    The P didn’t share, but rather, as we know, used my openness to become my perfect match.

    I wouldn’t change a thing if I described my spath….why I was attracted to him…how he got to know me. I used to joke that he knew me so well but I felt like I didn’t know him as well…I remember thinking how am I head over hills in love with someone that I still need to learn so much about. How many times I thought he couldn’t be a spath because he was sooooo well liked by everyone. How I thought so many times how everyone liked him but no one REALLY knew him. I remember someone describing him once as that guy everyone knows…the guy who is always at Kipps…yet no one really knew HOW they new him. He was just a funny/great guy.

    I’m starting to “get it” if that is possible. I still hear things about him from mutual friends…now they don’t hurt they just confirm to me what a monster he truly is.
    He just proposed to the OW. I didn’t cry…I got pissed that he bought a 25k engagement ring as still sends me hot checks or no checks to pay back the loan I made to him. Then I realize…I bet she paid for the ring…lol
    I get angry that he is planning a wedding in two months in Jamaica and he won’t pay his sister the money he owes her because when he didn’t pay his phone bill she covered it so hers didn’t get turned off too…

    Then I step back and THANK GOD that I’m not still paying his phone bill…that I didn’t buy my own engagement ring…that I didn’t marry the monster or have children with him

    Today is his birthday and I forgot…this time last year I was on the floor sobbing so hard I couldn’t stand. But this year I FORGOT!!!!! When I did remember I was driving in the car…and the date just popped into my head all of a sudden….my first reaction was a smile that I actually forgot up until that point!!!!

    Today I really believe that I will survive this…today I really believe that I am better off…that it doesn’t matter if he stays with her forever or one more week. He is who he is….he did what he did…I wasn’t the first and I probably won’t be the last.

    I still hurt…somedays more than others…somedays I’m just pissed!!!!! But I can almost physically feel the healing…it’s coming. And I have to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone on LF. I don’t know how I would have made it without the information I got here…without hearing stories that were identical to mine…..without the hugs and encouragement on days when I never thought I would heal.

    And thanks FAD for that post…not sure why it hit so close to home….but it explained a lot to me…kind of a lightbulb moment!!!!!



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