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.)