(The article below is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake and not meant to imply that females aren’t capable of exhibiting the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)
What does it mean to say that someone has sociopathic tendencies, versus full-blown sociopathy, and does the difference even matter?
The simple answer is that someone with sociopathic tendencies will exhibit sociopathic behaviors and attitudes sometimes, while elsewhere he may seem to possess (and, in fact, may possess) a somewhat genuine (if limited and unreliable) capacity and desire to respect others.
In contrast, the full-blown sociopath’s respect for others, when apparently evident, is never really deeply genuine, but rather driven more by expediency or, more specifically, by the lack of any immediate opportunity to benefit from disrespecting or exploiting others.
Another way to say it is that the full-blown sociopath will almost always capitalize on perceived opportunities to exploit others for his own gain, whereas an individual with “sociopath tendencies” is likely to be somewhat less predictably exploitive in his interpersonal relationships.
In my experience, to identify that you are involved with a partial versus full-blown sociopath is not grounds for optimism. So long as sociopathic tendencies are present, their “quantity” seems to me to matter little. In the end, the individual’s prognosis is the same—hopeless. He is no less treatable or curable for the comparatively inconstant expression of his sociopathy.
In some respects it may be more disconcerting to be involved with a partial sociopath than a full-blown one. This is because the partial sociopath’s seeming capacity to be a “real,” sometimes (if selectively) attached human being can serve as a sort of tease—one finds the seemingly less exploitive aspect of his nature even more confusingly impossible to reconcile with the more exploitive one. One seizes on his capacity for “selective humanity,” misjudging it for his potential for ongoing, reliable empathy and respect for others.
Of course this is a pipe-dream, because the partial sociopath’s capacity for “sensitivity,” perhaps even for certain forms of loyalty, is ever-presently compromised by the underlying tug, and ultimate grip, of his underlying sociopathic orientation. He will inevitably, with utter certainty, drift back into his more exploitive mode and exhibit again, at some point in time, the shocking markers of his sociopathy—his defects of empathy in the context of his audaciously violating behaviors.
I want to stress this very carefully: to the extent that someone has sociopathic tendencies, implying that his sociopathy doesn’t necessarily encompass his “whole character” (as in the case of the full-blown sociopath), this is something like comparing two very dangerous, ultimately untreatable cancerous malignancies—the first hasn’t perhaps “metastasized” fully, but is definitely malignant with absolutely no cure and no chance of meaningful remission; whereas the latter shows perhaps evidence of a global invasion, i.e. “sociopathy run uncontrollably wild.”
I’ve worked for several years with a client I regard as having clear-cut sociopathic tendencies and find her to be among the more baffling clients I’ve worked with. There is the strangest, most jarring mix of humanity in her personality, a capacity for generosity, yet alternating with a historical pattern of cunning, lying behaviors and a chilling capacity to comfortably disown remarkable abdications of responsibility.
She has exhibited these dizzying, confusing qualities in her relationship with me. She has lied to my face countless times and produced fantastic, absurd, and obviously specious explanations for behaviors that someone fully unsociopathic would feel anxious and embarrassed to assert. When confronted with her dissimulation, she conveys (and seems to feel) little to no shame, just the knee-jerk inclination to perpetuate and elaborate the deceptions.
She is opportunistic and someone who has “worked the system” in a variety of unethical ways. Ultimately she lacks either the willingness, or capacity, to truly own the varieties of ethically dubious, sometimes alarmingly irresponsible behaviors that continue to sabotage her otherwise seemingly considerable potential.
She is a complex person, a very attractive and seductive individual, and I believe she possesses a dimension within her characterized by seemingly real generosity. At the same time, she can be shamelessly manipulative and deceptive, and can be “counted on” ultimately to be only “unreliable.” She seems destined to leave those in her life periodically stunned by the betrayal of their faith and trust in her.
She will never change. There is a sociopathic element in her character that I believes explains these patterns and that leaves her, in my view, permanently untrustworthy.
I’m interested in readers’ feedback on this subject.