(The following article is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is strictly for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)
Let’s be honest. The term “sociopath” has become so commonplace, a very good thing (reflecting the increasingly spacious public awareness of exploiters), that it sometimes seems that pretty much every jerk we confront we’re tempted to call a “sociopath.”
Now, there’s way more “upside” to this than “downside.” And I’d say this applies to terms like “abusive” as well. And thank goodness the concept of “abuse” is now much more widely understood—it’s wider public reach, along with the lay public’s greater access to issues like “narcissism” and the various diagnoses associated with it (like sociopathy), are wonderful and important developments.
At the same time, a small consequence of this is that these “labels” can be thrown around with some recklessness and, frankly, often are. Not every act of deception, manipulation, not every outburst of anger, not every act of insensitivity, is perpetrated by a sociopath, malignant narcissist or abuser.
All of us, at least most of us, are capable of highly insensitive and destructive behaviors, or behaviors perceived as such by others. This doesn’t diminish their seriousness or their destructiveness; after all, non-sociopaths can murder while a great many sociopaths won’t, and maybe even can’t.
Many non-sociopaths are guilty of acts of harm that don’t make them sociopaths—acts that many sociopaths themselves, at the end of the day, will be able to say, “Well, hell, I didn’t do that!”
And so we want to be perhaps somewhat disciplined around the liberality with which we’re tempted, whenever outraged by another’s selfishness or insensivity, to hurl the epithet, “You sociopath!”
Sure, we’re all happily addicted to the Investigation Discovery channel, which leaves us, naturally, with the conviction that 47% of the population must be hard-core sociopathic. (No, Mitt Romney didn’t allege that percentage.). Watch the ID channel every night and you can jack that number up to 68%.
I mean I heard a customer leave a Rite Aid the other day, annoyed about failing, apparently, to get a refund on a product, and scream at the manager, “You sociopath!” Now her anger may have been very justified, but the diagnosis seemed a bit rash and, based on the evidence, a bit thin.
Nor would it have surprised me to hear the manager scream back defensively, “Who’s the sociopath, lady!?” He didn’t, in a demonstration of great diagnostic self-discipline.
As the lady walked past me, she muttered, “What the hell are you looking at?”
Well, I was looking at her. Was there some law against that? I half expected her to stop in her tracks and lay me out right there.
But I think we need to remember this about sociopaths—they demonstrate a very longstanding pattern of deeply disturbing behaviors, characterized by gross, shocking, outrageous transgressions against others, with pathological indifference to the suffering and trauma their behaviors cause others.
When you are dealing with an individual with this history, with this track record, you are dealing with a seriously disturbed individual who absolutely deserves to be diagnosed with a “warning label” such as “warning: sociopath,” or “warning: abuser,” or “warning: malignant narcissist,” or something of the sort.
For the rest of us, inexcusable, selfish and hurtful behaviors should never be condoned, whether we are their perpetrators or victims. We can’t excuse destructive behaviors. We must confront them, and if we are on the receiving end, we need to put ourselves in positions of safety as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the next time someone cuts you off on the road, even recklessly, although Robert Hare, Ph.D., might call him a “psychopath,” we need to remember it’s possible, too, that he’s just a lousy driver, in a rush from his own foolish making, or maybe just a good-old fashioned jerk. But he may not be a sociopath, and probably isn’t.
Even though it’s so sorely tempting to flip him the finger as you shout, “You ….ing sociopath!”