As we go through life, we like to think that the people we encounter are more-or-less like us: kind, caring, reasonable and decent. It’s hard to imagine that there might be someone in our circle of acquaintances who might have Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Unfortunately, antisocial individuals live and work among us. Being unaware of their presence and how they operate puts us at a great disadvantage. Also known as sociopaths, these people are the ultimate predators; exploiting and abusing the weak, the innocent and the ignorant. The better we understand them, the safer we’ll be.
What, exactly, is a sociopath? It’s someone who, for reasons not well understood, lacks all empathy or basic human kindness. They see others merely as objects for their use and have no qualms about manipulating or exploiting anyone or any situation to their best advantage.
A sociopath’s brain is wired very differently than a normal person’s, and we should never assume that we’re playing by the same set of rules. We must understand that sociopaths have their own, unique way of operating
A sociopath isn’t immoral so much as amoral. The notion of right or wrong is irrelevant to them. Their raison d’etre is to get what they want. They may prey on an individual, a family, an institution or even a whole country, depending on their level of power and influence.
They have no conscience and feel no remorse when they’ve done something wrong. They feel justified in every aspect of their behavior; often blaming their victim and believing that “they had it coming” or that “they brought it on themselves.”
On the other hand, the sociopath feels like the wronged party whenever they haven’t prevailed. They can be paranoid, assuming that others are out to get them or are trying to take something away from them. They are vengeful and will exact severe retribution if they feel thwarted or attacked.
A sociopath will rarely take “No” for an answer. They are relentless in the pursuit of their goals. They become enraged when frustrated and will behave punitively toward anyone who they believe has gotten in their way.
This type of person can be highly impulsive and unconstrained by the usual human self-preservation instincts. If we expect that they won’t do something because it’s risky or foolhardy, we’ll be wrong. There’s very little to stop them from putting themselves in harm’s way in the pursuit of their goals.
The sociopath in our midst can be the charming con-artist; the married celebrity with a pristine public persona but multiple secret mistresses; the ultra-charismatic, corrupt politician or the evangelical minister with an enormous, generous congregation.
A sociopath strongly craves a position of power, and will frequently seek out jobs where they can dominate, control or oppress others. Lawyers, police officers, doctors, teachers, coaches, clergy, therapists, CEOs and politicians will always have a certain number of sociopaths in their ranks.
In their roles as leaders of industry and society, sociopaths can do a lot of harm. Examples of this are big corporate polluters, CFOs who steal millions from their share-holders; police officers who abuse the citizens they’re honor-bound to protect; and coaches who take advantage of their young charges.
Other examples are therapists who sleep with troubled clients; politicians who make billions for their own private companies through war-mongering; modern-day spiritual leaders whose true goal is to sexually or financially exploit naive followers and investment gurus who promote Ponzi schemes and later blame their victims for their “greed.”
Sociopathy, like any other psychological disorder, has a range of severity. People who merely have antisocial traits tend to be thoughtless and insensitive. They are cold, calculating, greedy and overly-entitled.
Sociopaths have no qualms about breaking society’s rules or using others as stepping-stones on their way up the ladder of success. Still, many are able to cultivate a benign or even sweet demeanor, which enables them to ingratiate themselves to potential victims.
On the extreme end of the sociopathy range are the rapists, sadists and serial killers who take pleasure in causing humiliation and pain. Then there are the pimps, blackmailers and members of motorcycle gangs and other types of organized crime. They employ either charm and seduction or bribery, coercion and intimidation to entrap their victims.
The more intelligent the sociopath, the more dangerous they are. These people are the predators of the human race, and just as a great cat is able to identify the weaker animal within a group and to sneak up on it, the sociopath will recognize the needy, the vulnerable and the naive. The intelligent sociopath is more successful in part because they’re that much better at disguising their true intentions.
The antisocial individual exploits the emotional weakness in their prey in the same way a lion or a leopard takes advantage of a lame or diseased gazelle. The more clever they are, the easier it is for them to recognize and exploit the weak areas in someone’s personality.
Children are sitting ducks for sociopaths because they are defenseless against them. That’s why it’s so important for them to have good supervision. For adults, holding on to any child-like traits, such as being overly-trusting or credulous is never wise.
An attitude of healthy skepticism is far safer. Those who insist on believing that everyone is “nice” and has good intentions will be as vulnerable to being preyed upon as any actual child.
When it comes to our dealings with politicians, financial advisors or CEOs, to be well-informed is to be empowered. Along with being skeptical, knowledge and understanding of a given situation makes it that much harder to be exploited, manipulated or lied to.
In day-to-day life, we can begin to recognize the sociopaths among us by being alert to excessive coldness, ambition, aggressiveness or charm; by questioning the motivations of those in positions of power and by looking for inconsistencies in people’s words and actions. Someone who is too good to be true is often later revealed to be a sociopath, as is the overly ruthless and relentless individual.
In romance, sociopaths often start out as generous and charismatic. They’ll sweep you off your feet by showering you with attention and making you feel special and privileged. For an emotionally needy person with low self-esteem, this type of courtship is a dream come true, but it soon turns into a nightmare as the actual intentions of the sociopath are revealed.
In romance, there’s the typical abusive partner about whom much has been written. Another type of sociopathic lover is unavailable, exciting rebel. They are iconoclastic, charismatic and fascinating. They make a relationship with them into a tantalizing challenge. They might even tell you out-right that they’re no good and will only hurt you, but they do this knowing full well that it will only make you try harder to be with them.
This type of person enjoys playing with you the way a cat relishes torturing a mouse. They are sadistic, and they know exactly how it will end: with them triumphant and you devastated. They are excited by your admiration and desire, as it feeds their sense of grandiosity. How you end up is of no concern to them, and they will dump you unceremoniously when you are no longer useful or amusing.
A sociopath is incapable of taking responsibility for their bad behavior. They will never change. Any woman who is attracted to an antisocial man and believes that her love will transform him is setting herself up for disaster. These aren’t “lost boys” who need a good woman to heal them, as the movies and TV so falsely and dangerously portray; they are full-grown, ruthless predators
Whether our next-door neighbor or local politician; our boss or blind date, there are indeed sociopaths among us. Being able to identify them will spare us a lot of grief. Whether we encounter a milder form of the disorder or an outright monster, having a realistic, questioning attitude toward the people in our lives will stand us in good stead.
(C) Marcia Sirota MD, 2010