So I’m writing this to you having just returned yesterday from the Women’s March in San Francisco.
It was an important and powerful experience for me on so many levels, and throughout the day as I marched with my fiancé, friends, and larger community, a topic kept bubbling up in my mind that I wanted to share with you. A topic that I’ve sat on for a long time that, especially in this last year, now seems more relevant than ever.
The topic? How to spot a sociopath. And, more importantly, how to protect yourself and heal from them.
Look, I know today’s blog post topic may not resonate with all of you. You may be thinking, “Why on earth would I even need to know that?!”
And while I believe that it would behoove all of us in this particular day and age to know more about the topic of sociopathy and its impact — especially because 1 in every 25 Americans is a sociopath — if you don’t want or need to read this post, that’s totally okay!
Skip this week’s article because in two weeks I’ll be back with something that may feel more applicable to your everyday life.
But if you’re curious and interested in hearing what I have to say on this topic and why it may matter to you in this day and age, keep reading.
What exactly is a sociopath?
Sociopath is a term that gets thrown around often along with its “twin” pop culture phrase, psychopath. But clinically speaking, neither of these are actual clinical diagnoses.
Instead, both psychopathy and sociopathy fall under the diagnostic criteria of Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD).
In other words, a hallmark of APD (or sociopathy) is a distinct defect or deficiency in conscience – an inner sense that acts as a guide to what is right and what it wrong.
Along with this, a sociopath can also be characterized by a combination of a variance of traits including:
- Glibness and superficial charm;
- Manipulation and conning;
- A grandiose sense of self and entitlement;
- Pathological lying;
- Shallow or feigned emotions;
- Hostile and aggressive behavior;
- An incapacity for love;
- Risk-taking behavior and a generally reckless attitude;
- A perpetual need for stimulation and an inability to tolerate boredom;
- Voracious or promiscuous sexual activity;
- Poor behavioral impulse control;
- Irresponsibility and unreliability;
- Lack of a realistic life plan/a parasitic lifestyle;
- Illegal conduct and criminal activity, and more.*
(*For a full and official list of diagnostic traits of Antisocial Personality Disorder, please see the appendix of this article.)
Quite an intense list of traits, isn’t it?
So what makes someone a sociopath?
As with all personality disorders, the exact origin of antisocial personality disorder/sociopathy is not completely understood.
However, it is thought by many clinicians that behavioral genetics – the interplay between genetics and environment – may be responsible.
According to former Harvard professor and psychologist, Martha Stout, Ph.D., in her landmark 2005 book, The Sociopath Next Door, there actually may be hereditary predisposition for sociopathy – as much as 50% – which may then be “nurtured” through someone’s childhood and life experiences.
Professor Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D. of Texas A & M University goes further in his 2010 study where he states that 56% of determinants of sociopathy will be genetic.
What do sociopaths look like in real life?
Many of us may have a picture in our minds of what a sociopath looks like and typically this archetype looks like a serial killer or blood thirsty tyrant (think Dexter Morgan from Dexter or Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones).
But, in actually, these characters are closer perhaps to what may be called psychopaths — again, a pop psychology term whose official diagnosis is Antisocial Personality Disorder.
What’s the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths if they share the same diagnosis of APD?
So if psychopaths are what society and Hollywood have largely led us to imagine when it comes to this archetypal diagnosis, what do sociopaths more realistically look like and how prevalent are they?
Martha Stout, Ph.D. in her book, The Sociopath Next Door, states that as much as 4% of the U.S. population – or, 1 out of every 25 Americans – is a sociopath.
And, because of diagnostic trait variance, unique levels of functioning, and individual general ambitions, sociopaths can look widely different and show up in a multitude of settings.
- A sociopath can look like a charming, polished, ruthless and remorseless insurance agent or art gallery owner.
- A lying, cheating, con-man of an ex-husband.
- A female coach that belittles and intentionally shames the kids she works with.
- A pathologically lying, narcissistic leader on a national stage.
- A parent who can’t be bothered to form warm, secure attachments with her children because, to her, they’re boring.
- A corporate leader, a teacher, a licensed professional, an entrepreneurial business mogul, a professor, a diplomat, a PTA president, a stay at home mom — there’s no pigeonholing where sociopaths end up professionally or personally.
And regardless of where a sociopath ends up, it can often be hard to spot them.
Because sociopaths can be masterful manipulators, compulsive liars, and chameleons when it comes to how they portray and edit their life story to elicit personal gain, on the surface, a sociopath may not at all look like one.
They may be impaired (or not actually capable of) feeling universal human emotions like shame, guilt, empathy, etc., but that doesn’t mean sociopaths don’t know how to observe and act out these emotions when it benefits them.
So for many, clinicians included, sociopaths can be quite hard to spot. At least initially and certainly while they are “putting on a show” and not behind closed doors “dropping their mask.”
Sociopaths and their impact on the lives of those around them are complex. Not all sociopaths will be criminals, and not all will have the intent to be destructive (though some will), but the effect of their impact can certainly be destructive. And here’s why.
What makes a sociopath so destructive? What kind of damage do they create?
As with how widely varied a sociopath can look, likewise, the damage a sociopath can have on those around or in contact with them varies widely depending on the degree, duration, and context of the contact you have with them.
And then there may be the example of a local business owner who got conned out of their life savings through a financial deal they went in on with a sociopath fellow small business owner. The impact then will be much more significant — clearly with financial, logistical, and probable emotional damage.
And then, possibly at the saddest and most damaging level, for those who grew up in a household where one parent was a sociopath, or if you married a sociopath, there can be extensive emotional damage as a result of having been exposed to repeated, complex, protracted invalidation, shaming, neglect, gaslighting, or belittling — all of which are forms of emotional abuse and all of which may be common for anyone fitting the diagnostic criteria of Antisocial Personality Disorder.
So what’s to be done about this if you’ve had (or have) a possible sociopath in your life? And how do you avoid them moving forward?
How to protect yourself from a sociopath. And how to heal.
First, educate yourself about what a sociopath may look like (remember, review the appendix at the bottom of the article for a full, clinical list of possible symptomatology.). Be curious and cautious about anyone in your life who exhibits these behaviors.
Also, educate yourself about the facts told to you by a possible sociopath.
Fact-check the stories and “truths” they tell you. Remember, sociopaths can be masterful manipulators and pathological liars. It’s not uncommon to feel gaslighted (in other words, psychologically manipulated into questioning your own reality) by them but one way you can support your own sense of self and reality is to fact-check what they tell you.
Next, hold whatever appropriate boundaries you can and want to have with any sociopaths in your life or in the wider world.
Whatever you need and want to do to hold boundaries that will support you in protecting yourself and healing from any sociopaths in your life, please do that.
And if you need information and suggestions about what healthy, functional boundaries may look like for you, please be sure to check out this archived blog post I wrote on how to hold good boundaries.
And finally, if the contact you’ve had with a sociopath has been significant and extensive, recognize that on some level, there’s probably some deeper healing you may need to do as a result of the emotional abuse you were likely exposed to.
If this is the case for you, I firmly believe that while relationships can wound (as it most likely will with a sociopath), certain other kinds of relationship can also heal.
Whether it’s a friend who loves and respects you, a colleague you trust, a caring, skilled therapist, or heck, even a dose of vintage Mr. Rogers’ episodes, spend time with others in-person or afar who can model functional boundaries and a healthy way of being in relationship.
Recognize that the way this person treated you is not your fault, rather it’s a result of their personality disorder and their mental illness. Work slowly but persistently on developing your esteem to recognize you deserve something better from your relationships.
I think there’s a sociopath in my life. Should I confront them?
And what if you do come to realize that someone in your life is a sociopath? Beyond educating yourself, setting better boundaries, and seeking out support to heal from the damage you’ve been exposed to, should you confront them?
And then I would encourage you to be curious about what your agenda might be in confronting them. Are you expecting the other person to be able to self-reflect, apologize, and change their fundamental personality? I have to regretably say that this probably isn’t a realistic goal.
Not only do sociopaths lack the capacity to empathize and feel shame for how they have perhaps treated you, personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder are notoriously hard to treat and heal.
I’m not saying it’s fundamentally impossible for someone diagnosed with or evidencing traits of antisocial personality disorder to change, but it would likely require years of intensive psychotherapy.
So bottom line, the decision to confront a possible sociopath is a very delicate and context-based individual decision you will personally have to arrive at. So I would primarily encourage you to seek out ways you can set boundaries and heal from contact with them first.
Hope for Healing.
I know personally and professionally that recovery from repeated, prolonged exposure to a sociopath is possible.
I also know that the healing process can take time and can best be supported by therapy, particularly with a therapist who has experience working with sociopath survivors.
If you’re interested in working with me, I currently have two openings in my practice — you can book directly here.
And if you’re not in need of healing from the effects of having grown up with/loved/been employed or conned by a sociopath, you may still want to take good, boundaried care of yourself when in contact with such a person, whether that’s in person or on the media.
And remember, no matter where you’re starting from, healing is possible.
- The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D.
- Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas
- Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare
- Al-Anon, excellent, low-cost group recovery support for sociopath survivors whether or not the sociopath in your life had an alcohol problem.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5) – the bedrock clinical diagnostic tool produced by the American Psychiatric Association – to diagnose Antisocial Personality Disorder, the following criteria must be met:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
- Impairments in self-functioning (a or b): a) Identity: Egocentrism; self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure. b) Self-direction: Goal-setting based on personal gratification; absence of prosocial internal standards associated with failure to conform to lawful or culturally normative ethical behavior.
AND 2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b): a) Empathy: Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another. b) Intimacy: Incapacity for mutually intimate relationships, as exploitation is a primary means of relating to others, including by deceit and coercion; use of dominance or intimidation to control others.
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domains:
- Antagonism, characterized by: a) Manipulativeness: Frequent use of subterfuge to influence or control others; use of seduction, charm, glibness, or ingratiation to achieve one’s ends.b) Deceitfulness: Dishonesty and fraudulence; misrepresentation of self; embellishment or fabrication when relating events. c) Callousness: Lack of concern for feelings or problems of others; lack of guilt or remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one„s actions on others; aggression; sadism. d) Hostility: Persistent or frequent angry feelings; anger or irritability in response to minor slights and insults; mean, nasty, or vengeful behavior.
- Disinhibition, characterized by: a) Irresponsibility: Disregard for – and failure to honor – financial and other obligations or commitments; lack of respect for – and lack of follow through on – agreements and promises. b) Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing and following plans. c) Risk taking: Engagement in dangerous, risky, and potentially self-damaging activities, unnecessarily and without regard for consequences; boredom proneness and thoughtless initiation of activities to counter boredom; lack of concern for one’s limitations and denial of the reality of personal danger.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or sociocultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
F. The individual is at least age 18 years.