My ex-partner is a sociopath. No really. I hope you believe me. But then I also hope you doubt me too.
A sociopath has little or no conscience, and “the little” in that definition is a very big problem. How little is little enough to warrant the diagnosis of sociopathy?
Conscience is expensive. To be entirely conscientious would be impossible for any of us, manifesting as constant effort on behalf of others and constant guilt, shame, and remorse for not being able to do enough. We all therefore allocate our finite conscientiousness, usually with lots for our closest loved ones and less or none for the people far away.
Having too little conscience is measured relative to circumstances. “How can people be so callous?” says an upper class American when reading about middle-class people in Bombay who ignore thousands of beggars a day. In contrast, that American living in a gated community, providing generously to her family and wealthy neighbors demonstrates ample conscience for her circumstances. The more strife; the more compassion is called for. If the economy collapses and the climate crisis causes orders of magnitude more “acts of God,” do we all become instant sociopaths for showing too little compassion relative to the growing desperation that surrounds us?
And then there’s the question of where we allocate our conscientious effort and empathy. Hotel Heiress Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her pet dog. Many would say she was a sociopath. Yet she did show more than a little conscience in her concern for her dog’s well being.
When we diagnose the people who hurt, jilted or “used” us, calling them narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, or just cold-hearted, maybe we’re really just disappointed that they turned their conscientiousness away from us. Are people uncaring when they don’t care for us as much as they care for someone nhhhhew?
There’s a vulgar riddle at men’s expense that speaks to disciplining our diagnoses:
Q: What’s the difference between a b**tch and a w**re?
A: A w**re will have sex with anyone but a b**tch will have sex with anyone but you.
To which I’d add:
Q: What’s the difference between a sociopath and a frustrating ex?
A: A sociopath doesn’t care about anyone and a frustrating ex- doesn’t care about you.
Q: What’s the difference between a narcissist and a frustrating ex?
A: A narcissist loves himself more than anyone and a frustrating ex- loves himself more than he loves you.
These highlight one of the reasons that many frustrated ex-partners diagnose their former intimates in such clinically severe terms.
But another reason is that some people really are narcissists and sociopaths and with them, not calling a spade a spade is the most dangerous thing you can do.
“Should I trust here?” is about the hardest question we ever face. What we do when we trust and don’t trust are exact opposites so you can’t really hedge. The only thing worse that not trusting the trustworthy, is trusting the untrustworthy.
With most people we can go case by case. We might trust our good friends mostly but perhaps not on everything. Think of a sociopath as someone who can send convincing signals to trust always when in fact he or she can never ever be trusted—a con artist with no potential for remorse–very scary, very important to recognize before he or she plays your heartstrings and cuts out your heart.
For a fine, thought-proving and entertaining book on the benefits and costs of diagnosing and misdiagnosing psychopaths (a term synonymous with sociopaths), read the current NYT best seller “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ranson. For a masterpiece of psychological reasoning and deep analysis of the challenge of dealing with sociopaths, read Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door.” Here are three key take-aways from her book among a great many:
1. Different sociopaths want different things. Some are ambitious, some are lazy, some are petty; some are grandiose, some want to be president, some want sex and some just want to stir up trouble. Yes if you get in their way, they’ll all try to crush you, but not all of them aspire to crush in bulk, as, for example, axe murderers. Their personal goals can be as diverse as any people’s.
2. Though sociopaths comprise between one and four percent of the population depending on different metrics, sociopaths will tend to rise to positions of power and authority. Most of us defer to authority so sociopaths’ influence and the havoc they wreak far exceeds their representation as a percentage of the population.
3. The primary sign that you’re dealing with sociopaths is their consistent, systematic double-standard appeals for pity. Why pity? Sociopaths work to get everyone in their lives lined up to give them whatever they want. Pity motivates more compliance and support than even fear.
To be effective, lies have to be truths’ next-door neighbors. When someone truly deserves pity we are naturally stirred to our greatest conscience, empathy and compassion. It’s especially hard to tell whether appeals for pity are true or false, deserving of your attention, or signs of sociopathy.
More confusing still, false appeals for pity are not exclusive to sociopaths. Any of us might resort to the pity play in a pinch: Go easy on me. I didn’t know. I couldn’t help it. I tried. Please be kind because I’m so sensitive.
Who among us hasn’t played victim at times hoping someone would cut us slack?
Playing victim systematically, crying crocodile tears of victimhood without ever making more than perfunctory efforts to demonstrate commensurate pity to others—the closer one’s record gets to 100% on such behavior, the closer to certain “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you’re dealing with a real sociopath. They’re virtually never wrong and they’re always victims.
As we approach election season it’s good to keep sociopaths in mind. Ambitious sociopaths float upward even as far as the highest realms of leadership. Sociopathy is non-denominational and bipartisan. There is no belief system that can’t become the cover for the ambitious sociopath’s crusade. There have been sociopath leaders on the left and right, nationalists and globalist, secularists and religious.
And yet there are some themes that would likely be hit by sociopaths of no matter what variety. One would be a claim that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” Another is that it is amoral for the righteous to be held back by the unrighteous.
And of course, when they’re attacked, expect a lot of dismissal, denial, counter-attacks, calls for not dwelling on the past, claims to being pitiable victims of “gotcha” campaigns. But again, any and all of us, at one time or another can slip into such themes.
A case in point about the moral quandary of diagnosis:
Sarah Palin said last week that during his midnight Paul Revere “warned the British they wouldn’t be taking away our arms.” She also described Revere as “riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells.”
In response to Chris Wallace, saying “You realize you messed up about Paul Revere,” Sarah said, “You know what, I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere. In a shout-out gotcha kinda question I answered candidly. I know my American History.”
The question she described as a “gotcha” was from a supporter “What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?”
OK, so is Sarah Palin a sociopath? I predict I’ll get responses to this article declaring that even broaching the question is unfair, biased, vindictive, name-calling and inappropriate question, a failure of professionalism on the part of someone claiming psychological authority. I understand. I’m speaking to exactly that point. There is a chance that that is exactly what I’m doing by bringing it up. There’s nothing about Sarah’s line of defense that non-sociopaths don’t sometimes employ and especially politicians. Indeed, I employ similar strategic diversions at times too.
And yet if we were to simply say, “You do it too. Everybody does it” we increase the likelihood that we’ll treat real sociopaths as though they were normal victims instead of what they really are, pretend victims systematically victimizing us.
And the key word here is systematic. I could be wrong, but I’ve never once heard Sarah Palin say she could be wrong, or more, admit that she is wrong. And whenever she is challenged she does lean pretty heavily into the pity play. These are desperate times. They call for desperate measures. Real Americans are being held back, and everyone is out to get me.
There’s nothing between us and sociopaths in power but citizen skepticism. Not all diagnoses that a candidate is a sociopath are unconscionable and partisan. Millions have died at the hands of sociopathic leaders. So the question is reasonable to ask, carefully of any candidate for higher office.
And actually, though it’s risky, I’ll admit to something more pointed. It wasn’t an ex-partner, it was my closest of blood relatives. We fought the sociopathic diagnosis for years. A sociopath, I finally had to admit. I’m very familiar with the challenges of over, and under-diagnosing.
And maybe I’m just making up for years spent under-diagnosing. That’s a possibility too. I know the experience has shaped my life. But I think it should. I don’t think we begin to confront ethical questions until we acknowledge the existence of sociopaths in our midst.
Here is Martha Stout’s distillation of her 13 rules for living in a world that contains sociopaths. I can’t recommend her book highly enough. She is a very thoughtful writer.
“The first rule is that one must accept the fact that, unsavory as it is, some people simply have no conscience and that these people tend to be very “everyday.” Secondly, it is important to learn to use your own judgment about people instead of relying on roles and labels to inform you about a person’s moral character. The third rule is to practice the Rule of Threes when considering a new relationship in your life. Three lies, and assume that you are hooking up with a liar. The fourth rule is to question authority. The fifth rule is to suspect flattery. The sixth rule says that, if necessary, you should redefine your concept of respect. The seventh rule is, simply, don’t join the game. And related to this, the eighth rule is to avoid the sociopath altogether. Rule nine is to question your tendency to pity too easily. Number ten: do not try to redeem the sociopath. Also, number 11, never agree, out of pity or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character from other people. Rule number 12 is do not allow someone without a conscience to convince you that humanity is a failure. And rule number 13 is an old saw, but true nonetheless: living well is the best revenge.”