A sociopath, by definition, is someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASP). A personality disorder characterized by disturbed, maladaptive social relationships, particularly those that reflect clear antisocial behaviors (Sociopathic Personality, 2009). Antisocial behaviors can vary individually, yet it’s important to understand that a psychopath is believed to be born, meaning it’s in their ‘nature’, it’s related to the physical. A sociopath is believed to be made, meaning ‘nurture’, it’s from society, ranging from a variety of either/both environments, upbringing, culture and more.
A key to a quick recall of definition differences is a psychopath (p) is for nature/physical, and sociopath (s) is for social/nature.
There are several reasons to question the behaviors of someone displaying characteristics of sociopathy. Is there a gut feeling you have about someone at the office while everyone else seems cast under their spell? Maybe a loved one mentioned this term regarding someone that is near you in life and they have a concern. Or possibly you are realizing little lies with someone you spend time with, yet they express no guilt when caught and/or confronted, they seem to have an enchanting response for everything.
It’s possible you may have noticed a girlfriend that had a lack of love and emotional depth, yet they craved constant stimulation and excitement and exhibited an abundant adoration for their own self. Maybe you have a friend or spouse that feels no remorse when they inflict pain, and even enjoy seeing others manipulated and seem to disregard all authority. Another area could be that you are close to someone, such as an employer or colleague, and you crave a connection with them, yet it feels shallow, superficial and draining in some ways. They may also constantly create conflict and seem to thrive in chaos. These are all signs of a sociopath’s behavior when involved with others yet there are also many more signs.
The following discussion looks at the traits, both early and later in life, that sociopaths are known to exhibit as well as any treatment options that are offered to them. Lastly, we will look at tips and tools to dealing with a sociopath; whether it is the manipulative boss, an overbearing family member, or someone you suspect to be sociopathic, there are behaviors to put in place as a safeguard in one’s life and happiness.
(age 15 and over most often, meaning these traits are seen in adults as well, but in different more matured manifestations.)
Lack of empathy – Empathy is the largest trait that a sociopath lacks. A sociopath is unable to feel empathy, guilt, remorse and general emotions relating to sympathy and compassion. They are able to easily mimic an authentic apology yet have no regret for the act they are apologizing for.
Lying – Lying constantly, almost compelled to lie about anything they are saying, either to test another, to feel rewarded they are ‘getting away’ with something and to avoid punishment for behaviors.
Stealing – Stealing, taking, ‘borrowing’ from another without intending to return the item, not asking and assuming they have the right to use it whenever they want (i.e., taking another’s toys, stealing an adults cars, ‘borrowing’ money from a wallet or purse that isn’t theirs).
Starting ‘drama’ or engaging in fights – Thriving off drama, conflict, arguments, and fights. A lot of hostility and negativity, yet this isn’t about anger always, but entertainment. Either it is in person with strangers or close friends and family, either at work, online or in the home, they can’t seem to stop themselves from relishing in negativity.
Cruel – Being mean, heartless, cruel and even abusive to others and gaining satisfaction from doing so.
Running away – Running away repeatedly, defying boundaries and perimeters of the place where they are residing, learning or visiting in.
Damaging property – Destroying and breaking objects, setting fires, writing graffiti, defacing possessions
Continually breaking law/rules – Vandalizing, stealing, engaging in illegal activities, taking illegal substances, becoming promiscuous, not attending school, skipping detention.
Harming, maiming/mutilating, and/or killing– The principal acts of harming and hurting others/animals is also a severe sign of ASP, and can be seen in actions such as torturing, maiming, mutilating and even killing a living being. These behaviors should be taken seriously with immediate professional services including a psychologist/psychiatrist and law enforcement involvement.
It’s important to note that several behaviors listed can occur, and result in a healthy adolescent/adult, (i.e., a teen lying about what they spent their money on to avoid being grounded), yet when combined with multiple behaviors, on multiple levels, for several time spans, a professional approach should be taken to assess the individual. Lack of empathy and cruelty should be immediately acted upon.
Lack of Empathy – They truly don’t care. When it comes to feelings, either yours or their loved ones (such as a child, parent or suffering stranger), the terms ‘cold and callous’ can easily be applied. Sociopaths truly don’t feel remorse yet can mimic empathy and charm the victim to believing lies, apologies, and promises.
Charming – CHARMING! I can’t express this trait more clearly! A sociopath is extremely charming, charismatic and complimentary to the point it’s extreme (i.e., you’re the only one for me, only you can do this, you’re the most amazing perfect person on the planet, what would I do without you here for me). They are socially sophisticated and can ‘work’ any room and anyone. They may be the chair of the council/committee or the proud PTA mom that always seems to have the perfect response, yet you sense it’s never sincere, no matter what they say.
It’s natural to want to believe in the best, especially in another person we are working within some capacity (i.e., marriage, school, work, community), yet a sociopath knows this and uses this to their advantage. If you leave thinking one way, yet feeling another, and they cause you to question your own instincts, ask if you were just charmed right out of your comfort zone.
Mad at them? They are mad at YOU! – If you are upset about something, do you find that they twisted and transferred the issue right back onto you, and you find yourself defending your position, or even worse, speaking about something off the subject altogether? Are they mad at you for being mad at them? How dare you! Or so the sociopath may say. Everyone deserves a calm rational conversation to reach a resolution to a problem. Do you find that you get nowhere fast, and even worse, you may get attacked, humiliated and/or upset for simply addressing an issue? Does it feel as if they are ‘conditioning’ you to no longer question their actions?
Liars – Compulsive and constant liars. There is a total denial of facts. It could be as trivial as what they ate that day to larger scenarios such as health issues, professional accolades and their history growing up. As mentioned with adolescent traits, there is the compelling behavior to lie, either for reward or to avoid punishment.
Lack of Love– Lack of love, connection, and deeply meaningful relationships. One may feel loved, adored, respected, wanted, needed, etc. either at the home or office, yet one day, it’s ended as if it never mattered and you realize that the lack of love was an issue. A sociopath can turn his ‘love’ on and off like a faucet and his relationships are purely practical. The term ‘love’ is used to secure the relationship and often nothing more.
No Circle – You know those people that have a ‘circle’, a group of friends they go to, spend time with, even talk to online – sociopaths don’t have that. While charming and possibly a social butterfly, sociopaths only form shallow superficial relationships and are deeply anti-social. Revealing this to them may even surprise them. You may see that the person at the office has their colleagues around them, or that the Committee Chairman has constituents and board members around them, yet they often do not have a personal support system.
They easily get into relationships yet are unable to maintain and continue them. A series of quickly ended relationships, either at work, at home or with loved ones, can speak to a sociopathic pattern. Be wary of the individual that tells you everyone else is ‘crazy/insane/unstable/unworthy/unhealthy/etc. (i.e., every ex-partner was crazy, every ex-boss was insane, every person in their family is unstable, all their neighbors are unhealthy). This excludes those they still keep close for their own use.
Blame – Did they have an affair for months, cause discord in the marriage, lie about cheating and then blame you when they were caught? Are you an employer that caught them stealing, confronted them and they placed the blame on a co-worker? No matter the situation, they place blame on others and accept no responsibility for any actions, let alone hurt or harm they cause another.
Disregard for Authority – Constantly breaking the law, not paying bills, ignoring child-rearing obligations, violating probation, engaging in risky unlawful acts and promiscuous sexual behaviors, placing others in danger, not concerned with the safety and welfare of others.
All Consuming – They are ‘vampires’ of your time, energy, emotions, attention, money, etc. If it’s a source for them to take from, they take. If they can manipulate you to get more, they do. It could be difficult to not fall for the charms and manipulation of a seasoned sociopath, yet the emotional vampire that they are, you will soon feel the toll of their presence in your life. The luster is now lacking, and you are growing tired from their presence in your life, if only from their constant ‘needs’ and demands.
Highly Manipulative – They read people, they study their loved one’s interests, traits, and temptations. They assess others in the hopes to exploit and use them for what they are weak for, excited about or longing for. They will sell themselves according to what you are ‘buying’. If they know you adore animals, they may have once owned a zoo and rescued animals all over the world and will charm you into a conversation that may reveal more information to use against you in the future, or at the least work to their benefit.
Huge sense of self – They think highly of themselves, their abilities and their mindset. It may be looks, wealth, power, prestige, ability to manipulate others and more, yet they often think they are amazing in every way.
Entitled – They feel they are worthy of everything they want. They feel they are entitled to whatever it is, either a position at work they may not be qualified or prepared for, or the money and prestige that others are seen to have, or possibly the time and attention of someone that isn’t interested. They feel they are owed, authorized and allowed to have anything they desire.
Unreliable – Not reliable, not dependable, not predictable, not able to honor commitments and highly impulsive. They do not care if disappointment or harm occurs. This is displayed with their lack of concern for another’s emotions. They may enjoy going to a bar and starting fights, not caring about the party they are with or any repercussions of their actions. They may dismiss an important meeting not concerned with the outcome, thinking they can charm, talk and/or blame their way out of any situation.
Fights & Drama – As mentioned with the adolescent trait of fights and drama, it is the same yet it’s ‘matured’ to the point of master manipulators engaging in conflict. They know others ‘buttons’ and will trigger them intentionally and seek to push them. They may intentionally begin an issue between others to sit back and watch them bicker, or they may bait you into a conversation to quickly escalate it into an argument. If they seem to somehow always be around, involved or ‘aware’ of these combative situations, it’s likely they orchestrated much if not all of the issue at hand.
Rage – Rage is a huge issue with a sociopath. Their lack of ability to handle stress, compounded with absolute aggression can create a dangerous situation. Acts of aggression can range from retaliation on someone else, revenge on someone else and a release of rage in harmful and even deadly ways. Their shallow emotions combined with the inability to feel remorse, as well as their rage combined with the lack of empathy, can cause a life to be lost in an instant. Many of the sociopaths that are well known, such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, are known for murdering many/multiple people (being a serial killer).
A particularly dangerous sociopath is that of a highly-intelligent sociopath, making them a high functioning sociopath. Their lack of empathy, ability to lie, risky behaviors and disregard for the law, they can reach high levels of achievement, especially positions that include power and prestige.
There is some controversy in the options for treatment. It isn’t based on types of treatment but on if there even is one. Scholars debate if this is a condition that may be unlearned or if one can simply can ‘grow a conscience.’ The primary issue is the sociopath’s lack of empathy and ‘care’ about becoming better. Keen states that with the correct tools, one can provide treatment to a sociopath.
A therapist’s understanding of sociopathic behavior as a client’s way of experiencing and coping with the world in which he/she lives is crucial in order to provide effective treatment (Keen, 1998).
At this time, psychotherapy is a viable option and one that is available if a sociopath so chooses to begin healing.
Tools & Tips
If you learn that someone is a sociopath, there are some key steps to take to protect yourself. Do not delay, and begin to speak to others, record incidents and be aware of any behavioral changes that may be taking place.
Disengage – Stop listening and believing them, they are working an angle most likely, and it’s important to not ‘buy into’ what they are selling. Don’t allow them to know what you are passionate about, responsive to, emotional about, etc.
Avoid – Start avoiding their presence, both online and in-person. Put as much distance between you and a sociopath as possible. Cut all ties and follow the ‘No Contact’ rule. If professionally associated, find ways to keep as much distance as possible, and for your own mental health and happiness, seek a transfer or possible change of work venue.
‘No Fishing’ – Don’t take the bait. When they begin to fish for information, or even taunt you and push your buttons, don’t be tempted to take the bait/lure. It wouldn’t be unheard of for them to poke and prod you and then when you react, they stand back and ask why you are acting so irrationally, or to pick a fight and then state you are ‘crazy’. Understand that they are restless, bored, needing a thrill, their emotions are ‘low’ and lacking. You don’t need to exert energy on their games and hobbies anymore. They no longer can fish from your life to feed on. Shut it down.
‘Don’t Go Swimming’ – Don’t get too deep, don’t get swept away! Don’t immerse yourself with their words, their charm and their need to pull and pump information from you. Don’t get into the deep end of a conversation with them. Don’t share more than needed. This includes:
Personal information such as goals (going back to school, changing jobs), dreams (developing an idea with a patent, building a business proposal or plan), and future plans (vacation dates, purchases, having children, proposing or moving) including anything family and loved-one related. Truly, the less they know the better.
Professionally, keep it to a minimum. If you have resources that are viable to your success, do not share them with someone who has no ethical or moral compass and enjoys lying, stealing and blaming. Provide details that are specific and relevant only to the topic at hand. If you feel the conversation becoming too involved, quickly excuse yourself or change the subject.
Political, religious beliefs, and financial status (including any valuables such as jewelry, stocks, bonds, and trusts), are all also items to refrain from offering full disclosure on when speaking to a sociopath.
Journal Of Family Violence, 13(4), 445-446. sociopathic personality. (2009). In A. S. Reber, R. Allen, & E. S. Reber, The Penguin dictionary of psychology (4th ed.). London, UK: Penguin.