Labeling someone a sociopath can be a double-edged sword. It can help you protect yourself better, but it can also cause you to have very negative feelings (anger, disgust, etc.) toward the person which can interfere with your ability to manage your relationship with them.
As you read this article please try to walk this thin line as best you can: keep in mind that a label is not a solution and that this is a powerful label that can do great damage. However, recognize that refusing to acknowledge real sociopathic behaviors in a person puts you (and others who depend on you) at risk.
Last year I published some articles on sociopathic personality about how to identify a sociopath and how to protect yourself from one.
In response, I’ve received a cascade of ongoing questions and comments. Clearly many of my readers are concerned that someone in their lives is a sociopath and need to know how to protect themselves.
What if I suspect someone I love is a sociopath?
How do I protect my children from a sociopathic parent?
What makes a person vulnerable to sociopaths?
Here are my answers to a select few of the questions that you’ve posted so far:
And how do we help our children whose father is a full-blown psychopath? I have a 9-year-old and she has been in therapy ever since her Dad’s psychopathy became evident. The therapy has not helped her see or experience her Dad anything differently than the man he used to be. Her diagnosis has become severe anxiety.
In the article, you have recommendations for adults to protect themselves:
- Be on your guard at all times.
- Know what you can and cannot expect from the sociopath.
- Avoid going to this person for emotional support or advice.
- Build an imaginary boundary between yourself and the sociopath.
- Don’t make excuses for the sociopath. Instead, hold them accountable for their actions.
How can parents say any of this to the child without being sued for parental alienation???
The Best Solution: Tanya is right to be concerned about parental alienation (when one parent turns the child against the other parent). And no parent should say these things to their child. Parental alienation is one of the most harmful things that a parent can do and has been shown to cause children to develop personality disorders.
Keep in mind that having a sociopathic parent is one of the greatest risk factors for Childhood Emotional Neglect. Sociopathic parents are not able to see or respond to, much less validate, their child’s feelings. This sets the child up to struggle with emotions through their adult life.
With your child you must walk a fine line: being realistic enough to validate her feelings and her confusion, but without saying anything negative. One way to do that is to talk about her father with compassion (even if you don’t feel it yourself).
Ask your child how she feels about things her sociopathic parent does, and then listen. Try using these explanations and questions with your child:
- You know some things are hard for your dad.
- Your dad has a different way.
- I wish I could explain to you why your dad did that.
- I don’t understand either.
- I know it’s confusing.
- How do you feel about this?
Be cautious about who you meet and don’t overlook the red flags in people. They are there for a reason!!! I do believe a big part of my problem was having low self-esteem. Sociopaths prey on the weak. They look for someone they can use, abuse, control, manipulate…so if you are like me, build yourself up, raise your standards and listen to your gut instincts before becoming too involved with people!!
The Best Solution: Early in a relationship you are seeing the other person’s best foot forward. Don’t ignore frightening, dangerous, or harmful behaviors directed toward you or others. Even small examples of those behaviors mean something. Make sure you know that you deserve to be treated well. If you’re in doubt of this at times, please see a therapist and build your self-confidence. Strong people repel sociopaths.
I think one of my siblings could be a sociopath and the way he treats people matches every one of the hallmarks. I wondered in the past sometimes. The bit about denial is very interesting because I think deep down that he really could be yet I have every justification and don’t think that I could ever accept it…. I believe he loves and ultimately doesn’t want to hurt people. It is very confusing actually.
The Best Solution: One of the most difficult things about dealing with a sociopath is accepting that you’re dealing with a sociopath. Especially when that sociopath is someone you love or want to love. If you see someone you care about behaving like a sociopath, don’t feel pressured to label them. Instead, quietly start taking steps to protect yourself, and watch and wait. Remember that the label is not as important as guarding and protecting yourself from being used, manipulated or hurt.
I believe both my father and older brother are sociopaths. They are both consumed with their own well being and viciously attack people for sport. Both have left a wake of broken lives behind them. I like to tell myself they are not evil, just sociopathic.
The Best Solution: Viciously attacking people “for sport” is, I believe, the one trait that sets sociopaths apart from borderline and narcissistic personalities. A person who enjoys hurting and manipulating others is not just emotionally dysregulated (borderline) or overly self-involved (narcissistic).
If your father is indeed sociopathic please be aware that you may have Childhood Emotional Neglect. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
That said, I like your approach of thinking of your father and brother as “not evil, just sociopathic.” Demonizing another person may feel good, but it does not help anything. Understanding that someone has a personality disorder is more realistic and does not interfere with your ability to protect yourself from them.
What do you do as a parent if you believe your teenage daughter is a sociopath or has a borderline personality disorder? I need advice, I’m trying to save my baby’s life and have no idea what I’m doing.
The Best Solution: You are not alone. Many parents find themselves in the same predicament. Of course, there are no easy answers, but there are two things you can do. First, try to get your child to a professional for evaluation and therapy. Second, talk to a professional yourself. The way you respond to your teen’s behaviors is crucial, and every day matters. Do not hesitate to engage a licensed mental health professional to help.
The world is filled with people who are struggling with difficult relationships. Labeling someone you’re struggling with as a sociopath (or antisocial personality disorder) can either cause great damage or help you understand what’s happening. This is not a label to apply lightly, so always take great care with it.
To learn more about how to cope with, and recover from, the effects of growing up with a sociopathic (or other emotionally absent) parent, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To get support, information, and help regarding personality disorders, visit the Personality Disorders Awareness Network.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.