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:
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:
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.
As a blogger, I pay attention to what readers want to know about. I’ve noticed that articles about three particular types of personality disorders (PDs), narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic, are often the most read.
Since my specialty (and the topics of my books and blogs) is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I can tell you that adults who grow up with emotional neglect often seem to attract people with personality disorders. That’s because CEN teaches you to take up little space, and those with personality disorders tend to take up a lot. It’s a classic case of opposites attracting.
People who find themselves involved with a personality disordered person may often find themselves getting hurt. I have noticed that the folks who comment on posts about PD’s very often express a mixture of strong emotions like confusion, hurt, anger and helplessness. Clearly, a great many people are hungry for information and guidance on how to handle relationships with these complex people in your lives.
Here are some example questions I’ve received from readers asking for guidance on dealing with a narcissistic or sociopathic person in their lives.
“Such a pity that escape (divorce) seems to be the only viable outcome. I’ve had to divorce my wife, but she still controls the minds of my now young adult daughters, so now I live with the pain of this alienation.”
“Does it serve a purpose to see a narcissistic parent’s condition coming from childhood emotional neglect? Yes. Once I realized that possibility, I looked at myself and realized how I often did to others exactly what my father did to me: because he left me with the same fragile sense of self. Fortunately I did not pass it on to another generation, having decided to end the bucket chain of abuse.”
The world is full of people who struggle with personality disorders. In truth, the numbers are staggering. 6% of the U.S. population has a narcissistic personality disorder. 5.6% has a borderline personality, and 1% has antisocial personality (according to the National Institute of Health).
With these numbers, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve met, befriended, been related to, or fallen in love with at least one of these personality types.
These three personality disorders are all different. Narcissists are known for being self-centered. Those with borderline personality are known for being unpredictable and highly emotional. And antisocial personalities (or sociopaths) are famous for their brutality. Generally, these three PD’s can best be understood by their ability or inability to feel two very important emotions: guilt and empathy.
Narcissistic Yes No
Borderline Yes Yes
Sociopathic No No
Here are the Four Main Questions About PD that I see you, our readers, struggling with:
1. What causes personality disorders?
We don’t know for sure, but current science tells us that it’s a combination of genetics and childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse and unpredictable parenting characterized by the repeated, sudden withdrawal of love and approval by the parent or love based on false, self-serving, or superficial factors. Neither nature nor nurture alone is probably enough to produce a personality disorder; most research indicates that it takes a combination of both.
2. Why didn’t I realize sooner that my husband/sister/father/friend, etc. has a personality disorder?
First, I’d like to suggest that you stop asking this question because it sounds like you are blaming yourself. The huge majority of people have no idea what a personality disorder is, or how to recognize it. Folks with narcissistic or borderline personality are not simply all good or all bad. They have very lovable qualities, and very maddening qualities, just like everyone else. This is why even mental health professionals require a good amount of time to make a diagnosis of personality disorder.
Sociopaths, however, fall into a special category of their own. Unlike people with borderline and narcissistic personalities, sociopaths have no capacity for guilt. But that is a very difficult thing to see in someone, especially when that someone is both highly charismatic and skilled at faking guilt and other emotions. Unfortunately, sociopaths, the most emotionally ruthless people among us, are also the most difficult to recognize.
3. Do people with personality disorders know what they are doing? Is he/she hurting me on purpose?
For sociopaths, the answer is simple: yes. Many sociopaths actually take pleasure in manipulating and hurting others. They view (and treat) the people in their lives like chess pieces.
For narcissists and borderlines, the answer is not so clear, because both of these groups are scrambling to protect their fragile inner core. The narcissist’s greatest fear is that you will see what he/she feels about herself deep down: worthlessness. Whereas the borderline person’s greatest fear is that you will abandon him.
Narcissists appear to not care if they hurt you, but it’s because they are extremely focused on protecting themselves. Borderline folks are at the mercy of their own pain and have little energy left over to offer care for others. They are capable of both guilt and empathy, but often cannot access either.
Most narcissistic and borderline people are not purposely inflicting pain or misery on others. They are more like a bull in a china shop.
4. I now hate someone I used to love. Is it OK to kick this person out of my life?
It all depends on what he/she has done, and what is your relationship with them. Of course, you must protect yourself and your children above all. And the type of PD you’re dealing with matters. Unfortunately, many people share traits from all three, making it difficult to know.
If this person is a family member, spouse or co-parent, and is not a clear sociopath, I recommend a delicate balance of self-protection and as much empathy as you can muster for the true pain that this person is living with and hiding.
Here are some Suggestions for Managing Your Relationship:
To learn how to manage your relationship with a narcissistic or borderline parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect is different from emotional abuse and how to heal from it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.