Why Labeling Someone a Sociopath Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

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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.

Final Thoughts

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.


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Lori - April 24, 2020 Reply

Hi Dr. Jonice:
Thanks so much for this article! I read your articles on Psych Central and really find them helpful in understanding some of my family’s dysfunction as well as my own feelings. In fact, after just now getting off the phone with my mom and listening to her complaints (legitimate, but…) and obsessing over the same thing for the past several years I am sitting here wishing I could ship certain family members to you because none of them are willing to listen to me, change any of THEIR behaviors or get help yet they constantly turn to me and cry on my shoulder!! This was “getting old” two years ago but now it’s to the point where it is impacting me more than ever and I am tired of the chaos and drama. Yet when I tell my mom and my (half) brother, that they are so enmeshed it’s not healthy, that his alcoholism, anger, rage, false accusations, name calling, self harm, destroying property etc are HUGE red flags and puts her potentially at risk, she claims “oh, he’d never hurt anyone, he’s my son, what am I supposed to do? I can’t let him starve!”
She lives on very modest retirement income and is elderly with health conditions–at risk for Covid-19. Yet he calls her to say “mom I’m out of everything, and I also need cigarettes. I have nothing to drink, no food for my dog.. but it’s just me, I’m not important anyway.” She says “Don’t be silly, of course you are. You know I love you!” He will say with a sarcastic snort “Yeah right, YOU don’t love ME! You should have just drowned me when I was born or aborted me!” Or, she will say “okay if you are out of stuff we’ll drive down and take you to the store” and then drive 90 minutes each way. Only for him to buy very little when she gets here and THEN ask her to stop at another convenience store near him where he will buy cigarettes, beer (usually four 24 oz cans and drink them in one night) and/or vodka. THEN later, he will be at home, depressed, drunk, lonely and call our mother and tear her apart verbally–mock her for being hard of hearing, mock her tone of voice, accuse her of not loving him, only wanting to make herself happy (sooo NOT true), lying about stuff, cheating on his father (who sexually abused me for years and is now dead), calls her “Satan,” a “poor excuse of a mother,” “evil”, tells her “I’ll see you in hell B–CH!” or will scream at her and at times, tell her SHE MAKES him angry and he will tell her he’s cut himself because of her etc. We call the police and then when they talk to him, he is calm and says “oh, my family just worries a lot–they are worrywarts, I’m sorry Officer that they bothered you!” Then he tells her if she ever does that again he will be dead before they arrive–and when I called to get him some help, he physically threatened me.
So totally unlike who he used to be!! I am just so tired of this constant chaos. He goes from saying we are his “best friends” we “saved him from starvation” and has told me I am his “guardian angel” and his “hero and always have been” to being totally in a rage and not in control.
I guess I just needed to vent… Thanks.

    Jonice - April 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lori, I encourage you to go to an Al-Anon meeting. You are in a no-win situation dealing with an addicted family member and you will find excellent support and help there. Also, consider seeing a therapist to help you form some boundaries with your parents and hold them.

Infran - March 4, 2020 Reply

“Sociopathic parents are not able to see or respond to, much less validate, their child’s feelings.”

Actually, from my own research, psycho/sociopaths *can* often trek what others are feeling, but as James Fallon (diagnosed and self-identifying “pro-social” psychopath) put it, the thing is that they just don’t care about it.

I think that’s probably the one of the biggest – if not THE biggest – misconceptions that we tend to make: that just because someone is aware of something means that they care about it, particularly where feelings are involved. With no disrespect intended, I honestly don’t understand why people make that conclusion. ^_^;

But honestly, think about it: for the ones that DO manipulate, how could they do so if they couldn’t tell what you were feeling? Or at least, I think it would put limits on *how* they could manipulate you.

Personally, I think the most important thing is whether someone – psycho/sociopath or otherwise – decides that people are important and deserve respect, and are aware of whether they treat them that way. (I have met people who go on about being nice to people, sincerely mean it, and then go against their own standards without being aware of it. o_o;; This might be more dangerous than whether or not they CARE.)

    Jonice - March 5, 2020 Reply

    Interesting thoughts, Infran. Thanks for sharing!

    Elizabeth - May 16, 2021 Reply

    Yes, I think (factor 1) psychopaths can see feelings, even if only cognitively, for example, they can see a child crying. But instead of empathising they think the child is being manipulative, for example, or calling attention to themselves when the psychopath wants to be busy doing something else more interesting to them at that moment.
    The knock on effects of the biological impossibility of a meaningful, consistent and positive emotional connection with a parent are profound. I feel I have been truly heroic only to find out that my trip to hell and back was all for nothing, in the sense that nothing I could have done would have lit up the areas of a brain that were always going to be dark.

Summer - March 2, 2020 Reply

Once again, another great article. Thank you sincerely for your studies and hard work, all in the name of helping and healing others.

    Jonice - March 2, 2020 Reply

    Dear Summer, I’m so glad to be helpful to you. Thanks for your comment!

Laurie - March 1, 2020 Reply

It wasn’t until I started therapy that I realized that my mother was sociopathic and that I suffered from CEN and depression. Even though I was in my fifties, being able to put a label to what I experienced my entire life helped in so many ways. My therapist recommended that I read your book, Running on Empty, which helped me to understand the importance of recovery and how it has helped me with my own adult children.

    Jonice - March 2, 2020 Reply

    Dear Laurie, it sounds like you’ve found a good therapist and done some good work. I’m glad to hear it and keep it up!

M. - March 1, 2020 Reply

Because a parent may have themselves a CEN background (Dr. Webb has pointed out that CEN is a generational, and therefore cultural problem) even what seem to be overtly sociopathic behaviors may stem from their errors in belief about how to interact with offspring, and indeed, anyone they may decide needs “education” or mentoring.
this is more intractable, due to their accepted belief system – their culture.
An elder sibling imposing hierarchical and either cruel or insensitive relationships add to the child’s perception of “this is the way of the world”, likely contributing to the desperate seeking of relief in the form of seeking out either professional or peer differentiation from such a systematic social worldview. When seeking out more empathetic companions and groups, we ourselves bring either or both excessive emotional response, and excessively quick mistaken judgments of others behavioral signals.
The complexity of what is actually the mixing of essentially very foreign home cultures – incompatible presumptions and beliefs, makes escape from a CEN milieu difficult.

As many can see or intuit, this really quite sociopathic view easily bleeds into maltreatment of others, all others, including animals, domestic and wild (although domestics can become scapegoats, their very similar social need, – unconditional love, any organism, indeed, all with whom one interacts become victims of those generationally-imposed cognitive errors.

My mother, for example in every situation of abuse by father, grandfather, elder brother, counseled only stoicism – acceptance and participation in their demonstrably failed modeling of culture as sociopathy.
At age 31,I was astonished that a man interacted playfully with his father – it just did not compute, and gave me the impression of unreality – I denied what I actually SAW.
Additionally, it aroused a sense of immense absence, loss, yearning, for such a world.

Moat of the time, though,we fall bac into ur erroneous belief system. My own sister, foru years younger, understood teh cruelty of the parental abuse from an emotional standpoint. Being insulated somewhat herself, through her sex and her age, , while she certainly acted out against the attempt[s] to impose CEN culture, she finally seems to have succumbed. Since she is involved in the medical/helping profession, I believe the emotional “hardening” I see, may have been a result of the almost constant bombardment of ill and emotionally suffering, causing her to more easily imitate the self-protective response of CEN modeled constantly in her early life.
This note, then, is about the relative intractability that occurs when emotional neglect is so pervasive that it BECOMES culture.
I would say: “resist!”
No matter how close, how accepted as fact such anhedonic, unexpressive, the society you see around you, retain your innocence. It may limit your circle of acquaintance, but to involve yourself only in relationships with those worthy of trust, or at least to make sure you HAVE and prize most of all one or more relationships with any worthy of your trust.
Only from such an incipient famiy and culture can you have the capacity to assist any other from your early life.
I have for a couple years now slowly weaned my own mother from her stoicism and cynicism. One of the reasons why I thought Dr. Webb’s CEN books of value, was that they helped give a coherent basis for helping my now-aged mom out of a lifelong view of presumption of cynical mistrust.

I don’t live in the family or society in which I would prefer, but the only remedy is the creation of trust and consideration on however small a scale of love we can create. This, at least, allows us to rest , even if alone, in a more caring perception of the world.

    Jonice - March 2, 2020 Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing, M. I’m glad you have found some answers to help you and your mom in my book.

Dorothy - March 1, 2020 Reply

My brother is a sociopath he is extremely difficult and likes to “attack” – nasty letters, emails. Tries to manipulate. I live in fear of him. I’ve cut all ties but he contacts me to start trouble. What do I do?

    Jonice - March 2, 2020 Reply

    Dear Dorothy, keep protecting yourself, it’s all you can do.

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