It’s disconcerting, no question about it, working with someone who’s antisocial, with real sociopathic qualities (forgetting, again, for the moment, the hell of living with such an individual).
Recently, I’m struck again, in my work with a client I’ll call Howard, by the brew of certain qualities, certain attitudes, certain defenses that strike me as forming a rather sociopathic orientation.
Howard is 19. He understands the suffering he’s causing others in his life: he can “talk the talk,” meaning that he “gets it” on a cognitive level. He can say, for instance, quite accurately, what he’s doing, why it’s wrong, that it’s wrong, even that he feels bad about it.
How badly he really feels is highly debatable. In my view, not nearly as badly as he claims, and certainly not nearly badly enough to make real efforts at change. In our sessions, I confront him regularly with my perception of the discrepancy between his assertions of remorse and regret, and what he’s really willing to do about them?
I see him as someone who can hear my challenges without reacting very defensively. His undefensiveness may seem like a good quality, and maybe it is; but it’s also likely that it stems, to some extent, from his ultimate unconcern with what I feel about, and think, of him. That is, I suspect it stems in part, at least, from his relative indifference to my (or anyone’s) view of him.
When I say he’s undefensive, I mean this specifically with regard to how he fields my confrontations. He is fairly placid in his absorption of them. On another level, though, he’s quite defensive in a classically narcissistic/sociopathic fashion: On one hand, as I’ve noted, he can seem remorseful (quite regretful) for his misbehaviors and abusive attitudes. But if you should probe him at all—not just accept his statements of remorse at face value—he predictably lapses into his truer position: this is a position from which his abusiveness is always, ultimately, rationalized as a response to his perceiving himself as having been victimized, persecuted or otherwise treated unfairly in some fashion.
Now he is canny enough to attempt to disguise this pattern, especially with initial assertions of politically correct sounding accountability. But always, with a little prodding, you will bring him back to his true experience in which self-justification for his abusiveness and an attitude of unaccountability prevail.
Just as noteworthy: no matter how many times you point out to him how rapidly he shifts from taking “seeming” responsibility for his behavior to abruptly abdicating responsibility for the same behavior (again, rationalizing it as a response to others’ persecution), he is rather uninterested in this contradiction and basically unconcerned to reconcile it. He just doesn’t find this contradiction particularly troubling, peculiar, meaningful, or worth his time to look at.
This is a highly sociopathic quality and attitude.
It seems to reflect the “glitch” that allows this personality, in his blithely untroubled, incurious fashion, to verbalize awareness and regret over his abusiveness and exploitiveness on the one hand, while on the other (almost simultaneously) to rationalize it as a valid reaction to his perceived, or contrived, victimization.
When I confront him routinely with this contradiction, he may give lip service to the validity of my observation; but always, his interest to explore it, to own its possible ramifications, is superficial and transient.
Similarly, he will periodically assert his desire to cease his hurtful behaviors; then, in the next minute or so, when presented with evidence that he’s continued the very behaviors he’s claimed to want to cease, he may say something like, “Well, maybe I’m really not that motivated. To be honest, I’m really not.”
The honesty itself could almost be seen as admirable. But the problem lies in his blithe disinterest in the rapid, contradictory nature of his assertions. He isn’t embarrassed by this. Point it out to him and he’s almost bored, like a kid who’ll say, when inconvenienced, “Whatever.”
I regard this pattern as a sociopathic form of indifference to the contradiction between one’s statements, and between one’s statements and ongoing actions. What’s striking isn’t the contradictory content itself, but the missing shame and embarrassment when confronted with the nature of the discrepant communications.
This can leave me shaking my head, privately, in a kind of amazement. But even if I were to shake my head in visible amazement, while Howard might notice it, and might understand why he’s left me shaking my head, you can bet he wouldn’t care to make any more sense of himself to me than he cares to make sense of himself to himself—which is very little.
(This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake, not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)