Sociopathic tendencies or full-blown sociopath?

(The article below is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake and not meant to imply that females aren’t capable of exhibiting the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)

What does it mean to say that someone has sociopathic tendencies, versus full-blown sociopathy, and does the difference even matter?

The simple answer is that someone with sociopathic tendencies will exhibit sociopathic behaviors and attitudes sometimes, while elsewhere he may seem to possess (and, in fact, may possess) a somewhat genuine (if limited and unreliable) capacity and desire to respect others.

In contrast, the full-blown sociopath’s respect for others, when apparently evident, is never really deeply genuine, but rather driven more by expediency or, more specifically, by the lack of any immediate opportunity to benefit from disrespecting or exploiting others.

Another way to say it is that the full-blown sociopath will almost always capitalize on perceived opportunities to exploit others for his own gain, whereas an individual with “sociopath tendencies” is likely to be somewhat less predictably exploitive in his interpersonal relationships.

In my experience, to identify that you are involved with a partial versus full-blown sociopath is not grounds for optimism. So long as sociopathic tendencies are present, their “quantity” seems to me to matter little. In the end, the individual’s prognosis is the same—hopeless. He is no less treatable or curable for the comparatively inconstant expression of his sociopathy.

In some respects it may be more disconcerting to be involved with a partial sociopath than a full-blown one. This is because the partial sociopath’s seeming capacity to be a “real,” sometimes (if selectively) attached human being can serve as a sort of tease—one finds the seemingly less exploitive aspect of his nature even more confusingly impossible to reconcile with the more exploitive one. One seizes on his capacity for “selective humanity,” misjudging it for his potential for ongoing, reliable empathy and respect for others.

Of course this is a pipe-dream, because the partial sociopath’s capacity for “sensitivity,” perhaps even for certain forms of loyalty, is ever-presently compromised by the underlying tug, and ultimate grip, of his underlying sociopathic orientation. He will  inevitably, with utter certainty, drift back into his more exploitive mode and exhibit again, at some point in time, the shocking markers of his sociopathy—his defects of empathy in the context of his audaciously violating behaviors.

I want to stress this very carefully: to the extent that someone has sociopathic tendencies, implying that his sociopathy doesn’t necessarily encompass his “whole character” (as in the case of the full-blown sociopath), this is something like comparing two very dangerous, ultimately untreatable cancerous malignancies—the first hasn’t perhaps  “metastasized” fully, but is definitely malignant with absolutely no cure and no chance of   meaningful remission; whereas the latter shows perhaps evidence of a global invasion, i.e. “sociopathy run uncontrollably wild.”

I’ve worked for several years with a client I regard as having clear-cut sociopathic tendencies and find her to be among the more baffling clients I’ve worked with. There is the strangest, most jarring mix of humanity in her personality, a capacity for generosity, yet alternating with a historical pattern of cunning, lying behaviors and a chilling capacity to comfortably disown remarkable abdications of responsibility.

She has exhibited these dizzying, confusing qualities in her relationship with me. She has lied to my face countless times and produced fantastic, absurd, and obviously specious explanations for behaviors that someone fully unsociopathic would feel anxious and embarrassed to assert. When confronted with her dissimulation, she conveys (and seems to feel) little to no shame, just the knee-jerk inclination to perpetuate and elaborate the deceptions.

She is opportunistic and someone who has “worked the system” in a variety of unethical ways. Ultimately she lacks either the willingness, or capacity, to truly own the varieties of ethically dubious, sometimes alarmingly irresponsible behaviors that continue to sabotage her otherwise seemingly considerable potential.

She is a complex person, a very attractive and seductive individual, and I believe she possesses a dimension within her characterized by seemingly real generosity. At the same time, she can be shamelessly manipulative and deceptive, and can be “counted on” ultimately to be only “unreliable.” She seems destined to leave those in her life periodically stunned by the betrayal of their faith and trust in her.

She will never change. There is a sociopathic element in her character that I believes explains these patterns and that leaves her, in my view, permanently untrustworthy.

I’m interested in readers’ feedback on this subject.





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Solis Ryne

I think that persons with sociopathic tendencies are marked by a stunning lack of empathy more than exploitative behavior. I can attest that personally. They don’t possess the full destructive set of qualities that a sociopath does but they can still play a game with your head. I had a friend who had this marked lack of empathy whom i knew for all five years of high school and after that as well. She was prone to introversion and I was bubbly and enthusiastic in our first year so we made friends. She had no clue on how to make friends( I guess she figured out that later but I suspect that she lets people come to her and do the friend making). She refereed to me as her ‘Acquaintance’ in year two rather than friend. Only later she identified me as her best friend.

She later became very cold and displayed the tendency to forget obligations and people in general. Our circle of friends would make dates to go out and she would forget them totally. We would call on the day and it wouldn’t be like she forgot actually people rather that she forgot what day it was( she did that too.). I convince her to come to prom and she would later say it was boring and lame. She after graduating found me less than entertaining(I didn’t to night clubs or drink) so she found herself a new person to entertain her. One of my friends, who was willing to go to night clubs, get her drinks, and get her boys(she made out with a guy she had just met – one she had no emotionally connection to on one occasion, while we were in high school). I only saw her a few times after that. she was always too tired with work to come see me. And the one time I saw her beside running into her, was after my grand mother died and my other friend insisted they come.

She possesses this calculating coldness and lack or regard but she also has this reserve of generosity like you describe above. She’s not fake or putting fronts up. She’s generous, and never forgets birthdays, and she’s intellectual.

The thing that made me sure she was sociopathic was the time when her boy friend fell, got his arm broken, begged her to visit her and she never did.And when he got upset and refused to talk to her she was upset and baffled by his behavior, which made ME baffled. She just had no clue she had the obligation to go see him in his condition. And then went on with how she would get revenge when she became a Doctor. Oh, and the time she forgot to give me a photograph from that the other friend had passed on to me… forgot it for two years. I asked about it and she knew nothing about it.I only found out after I visited my other friend who told me to forget it and gave me her copy.

She also began interfering in my friends relationships, and has turned out to have promiscuous behavior which you would never have guessed. She’s a user who throws you out if there’s no benefit to her. She manipulated one guy into a relationship with her then when he dumped her, slept with him in order to get him back. She strove to keep me from my other friend, forgetting when ever i asked to go with her. She is blightly dishonest, I asked her about the photo and she said what was i talking about. The last straw was when she disregarded my concern over a spate we had online. I had apologized for the issue but she didn’t talk to me for months. When i finally messaged her after five months and asked where we stood, she replied, “I forgot,that’s why it seems i was ignoring you, why don’t you get over it.” She didn’t value that I was upset over the issue, didn’t express remorse, not a single thing. I was upset over something that she just couldn’t care about. I considered her so much while she didn’t. I got over her alright. I never want to hear from her again.


This is a very enlighten article for anyone who is questioning whether their abuser is sociopathic or not. Obviously,there is a wide spectrum of sociopathic individuals.


I have often wondered if my daughter is a full blown sociopath or suffers from sociopathic tendencies. For sure, sociopathy runs in my family: my paternal grandfather was a cruel child and wife abuser, but not my father. It is carried on the male gene, but can be passed on to daughters, too, but they can’t pass on the traits.

Getting back to my daughter. She was a precious little girl, but very, very shy. I always stayed with her to give her security, and never pushed her to interact with others. She never wanted to play with other children, except for one older girl who came to our house occasionally. My daughter preferred to play with me, and was very dependent on my presence. I had a son (three years younger, who was just the opposite: a friend collector). So I accepted their differences in personalities. We always bragged we were a very close mother-daughter team.

However, when she turned 15, I divorced her father, and started
dating other men. All hell broke lose at this time in her head, and she became a monster to me. She has never forgiven me for being with other men! She expected me to have complete abstinence from men, so she could have me 24/7! She has punished me to this day for “leaving her” and having a normal life outside of her. Now that I am remarried (it took me 20 years), she stopped sending me Mother’s Day cards, and has taken my grandchildren away from me!

Looking back, I believe her brother was right to call her anti-social in high school. She never had any close friends & still only wanted to go to the movies with me! To make a long story short, she went from a loving daughter to a nightmare almost overnight. She was like clockwork with her genes: they turned on at 15 and are still full blown today at 45! S

She is now married to a charming/criminal sociopath in a high position and has become even harder, colder, and meaner to me. Perhaps she has always been a full blown sociopath, but I still hold onto sweet memories of her as a little/young girl who was
once so loving to me. Having her in my life has been the greatest joy & the worst cruelty! Sociopathy is a curse! To those who have it & those who love them.

It is very hard for me to just say goodbye to my only daughter, but she has callously pushed me so far away this time, for five years, and has no remorse or guilt about doing it! Sadly, she has hurt her own children, too, who were once very close to me. She obviously cares little about their feelings or pain, too!

I wish I was tougher emotionally with her. She knows just how to play into my vulnerabilities, especially with her children. So I have let her go, to face her own consequences. One day, I believe my grandchildren will come back to me. And I will tell them the evil truth about their mother. But perhaps, they already know it.


is it common for those with sociopathic tendencies to be self-aware to realize these afflictions without being diagnosed?

Rising Phoenix

While I am not qualified in your capacity, I believe there is no clear cut difference between someone who has sociopathic tendencies and someone who is a full-blown sociopath. In my opinion, and after much research and therapeutic assistance with a sociopath, I believe that some sociopaths may have perfected their “game” in a way that exhibits more functionality, but in essence, it is still part of the “game”. It appears to me that some sociopaths may appear to show true remorse and empathy at times, but it is not sincere. It is only part of a more complicated issue when they feel their “target or prey” is not behaving in a way that is conducive to their end game (power, control, and sex). My socio-ex was very convincing when it suited him, and he was able to turn on a dime when necessary to “get me back in line” so he could maintain his power, control, and sexual hold that was so necessary to his very survival. For example: on many occasions he took my face in his hands, standing remarkably close and looking deeply into my eyes, and told me how much he loved me. He would tell me with such eloquence that I was what saved him from all the horrible things of the world, even though he’d betrayed me in one way or another yet again. I believe these types of sociopaths are what my father would call high-functioning, which leads me to believe that they are even more dangerous. They have the skill and depravity to reach such depths of deceit that it would truly try the patience of even those who might be seen as having the patience of a saint.

In my search for legislative reform, I’m finding that definitions mean everything. If there is a defining difference between the two, it will continue to be an obstacle when trying to establish legitimacy for legislation. Because so many sociopaths have such amazing skill in exuding behavior that will get them what they want, it may appear at times that they have the ability to feel true remorse, shame, and disgust for who they are. Yet, they will use any trick in the book to make everyone, including professionals, think that they are truly sorry for their actions. However, that is just another part of the sociopath. They can and will turn any situation into one of “fake” empathy, compassion, and hardship if it will keep them in control. These men and women are clear-cut, white collar criminals who can be compared to a cult leader or someone like Bernie Madoff. Extortion, fraud, and trickery are all used in ways, even when covered by “fake” compassion and empathy, to control and manipulate their victims.

Until the law can recognize the distinction, many women, men, and children will continue to suffer the abuse inflicted by such skillful predators with little regard to the consequences.


Interesting and thought provoking article.

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