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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155 Comments on "Sociopathic tendencies or full-blown sociopath?"

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

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.

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