I possess a majority of the traits established on Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist. I have had trouble experiencing empathy and emotion since I was a child. I experience very little guilt and remorse. I was diagnosed as sociopathic in my twenties and was told I exhibited a “higher than average” propensity toward criminality. And yet …
I do not have a criminal record. I am happily married. I am educated. I enjoy a successful career. I am a high-functioning adult.
If you are reading this blog then I am willing to bet it might. You could be one of the nearly fifteen million people believed to be sociopaths living in America. Or you could be one of the 30 million people whose personalities I believe are part of the the sociopathic spectrum. And we’re not talking strictly criminals either. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, mail carriers — all types of individuals are hiding in plain sight as sociopaths.
I hid for years. I knew as early as seven that something was off. I just didn’t care about things the way other kids did. I started stealing in kindergarten. I never felt remorse. By junior high I was breaking into classrooms after hours at my school just because I could. I was also reading. A lot.
I spent hours at the library pouring over psychology books. I figured out I was a sociopath fairly quickly. The problem was this: there was a glaring contradiction between what the books said and how I felt. Everything I was reading indicated that I was a sociopath and yet everything I was reading said that sociopaths were terrible people: that they had no conscious; they had no soul; they couldn’t be treated; they couldn’t be controlled. But I knew I wasn’t a terrible person. And I knew I could be controlled: I just had to do it myself.
My behavior worsened as I grew older. It was as if there was a definitive split in my personality: my depth of emotion on one side was equally matched by my infinite lack of emotion on the other. In many cases I didn’t even really want to do some of the things I was doing. It was almost a compulsion: a prison break for the dark side of my personality. None of the books were helping so I decided to see a therapist. I needed help.
I didn’t get it.
I met with more than a dozen therapists, most of whom agreed I met the criteria for the sociopathic check-list but who were unable to diagnose or treat me because the field didn’t recognize sociopathy as a treatable disorder. It still doesn’t.
You see, when psychologists and psychiatrists need to make a diagnosis, they turn to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). The DSM is the Bible of the psychology field and a one-stop-shop for just about any psychological disorder you can imagine. Any disorder that is, but sociopathy. Diagnostic criteria for the sociopathic personality cannot be found in the DSM. It doesn’t exist.
Let me repeat that: diagnostic criteria for what is arguably the most dangerous personality type is not listed in the nation’s leading diagnostic manual. Despite its potentially dangerous nature, sociopathy hasn’t been given a great deal of modern thought. So the definitions and treatment options offered by the psychological field are the same as they were 100 years ago: nonexistent.
I started to panic. I felt alone and out of control and there was no one who could help me. There was no name for the type of person that I was and there was no making it better. My destructive urges became nearly uncontrollable. I became reckless. If I couldn’t get people to see me and help me with my words then I was going to do it with my actions. I wanted to get caught. I tried to get caught. It’s pure luck that I didn’t.
I kept thinking: How many people like me are out there? Who else is capable of anything and unable to talk to anyone about it? Who else feels invisible? Who else can’t get treatment because of outdated and illogical psychological criteria? Who else in this world is like a bomb waiting to explode in any direction because they have no direction?
Then in 1999 two teenagers committed mass murder at a high school in Columbine.
On April 20th of that year I watched as two boys murdered twelve of their classmates and one of their teachers in front of the world. Like so many others, I saw video after video of these two casually strolling the grounds of their high school with what seemed like zero fear or any semblance of remorse for the atrocities they were committing. Unlike the others, though, I experienced a very acute sensation while watching: I experienced recognition.
I understood these two. I certainly didn’t condone what they were doing, but I wasn’t surprised by it. Worse, I could identify with it. “So I’m not alone,” I thought. “There are others out there and they don’t know what makes them different either.” The boys at Columbine didn’t understand why they were numb so they started pushing the boundaries of their apathy just like I did. Only Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made sure they’d get caught.
That’s when I realized I had to save myself. I decided that if the books on the shelves were offering no definitions, I would write one and offer them myself. If the professionals in the psychological field couldn’t treat me, I would become one of them and treat myself.
I pursued a PhD in clinical psychology and spent the next decade studying every text related to the group of psychopathy including psychopaths, sociopaths, and anti-social personality types. What I discovered is this:
The sociopathic personality is far more nuanced than most people realize. Like nearly every other type of mental illness, I believe that sociopathy is a spectrum disorder. Meaning there are bad cases, not so bad cases, and lots of mid-range stuff going on in between.
A sociopathic diagnosis is not one-size-fits all, there are varying levels of severity. But the field has yet to recognize them. The diagnostics are comprehensive but the interpretation is limited. The list of traits used to identify sociopaths is fairly accurate, but the description of what those traits identify is only partially true.
Everything I had read about sociopaths being incapable of self awareness, singularly antisocial, unable to empathize, unable to love, unable to learn from mistakes, and unable to be treated – all of this is correct for psychopaths. Sociopaths, on the other hand, are different.
According to the research, sociopaths are capable of all the same behavior as their psychopathic cousins, but they are able to learn from their mistakes. They benefit from punishment. They can be taught compassion. They are capable of empathy. They demonstrate self awareness and are able to change their behavior patterns. They straddle the fence – equally capable of engaging in behavior that is destructive or constructive as they see fit.
Studies show that sociopaths are very common and represent the “greatest number of individuals included in the overall group of psychopathy.” They are believed to capable of leading normal lives. Some are difficult to spot. Most are living below the radar. Many are described as funny, affable, logical, and even friendly. But that’s not the best part.
Numerous studies have found that individuals diagnosed as sociopaths respond positively to specific therapeutic interventions. When used in conjunction with tools that promote personality awareness and acceptance, certain methods of therapy are proven to be highly effective for sociopathy. In other words, sociopathy is a largely treatable disorder.
In this blog I plan to define this category and illuminate all the sides of the sociopathic personality – not just the ones sensationalized for entertainment’s sake. I will put a compassionate face on an otherwise demonized disorder. I will argue the importance of inclusion – rather than exclusion – of sociopathy in the psychology field. I will will use my dual perspective as both doctor and subject to attest to the struggles from both sides.
As a sociopath I’ve become acutely aware of the fact that I am just as capable of love and nurturing as I am indifference and destruction. As a doctor I’ve explored the depths of my darkness and come to terms with it. As a researcher I’ve analyzed similarities in other sociopathic personalities and tested different psychological interventions.
Over the years I’ve learned to make friends and keep friends. I’ve learned to pay attention to the triggers of my split personality and respect them. Most importantly I’ve learned to accept and love my darkness, instead of being resentful of it. I’ve stopped pretending I’m like everyone else. I’ve stopped lying (about that). Remorse and empathy don’t come naturally to me. So what? I didn’t choose this path, but I absolutely l will not be destroyed by it. And neither should you.
I represent the truth no one wants to admit: that darkness is where you least expect it. I am a criminal without a record. I am a master of disguise. I have never been caught. I have never been sorry. I am friendly. I am responsible. I am invisible. I am reasonable. I blend right in.
I am a 21st century sociopath. And I created this website because I know I’m not alone.