I recently revisited The Sociopath Next Door

Here’s a little secret about psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors: We tend to see specific pathologies – mental illnesses – in settings in which we expect to see them and we overlook or miss them when we’re not expecting them.

For example:

  • As a prison chaplain, it was easy to recognize the sociopathy of a 22 year-old who beat an old lady to death for her Social Security money and wanted my help in getting to an “easy” prison; he complained that his life sentence wasn’t “fair.”
  • It was more difficult to recognize the pathology of the guard who took profound personal pleasure in surrounding himself with inmates who would beat up other inmates – for the guard’s sick entertainment.
  • As a counselor and priest it was easy to recognize the greedy, manipulative, self-centered and self-seeking, SOB ex-husband who continues to drag the mother of his son into court twice a year (always scheduling trials for the weeks of her final exams) – just to break her down; by his own choice, he’s had no contact with his son for more than two years but that means nothing to him.
  • When she walked into my office with her husband, (who was desperately trying to save his marriage), I’d never have thought she was a sociopath. At the end of the session (all about her and what she wanted for herself and how everyone else was wrong – all without any display of emotion or the ability to understand others’ feelings, I grab her beaten husband and whispered in his ear, “Run! Run as fast and far as you can. Never turn back. Run and save yourself, so one day you can save your kids.

I recently revisited The Sociopath Next Door (Martha Stout, Ph.D., Broadway Books, 2005) and re-examined the histories of too many clients who were the child- and employee- and student- and spouse-victims of the smiling sociopaths in their jobs, homes, schools and neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Stout’s work is the repeated assertion (also found on the cover) “1 in 25 Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty.”

In a work replete with case-based examples, Stout opens with a thorough discussion of conscience, concluding:

Nice behavior, prudent action, thoughts about how other people will react to us, honorable conduct in the interest of our self-regard… none can be defined as the individual’s conscience. This is because conscience is not a behavior at all, not something that we do or even something that we think or mull over. Conscience is something that we feel. In other words, conscience is neither behavioral nor cognitive. Conscience exists primarily in the realm of “affect,” better known as emotion

Conscience does not exist without an emotional bond to someone or something, and in this way conscience is closely allied with the spectrum of emotion we call “love.” This alliance is what gives true conscience its resilience and its astonishing authority over those who have it, and probably also its confusing and frustrating quality.

For Stout, as a result of factors that may include genetically-based disruptions in brain functioning, the sociopath is incapable of loving (anyone but him- or herself) and, therefore, has neither empathy nor conscience; for the sociopath every element of life – relationships with employees or clients, spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend, children or parents – is about “the game” and getting over on anyone and everyone just for the sake of getting over and “winning.”

Especially for ex- spouses whose former partners continue to draw them into court purely for the thrill of the game, for employees or neighbors who feel besieged by a coworker or neighbor whose only apparent motivation is to make others miserable Stout’s quick read – 218 pages – may well be life and sanity saving.

Of particular value are her “Thirteen Rules For Dealing With Sociopaths In Everyday Life”:

  1. …[A]ccepting that some people literally have no conscience…

  2. In a contest between your instincts and what is implied by the role a person has taken on – educator, doctor, leader, animal lover, humanist, parent – go with your instincts…

  3. When considering a new relationship of any kind, practice the Rule of Three regarding the claims and promises a person makes and responsibilities he or she has. Make the Rule of Three your personal policy… One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding. Two may involve a serious mistake. But three lies says you’re dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behavior. Cut your losses and get out as soon as you can…

  4. Question authority…

  5. Suspect flattery… Throughout all human history and to the present, the call to war has included the flattering claim that one’s own forces are about to accomplish a victory that will change the world for the better, a triumph that is morally laudable, justified by its humane outcome, unique in human endeavor, righteous and worthy of enormous gratitude. Since we began to record the human story, all of our major wars have been framed in this way, on all sides of the conflict, and in all languages the adjective most often applied to the word war is holy…

  6. If necessary, redefine your concept of respect…

  7. Do not join the game…

  8. The best way to protect your self from a sociopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication…

  9. Question your tendency to pity too easily…

10.  Do not try to redeem the unredeemable…

11.  Never agree, out of pity or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character…

12.  Defend your psyche…

13.  Living well is the best revenge….

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