When people ask the question "what is a sociopath?" it's often because they have realized that they are, or were, in a relationship with someone who may fit the profile of a sociopath. They are typically trying to understand and even to make sense of what was done to them. If that is your case, this page is for you.
A sociopath has no conscience and a big ego. Those two things give rise to the other characteristics of the sociopath, the manipulative aspect, the lies, the confidence, always being right, the lack of shame and guilt, the cruelty and the abusive nature and so on.
Let's have a look at how these things show up in real life. But before we do that a quick summary of some of the more formal answers to the question 'what is a sociopath?'
A sociopath is one of the commonly used names for someone who has a personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder to be specific, psychopath being the other. According to the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book used by mental health professionals, a personality disorder is characterized by impairment in how the person thinks about themselves and about others as well as pathological personality traits.
Antisocial personality disorder (a sociopath) is characterized by being very egocentric or having an absence of internal standards whereby they fail to comply with culturally and socially acceptable norms. On top of this they also lack concern for the feelings or suffering of others plus they are incapable of mutually intimate relationships because their relationship are based on exploiting others.
Their pathological personality traits include being manipulative, deceitful, callous, hostile, irresponsible, impulsive and taking risks.
"That's all very well and good. But what does that mean?", I hear you say. "What is a sociopath? How would I recognize one?"
The 20 items of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist - Revised are:
Rather than examine these things individually, I am going to go through a typical relationship with a sociopath and show how these things show up in real life situations.
And yes, I know, it's a psychopathy checklist. I suggest that you not get too hung up on whether it's a psychopath or a sociopath you are dealing with. Many people will have a preference for which term they use and that's fine. However, this is often an academic distinction and it makes little difference to the damage they do and what you need to do to recover. Besides, you may never get the chance to make a formal diagnosis and you can argue over whether your manipulator is a psychopath or a sociopath until the cows come home. The fact is that you are dealing with an abusive manipulator. That's the important common denominator.
Many people who have been caught in an intimate relationship with a sociopath have had the experience of believing that they had met their soul-mate. This person came into their life and swept them off their feet.
The sociopath seemed to be offering everything they wanted in a person, all the qualities, all the features, all the values and all the potential of an amazing future. The sociopath was even offering what the victim wanted in that moment, whether it be work, a place to stay, company, a shoulder to cry on, friendship, a way out of some difficulty, marriage. The sociopath presented him or herself as the complete package.
Here we see the charm, the pathological lying and the manipulativeness in action. The sociopath takes on the role of the perfect partner for the victim. Although they don't have emotions themselves, they learn how to toy with and manipulate the emotions of others and they can often do it very well. So well, in fact, that their victim is so high on love that they cannot see any problems with the situation even despite warnings from family and friends.
Basically they are manipulating the first impressions of their target in order to create the image of the perfect being in the mind of their victim. This also occurs in other situations with sociopaths, such as in work situations, social situations, and in other groups in areas such as health, fitness, religion, personal development etc.
The sociopath then begins to take advantage of the victim as well as starting to abuse them. The victim will buy the sociopath things because they are in love. The sociopath has no trouble directing these purchases. They will even borrow money with the promise of paying it back.
The victim ends up doing all sorts of things to please this new partner. After all, they are in love with this person that they think is fantastic and wonderful. The sociopath, of course, pushes this as much as they can.
The insults, criticism and humiliation all start to kick in now that the sociopath knows that they have 'captured' the victim. Now we see the grandiose self-worth and the callousness and lack of empathy. The victim is treated as a second rate citizen who is defective in many ways and these defects are pointed out and emphasized. The victim often can hardly believe that this wonderful person can be so cruel and heartless and for this reason the initial abuse is excused away. People have bad days, get stressed, have problems etc.
The criticism from sociopaths is often aimed at the personality or identity of the victim. Instead of criticizing the victim's behavior or beliefs, the person is attacked directly, as in "You are stupid, you are useless, you are worthless." You can read more details about this idea in this article about abusive relationships. This chips away very quickly at the self esteem of the victim, making them feel bad about themselves.
A combination of criticism and compliments is a very potent combination in terms of control. Compliments from the sociopath make the victim feel particularly good, criticism makes the victim feel bad about themselves. The victim wants to avoid criticism and earn compliments. In a mind control situation, instead of driving the victim away, the criticism actually makes the victim want to work harder to earn the approval of the abuser. This is one of the aspects that create a dependency in the victim on the abuser. More about this idea later.
Read more about the signs of a controlling wife...
At this stage, the victim is typically organizing their life around the abusive sociopath. The sociopath has made himself or herself the life's purpose of the victim. Their thinking and decision making is directed towards making sure the sociopath is comfortable and that the sociopath has things the way they want. Because of the new beliefs and world-view of the victim, this all makes sense to them (see below).
The sociopath, for their part, gives tasks to the victim. All the little things that they can't be bothered with, they are farmed out. Housework, childcare, trips to the post office, grocery shopping and so on become the work of the victim.
In work situations, the sociopath will trick and threaten people into doing their work, they will plagiarize work and steal the credit for colleague's ideas. In destructive cults, the sociopathic cult leader will take advantage of the skills of the members to have free work done and obtain free advice.
The sociopath will also quite happily spend other people's money. The sociopath husband or wife spends their spouse's money as well as their own. They will have people buy them meals, gifts, pay their phone bill, car insurance etc. etc. etc. The corporate sociopath will run up big expense bills as well as defraud the company in many ways. It is very frequent that the sociopath is found to have spent large amounts of money although it is usually impossible to know where it all went.
Then, of course, there is the pure parasite who has not worked a day in his or her life but through deceit and manipulation has a girlfriend/boyfriend or family member who brings them food. drink and cigarettes while they spend most of the day on the couch with the television remote control in one hand and their mobile phone in the other.
A sociopath has no sense of obligation or responsibility. This comes from the lack of guilt and shame, the Impulsiveness and the desire for instant gratification. They can be very convincing when they promise something or when (if!) they apologize. But they have no sense of obligation in sticking to that. If, five minutes later, they decide that they want something else, they will break their promise without any discomfort to themselves. This, of course, causes havoc in the lives of their victims.
Their sense of their own importance means that they typically don't even consider that court orders apply to them. A restraining order is seen as a challenge to see how fast they can make friends with the victim so that they can break it without the victim reporting them. Instructions to bring information about their earnings and expenses to court are often outright ignored. Orders around child visitation and financial support are twisted and distorted by the sociopath because they have no intention of having anyone tell them what to do.
In this area, they never accept responsibility or blame for anything 'bad' or wrong that happens around them. They have an endless stream of excuses and justification as to why it's someone else's fault. Anything 'good' that happens within thirty yards of them they are happy to take credit for, but the bad stuff? No way! Their grandiosity means that their plans, their decisions and their actions are perfect. If things don't work out, it's always someone else's fault.
Even when they are caught out in a lie, it's never their fault. The lack of shame and embarrassment appears when they are caught. It doesn't bother them at all. They just change the story and tell more lies to try and make it all fit!
Multiple marriages, extramarital affairs, double lives, breaking the law in multiple arenas are also a result of this lack of responsibility combined with the traits of seeking stimulation, Impulsiveness and poor behavior controls.
Many sociopaths have a history of having abused siblings and parents as a child, cruelty to animals, problems in school, run ins with the law, problems making friends and abuse of previous partners. A history of arson as a child is an ominous sign. All this, of course, is kept hidden from future targets.
Instead, using lies, half truths, distortions and exaggerations, the sociopath tells a story of bad luck and/or of having been abused themselves. This is called the pity play and is done deliberately because the sociopaths know that normal, feeling humans are social creatures and are hardwired to take care of each other. If the sociopath can elicit pity from a listener, they know that they are taking advantage of basic human behavior patterns and they learn how to twist and distort these to their own advantage.
The sociopath uses deceit, coercion and intimidation to control others. They want to control for their own personal pleasure. With the way they are able to treat others, they end up controlling the thoughts, decisions, behaviors and emotions of their victims. They even change a person's world view, values and morals. All these changes basically mean that they change their victim's personalities. This is typically 'sold' to the victim as being for their benefit!
They use mind control techniques to change their victims to be the kind of person that they want around them, a person who will look up to them and who will look after them. They impose a false personality on their victims which we call a pseudopersonality. You can read more about how they unfreeze the victim's personality, make changes and freeze the false personality in place and more details about how it happens in intimate relationships in this article on abusive relationships.
This pseudopersonality is programmed to believe in the sociopath, to trust them, to look after them, and to be dependent on them. The sociopath wants complete control over their victims and making them dependent is one way to do this. The victim needs to check with the sociopath before doing anything in order not to get into trouble. The victim is not allowed to make their own decisions and if they do, they will be criticized, shouted at and otherwise abused. After some time like this, the victim becomes dependent on the abuser to know if they are good or bad, and eventually even their identity becomes dependent on the sociopath. This may seem extreme to those who have not lived through something like this, but the victims of sociopaths know what it is not to know who they are anymore, or to 'lose themselves' in the relationship.
I have mentioned that the sociopath manipulates the impressions of others and one way that they often do this is to portray themselves as intelligent. They have lots of tricks for this, using the jargon in a particular domain to make it seem like they grasp things, criticizing others and expounding with authority on their own opinions, name dropping, taking some information they have just received and regurgitating it like they already knew it, their general demeanor and so on.
While there is obviously a range of intelligence among sociopaths, as there is among the general population, the victims of sociopaths typically believe that their one was especially intelligent.
That is, until they undo the pseudopersonality and see how the sociopath hides their mistakes, how they could be much more successful than they are if they used their skills in different ways, how they are unable to follow plans and how they often actually do things that are just dumb. When the sociopath is losing a power struggle, for example, they typically do things that show them up for who they really are and they say things that reveal their real level of intelligence.
In answering the question 'what is a sociopath?' it's very important to also consider what the sociopath does to you. I have explained how some of the characteristics of a sociopath appear in real life situations so that you can begin to learn how to spot sociopaths.
I have briefly introduced the idea of how the abuse changes you, the imposition of that pseudopersonality, changing who you are to someone who is programmed to live your life for the benefit of the manipulator.
This pseudopersonality is put in place with very strong influence techniques and it is reinforced over a period of time. For this reason it does not disappear simply because you leave the relationship. The beliefs and the behavior patterns persist.
There are two aspects to this. First, the next manipulator you meet will quickly recognize these patterns and will know that you have been abused in the past. They will target you because much of the work has been done already and you are easy pickings, so to speak.
The second aspect is that the beliefs and behaviors were installed, not for your benefit, but for the benefit of the sociopath. These things are not good for you. They will cause you all sorts of problems until you undo them. Because of the nature of mind control, it's practically impossible to undo the pseudopersonality alone. Professional help is invaluable here.
You can read more about what Hervey Cleckley said about sociopath symptoms, mental abuse, controlling boyfriends, controlling girlfriends, how to leave an abusive relationship and how to divorce a sociopath.
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If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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