What makes someone a psychopath? This is important question nowadays because the term is being bandied about more and more. The danger is that some people who are not psychopaths may be given this label and those who are psychopaths move through society unnoticed.
To be in a relationship with a psychopath has significant implications because these people's relationships are based on coercion and exploitation. If you are actually dealing with a psychopath, it's important to recognise this because the rules are different in such cases.
The term psychopath is not actually listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). What is listed is the term "antisocial personality disorder" and these two labels are often used interchangeably.
While we're at it, sociopath is another term that is often used in this arena and depending on who you talk to, these words refer to the same thing or they are used to describe slightly different situations.
Someone with antisocial personality disorder engages in antisocial behaviour, hence the name. However, there are lots of other reasons for people to engage in antisocial behaviour, too. Children who are abused at a very young age can exhibit very antisocial behaviour later. People who have problems with drink and drugs are also well-known to display antisocial behaviour. Even normal, healthy people who are caught up in a mob can cause a lot of damage and destruction.
What sets the psychopath apart is their lack of a conscience. These people have no, or very shallow, emotions. They do not experience fear, guilt, shame, remorse, love, grief and so on. This is actually what makes someone a psychopath. Most people are not aware that there are people on this planet who do not experience emotions. They automatically assume everyone does.
So what's the significance of somebody not having emotions? Well, it means the psychopaths can do anything they like and they never feel bad about it. Let that sink in for a moment. They can be cruel, abusive, manipulative, threatening and it does not bother them. They can cause physical, mental and emotional harm to another and they are neutral about it. They have no inner policeman to stop them from doing bad things. They know the difference between right and wrong, they just don't care!
This is what allows psychopathic killers and psychopathic serial rapists to do what they do. The psychopath is driven to dominate and control others. What more control can you have over somebody than to take their lives? This can be literal, as in killing somebody, or metaphorical as in controlling somebody's perceptions, thoughts, decision-making, emotions and behaviours.
The DSM points out the deficiencies in personalities and the disordered relationships of the person with antisocial personality disorder. It specifically says that these defects in personality are consistent across contexts and cannot be attributed to other causes. In other words, somebody who behaves badly when drunk does not fit within the definition of antisocial personality disorder.
You would think then, that it would be relatively easy to identify the psychopaths among those who exhibit antisocial behaviour. But, of course, things are not so simple.
Many psychopaths are fantastic manipulators. They can lead people to believe that they are friendly, charming, helpful, loving and so on. They can be magnificent actors for the very reason that they don't have emotions. They do not get anxious or embarrassed if things don't work for them.
They can be excellent liars for the same reasons.
All these things allow them to manipulate other people's impressions of them and their victims are led to believe that they are the perfect spouse, teacher, mentor, friend, colleague, etc. They may not have emotions themselves but they learn how to manipulate and control the emotions of others. This lack of emotions often leads them to believe that they are superior beings because they are not "ĺimited" by these things called emotions that others suffer from. So, although the psychopath may not have emotions, it may be very difficult to recognise that they don't have emotions.
This is especially true of their victims who may have seen the psychopath "cry", smile and look happy, get angry and so on. It's important to look beyond these episodes and recognise that in other moments the psychopath was cold, cruel and calculating. For example, at a funeral they may not have expressed grief like everybody else, instead laughing and joking about some recent sporting event. Or very obviously not caring at the sight of somebody injured or in distress. Anybody can produce fake tears or plaster a smile on their face, not everybody can be indifferent in the presence of someone who is obviously suffering.
It's typical of psychopaths that they get bored easily. For this reason they often look for stimulus and engage in quite risky behaviour. They will often drink a lot and do drugs. In fact, when some of them take drugs they say they do it because they feel alive. This may be because they are using the physical sensations from the drugs to substitute for the emotional sensations that they lack.
The heavy drinking and drug use is often used (by outsiders and/or by the psychopaths) to justify their bad behaviour. Remember the DSM? If the bad behaviour is attributed to drugs or alcohol then the individual cannot be diagnosed as a psychopath. However, this is another example of cause and effect being inverted. It's not actually the drink or drugs leading to the antisocial behaviour, it's the antisocial behaviour leading to the drink and drugs.
A drug addict who engages in antisocial behaviour may express remorse and guilt later. The psychopath does not. They may say they're sorry but this is just a lie. They're doing the same nasty things again five minutes later.
Psychopaths will often do "good deeds". This is part of the manipulation and leads people to believe that they are actually good people. When they are being nice this is actually a dangerous time for the victims as the victim ends up forgiving and forgetting the recent abuse. You can read more about this idea in this article about the stages of an abusive relationship and the cycle of abuse.
The important thing here is to remember that no amount of good deeds compensates for, or negates, abusive behaviour. Again, anybody can do good deeds, but the cruel, abusive actions that are repeated over time are typically only done by psychopaths. Therefore, the trick is to pay special attention to the bad things that this potential psychopath in your life has done. Forget the good things. The reality is this person is capable of treating you very badly. Nice people just don't do that to their loved ones.
Another complicating factor exists for people who are brought up in a family with a psychopath. A child who has a parent or a sibling who is a psychopath is brought up an environment of psychological abuse. They don't know any different. For them the psychological abuse is normal, it's a part of life. It's often excused away with justifications such as:
The assumptions are that everybody has emotions, family members love you, their behaviour is just something you have to deal with, this is the way life is and there is nothing you can do about it, and so on.
Somebody who has lived with these beliefs in place for 20, 30 or even 40 years will typically find it difficult to get their head around the idea that they were never loved, the behaviour in their house was not normal, it was actually abusive and that the person that they loved and believed was caring for them was actually taking advantage of them. Coming to terms with the idea that a parent does not have emotions, was lying to you everyday and was doing things for their own benefit and not yours is obviously a very big deal.
On top of all this the victim has been manipulated by the psychopath into believing the psychopath, trusting the psychopath, being loyal to the psychopath, depending on the psychopath and believing that they have to put the psychopath's wants and needs before their own.
Read more about how to spot a psychopath, the characteristics of a controlling parent, toxic families, dealing with controlling people, help for victims of psychopaths and recovering from a psychopathic relationship.
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