24 June 2007

The Sociopath Next Door: A Review

I've just bought Martha Stout's book "The Sociopath Next Door", and in it she talks about one career choice made by sociopaths who aren't quite aggressive enough for criminality, and are reasonably bright, but not brilliant...

She says: "... As this sort of person, you ensconce yourself in a niche, or maybe a series of niches, in which you can have some amount of control over small numbers of people. These situations satisfy a little of your desire for power, although you are chronically aggravated at not having more. ... Sometimes you fall into sulky, rageful moods caused by a frustration that no one but you understands.

"But you do enjoy jobs that afford you a certain unsupervised control over a few individuals or small groups, preferably people and groups who are relatively helpless or in some way vulnerable. You are a teacher or a psychotherapist, a divorce lawyer or ... a consultant of some kind, or ... a human services director.

"Whatever your job, you manipulate and bully the people who are under your thumb, as often and as outrageously as you can without getting fired or held accountable. You do this for its own sake, even when it serves no purpose except to give you a thrill. Making people jump means you have power - or this is the way you see it - and bullying provides you with an adrenaline rush. It is fun.

"... Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable. This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance. And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do. You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss's boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker's project; or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you."

So many of us have had this experience... when I read this passage today, I felt literally dizzy with exoneration and relief.

Dr. Stout begins from the premise that sociopaths are devoid of conscience, but builds on this to demonstrate that, being devoid of conscience, they are also utterly devoid of emotion, and especially impoverished in that they are utterly incapable of love. Their lives are boring, lacking any emotional texture or richness, and as a result they often resort to drugs or extreme risktaking behavior to fill the void. Thus, although their lack of scruples may lead to some degree of material success, they do not 'live well' and they tend not to die well... their old age is usually horrible beyond belief.

She describes several common subtypes of noncriminal psychopath, but most importantly, she describes the 'tell' - the set of behaviors that are a highly reliable indicator that someone is psychopathic. This 'tell' is something that many people have difficulty in perceiving clearly, tend to be 'sucked in' by. It is, in fact, something that many of us have been trained to comply with by abusers in our families of origin, or elsewhere: PITY for our abusers.

"Pity ... should be reserved for innocent people who are in genuine pain or who have fallen on misfortune. If, instead, you find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to 100 percent that you are dealing with a sociopath."

That's it, in a nutshell. Beware the person who wounds and betrays you, and then portrays themselves as the greater victim, and expects you to comfort THEM for having harmed YOU. They are inviting you to join forces with them against yourself, and laughing all the way.

And she does not simply describe and deplore the problem - which is the frustrating reality of so many self-help books - she actually offers thirteen specific points for action. I won't summarize all of them here, but I do want to touch upon three of them.

Her eighth point is... NO CONTACT. She makes the point that "Sociopaths live completely outside of the social contract, and therefore to include them in relationships ... is perilous."

Her ninth point is a strong recommendation to pity with care... not to give away pity easily, and not to be manipulated into pitying our abusers.

Her tenth point is... let go. GIVE UP. Or, as she puts it, "Do not try to redeem the unredeemable." ... "If you ... want to help people, then help only those who truly want to be helped. I think you will find this does not include the person who has no conscience."

I will leave points one to seven and eleven to thirteen for people to discover during their own exploration, and will discuss only one more aspect of this incredible book.

Dr. Stout makes an interesting differentiation between narcissists and sociopaths. She considers a narcissist to be halfway to sociopathy, but does not perceive all narcissists as wholly sociopathic. In her view, narcissists have a full range of emotions, but only as they apply to themselves; they are devoid of empathy, and cannot envision others experiencing the same emotions, on their own behalfs, with equal validity or even an equal right to these feelings. Sociopaths, on the other hand, are devoid not only of empathy, but of conscience, and are essentially dead emotionally, except for primitive rage and 'the excitement of the kill' [which, for noncriminals, equates to abuse, theft, sabotage of someone's career, soiling of someone's relationship by seducing their husband or wife, etc. - essentially, an addiction to cruelty].

I have reached the conclusion, for myself, that this distinction is actually fairly minor; as far as I am concerned, a narcissist is basically a sociopath who happens to have feelings for themselves. But that is my conclusion, not hers.

This is a truly remarkable book. It is well written, well organized, eminently readable, and eminently sane. Dr. Stout clearly cares deeply about the impact of unrecognized sociopathy on our society and on individual people within that society... and has laid out the heart of her own life's work in these pages, as a gift, that others might learn and find ways to protect and heal themselves.

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