The Perks of Being a Sociopath

6 minute read
Gagne is a writer, former therapist, and advocate for people suffering from sociopathic, psychopathic, and antisocial personality disorders. Her book, Sociopath: A Memoir, is out on April 2 by Simon & Schuster

“Don’t take things personally,” my professor warned my class. “Therapists have a responsibility to compartmentalize social emotions like shame and guilt. Try to ignore them,” he added. “What a patient is feeling toward you is not about you.”

It was day one of Clinical Practicum, a graduate-level psychology course meant to teach us how to work as clinicians. In addition to practical skills like assessment and treatment methods, we were introduced to the concept of transference, the inevitable unconscious process of patients redirecting their feelings onto their therapists. Negative transference was something that evidently contributed to a great deal of clinical burnout, as many therapists have a difficult time separating themselves from the emotions layered upon them by those they’re counseling.

 “What’s the benefit in ignoring social emotions,” I asked.

“It allows you to observe your patient’s feelings,” he replied, “instead of absorbing them.”

That sounded like an advantage.

It wasn’t the first time I’d considered the upside of not connecting with guilt and empathy, social emotions which most people learn in early childhood. As a sociopath, these feelings come less easily to me than inherent emotions like joy and sadness. Dealing with this has certainly been a challenge, but I’ve also come to believe that some atypical traits of my personality type can be beneficial.

The American psychologist George E. Partridge suggested in 1930 that the term “sociopathy” be used to refer to the condition of the subset of individuals exhibiting atypical, antisocial tendencies. Current estimates indicate the prevalence of my personality disorder to be about 5% of the population. That means roughly 15 million people in America could reasonably be considered sociopathic. Yet any Google search on the topic will yield a who’s-who of serial killers and monsters. Like many sociopaths, I can assure you I’m neither. Though, I always knew something about me was different.

Read More: The Evolution of a Narcissist

I’ve never been able to internalize remorse. I started stealing in kindergarten, and my behavior worsened in elementary school. I had urges of violence and struggled with impulse control. By junior high, I was breaking into houses after school to relax. As my personality grew, so did my obsession with the word I’d heard used to describe it. “Sociopath.” Even as a teen I recognized some version of myself in its description. Except I never felt like a monster. And I didn’t want to be destructive.

My rebelliousness was not against parents, or teachers, or authority. It was more of a compulsion, my brain’s desperate way to jolt itself out of a suffocating apathy I had no way to convey to others. My struggle with feeling was like an emotional learning disability.

I knew I lacked empathy and wasn’t as emotionally complex as everyone else. But that was the point: I noticed these differences. This contributed to a unique type of anxiety, a stress associated with the inner conflict some believe compels sociopaths to behave in a way that is damaging. Unlike many on the sociopathic spectrum, I was fortunate to have a support system that enabled me to learn how to cope with this anxiety. That meant I was capable of both self-awareness and evolution, key milestones of emotional development that sociopaths supposedly can’t achieve.

It didn’t add up for me. Why did conventional wisdom, mainstream media, even college-level psychology courses, all pigeonhole such a significant portion of the population as irredeemable villains? There is nothing inherently immoral about having limited access to emotion. Millions of people spend billions every year in an attempt to free their mind and elevate their consciousness through meditation (or prayer) with the goal that is—for me, at least—my default state. Because it’s not what we feel or don’t feel. It’s what we do.

Of course, some sociopathic traits can be used destructively. I’m not trying to minimize the negative aspects of sociopathy or any of the anti-social personality disorders. But they can also be used constructively.

In pursuit of my PhD in clinical psychology, I spent thousands of hours counseling patients. My apathetic baseline enabled me to help people process their complex “big” feelings. I was able to act as an impartial container into which they could pour their deepest secrets, and I reflected no judgment about what they told me. I could better function as a neutral witness instead of a reactive participant because of my personality type. I recognized when negative transference occurred in my sessions, but it didn’t affect me the way it did other clinicians.

Secure in the knowledge that my psychological well-being isn’t something they need to protect, my friends and family, too, spare no details when looking to me for advice, support, or encouragement. This transparency allows me to be impartial when helping them confront often overwhelming feelings of indecisiveness, inferiority, shame, or guilt. Because I don’t experience those learned social emotions the way most people do, I can usually offer an insightful, helpful point of view.

I feel fortunate to have been spared the downside of these societal constructs. While research on sociopathy may still be sparse, there is no shortage of resources detailing the harmful effects of shame and guilt. From low self-esteem and a propensity toward anxiety and depression, to problems with sleep and digestion, the negative aspects of these emotions seem, to me, to far outweigh the positive.

Society would undoubtably fall to pieces if nobody ever felt bad about doing bad things. I get that. I acknowledge that “good” behavior is beneficial to society, just as I know there are tremendous benefits to living in a harmonious community. But, contrary to popular belief, it’s quite possible to make good choices even without the burdens of guilt and shame.

As someone whose choices are not dependent on these constructs, I like to think I can offer a helpful perspective. I’ve found that lending this point of view to people I care about lets them see their obligations through a more objective lens. This allows for healthy boundary-setting and self-advocacy, which can be just as helpful to overall well-being. Conversely, I’ve been able to adopt pro-social perspectives offered by others, enabling me to learn how they interpret things and better internalize empathy and compassion.

Like so many psychological conditions, sociopathy exists on a severity spectrum. For more than half a century we have identified sociopaths based solely on the most extreme negative behavioral examples, which only further alienates those living on the less extreme end of the scale. But there are millions of us who would prefer to peacefully coexist, who have accepted our own apathy, and have learned how to be valuable members of our families and community. We’ve learned to do this while living in the shadows. My hope is that one day we can step into the light.

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