Sociopaths: how to recognize them?

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Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard (psychiatrist)

Sociopathy is a personality disorder that often leads the person affected to bully those around them. Often confused with psychopathy, this disorder, which generates integration difficulties, is not always easy to diagnose. Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, tells us more about its manifestations and explains how to react, on a personal or professional level, when we meet a sociopath.

What is a sociopath?

Sociopathy is a psychiatric disorder which concerns antisocial personalities and affects less than 5% of the population (more men than women, with no major difference, however). According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), published by the American Psychiatric Association, sociopathy refers to the inability to feel emotions, lack of empathy, in others as well as in oneself. What induces maladaptive, dysfunctional behaviors of the person in society and great difficulties of integration, potentially sources of suffering. It is a personality disorder, which affects the individual in a stable and permanent way.

In psychiatry, sociopathy is associated with psychopathy, often grouped under the term personality. “antisocial”. Behavior that has varying degrees and not all sociopaths are dangerous criminals! However, sociopaths and psychopaths have habit of manipulating others.

In the eyes of the sociopath, others are only toolsexplains Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, author of the book But what’s going on in my head? (ed. Marabout). Sociopaths, anxious to put their interests first, will therefore do everything to take advantage of them. And what does it matter if the others suffer along the way, it’s not their problem! They only think of themselves and they are totally indifferent to the harm they can do. They have no moral sense and do not feel the shadow of guilt or remorse!”.

Overall, the sociopath tends react extremely quickly. His lack of control leads him to be more impulsive, more compulsive than the psychopath. He shows less anticipation, organization and foresight; uses fewer strategies to get what he wants and has more specific goals. “The psychopath, on the contrary, is very organizedvery thoughtfulopposes the psychiatrist. He has a medium and long term goal and will do everything to make it work, without worrying about the damage in his path. It is readily described as “without faith or law”. “ However, it should not be concluded that the sociopath goes less far in his actions than the psychopath.

If the sociopath can look charming and nice on the outside, it’s only to get what he wants. It would therefore be very surprising if he asked you about your life, because he is very little interested in others. This lack of empathy – of which he is completely unaware – is the most recognizable symptom : in general, everything revolves around him; the other does not exist. As a result, it is impossible for him to perceive the consequences of his antisocial behavior and he is a thousand miles from being able to apologize. The relationship with a sociopath only goes one way.

  • Added to this are other features.explains Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard. Especially impulsiveness and ease of getting angry, including small things. Irritable, aggressive, endowed with an intolerance to frustration, sociopaths are generally people who it is better not to upset, otherwise they will lead to rapid aggression. ;
  • They may also have a tendency to deceive, lie, change their version and resort to fraud for profit or pleasure. But also to mistreat, to sabotage, to steal, to make the lives of others unlivable;
  • On a personal level, they are irresponsible and unable to honor their commitments, so establishing a relationship of trust is difficult;
  • Other symptoms: an indifference to violent images, a certain cruelty towards animals, an absence of fear and a staggering calm in the face of dangerous situations, as well as a disregard for social norms and the rights of others are characteristic traits of a sociopathic personality.

All of these troubles make them misfit personalities who – unsurprisingly – have very few friends.”summarizes the psychiatrist.

What are the risk factors?

The causes of sociopathy are not yet sufficiently well known. The genetic track is often mentioned in studies of these mental disorders. However, psychology and psychiatry recognize the importance of the parental educational climate : violence, anxiety, stress, non-education as to social limits, lack of learning about frustration, trauma… certain life events experienced in childhood are contributing factors. “Clearly, these are people who have not had the opportunity to learn social codes., says Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard. Shortcomings that also have an impact on health. Alcohol and drugs, intended to alleviate anxiety and calm down, are often part of their life course. The Depression is also a regularly observed comorbidity.

What consequences on the life of the sociopath and on that of others?

It all depends on the intensity of the syndrome. A sociopath first of all, it will be understood, difficulties integrating into society, because of his indifference towards others. “Exchange and sharing do not interest him. The other must bend to his wishes and be at his service for it to work. In friendship as in a couple, it is therefore very complicated to establish a relationship, emphasizes Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard. When it doesn’t work out the way she wants, verbal or physical outburst can occur, due to her intolerance of frustration. There is also a lack of consideration for the possible consequences of these explosions (rupture, medico-legal impact, etc.)”

The sociopath nevertheless sometimes manages to conceal the dangerousness of his behavior under the simple label of a “bad temper”. “VSe which can lead his partner, especially if he is of a passive, submissive nature – to minimize the seriousness of the situation and the little chance that it will evolve positively.

At work, failure to take into account the emotions and reactions of others is a real problem. “A sociopath, like a psychopath, never admits his wrongs, nor the version of the others completes the therapist. Their relational mode is expressed in the field of manipulation. Their goal: to get others to do what they want. In these conditions, they very quickly appear as unbearable people, all the more so if they are in a position of hierarchical superiority”.

What to do with a sociopath?

The first thing to do is to learn to recognize this antisocial behavior and put a name to this disorder. Numerous assessment tests are available on the Internet, if you want to be sure for a first diagnosis. To protect yourself (especially against manipulation), you must then learn to pose and show your limits. “Being aware of the risk of unpredictability and explosion is also important to avoid putting yourself in danger.”, notes Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard. Using a certain diplomacy, not provoking the sociopath unnecessarily, especially if you are alone with them, is therefore fundamental. As a couple, we can also take a little distance, to invite the person to calm down. And of course, encourage him – with tact – to consult a psychologist or better, a psychiatrist if the symptoms and signs gain in intensity.

Can sociopathy be cured?

Behavioral and cognitive therapies (TCC) are the most appropriate support. Earlier they are put in place (from adolescence for example), the more chances they have to change the syndrome. “Parents can also be followed in psychotherapy, so as to better understand their child and know how to react to his behavior., notes Dr. Marie-Claude Gavard. Therapeutic management remains uncertain, however, because very often, the people concerned do not realize the consequences of their trouble. “On the medicinal level, we are more likely to treat comorbidities (bipolarity, depression, neurosis, dissociative disorder, consumption of alcohol, drugs, etc.) by antidepressant treatments, mood stabilizers (drugs used to regulate mood disorders ) or antipsychotics”says the specialist.

Indeed, there is no drug that can truly treat this disorder. But this one can be appeased if comorbidities are well managed.

Sociopaths: how to recognize them?