Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW
I would like to write about a topic that I have become more and more interested in and have been seeing more of in my clinical work - sociopathy. Whether we call these individuals psychopaths (as they are often referred to in the movies), or people suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder (as listed in the DSM), or sociopaths (which is the term I will refer to here), these conscienceless individuals, whether male or female, can wreak havoc on relationships of all kinds. The etiology of this "condition" is not 100% clear. Some say that sociopaths are born this way through genetic predisposition while others argue that they are made this way based on environmental conditions. Still many more indicate that it's a combination of both. Whatever the cause, sociopathy is an insidious behavior that can bring a lot of sorrow to its victims.
According to the literature, 1 in 25 people we meet are sociopaths. They can be our friends, neighbors, relatives, spouses, or significant others. They can be our bosses who may humiliate us in front of others or purposely sabotage a raise or a promotion. They can be our boyfriends, girlfriends, or spouses who will charm their way into our lives and before they leave, they will take far more then they can ever give. They can be a relative who always asks to borrow money and promises to pay it back, but never does. They can be a maniacal dictator who rules their country with an iron fist. Who knows, we may be in the company of a sociopath right now.
In my work, I have had the opportunity to counsel many healthcare professionals who have fallen prey to sociopaths. How could educated, intelligent, and experienced nurses, doctors, social workers, psychologists and others in the helping professions be utterly deceived by a sociopath? Here are a few possible explanations: (1) healthcare professionals like to cure, fix, take care of, and want to bring about positive changes in others who appear downtrodden and in need, (2) healthcare professionals have an over abundance of empathy, sympathy, kindness, desire and training to be of service to them, or (3) some healthcare professionals may have memories of their own unmet needs that are projected on to those who are perceived to need help. Whatever the reason, if healthcare professionals can fall into the trap of a sociopath, what does that say for everyone else? I have a theory that if you were to put a sociopath and a person whose mission in life is to fix every "broken" person they meet in a room with other people, they will manage to find each other. I call this "radar love" - the "signals" that are emitted from each in such a way that there may as well be signs on their backs that reads "I'm the one you're looking for." Amazing!
Here is a list of the signs, qualities, and behaviors that are most attributed to sociopaths:
- Lack of conscience or "emotional bankruptcy" toward themselves and others
- Superficially charming and intelligent
- Absolute self-involvement or narcissistic
- Guiltless / unreliable
- Compulsive lying
- Highly manipulative
- Engages in high risk behavior
- Self-pitying ("poor me")
- Oftentimes alcohol and substance abusing
- Inconsistent work history
- Controlling or a will to possess
- Enjoys the "game" of getting what they want
- Highly effective actors
As I have mentioned earlier, I have worked with a number of individuals who have fallen prey to sociopaths. The following case will illustrate how this can occur. Any identifying information will be disguised so as to protect the anonymity of those involved.
"Jane" (not real name) is a highly skilled and experienced nurse who worked full-time for a hospital, part-time in a doctors office, and was taking graduate courses in order to further her career. Jane is a 45 year old single mom of a 13 year old boy having divorced her husband of 15 years due to his incessant drinking and substance abuse. Although Jane had very little time to socialize she felt, along with the prodding of her friends, that it was time to explore a dating site to search for male companionship.
Over time, Jane exchanged email messages and phone calls with a number of men who seemed like nice guys, but who just didn't have the qualities she was looking for. However one day, she met a guy who stood out from the rest. "Bill" (not real name) was reportedly a real charmer right from the start. He appeared intelligent and had a skill for using the right words in the right way that almost seemed poetic to Jane. After going out on what seemed like fairytale-like dates and then becoming intimate, Jane felt as though she found the guy of her dreams, which at times seemed almost to good to be true. As their whirlwind romance progressed and after Jane found out about Bill's sequence of "bad luck", she invited him to move in with her for a "short time" until he could find a new job and get back on his feet financially. Bill had told Jane that due to his mothers ill health and frequent emergency hospital visits he lost his job and then subsequently his apartment and car. Jane immediately felt obligated and understood his predicament, as a healthcare professional and a human being, to help Bill in his time of need. Bill seemed to appreciate Jane's good nature and Jane was sure her efforts would strengthen their apparent strong bond.
As time went on however, Jane wondered why Bill rarely mentioned his mother and how she was doing. And Jane began to wonder why Bill didn't seem to be in any hurry to find a new job. Bill's explanation was that he didn't have a car to go out on interviews and had little savings left to pay his necessary expenses. Jane, having rationalized Bill's plight, and wanting to care for Bill in any way she could, decided to buy Bill a car, put him on her insurance, provide him with a cell phone, and give him a credit card to use in order to buy new clothes that would help him during the interview process to help him find work in the field of law he said he practiced in. More time passed and as Jane's family and friends questioned her generosity, Jane decided to share less and less information with them believing that Bill would be successful again soon.
Bill was now living with Jane rent-free, was eating meals for free, driving a car she bought for him, using a cell phone she paid for, was buying new suits on Jane's credit card, and was going out for lunches and dinners ostensibly with potential future employers. At this point, Jane was providing Bill with all the necessities he needed to live, and a lot more.
This went on for 2 years. Bill never found a job, but lived a very comfortable lifestyle without one. He had amassed $20,000 worth of debt in Jane's name and all the while promised Jane that soon his luck would turn around and that he would pay back every penny to her. Of course this never happened. One day, after years of frustration and pressure from her family and friends to dump Bill, Jane told him that their relationship was not working anymore and that he had to leave. Do you know what Bill did next? He agreed and left. Just like that - the next day. Jane wondered why Bill didn't put up a fight to stay or declare his unrelentung love for her or any other excuse to continue to live with her. The reason? The "game" was over and Bill knew it. Actually Bill knew that this day would come and he was prepared for it. How did he know? Perhaps he did this before to other unsuspecting victims or maybe he was "grooming" another victim to move on to. What we do know is the last 2 years left Jane in serious financial debt and emotionally spent in having gone through this terrible experience.
This is a true story and actually happened to a real person. It not that Jane wasn't a bright person or that her job as a nurse preordained her to this trouble or that she was naive about life. This really could have happened to anyone. It may be more the kindness and empathy that made Jane such an exemplary professional to help other people, that it eclipsed her intuition about was happening to her. Looking back, Jane could now see many of the signs that others around her saw, but it was too late. And unfortunately for Jane, this experience may preclude her from meeting and trusting a truly good guy who may come around in the future. Jane had learned a hard lesson by falling in love with a sociopath.