Last week we discussed the differences between a psychopath and a sociopath. We found that many “symptoms” and behaviors overlap and can be difficult to identify in daily life, unless you are a psychopath who can’t “hide.”
This week we’re going to explore some of the contributing factors or “causes” of psychopathic and sociopathy personality traits.
- Genes and biology: Research suggests that sociopathy and psychopathy are often genetic and biological. Not only is the brain to blame for “under-arousal” (which causes psychopaths and sociopaths to seek out activities that increase arousal), it is also to blame for generations of family members with antisocial traits and behaviors. For further explanation of how this works, click here for an interesting article from NPR.
- Learned behavior and reinforced behavior: As young children, we learn how to survive in our families, in our social environments, in our homes, and in our schools and communities once we observe the behaviors of those around us. We learn to act in certain ways in order to meet the expectations of our environment. Kids who are being raised in abusive home environments learn to survive by either learning to “accept” the abuse, bonding to the abuser, or fighting back. Some kids learn that if they “fight back” the abuse may get worse and so they often end up bonding to their abuser or intellectualizing the abuse. Reinforcement occurs when the abuser treats the child lovingly for going along with the abuse or trauma. The child then learns to accept the abuse or see the abuse as “normal.”
- Childhood trauma, abuse neglect: Childhood trauma is any event that a child has absolutely no skill to handle or cope with. It is unexpected and outweighs the child’s ability to cope. This could be anything. For kids, however, who have been placed in multiple adoption programs, foster homes, or residential treatment centers, the trauma is pervasive or long-standing and can interfere with the development of appropriate levels of empathy. When a child is repeatedly abused or moved from home to home, they don’t have the ability to bond with any one person which can result in the child “shutting down” in a sense and learning to survive by not attaching. Not attaching often = protection of their heart, soul, and mind. They are less likely to hurt when they put up a strong defense. It isn’t easy to help these kids attach, trust, and love. It can take years if not a lifetime of counseling. In severe cases, the child grows into a teen with conduct disorder and then as an adult with psychopathic or sociopathic behaviors.
- Loss of neo-cortical or frontal lobe functioning: The frontal lobes are located behind the front of the forehead. The frontal lobes include sophisticated processes that help us control our impulses and make decisions or plan. It includes higher-order processes which include thinking and weighing pros and cons of a behavior. It is also the “seat” of our personality. When neo-cortical functioning is defective or limited, you are likely to observe impulsive, immature, and uncontrolled thinking processes. Kids with ADHD struggling with controlling their impulses and paying attention for long periods of time. Trauma victims also struggle with these things and are likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or ADD at some point. Teens who display oppositional behaviors and conduct disorder are behaving as they are because of limitations of this part of the brain. In fact, the brain does not fully develop until around age 24. Until then, behaviors are likely to be uncontrolled, impulsive, or poor in some individuals. Trauma, abuse, neglect, etc can all add to the chaos.
When I work with family members or victims of trauma who have been harmed by a sociopath or psychopath, I often include in treatment the following 5 suggestions/tips for coping with the individual:
- Psycho-education: Therapists truly are “under-cover teachers.” They are supposed to teach their clients and educate them to things happening in their life. There is so much more to psychotherapy than being counseled, talked to, or supported. Education, psycho-education, is the practice of helping clients to build insight and knowledge about specific challenges in their life. Education includes personal awareness, education of a diagnosis, emotional and psychological processing of an event in the client’s life, and helping the client store this information for future need. This is a very powerful and important piece of therapy and I absolutely love this part of therapy. Sadly, not all therapists provide education with intention. This is something I tend to do with all of my clients.
- Safety planning/crisis management: It’s important, especially if you live with someone with sociopathic traits, to ensure you have a plan if you are ever assaulted by or nearly assaulted by the individual. In cases where domestic violence, sexual abuse, or physical assault occurs, safety planning is significant. Have a plan that outlines what you can do to escape the violence/aggression, have a list of people you can call for help and their contact information, and stick to the plan. Wavering will cause the abusive individual to assume you have no power or motivation to protect yourself.
- Clear, firm boundaries: Boundaries are invisible lines that people must learn to respect. When we put up a boundary, we are protecting ourselves or the things we prize. Weak boundaries can lead to you being manipulated, mistreated, harmed, or even killed in extreme cases. With individuals who have displayed a lack of compassion, empathy, or concern for others, firm boundaries are essential. If you give such an individual an inch, they will take a mile. Keep your boundaries firm. Porous boundaries can be dangerous.
- Juvenile capitalism or “reward systems”: Reward systems can be useful. One parent described it to me as “bribery.” Although my job has been to take common language and reproduce it as psychological jargon, I can’t disagree. It is bribery. It is the act of rewarding good behavior and punishing antisocial, inappropriate, or unacceptable behaviors. Positive reinforcement is the act of giving someone a reward for desired behavior. Negative reinforcement is removing a prized item, disallowing an activity, or taking something away from a child or teen who has displayed negative behaviors. In some cases, primarily in those cases of individuals with psychopathic and sociopathic traits, rewards have absolutely no value.
- Intense behavioral therapy: It is important that parents seek out counseling as soon as behaviors become worrisome or difficult to manage. Many of the youths I am currently working with have awesome parents who pursued treatment as soon as they noticed certain behaviors not diminishing with time or maturity. In fact, some of the behaviors became more calculated or manipulative and threatening with time.
If you had to live or be in a relationship with a psychopath or sociopath, how would you cope? Would you stay or would you go? Would you know how to survive in a relationship with this person?
As always, I wish you well