Who comes to your mind when you hear the word “sociopath”? Ted Bundy or Jack the Ripper perhaps? These are indeed iconic representations of the concept. But they are the most extreme, dramatic and obvious versions of a sociopath.
One fact most people never think of or realize is the high probability that every community, every school, and every company or organization likely has a sociopath or two in it.
The kind of sociopath we’re talking about is very different from a serial killer. This sociopath quite possibly never breaks a law and has never been to jail. This sociopath is far less obvious but far more commonplace.
He or she might be your neighbor, your brother, your mother or your father. She or he can hide behind a perfect manicure, an excellent job, charity work or the PTO. Most people would never think of this person as a sociopath.
In fact, she may have a charisma that draws people to her. She may be admired and appear selfless and kind to many. But deep down, she is not like the rest of us. Sometimes no one can see that something is wrong except the people who are closest to her. Often her children can feel it, but that doesn’t mean they understand it.
There is one main feature that sets sociopaths apart from the rest of us. That one thing can be expressed in one word: conscience. Simply put, a sociopath feels no guilt. Because of this, he’s freed up to do virtually anything without having to pay any internal price for it. A sociopath can say or do anything she wants and not feel bad the next day, or ever.
Along with a lack of guilt comes a profound lack of empathy. For the sociopath, other people’s feelings are meaningless because she has no ability to feel them. In fact, sociopaths don’t actually feel anything the way the rest of us do. Their emotions operate under a very different system, which usually revolves around controlling others.
If the sociopath succeeds in controlling you, he may actually feel some warmth for you. The flip side of that coin is that if he fails at controlling you, he will despise you. He uses underhanded means to get his way, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll bully. If that fails, he will retaliate.
Having no conscience frees up the sociopath to use any underhanded means to get her way. She can be verbally ruthless. She can portray things falsely. She can twist others’ words to her own purposes. She can blame others when things go awry. It’s not necessary to own her mistakes because it’s much easier to blame someone else.
3 Signs A Parent May Be A Sociopath
- He or she emotionally harms others, including his children repeatedly, often seeming to do so on purpose.
- After hurting another person, the sociopathic parent acts like it never happened and expects or requires the hurt one to pretend the same.
- She lies or twists the truth or plays the victim in an attempt to deny or deflect responsibility. She freely manipulates people to get her way.
The realization that your mother or father is a sociopath can be extremely difficult and painful. Accepting that your parent is a narcissist is hard enough, but a sociopathic parent is on a whole different level.
Most children of sociopaths desperately try to rationalize or make sense of their parent’s bad behavior. Many can be very creative in trying to explain the unexplainable.
Here are a few of the many excuses I’ve heard the adult children of sociopaths come up with to try to make sense of their parent’s hurtful, underhanded or ruthless behaviors:
“He has anxiety”
“She doesn’t really mean it”
“Something’s wrong with her brain”
“He just cares too much”
“She can’t help it”
“He had a difficult childhood”
These kinds of self-deceptive justifications may feel reassuring to the adult child of the sociopath in the moment, but in the long run, they are damaging. Pretending that a sociopathic parent is well-intentioned exacts its pound of flesh from the child. It keeps the child off-kilter, blaming himself and questioning his own judgment. Perhaps he even feels guilty about his inability to understand or please his parent.
But most importantly, failing to recognize your parent for who she is keeps the child vulnerable to her manipulations and emotional damage. And this simply will not do.
3 Strategies to Cope With a Sociopathic Parent
- The child of the sociopath must accept that her parent’s feelings are not like her own. With no capacity to feel true guilt or empathy, even his version of love is atypical.
- Know that a sociopathic parent cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of his child. It’s true that this realization runs counter to every fiber of our beings as humans. We are wired to feel and believe that all parents love and want the best for their children. Sadly, in the case of the sociopathic parent, it simply is not true.
- All the guilt in the sociopathic parent’s relationship with his child belongs to the one person incapable of feeling it: the parent. However, it is the child who usually suffers under a burden of guilt. Accepting that the parent is a sociopath frees up the child to protect himself as needed. The normal rules between parents and children do not apply.
Being raised by a sociopath is a powerful version of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). To find out if CEN is at work in your adult life, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
For help with navigating your adult relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.