Psychopath. It’s a loaded word that immediately brings to mind many associated images. Serial killers and violent criminals tend to be the heart of people’s assumptions. Psychopaths dominate the villain role in media across all forms of entertainment and often take center stage in news broadcasts. Nothing about the word, or the psychopathic person, is good. They are fundamentally evil and should be treated as such.
In many people’s minds this is a belief carved in stone. This is unfortunate because it is mythology at its worst. Psychopathy, a terrible word on its face, is a widely misunderstood and demonized condition due to many factors. The media of course has a large role in this, but the study of psychopaths is also done on prison populations. It seems like a very good place to do so, as the assumption is that psychopaths are unrepentant criminals.
However, the study of those in prison represents but a fraction of the psychopathic community at large. Most of us are among you, your friends, your neighbors, a person with the same basic abiding human nature as you. There is a brilliant quote by Armon J. Tamatea that I often repeat: “Psychopaths in many ways are the least and most visible members of our communities.” We are defined by the worst of us, because the rest of us stay hidden from sight. This is because we are not like those inhabiting the world around us. In fact, we are very different.
Our difference is obvious to us as children. The world operates on a construct of emotion that we lack. I have often called emotions the temperamental cheat codes to the neurotypical experience. It cuts out a great deal of the weighing information and deciding on actions based on the social outcome. Most people act as their internal directional emotions tell them too, and it makes human interaction much easier; everyone is on the same page.
We aren’t. Psychopathy is a variant structure of the brain that won’t be evident until after the person reaches twenty-five, and at that time, provided the circumstances are present to allow for it, they can be diagnosed as psychopathic. We lack empathy, we lack fear, sadness, anxiety, remorse, we lack many of the things that explain to you in silent code how to behave around others of your kind, and the world in general.
Instead we have to either be taught, or figure it out on our own. Nothing neurotypicals do makes sense to us. It’s like trying to figure out a foreign film without subtitles and no scene context. We just begin to mimic. As we get older, our skill increases and we do better, but in the beginning we are bad at it. Another issue we face is having to learn the value that neurotypicals place on certain behaviors that to us seem worthless. We must develop cognitive empathy, and use this to guide our interactions.
During this process, how we are guided makes a great deal of difference in how we will turn out, but it will never change the course that the development of our brains will take. We will lack what we are going to lack, and the best that can be done is directing our understanding of the world and how certain behaviors in it benefit us more than the alternative.
We are reward-driven and punishment-resistant. Tell us no, and we will likely take that as a challenge. Distract us with something more appealing, and you have our attention.
As we age, the differences between us and those around us dictate that we craft a mask that allows us to seem like everyone else. Neurotypicals develop social masks, a presentation of self that presents the best light possible. Psychopathic masks are far more involved and detailed. These masks are a different person entirely, and the more honed the mask, the more obvious it to us that we are very different than those around us. However, most of us will never think for a moment that we are psychopathic. We are no more immune to the myths about the condition than the rest of the world. We don’t identify with the stories that are associated with that word, and most of us will never understand that this is what makes us different than the others.
Growing up had its ups and downs, and I certainly was no angel. Psychopathy is a roller coaster that must be learned so you can round the curves without going off the track. It takes time, and it was no different in my case. As time went on, the disparity between myself and my peers was something that could not be ignored.
Where people formed groups, I never cared to belong. When others sought each other out in times of trouble, I saw no need. Problems in the family, which at times were plentiful, simply never fazed me or made an impact on me in any way. This alarmed my parents enough that they assumed I was dangerously suppressing things. I was promptly sent to therapy to be assessed. This was one of many times I was sent for therapeutic assessment, either due to others’ concern about my indifference, or when I managed to get myself in trouble while being entirely unrepentant save for the necessity of appeasing those in charge.
This difference in attachment, need, consideration, emotional necessity was more tangible as time went on. I decided to finally find out what the difference between us was. It is where I first heard the word I now recognize as being a part of who I am: Psychopathy.
Myths take time to dissipate, but the clinician who was delivering this news to me came prepared. He was able to describe the differences between what is believed about psychopathy and what psychopathy actually is. In a single moment the understanding settled in that psychopathy was the difference between me and the world. It made perfect sense, and in the typically psychopathic manner, I filed it away and went on with my day.
Psychopaths may lack in fundamental experiences most people share, but that means nothing about the person with it. How a person behaves, how they treat the world around them — that should determine their value. Not the way their brain was wired.
Psychopathy is rare, it is misunderstood, and those born with it are demonized for existing. It would be far better understood if the cloud of misinformation were lifted, and those who indeed are psychopathic could say as much without concern over judgment or worse. There would be studies done on psychopathy in the real world, not limited to prisons, and the shroud of fear could finally be dispelled. Psychopaths are your friends, your neighbors, possibly your family. Being psychopathic does nothing to change that — and it can only change how you see them if you allow it to.