“What a sociopath!” one might exclaim to describe someone’s erratic, cruel, strange, or manipulative behavior. It’s not a term that should necessarily be thrown around loosely, yet many of us use it to describe someone who is off-putting, secretive, and doesn’t seem to be cognizant of other people’s feelings, or how their actions impact others. The term sociopath may also describe someone who seems dangerous or unhinged.
What you might not know, however, is that the term “sociopath” isn’t really a psychological term, at least not anymore. It’s more of a figure of speech, though it’s linked to a personality disorder that is recognized by psychologists.
What Is A Sociopath?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a sociopath is “a former name for an individual with an antisocial personality disorder.” And what is an “antisocial personality disorder,” you might ask?
Well, to start, you should know that there are 10 basic personality disorders as defined by the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM—5). We all have our own personality, which is shaped by environment, genetics, and life circumstances. If you have one of the 10 personality disorders, you have a set of personality traits that “deviates from the expectations of the culture, causes distress or problems functioning, and lasts over time,” as the American Psychiatric Association explains.
Someone who has an antisocial personality disorder — which many of us describe as a “sociopath” — exhibits lack of empathy for others’ feelings and may often violate the feelings of others. They may not act in socially acceptable ways, may lie often, and act aggressively, impulsively, with little regard for possible consequences.
How Do Psychologists Identify a Sociopath?
Antisocial personality disorder (i.e., formerly sociopath) is one of the most well known personality disorders and has been studied extensively by experts. It’s also one of the most difficult personality disorders to treat. It’s a very serious disorder — as people with antisocial personality disorder may be a danger to themselves or others.
Someone who is diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder has a life-long disorder, and usually begins to exhibit symptoms as early as the teen years. Most people with antisocial personality disorder have grave issues: because they generally have no regard for right and wrong, they may break the law, hurt and manipulate others, and generally not be able to function normally in society.
Symptoms of antisocial personality disorder include:
- Lack of respect or empathy for others
- Failure to understand right from wrong
- Little guilt or remorse for wrongdoing
- Lying and deceiving others
- Manipulative behavior (might be described as “a con”)
- Trouble with the law, criminal behavior
- Anger, aggression, hostility
- Unable to maintain steady work
- Violent behavior
- Impulsive behavior
Treatments For Sociopaths
It is very difficult to treat sociopathic behavior, or people who have antisocial personality disorder. Part of the problem is that by definition, someone with this disorder is unable to see how their behavior is problematic and is unlikely to seek a diagnosis or treatment for their disorder. Often those who receive treatment are somehow convinced, coerced, or forced to receive it.
There are successful treatment options out there for people with antisocial personality disorder. Unfortunately, you can’t really be “cured” of the disorder, but treatment can lessen some of the symptoms. Psychotherapy and specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy is most widely used. Those who are in a relationship with someone who has antisocial personality disorder may also benefit from therapy, and group therapy is a good option for families.
There is no specific medication that treats antisocial personality disorder, though selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be used to decrease symptoms such as aggression and irritability.
What To Do If You Have A Sociopath In Your Life
Often sociopaths do not get a formal diagnosis. You may suspect that someone you are involved with or who is a family member has this personality disorder based on their personality traits and behavior. You may have even been a victim of their lying, coercion, manipulation, or aggression.
Strong boundaries are your friend here. You need to make your boundaries clear and you need for them to know which specific behaviors are not acceptable to you. You need to offer consequences. Some people with antisocial personality disorder will only allow themselves to receive treatment if there are consequences for not doing so or incentives to do so. Use that to your advantage.
If someone with a sociopathic personality, who has been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, is causing you or your loved ones physical or emotional harm, you have every right to remove them from your life.It might even be necessary to call law enforcement and report them. In some cases, especially if they are a close family member, you may feel that you can’t cut them completely out of your life. This doesn’t mean that you need to just “grin and bear it” when it comes to their behavior.
Most of all, remember that if you have someone in your life who exhibits sociopathic traits, you should not try to solve this on your own. There are support groups for family and friends of people with antisocial personality disorder. Seek professional counseling, both for yourself and for your loved one. Personality disorders are tough and extremely draining to deal with. Make it a priority to take care of yourself before trying to fix anyone else and know that you are not alone.