Do You Know a Sociopath when You Meet One? Or, “Sociopaths 101”

Narcissus (1590s) by Caravaggio (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome)

Narcissus (1590s) by Caravaggio (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome)

I have been doing some research about Narcissists and Sociopaths lately so that I can reach a better understanding of them. I know that many of us and many clients have encountered these personalities in life. Our desire to “be nice” often causes us to be open to the chaos that these people can create. We carry forward the desire to be nice from our childhood. Do you remember when you were young and your Mom would take you to her friend’s home and the friend had this kid that was pure evil? You didn’t want to be alone in the same room with the child and would try to quietly tell your Mom what was going on and you would get the brush off, “just play nice”. The child was putting out energy that made you very uncomfortable and yet you were made to just put up with the situation. Well, we are adults now and don’t have to be nice to people who make us uncomfortable anymore. But the automatic response which we are trained to have is to “ be nice”, even when our “essential self” is telling us to get away from this person. Some of these people can harm us emotionally and worse and we need to recognize them so that we will keep our boundaries up and not let them into our life. How do we recognize these people? Well, that is what this post is about.


I am writing this post to help you avoid sociopaths when you see them and to avoid years of annoyance, anger and confusion caused by these people. I don’t claim to be a psychologist, nor do I have all of the answers, but I have found some information that I will share with you.

As always, start with how someone or some situation makes you feel. I have had a sociopath in and out of my life for over thirty years, who I will call Lola. I am a “nice” person. Hell, I am an “empath”, so I am overly nice. I will damn myself before I make someone else feel uncomfortable. That’s my nature. But the feeling that I got most of the time around Lola was at the least annoyed, uncomfortable and sometimes kick the wall angry. This is the ONLY person in my life that made me feel so out of control, and that I had no choice in being around her. She was a master manipulator of those around her to get what she wanted and she wanted everything! I lost it so badly one time that I found myself yelling at her through the walls of the house, knowing that she could hear me and I didn’t care. I know that this may sound just ordinary but I have never yelled at or about anyone the way I had at Lola. I knew I was just a pawn in her game of getting what she wanted.

So, first, lets talk about narcissists versus sociopaths. What I can determine, and please tell me where I am wrong, but narcissists are people who are generally consumed with them selves. It is the world according to “Me”. It is what makes “Me” mad, happy, sad …..but does have a conscience. It is unlikely that a narcissist is going to plot and scheme against you, to get what you have. It is more that they go through life concerned mostly with themselves. Reading psychological literature, it appears that narcissists are made and not born. They are people who are very insecure and need constant approval and praise. They usually are raised by parents who told them that they were just the “cat’s meow”. So, they grow up believing that they indeed are, but often need assurance that they are. I looked up a couple of definitions and found that narcissism is described generally as a personality disorder and is expressed as an individual being excessively preoccupied with their person adequacy, power, vanity and prestige.

About 1 % of the population exhibits this disorder. It is often referred to as egocentrism. The name comes from Narcissus, a character from Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water, and died (probably too busy admiring himself to do anything else). There is a lovely picture of him done by Caravaggio in Wikipedia. I love Caravaggio.

So, the narcissist in our life is annoying, shallow and difficult to have a real relationship with but is relatively harmless, as opposed to a Sociopath or Psychopath. These terms are often used interchangeably.

In his book, Mask of Sanity, Hervey M. Cleckley came up with 16 common qualities that he thought were characteristic with psychopaths.

These are:

Superficial charm and good “intelligence”

Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking

  • Absence of “nervousness” or psychoneurotic manifestations
  • Unreliability
  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Lack of remorse and shame
  • Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior

Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience

  • Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
  • General poverty in major affective reactions
  • Specific loss of insight
  • Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
  • Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without
  • Suicide threats rarely carried out
  • Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
  • Failure to follow any life plan.

Lets get back to Lola. She inhabits many of these traits.

Lola has a long history of taking/stealing, which she believes is perfectly appropriate. Whether it be silverware, plates or salt and pepper shakes from restaurants, or cutting a paper ski lift ticket in half and giving one to each of her children to use to ski for the day. The belief is that getting away with petty crimes if you don’t get caught is acceptable. If caught her response is, “Oh, I didn’t know.” The ski ticket incident was long before tickets were scanned as they are now. It was easy to tear a ticket in half and have just one side exposed to the lift attendant twenty years ago. I could spend hours writing incidents that happened through the years which were much more impactful on other people, but I share just a couple more examples so you get the point of the gravity. Some of these things seem trivial, but added up they are significant and demonstrate a number of the traits above.

When I was first married, I visited Lola at her home just outside of a major city. She apparently thought that I was to be indoctrinated into her way of operating. She showed me expensive carpets hidden from her husband under the bed which she was paying off over time and closets crammed with clothes with the tags still on. The clothes were bought to be worn at parties and political events and then returned to the store. This is perfectly okay to do from her perspective. Her advice to me was “Be really nice to people because you never know what you they might do for you.”

She is a collector of “stuff”. Parts of her home are packed so tightly with furniture that you cannot walk through. She borders on hoarder. She is always looking for something for nothing, getting more than someone else and must always be in control. The things she hoards are not to be shared. Instead of giving things of any value to people in her family, she gives the bargain basement items. Two years in a row she gave the same ugly (striped like the one Ernie on Sesame Street wears) shirt to her niece at Christmas without a bat of an eyelash. The family recognized what happened in horror but she appeared oblivious.

Many far worse things happened over the years but last straw was when she was in the position of executor of a dear relative’s estate. Her family was worried about her ability to be honest. Lola did as her siblings feared and quietly pilfered tens of thousands of dollars. It was illegally done, but by that point in the relationship with her family, the money was less valuable to them than being rid of her. She had already been distanced two other times over thirty years. The irony is that she has more financially than any of her siblings, who are all successful in their own right. The motive is just simply to get more stuff than others. Her general response when she gets caught is “I know I am different, and that is the way it is.”

A lot of people have childhoods that lead to being narcissists or sociopaths, which may be true in Lola’s case. Her mother would sing the song “What ever Lola Wants, Lola Gets”, and would tell me that Lola would never have enough. Interesting. It seemed to me that this mother raised her daughter promoting these behaviors and then it became far bigger than the mother would have ever wanted or expected. To learn more about family risk factors visit the Mayo Clinic site on the subject.

Now, lets look at some things to help you identify and ward off inviting a sociopath into your life. Scott Petullo wrote a blog with some good tips to be more aware.

1) First, trust your intuition. When you encounter someone that makes you feel uncomfortable take notice.

2) Note that some people are without conscience. On the surface they might seem to know the difference between right and wrong, but will actually do what it takes to “fulfill their agenda or hurt someone for the sheer pleasure of it”.

3) Watch for undue adulation. Over the top praise and attention is a warning sign. Sociopaths are very good actors, are charming and give the impression of being a close friend.

4) If people appear to be sociopaths, avoid them and detach from them because it will only get worse.

According to Dr. Martha Stout, PHD, author of The Sociopath Next Door, sociopaths represent about one in twenty five people. They appear sane and normal and secretly view their spouses, family and friends as possessions and will exploit them for their gain. They deny their behavior and responsibility and will lie. They will look for pity to get what they want. They may have an understanding of compassion and unconditional love but are incapable of really grasping those feelings as a well-adjusted person does. They use certain techniques to ‘keep us in line’. The techniques Dr. Stout speaks of are charm, risk-taking, gaslighting (look that one up…it’s worth it if you don’t know it) and seduction. Sociopaths quickly recognize someone who is trusting and can spot their weaknesses, which they will exploit over and over.

If a loved one has this personality disorder you will not be likely to convince them that they have a problem, nor will they want to seek help. If you have a loved one who is a psychopath or sociopath it is important to get therapy for their family members to learn skills to protect themselves and for strategies to cope.

If you want to learn more about medications and treatments again, you can visit the Mayo Clinic site.

I hope that if there is a Lola in your life that you can learn how to cope or better yet, detach from her. If you meet someone and the hair on the back of your neck goes up, take notice. Your body spots them before your mind does. Run the other way.