The perks of being a sociopath

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“Don’t take things personally,” my professor warned my class. “Therapists have the responsibility to compartmentalize social emotions such as shame and guilt. Try to ignore them,” he added. “What a patient feels towards you is not that about You.”

It was the first day of Clinical Practicum, a college-level psychology course designed to teach us how to work as clinicians. In addition to practical skills such as assessment and treatment methods, we were introduced to the concept of transference, the inevitable unconscious process by which patients direct their feelings to their therapist. Negative transference was something that appears to have contributed to much of the clinical burnout, as many therapists find it difficult to detach themselves from the emotions imposed on them by those they counsel.

“What is the benefit of ignoring social emotions,” I asked.

“It makes it possible to observe your patient’s feelings,” he replied, “instead of absorbing them.”

That sounded like an advantage.

It wasn’t the first time I thought about the benefits of disconnecting from guilt and empathy, social emotions that most people learn in early childhood. As a sociopath, these feelings come to me less easily than inherent emotions like joy and sadness. Dealing with this has certainly been a challenge, but I’ve also come to believe that some atypical traits of my personality type can be helpful.

American psychologist George E. Partridge suggested in 1930 that the term “sociopathy” be used to refer to the condition of the subset of individuals who exhibit atypical, antisocial tendencies. Current estimates place the prevalence of my personality disorder at approximately 5% of the population. That means about 15 million people in America could reasonably be considered sociopathic. Yet any Google search on the subject turns up a who’s-who of serial killers and monsters. Like many sociopaths, I can assure you that neither am I. Although I always knew there was something different about me.

Read more: The evolution of a narcissist

I have never been able to internalize regret. I started stealing in kindergarten, and my behavior worsened in elementary school. I had an urge for violence and had difficulty with impulse control. In high school, I would break in after school to relax. As my personality grew, so did my obsession with the word I had heard to describe it. “Sociopath.” Even as a teenager, I recognized a version of myself in its description. Except never me felt like a monster. And I didn’t want to be destructive.

My rebellion was not against parents, teachers, or authority. It was more of a compulsion, my brain’s desperate way of breaking out of a suffocating apathy that I couldn’t convey to others. My struggle with feeling was like an emotional learning disability.

I knew I had no empathy and was not as emotionally complex as everyone else. But that was the point: I noticed these differ. This contributed to a unique type of anxiety, a stress related to the inner conflict that some believe forces sociopaths to behave in ways that are harmful. Unlike many on the sociopathic spectrum, I was fortunate to have a support system that allowed me to cope with this fear. That meant I was capable of both self-awareness and evolution, important milestones in emotional development that sociopaths supposedly cannot achieve.

It didn’t make sense to me. Why have conventional wisdom, mainstream media, and even college-level psychology courses pigeonholed such a significant portion of the population as irredeemable villains? There is nothing inherently immoral about having limited access to emotions. Millions of people spend billions every year in an attempt to free their minds and elevate their consciousness through meditation (or prayer) with the goal that – for me at least – is my default state. Because it’s not who we are feeling or not feel. It’s what we Doing.

Of course, some sociopathic traits can be used destructively. I’m not trying to downplay the negative aspects of sociopathy or any antisocial personality disorder. But they can also be used constructural.

During my PhD in clinical psychology, I spent thousands of hours counseling patients. My apathetic basis allowed me to help people process their complex ‘big’ feelings. I could act as an impartial container into which they could pour their deepest secrets, and I passed no judgment on what they told me. My personality type allowed me to function better as a neutral witness rather than a reactive participant. I recognized when negative transference was happening during my sessions, but it didn’t affect me like it did other doctors.

Knowing that my psychological well-being is not something they need to protect, my friends and family also spare no details when they look to me for advice, support or encouragement. This transparency allows me to be impartial as I help them cope with the often overwhelming feelings of indecisiveness, inferiority, shame or guilt. Because I don’t experience those learned social emotions like most people, I can usually offer an insightful, helpful point of view.

I feel fortunate that I have been spared the downside of these social constructions. Although research on sociopathy remains scarce, there is no shortage of resources detailing the harmful effects of shame and guilt. From low self-esteem and a tendency towards anxiety and depression, to problems with sleep and digestion, the negative aspects of these emotions seem to me to far outweigh the positive ones.

Society would undoubtedly fall apart if no one ever felt bad about doing bad things. I get it. I recognize that ‘good’ behavior is beneficial to society, just as I know that living in a harmonious community brings enormous benefits. But contrary to popular belief, it is entirely possible to make good choices even without the burden of guilt and shame.

As someone whose choices are not dependent on these constructs, I like to think I can provide a useful perspective. I have found that giving this point of view to the people I care about helps them see their obligations through a more objective lens. This allows you to set boundaries and stand up for yourself in a healthy way, which can be just as helpful for overall well-being. Conversely, I have been able to adopt pro-social perspectives from others, which has allowed me to learn how they interpret things and better internalize empathy and compassion.

Like many psychological conditions, sociopathy exists on a severity spectrum. For more than half a century, we have identified sociopaths based solely on the most extreme negative behavioral examples, which only further alienates those at the less extreme end of the scale. But there are millions of us who prefer to live together peacefully, who have accepted our own apathy and learned how to be valuable members of our families and communities. We learned this while living in the shadows. I hope that one day we can enter the light.

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