Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Dynamics of Sociopathy

Originally posted on January 14, 2008

One of the most difficult-to-treat conditions is the personality disorder called “sociopathy” or “psychopathy”—the kind of “con man” who rips people off, and often the confirmed criminal. I was corresponding with a colleague in England who works with such problems and shared with her some ideas about some of the dynamics I think go on in the in the minds of these people. I phrase these dynamics as if the as if the criminal himself was speaking, and admitting out loud his own unconscious. (This partakes of the spirit of psychodrama.)

Of course, as I discuss in a paper on five levels of disclosure, such people really can’t admit these thoughts even it they tried—they’re too buried. But some of these issues might be brought to the surface in treatment, and what’s important is our own efforts to try to understand:

Psychodrama uses a category its inventor, Jacob L. Moreno, called “surplus reality.” Translated simply, it refers to scenes that can be imagined—they may never have happened and, indeed, perhaps never could happen—but they portray a kind of psychological “truth.” So, in this imagined scene, a sociopath “is able” to speak with great insight and in an articulate fashion about his basic experience and attitudes. (Let’s pretend there were special “truth serum -like” pills: One is called “Depthanol” and it allows you to access the depths of your psyche. And one is called “Articuline” and it allows you to express your awareness in words—even awareness that is for most people experienced at a pre-verbal or non-verbal level.)  So, the prototypical sociopath speaks:

There’s a part of me that is still a little baby. My bonding relationships suck. I don’t feel that it’s deeply fun to be in relationship. When I was a baby, I was fed and changed, but it felt almost like I was a thing, sometimes a rather disgusting thing. I felt it in the way my caretakers—mother, other parenting people—touched me, handled me.

What really hurt was that sometimes it’s great, and my heart opens up. I began to have a little hope that there could be good love—but then it got emotionally cold again, and I feel deeply hurt, betrayed, enraged, helpless, and also a little ashamed for opening up. All this before I have any words. So I gave up on “bonding.” Bottom line, I don’t believe there is such a thing as really being happy in relationship. I don’t know what it would be like.

You might say, “Well, in good relationships, when folks are bonded, they like each other, they care about each other. If you’re in a good relationship, the people you love are happy when you are happy, want you to be happy. And then you’re happy that they feel happy that you’re happy. It goes back and forth. This is the way it is with normal people with good relationships: Happy to please you. Happy to be helpful in your service. Want to do favors for you, give you gifts, little things. They enjoy you being you. And you find them enjoyable in turn, and they like that, too.  Want to hug you. Love it when you hug me. Want to please you. Care about your emotions. You care about mine, and enjoy my caring about you. I want to find out what interests you, I am interested in your life, your struggles, how you grow. You find my life interesting in turn. I want what’s best for you in the big picture, in the long run, and you feel the same towards me. This is ‘reciprocity,’ our feelings are full of give and take, feel fairly distributed, the caring goes both ways. It’s wonderful. It’s love.”

If the sociopath might hear someone talk this way he might feel and think–somewhat subconsciously, “I can’t understand hardly anything you say. It’s like explaining colors to a blind person. I have no feel for what those words are about. It seems as if you were talking another language —something not even like humanity as I’ve come to know it. You could be from another planet. What I’ve learned is that people are things to manipulate to get other desires fulfilled. If I can’t have fun being with you, then I’ll have fun at your expense. I say to myself: That’s the way it is. People exploit each other, get what they can. I can learn to play that game.”

There’s an edge of anger, even. They can’t admit the following very easy, but they think: “It’s fun to hurt you. That’s because deep inside I wish .. I hardly have even images— even the yearning feelings feel too weak and have to be repressed– but I wish I could have the real thing, real love, really enjoying being with you, and being able to feel really, really safe. My big self doesn’t know what this is like, but my inner little self yearns for it, secretly knows, and is enraged that sometimes other people seem to enjoy it and I can’t do it, have it, evoke it from others.

These feelings feel too vulnerable, and I hate them, they’re weak. I hate what is weak, and I like what is strong, what can squash weakness. And I want to play this out not on myself but on others. I also hate you (others) because you’re one of them, like my primary parents or caretakers who (it seemed to little me back then) didn’t love me, didn’t make me feel cared for.

So it mixes hate and the sense of being safe and triumphant when I can hurt you, exploit you—you “other,” you! I hate you. But I’ll smile and get mine and “get” you, too. Ha ha! That’s my fun and my role repertoire, it’s familiar. The other way, opening, surrendering, trusting, loving—that way seems illusory, stupid, vulnerable, baby-ish, only for suckers. Because nobody cares! That’s what I learned and that’s the way it is. ”

That’s the end of the scene. How to get past the sociopath’s many layers of defenses? Some folks are trying. In the book, Interactive and Improvisational Drama, there’s a chapter in which some colleagues are using drama with offenders.  My question on this blog is to those who have gotten to know criminals or sociopaths, who have had them as patients. Is the aforementioned theory or understanding I have accurate or adequate ? How should I revise it?  Feel free to email me at

One Response to “The Dynamics of Sociopathy”

  • Adam says:

    Adam responds to Sarah: Great question.
    Smart sociopaths can use the tools without making the emotional connections. This is what makes them so successful as being con men. Many seem to actually do better at reading signals and getting when the other is responsive. (It may be similar to the way some blind people have a much greater chance of developing perfect pitch in music.) It’s as if the concern that one not be hurt or vulnerable is so sealed over that it no longer obscures the perceptual field.

    So they can be empathic in the service of manipulation. (It reminds me of another mental maneuver, isolation of affect: That’s when you know you should be sad, and may choose to act sad (or whatever), but the feelings are nicely disconnected or compartmentalized away from the kinds of thoughts that really connect the sadness with the memories, the sense of self, authenticity.)

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