What is a Sociopath?
You may have heard people call someone else a “psychopath” or a “sociopath.” But what do those words really mean?
You won’t find the definitions in mental health’s official handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Doctors don’t officially diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths. They use a different term instead: Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Most experts believe psychopaths and sociopaths share a similar set of traits. People like this have a poor inner sense of right and wrong. They also can’t seem to understand or share another person’s feelings. But there are some differences, too.
A key difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is whether he has a conscience, the little voice inside that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong, says L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. He's a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center.
A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” Tompkins says.
By contrast, a sociopath typically has a conscience, but it’s weak. He may know that taking your money is wrong, and he might feel some guilt or remorse, but that won’t stop his behavior.
Both lack empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath has less regard for others, says Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex. Someone with this personality type sees others as objects he can use for his own benefit.
Signs of Sociopathy
Sociopathy, or Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), is part of a category of personality disorders characterized by persistent negative behaviors.
The new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) says that someone with ASPD consistently shows a lack of regard for others’ feelings or violations of people’s rights. People with ASPD may not realize that they have these behaviors. They may live their entire lives without a diagnosis.
To receive a diagnosis of ASPD, someone must be older than 18. Their behaviors must show a pattern of at least three of the following seven traits:
- Doesn’t respect social norms or laws. They consistently break laws or overstep social boundaries.
- Lies, deceives others, uses false identities or nicknames, and uses others. for personal gain.
- Doesn’t make any long-term plans.. They also often behave without thinking of consequences.
- Shows aggressive or aggravated behavior.. They consistently get into fights or physically harm others.
- Doesn’t consider their own safety. or the safety of others.
- Doesn't follow up on personal or professional responsibilities.. This can include repeatedly being late to work or not paying bills on time.
- Doesn’t feel guilt or remorse. for having harmed or mistreated others.
How is Sociopathy Treated?
Generally, people with personality disorders such as ASPD don’t think they have a problem. Talk to a mental health professional if you think you have ASPD.
ASPD often requires long-term treatment and follow-up. Treatment may not be successful if the person isn’t willing to seek treatment or cooperate with treatments.
Possible treatments for ASPD include:
Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy consists of talking with a therapist or counselor about thoughts and feelings that can exacerbate ASPD behaviors. It may also include management therapy for anger and violent behavior.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps you think more carefully about your actions and responses to people and situations. CBT won’t cure ASPD, but it can help develop positive, less harmful behaviors. CBT can also help you accept that you have the disorder and encourage you to be proactive in addressing your behaviors.
Medication. There’s no specific medication for the treatment of ASPD. You may receive medications for associated mental disorders, though, like anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior.
WHEN TO SEE A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL
Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.
If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.
And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.
Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:
- Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
- Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
- Encourage resilience and self-management
- Identify and change negative behaviors
- Identify and encourage positive behaviors
- Heal pain from past trauma
- Figure out goals and waypoints
- Build self-confidence
Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?
Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.
So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.
Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.
WHEN TO GET EMERGENCY HELP
Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:
- Make sure someone stays with that person.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.