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  • Writer's pictureNicole Salter

3 Myths About Psychopaths

Updated: Dec 27, 2021

Is it me, or are there more and more trending shows about psychopaths lately?

Even my counselor, who originally started watching this Netflix show with great interest, had to stop at a certain point. I'm in Season 2 and have also given up trying to slog through it...but no spoilers, please.

It would be easy to label the anti-hero of the series, Joe Goldberg, as a psychopath - or maybe a sociopath, although this term is no longer recognized by clinicians. Here's a spoiler of my own: he kills people, and feels entirely justified by his own impulses to do so. This is what most of us think of as characteristic of a psychopath. If You is a little rich for your blood, there are many more highly watchable shows currently available for streaming whose central characters have psychopathic traits. Yes, Netflix has true-crime dramas galore; sometimes I watch them for pure nostalgia, because the 80s and 90s footage reminds me of the relatively innocent days of my youth. But some of the most popular series featuring psychopaths are purely fictional. Take Lucifer: Sure, he's the Devil himself, but he's not the only character in the show to take impulsive risks without regard for the welfare of others. He feels remorse, though, where many other characters in the series do not - they, not Lucifer, are the true psychopaths, and some of them are distinctly on the right side of the Heaven/Hell equation.

Then you have SOA's crew of bikers, some of whom are more psychopathic than others in terms of their lack of empathy, but all of whom engage in the brutal acts one would expect from an outlaw biker gang.

When I first started digging into psychology, I was worried that I might be a narcissist, a psychopath, or some horrible combination of the two, because I had grown up being told I was extremely selfish and inconsiderate just for having normal childhood needs and wants. Later, when I did impulsive, destructive things I wasn't proud of, I quickly shut down feelings of guilt and remorse because they triggered the old, toxic shame and fear of punishment. I over-gave, believing the only way to gain approval and acceptance was through essentially paying for every social transaction. Fortunately, that's not what primary psychopaths do. If I were to be diagnosed, it would be with BPD, which some clinicians are now considering a form of secondary psychopathy: same ill-considered, reckless, grandiose behaviour, with none of the defenses and protective illusions of the classic grandiose narcissist. Lovely.

Three myths about psychopaths

With all the TV dramatizations, true-crime recreations and exciting fictions, it's easy to start seeing psychopaths everywhere, not just on TV; after all, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. The problem is that science still doesn't know a lot about what makes psychopaths tick, certainly not enough for us to run around slapping people we just don't like with the dreaded label. Misconceptions about psychopathy abound, making it easy to start suspecting the creepy-looking mail carrier or the person staring at you too long in the food court. Want to know the difference between a bona fide psychopath and someone who merely lacks social skills? Here are three widely-accepted myths about psychopaths and the actual truth.

  1. All psychopaths commit violent crimes. Truth: About 1 percent of the population is said to be psychopathic, a whopping 3.3 million people in the United States alone. Most are not violent criminals; even in the U.S. Federal prison population, which houses the most violent criminals, only 25 percent of inmates are diagnosed or diagnosable with psychopathy or antisocial personal disorder. The vast majority of violent crimes are not committed by psychopaths. Perhaps one reason, quite unrelated to questions of empathy, morality or remorse, is that most psychopaths don't need to resort to violence to get their needs met. They are able to effectively use their skill set - glib, superficial charm, mimicry, grandiosity, power-seeking - to manipulate their victims into getting what they want. They often function very successfully in society, even in positions of leadership: almost 6 percent of white-collar managers can be classified as having psychopathic personality profiles, which probably doesn't come as a surprise to many employees in corporate America.

  2. Psychopaths are born, not made. Truth: While there is compelling evidence that the psychopath's brain is different from the typically developing brain, the degree to which the condition is genetic or biological as opposed to being influenced by the environment, remains unknown. Epigenetics has put to rest the age-old debate between nature and nurture: the two are now recognized as being inextricably intertwined. What we do know is that babies and children rely on their caregivers to learn from emotional cues. Compassion and empathy for others are definitely learned, and develop out of secure attachment with primary caregivers. In the face of abuse, neglect, and adverse childhood experiences, it is natural for a child to develop coping mechanisms such as switching emotions off to avoid further pain. It's easy to see how this might eventually translate into developing an inability to care about emotions such as fear, pain and distress in others, since they have suppressed their own for survival.

  3. Psychopaths have no emotions. While psychopaths do not have access to a broad emotional spectrum as most would see it, they are certainly capable of feeling negative emotions like anger and fear. Secondary psychopaths, which may one day fall into the bottomless borderline bucket in new versions of the DSM, have access to a full range of emotions, including empathy, but still exhibit sufficient psychopathic traits - risk-taking, impulsivity, low boredom tolerance, substance abuse, and self-harming behaviours - to earn the diagnosis of psychopathy. Psychopaths would not be so successful at achieving their goals if they could not experience any emotions whatsoever, because that would make them incapable of recognizing and manipulating our emotions so well.

So, is there hope for the psychopath? Science is working on it. I know speaking for myself, I have gained more access to my own emotions through therapies like DBT that promote acknowledgment and acceptance of all emotions - good, bad and ugly - instead of suppressing them. Because if I can't care about me, I can't care about you, either.

Have you had an interaction with a psychopath? Did you recognize it right away, or was it only apparent over time that they were not what they initially appeared to be? Stay curious!

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