The 6 common signs of a sociopath: 'They can be harder to spot than a psychopath,' says psychotherapist
As a psychotherapist, I've spent much of my career studying interpersonal relationships and personality disorders — and even trained personnel in the U.S. military, the FBI and the CIA.
One topic I find the most interesting is sociopathy, which is a term used to describe antisocial personality disorder. Sociopaths can wreak havoc in your life, and they can be harder to spot than a psychopath.
Common signs of a sociopath
Psychopaths tend to be more manipulative and minimize risk in criminal activities. Sociopaths, on the other hand, are typically more erratic and rage-prone — and subsequently, more dangerous.
Here are some of the most common signs to look for:
1. They know right from wrong but couldn't care less.
When it comes to delineating right and wrong, to the sociopath, what is right is simply what is in their own best interest. If it serves them well, they believe their actions are completely justified.
This means that sociopaths feel zero remorse, no matter who is hurt or harmed in the process, and they move with little anxiety because they live without fear of disconnection.
2. Their personality is crafted to engage and enchant in order to bond and manipulate.
Some sociopaths lack impulse control and suffer from a range of addictive and self-destructive behaviors and habits.
But the ones who are able to delay gratification and play the long game are the most harmful because they are meticulous and polished. They typically make an exceptionally good first impression and come across as warm, empathetic, and even altruistic.
3. They don't always seem genuinely honest.
A sociopath has no real sense of self, so they struggle with maintaining the impression that they create and project to the world. They are already wearing a mask, and dishonesty is another mask on top of that.
This means that when they lie, they might sound like a caricature of an honest person rather than a genuinely honest person.
For example, a sociopath might sound like a broken record and use phrases that are absolutes (e.g., "I am 100% not guilty" or "I promise I never did that") in an attempt to sell the truth.
4. They know how to get your blood boiling.
Sociopaths know how to push the right psychological buttons to gain control in a relationship. Once they've achieved a degree of compliance, they'll seek to undermine their target's emotional stability.
This is why they love to be unpredictable (most personality disorders have this in common). Sometimes their behavior — such as running hot and cold — is due to the particular disorder. Other times, it is purely tactical.
5. Their worst tendencies quickly surface when they feel they are losing control over you.
When a sociopath finds out that you are not "obedient," they'll move into attack mode.
Say goodbye to the veneer of civility. They'll hurl every accusation at you and about you to anyone who will listen — friends, neighbors family members, co-workers.
6. They display false humility.
Another giveaway is false vulnerability. Sociopaths may show "great humility" by making themselves seen meek and unassuming.
The unskilled observer may believe that this is the sociopath unmasked. Yet it's just another mask. Again, the tip-off is that they go overboard since they have a hard time calibrating their impression management.
Unmasking personality disorders is tricky
The indicators above may be helpful, but they are hardly definitive.
If, for whatever reason, you find yourself in a relationship with a sociopath, keep these tips in mind:
- Avoid disagreeing with them publicly. This may lead to humiliation, and any word or action that causes them to feel shamed cuts very deep and can trigger severe reactions.
- Don't call them out for being a sociopath. Slowly work to disengage yourself from the relationship.
- Having a sociopath in your life can be very challenging and feel isolating, so consider seeing a therapist or joining a support group. Having someone to talk to can be very helpful.
We can't always change someone's behavior, but we find ways to set boundaries and cope.
At the end of the day, regardless of one's personality or accompanying disorder, our emotional well-being is inextricably linked with the quality of our relationships.
David J. Lieberman is a psychotherapist and the author of "Mindreader: The New Science of Deciphering What People Really Think, What They Really Want, and Who They Really Are." With years of research in human behavior and interpersonal relationships, David trained personnel in the U.S. military, the FBI, the CIA and the NSA.