Encounters with the Conscienceless: Learning from Sociopaths

Pioneer Square Station

Sure, sociopaths are unpleasant, even evil, people. They don’t abide by a moral code because they lack empathy. They only understand the emotional damage they inflict in an anthropological sort of way–through observation–because they lack emotions themselves. And their manipulations are primarily motivated by a desire for power and superiority.

Psychologists recommend steering clear of such people when you encounter them.

But their inability to feel either fear or love puts the rest of us in a unique position when we encounter them. We can all learn a little from the sociopath if we set aside our emotional responses of outrage, frustration, and terror. Encounters with the conscienceless invite us all to contemplate what it means to live a fully human, virtuous life.

I’ll be writing on this topic all week. But just to start off, here are a few lessons you can pick up the next time you encounter a conscienceless individual:

  • Learn that a rational assessment of situations is often the most useful. Let’s face it: sociopaths have an edge in tense settings. Whether it’s the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange or your mother’s kitchen during a family reunion, there are times when it’s awfully convenient to not have feelings. So next time you find yourself getting embroiled in conflicts, try thinking like a sociopath for a few seconds. What would you be thinking if you could set aside your hurt and outrage?
  • Recognize that personal attachments are for dupes. Well, not really. But sociopaths may be onto something here, too. It’s one thing to feel intense loyalty and attachment for your spouse, sibling, or best friend. It’s another thing to be so worried about other people’s feelings that you set aside your own well-being. If someone isn’t treating you right, harden that heart of yours, cut your losses, and walk away. Better to be called a bitch and get out alive than to waste your limited time and energy on interactions with people who aren’t doing you any good. More on this point later this week.
  • Appreciate your capacity to appreciate randomness, beauty, and poetry. As much as rationality can benefit you in adult life, once you’re at home, it’s always better to be an empath. The butterfly fluttering over your hedge. The sudden remembrance of your grandmother’s age-freckled hands around her favorite teacup. A line from a poem that drifts to mind. And suddenly, all of life seems tied together–whole and beautiful and sacred. Sociopaths don’t get to have moments like that because these moments are built on emotional associations. So sit back and enjoy. Whatever peace of mind a sociopath may once have taken from you, they will never get to experience this.
  • Put the everyday difficulties of social interaction into perspective. Once you’ve been targeted by a sociopath, the other people around you will never look the same again. Instead of psychological warfare and destabilizing your core trust in kindness and honesty, the people who once irked you now just look clumsy and kind of endearing. Your pushy boss suddenly looks like she only wants some tenderness and maybe a sense of control in her lonesome, difficult life. That co-worker who always talks too much and looks at you funny just desperately needs the attention he doesn’t get at home. The terse bus driver is just having a bad day. Their emotional needs reassure you–rather than drain you. Because it all means, These are not sociopaths.

Up next: The Sociopaths I Have Known

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3 thoughts on “Encounters with the Conscienceless: Learning from Sociopaths

  1. This is fascinating! I love your blog!!!!! And I agree, once you’ve encountered and been targeted by a sociopath, other people around you never look the same again. I crossed a dark bridge somewhere in my history that taught me many of the lessons you’re writing about in this blog. Excellent!

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