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9 things people get wrong about sociopaths, according to a sociopath

Julia Pugachevsky   

9 things people get wrong about sociopaths, according to a sociopath
  • Sociopaths are often depicted as unfeeling criminals and abusers.
  • Dr. Patric Gagne, a psychologist and a diagnosed sociopath, wrote a memoir about her experiences.

Diagnosed with sociopathic personality disorder in her 20s, Dr. Patric Gagne struggled to find resources to treat the symptoms she had all her life.

Since childhood, Gagne has felt starkly different from everyone else. She's wrestled with pervasive apathy, and violent urges that feel more calm than charged.

"Everyone else had access to hope," Gagne says in her new memoir, "Sociopath." "Schizophrenics, alcoholics, bipolar depressives — there were treatment plans and support groups for all of them." Sociopaths in popular culture are "loathsome villains with few exceptions," like Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" and Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho."

The lack of available care for sociopaths inspired Gagne to pursue a PhD in psychology, where she specialized in the relationship between sociopathy and anxiety. Eventually, she worked as a therapist, where she "earned a low-key reputation as 'the sociopath therapist,'" taking on clients with sociopathic tendencies.

Gagne's memoir cast light on a lot of misconceptions about sociopaths, from how they process emotions to how they form relationships.

1. Sociopaths do feel emotions, just not "social" ones

Sociopaths are often depicted in media as devoid of feelings entirely. But that's not true.

"Some feelings came naturally to me, like anger and happiness," Gagne writes. "But other emotions weren't so easy. Empathy and guilt, embarrassment and jealousy were like a language I couldn't speak or understand." She compares her emotional range to "a cheap set of crayons," where she can access primary colors but struggles with "more nuanced hues."

As an adult researching sociopathy and going to therapy, she learned that sociopaths — and even psychopaths — can feel basic emotions. But they don't experience "social emotions," such as shame, remorse, and even romantic love, because they feel a lack of attachment to people.

2. Anxiety drives violent or risky urges

In pop culture, sociopaths get a thrill out of hurting and manipulating others. But the driver of high-risk and harmful behavior is more complicated, Gagne argues.

She describes feeling a "pressure" and anxiety whenever she feels apathetic. "The nothingness, I'd started to notice, made my urge to do bad things more extreme," Gagne says.

Throughout the book, she tried to mitigate her violent or unlawful urges by committing smaller risky acts, like breaking into people's homes or temporarily stealing cars from drunk fraternity brothers.

Ultimately, she sees her past behavior as a "subconscious drive for feeling." Doing something dangerous didn't actively bring her joy as much as relieve tension and stress — similar, she said, to an OCD compulsion.

3. Unlike psychopaths, they can shows signs of change

"Sociopath" and "psychopath" are often used interchangeably, but there are some key differences. To make matters more confusing, they both fall under the term "antisocial personality disorder," which Gagne finds unhelpful.

"While I could easily identify with most of the traits on the sociopathic and psychopathic checklists, I was only able to relate to about half of the antisocial ones," she says.

Gagne was diagnosed via a psychopath checklist, where scoring within a lower range indicates sociopathy more than psychopathy because the symptoms are not as extreme.

While research on the diagnoses is still limited, Gagne says experts believe that, unlike psychopaths, sociopaths can feel anxiety and also show signs of learning right from wrong.

4. They're not devoid of healthy interests or hobbies

Sociopaths are often portrayed as stoic loners in media, with no hobbies other than committing crimes and hurting people.

In truth, they can have interests and hobbies just like anyone else. In the book, Gagne describes her passion for music (particularly jazz), her love for her childhood pet ferret, bonding with the kids she babysits, and becoming fascinated with psychology enough to turn it into a career.

5. They don't understand why some things are "wrong"

Throughout the book, Gagne explains how she finds it difficult to identify "bad" behavior.

"I may have been missing an emotional connection to the concepts of right and wrong, but I knew they existed," she says. Because she can't naturally feel fear, shame, guilt, or remorse, she wouldn't know when she was doing something that could make people uncomfortable or scared, like stealing or stalking.

Later in adulthood, she would try to pay people back when she felt she was doing something wrong. She'd bring flowers to the strangers' funerals she'd crash and fill up the cars she briefly stole with gas.

"One time someone left the stove on, so I turned it off," she said of a house she broke into. "It's my way of trying to balance the karma."

6. They may lie to avoid being judged

A common assumption is that sociopaths always lie for the fun of it, or for personal gain. In Gagne's case, she says she often lied about her feelings just to fit in. She felt claustrophobia whenever she realized she wasn't feeling the way she was "supposed" to, she says in the book.

When her pet ferret died, she felt sadness but couldn't authentically sob the way her sister did. Throughout her childhood, she didn't feel remorse or fear, and sharing that with others didn't help.

That made it hard for her to form genuine connections with others, because she feels like she has to perform or exaggerate emotions to make others comfortable.

7. They crave connection, too

Another big sociopath stereotype is that they're perfectly content being on their own. While Gagne always enjoyed solitude, she also felt loneliness from her inability to be honest about her disorder.

"No one could relate to me," she says. "Nobody wanted to spend time with me. Not the real me, anyway. I was utterly alone."

Over time, she learned how to be more honest, and found people who wouldn't judge her.

8. Treatment can improve their symptoms

In the book, Gagne mentions Dr. Ben Karpman, who theorized that sociopaths "are not hardwired to pursue an antisocial lifestyle and may be responsive to treatment."

Because of the lack of available treatment options, Gagne researched ways to help mitigate her symptoms. She found that cognitive behavioral therapy helped her unpack the feelings of anxiety that triggered unwanted actions. "It all boiled down to mindfulness," she writes.

Acceptance of being a sociopath also helped her, because she realized her anxiety often came from the pressure to fit in. She started to become more open about her diagnosis to reduce the feeling of always needing to hide from others.

9. They can maintain long, healthy relationships

Gagne got married to David, her childhood sweetheart. Together, they share two children, a dog, and a cat.

"I am a passionate mother and wife," she says in the book. "I am an engaging therapist. I am extremely charming and well-liked. I have lots of friends. I am a member of a country club. I throw parties for every occasion you can imagine."

She's been able to have lasting relationships with her friends and family because she sought treatment and answers, which is why she pursued her PhD and started publicly speaking about her experiences.

"I am a twenty-first-century sociopath," she says. "And I've written this book because I know I'm not alone."

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