The New York Times magazine ran a chilling article yesterday about psychopathic children, and how the features that lead to anti-social personality disorder and sociopathy may be identified as early as age five. If you haven’t already seen it, I suggest you give it read.
Researchers uniformly focus on lack of empathy as the best predictor for future psychopathic behavior. They emphasize the need to teach these children how to empathize “before it’s too late,” but they seem to have no idea how to do that. Efforts to teach these children ways to read and recognize emotional responses in other people only made them more effective manipulators. Instilling a system of rewards and punishments only made them more careful and secretive. According to the researchers, these children “lack humanity” because they seem unable to feel and connect with other human beings. So how to teach them empathy and help them to become “human” like the rest of us?
Although I’ve never worked with a socipath — adult or child — I have treated other people who mostly lacked the ability to empathize. Based on that experience, I’d like to offer my thoughts about the origins of psychopathy that may help to explain why it may be difficult, if not impossible, to teach them empathy. The first question is: how do the rest of us “normal” people learn to empathize? If we can understand what usually nurtures that ability, we might understand why some people never learn to do so. Researchers in the area of psychopathy tend to agree there’s a genetic component, but also that it doesn’t fully account for the disorder. As a child, the father of Michael (the main subject of the NYT story) struggled with similar issues to those of his son but eventually developed the ability to empathize. In other words, while one’s genetic inheritance may play a part, it doesn’t fully explain why some people develop into sociopaths and others don’t, why some but not all of them learn to empathize.
I suggest that we learn how to empathize through the repeated experience of parents empathizing with and responding appropriately to our own feelings. In other words, we learn to empathize with other people when others have empathized with us. This is not to blame the parents of sociopaths; in the article, Michael’s parents both seemed concerned and devoted to their family. Rather, I would say it’s the nature of what the potential socipath feels that is the problem — that his or her particular emotions make it difficult for even well-intentioned parents to empathize. In order to make this clearer, I need first to explain (yet again) what empathy actually means.
When people say, “I really empathize with what you’re going through,” most of them actually mean that they sympathize. They feel sad or sorry because you’re suffering. They may pity you. In contrast, to empathize means actually to feel something close to what the othe person is feeling. Sympathy means I am over here, feeling the way that I feel about you, over there. In contrast, empathy means I identify with you; your feelings echo within me and for that reason, there is no emotional distance between us. I see myself in you. We usually sympathize because someone else is suffering; people who sympathize tend to feel more or less the same way. True empathy could arise due to virtually any emotion that resonates within the observer. People who empathize will feel a wide variety of emotions depending upon what the other person is feeling.
Let us imagine, then, an agitated, hard-to-console baby who was born without much ability to bear frustration, who feels angry and persecuted by its experience. That might have been its genetic inheritance. You’ve no doubt been around angry babies when they scream bloody murder, who hate the way they are feeling and project their discomfort into anyone listening.
Normally, parents will absorb all those projections, figure out what the baby needs and calm it. What if the baby can’t be consoled, however? What if pain and frustration evoke an intensely violent response in the baby? To understand what I mean, fast forward a few years to the raging three-year-old throwing a violent temper tantrum — kicking, screaming, lashing out, shrieking at the parents, “I hate you!” or “I wish you were dead!” Such emotional tantrums have preverbal roots in infancy. What if you’re the mother or father of such a baby and nothing you do makes any difference?
As much as they may love their child, an infant like the one I’m describing evokes horribly painful feelings in the parents. If you truly empathize, you feel a lot like what the baby feels, and that can be awful. What if the empathic emotion awakened inside of you is murderous rage? With an especially difficult infant, it takes an almost superhuman parent to continue empathizing; at some point, he or she will turn away and stop empathizing. Especially when you factor in the idealized hopes we all have for parenthood — cuddling that delightful innocent baby in our arms — the reality of a flailing killer can be brutally disappointing. Maybe the parent puts a protective emotional distance between herself and her baby that makes empathy unlikely. Or he erects a psychological barrier and continues to function mechanically as a parent without much feeling. Due to the shut-down in parental empathy, the child never develops its own capacity to empathize.
How would you empathize with Michael, the main subject of the NYT article? How would you let him know you understand exactly the way he’s feeling? Here are some of the things I might say to him:
You so hate the way your little brother makes you feel when he gets into your things that you want to murder him.
You believe I’m such a stupid fool that I won’t know you’re only saying what you think I want to hear.
You feel so desperate to have what you want that you’ll do anything to get it and you don’t care a bit what other people feel.
These are the sorts of things I’ve said in sessions to some of my more troubled clients. While it didn’t happen overnight, these interpretations ultimately helped them to feel understood. Eventually, these clients developed a greater capacity to empathize.
For a parent to empathize with a kid like Michael, she’d have to acknowledge that her son is a ruthless killer, at least in terms of his feelings. What parent can do that easily? How likely is it that anyone will ever empathize with Michael? We don’t want to empathize and we don’t want him to feel the way he does. We want him to care about other people and their pain, to become a nice person. But only by truly empathizing with Michael and the way he feels now will you be able to find a way into his extreme loneliness.
As for what else he might feel, I can only guess. I know for a fact that murderous rage is an extremely painful emotion to feel; surely Michael suffers on some unconscious level, even if there’s no real guilt involved. Maybe at some level, he even feels a kind of primitive shame, to know that he’s fundamentally defective and different from other people.
When I think about Michael in those terms, I actually feel some sympathy for him, too.