Empathy for the Psychopath

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.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Why is the younger brother allowed to provoke Michael while dad looks on and just smiles? Seems to me, dad could tell Allan to go do something else and then Michael would feel that dad is on his side and that he has a protector. Why does Allan get the right to provoke, but Michael doesn’t get to have peace and have his “space” guarded? Especially since they know that the birth of Allan seemed to be a provoking incident to Michael. Why does Allan get free reign and is not being taught to respect his older brother’s boundaries?

    1. I suspect it’s because Allan didn’t have those “bad” feelings of jealousy and hatred. The parents understood that the birth of Allan was evoking jealousy but they didn’t have much sympathy (or empathy) for it.

  2. Right at the top of the New York Times article, it mentions the mother describing Michael as a three year old behaving like a brat when his younger sibling was born. This type of negative and judgementalism to describe a child acting out on fears and pains and resentments when a new baby arrives to me demonstrates a lack of empathy for the child, hence the child’s already “learning” a lack of empathy by example. Subsequently, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with firstborn syndrome. Again, the child was judged as having dysfunctional behaviour, once again, he received no empathy.

    My younger sibling was born 18 months after me, and my mother, who was a narcissist and abuser, told me as I grew up that I reacted with resentment towards her, always trying to make her feel guilty for spending time with the baby, crying and acting out. Again, my feelings of loss, abandonment, etc. were interpreted as sinister… my mother literally said my crying for attention was intentional cruelty to hurt her, to make her feel guilty. Well, when I had children 19 months apart, and the oldest cried for my attention and resented his sister, I felt his pain, and yes, I felt really bad for it, but understood his pain was not cruel determination to hurt me. I tried as best I could to reassure him, to make him feel loved, etc. and it passed.

    With me, or with Michael, or with all those whose pain and anger as babies, for God’s sake, is interpreted as cruel, inhuman, unempathetic to the adult’s needs, the result can be some pretty dysfunctional coping mechanisms and distorted ability to feel “empathy.” I didn’t become a sociopath, rather, I don’t know what the term would be, but I became overly empathetic. Learning how to feel “empathy’ for myself has been a hard, hard journey. I felt extreme empathy for others, particularly for abusive people such as my mother and especially when I had been hurt by them. Instead of feeling my pain, I projected it onto the abuser. In some ways I was a psychopath to myself and a doormat and overly empathetic to others, if that makes sense.

    1. You have some very good observations to make. The inability to empathize with the anguish/hatred/abandonment/jealousy that come up at the birth of a sibling can be very destructive. I know we worked very hard with our oldest to prepare him for the birth of his first sibling, and it was still extremely painful for him. Sibling rivalry is real, excruciating and normal.

    2. Sandra,

      Your last paragraph explains what I’ve been doing. Amazing. Pretty irrational, isn’t it? But sure makes sense to me.

      They are hurtful and I look for reasons what I have done for them to react. Darn. That and a constant sense of guilt for falling short of never being good-enough.

      Nothing would make my mom and dad satisfied. So pathetic because other than their narcissism there really is no healthy reason for them to expect so much from everybody else (meaning they are not above any of their children in the food chain, and we’re too respectful to stop their chatter).

      You made me feel better, less alienated. The term you were searching could be uber-empath.

  3. Two people in Canada, Ontario recently were convicted of murdering a 8 year old little girl. It was a heinous crime and the young woman involved had a history of violence and she had a lot of thoughts about hurting people. She grew up with a drug addicted , stripper mother, and witnessed a lot of violence, and now after what you said that is what turned her into a psychopathic killer.
    The young man who along with her murdered and raped this child looked like a very ordinary , clean cut guy, and he had about 12 girlfriends. If i met him I am sure I would not know he was a psychopath. I would like to know how can you tell if someone is a psychopath? Are there any signs to look for? Both these people also were drug addicts.

    1. Sometimes, it’s very hard to detect the sociopath, especially the one who has figured out how to read people, because he or she knows how to simulate the correct emotions. Also how to elicit the right feelings in other people.

  4. For a couple of years I taught ‘psychological skills’ in gaol. I did come in contact with at least one person I think was a psychopath.

    I found the article a bit of a worry about the extent it made Michael and other psychopaths (if the diagnosis is correct) ‘other’.

    The advice that ‘you catch more flies with honey than vinegar’ is mildly psychopathic I think.

    When I’m very angry I can experience a cold rage. If I acted this out fully I’m pretty sure my behaviour would be psychopathic.

    Then there are the scales which are coldly and unemotionally used to measure Michael.

    I’m suggesting psychopaths aren’t as different as we like to believe.

    1. Thanks, Evan. I agree with your point that they’re not so “other.” I know my own “inner sociopath” very well; fortunately, there are other sides to me. Michael didn’t seem to have much else to fall back on.

  5. This is such a greatly timed post (for me!) as last night I watched We Need to Talk About Kevin, and throughout the entire film, I questioned why no one saw anything strange about Kevin, and if they did, why they chose to ignore it/wait it out/do nothing? It was really frustrating to watch, particularly the scene where the mother took him to the doctor to get him checked out, and the doctor seemed totally oblivious to either the mother’s or the child’s distress. Aren’t doctors supposed to refer patients to psychologists if their suffering does not present any physical symptoms? At what point are doctors or psychologists supposed to step in? Should they if they see any telltale signs?

    Also, in the event that a sociopathic child grows up to commit murder, how do the parents go on? I’m trying to understand… what gives them the will to live? Is it hope that their child will “see the light”? Is it detachment from their child’s actions? Throughout the film, I kept wondering how the mother could live with herself. Not in a hateful way, but more in terms of trying to understand how she could bear the thought of her child being so sadistic and cruel with an obvious loathing towards her. Is it just because she’s a mother?

    Finally, is sociopathy curable?

    I’m sorry if you haven’t seen the movie and I keep referring to it, but it gives me a context to ask questions on this topic…

    1. Cathrine, I haven’t seen this movie yet (I will certainly do so now) so it’s hard for me to answer your questions. I may be wrong, but my guess is that sociopathy is not curable. The damage is too deep and pervasive.

  6. I read your article with mixed feelings Joseph. There is a lot that isn’t known about psychopathy, despite the amount of research. How they got that way and why they got that way. Do they “feel” at all?
    Maybe the answer is simpler; maybe they are unfortunate “throwbacks” to a very early time when the reptilian brain ruled. Maybe that is their misfortune.

    Many toddlers throw tantrums, but as you say, they don’t become psychopaths.
    Why is a baby born a “difficult” baby? There must be a genetic component.
    There is more going on than the lack of empathy. You mention” manipulators” and being “careful and secretive”. If it were just a question of tantrums, rages and sometimes sibling rivalry, well, maybe these things are relatively “normal” but what the researchers referred to as “lacking humanity”. That is the disquieting something else.

    Just as an aside, the other day I met up with a couple I know who have had twins (male but far from identical in appearance). One is the picture of placidity, smiling around at everyone, while the other, his little face twisted into a pretzel, was roaring at the top of his lungs. I had to smile. His mother and father were trying to take it all calmly, but she told me that most of the time one boy is so placid and the other not.

    Yes, it is hard to detect the sociopath. They are past masters in the glib art of simulating empathy, of telling people what they want to hear, and as you say, Joseph, of eliciting the right feelings in other people. I would say, in certain OTHER people. The psychopath knows who to target.

    Moving on to siblings, I do delight in seeing how many children welcome the “new baby”, and want to hold, hug and kiss the infant.
    I can actually remember, though, when my little brother arrived. I was almost four at the time, and the memory is so clear. I was not overjoyed LOL. But all went well, and I discovered I had a playmate. Sure, we quarrelled and had fights, as all kids do. Funny, now I always think of him as my big brother…

    As for the three remarks you might make to “Michael” Joseph. Well, for some reason I feel you would have to stand well clear!

    A fascinating topic, Joseph.


  7. I read the NYT article with a mixture of concern and fascination. I find it very difficult to accept the premise that psychopathy is inherited/genetic, despite the evidence of brain differences etc. For me, I couldn’t get past the observation Michael’s parents made that the trouble started when his younger brother was born. I just can’t accept that he has always been destined to be a callous-unemotional psychopath – wouldn’t the behavior have been there all along, not just when his brother was born?

    I always go back to Alice Miller, who stated unequivocally the following tenets: “All children are born to grow, to develop, to live, to love, and to articulate their needs and feelings for their self-protection. For their development, children need the respect and protection of adults who take them seriously, love them, and honestly help them to become oriented in the world.” Perhaps Michael has a genetic predisposition toward rage and hatred, for whatever reason, but he is still a child who needs respect and protection. Perhaps the fact that he’s been treated like a budding serial killer since birth for above-average sibling jealousies/rivalries plays a larger role in his development than his genes. I know everyone wants to avoid “blaming the parents,” but there were many moments in the article where I found the mother cold and unloving…

    I think your point that the ability to empathize with others is rooted in our experience of empathy from our parents is both very strikingly true at a gut level and also somewhat limited. I did not grow up with “empathic enough” parents and I learned to empathize with their feelings as a way of surviving and trying to get them to love me. So there must be other factors related to “learning to empathize” because many of us with less-than-empathetic parents developed the capacity – perhaps to an extreme degree where we didn’t learn to have enough empathy for ourselves.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article and commentary,

    1. I’ve dealt with this issue of the kind of empathy that develops as a survival mechanism in earlier posts; obviously I agree with you, there must be other factors. At the same time, I find that the latter kind of empathy is different from the ordinary kind: at heart, it’s about trying to get what you need, to the extent possible with such limited parents, which in its own peculiar way, makes it narcissistic. It less about concern than self-preservation.

  8. I’ve been wondering something about narcissists and sociopaths, and I’ve mentioned it on my own blog in the past. My family tree is full of Cluster Bs and codependents. Seriously, the more I educated myself on the topics, the more I realize I could just create a family tree and label everyone on it a Cluster B, a codependent, or someone who oscillates between both roles. Very few examples of balance.

    The thing I found confusing is the amount of overlap with Cluster Bs, and that many people fit the bill for both narcissists and sociopaths. I’ve read books on both and people I know often seem to simultaneously fit into both the descriptions in both the narcissism books and the psychopath books.

    So it got me wondering: is it possible that narcissism and sociopathy are almost the same thing, but the former is when the condition is accompanied by a severe need for narcissistic supply and the latter is when the person with the condition could care less about narcissistic supply? The people I’m thinking of seemed to oscillate between both states: when they needed narcissistic supply, they acted like the descriptions in the narcissism books, but when they didn’t need something from someone because they weren’t important or because they finished devaluing and discarding them, they acted like the descriptions in the sociopathy books.

    I know some writers like Andrew Young and Richard Skerrit believe the Cluster B disorders are not so much individual root disorders but rather different behavioral coping mechanisms for the same root disorder, with some people heavily favoring one coping style over others. Based on my personal family experiences I feel the same. I was curious as to your views on the issue.

    1. In my view, this whole issue of diagnostic labels is a joke. Just forget all those labels and look at the different dynamics for each person. There is no distinct category of “narcissists” on the one hand and “socipaths” on the other. There’s a spectrum, with no two people alike.

      1. I have to agree. From personal experience I find the diagnostic labels too riddled with overlaps to rigidly follow. Young expressed similar sentiments to you in his book. Looking forward to yours when it comes out.

  9. I have to admit that I did not want to feel those feelings or connect with them so did not read the article in detail (yours of course I did!).

    I could not help but wonder though if there is not something more to this than learning the empathy that one did not receive in childhood.

    Speaking only for myself I did not grow up with empathy but have had to learn it and can relate to experimenting along the spectrum with a resonnance between over empathising with others and not having much empathy for myself.

    The impression in reading your blog is that I am not alone and that many people did not have a perfectly in tune empathetic upbringing and yet they are not at the end of the spectrum of killing harmless animals and people.

    Surely in addition to empathy there is something else at play? I am not sure what? Maybe an inability to reflect? Not sure but I just felt there was something missing ….

    1. I’m sure there are many other things at play, but the point I made was that it’s the combination of a particularly difficult infant — hard to console, intolerant of frustration, full of rage when it happens — and a failure of empathy that leads to this problem.

  10. Jennifer Kahn, the author of the “New York Times” wrote “It was tempting to scrutinize Anne and Miguel for signs of dysfunctional dynamics that might be the source of Michael’s odd behavior. But the family seemed, if anything, exceedingly normal.” And that’s it! That’s the only mention PARENTING really gets in this article. The rest, as usually these things go, describes the science of CU, etc., etc.

    But when you looked at the tiny clues in the article regarding parenting problems, so much seemed important. Here are a few things I noticed:

    1. When Michael is about to go into his tantrum, his father says “uh oh.” The parents are afraid of their son! He’s running the whole freaking house with his rage! Then the father rewards him by cooing to him for an hour after Michael goes ballistic.
    2. Michael shouts “I have a greater bond with you Daddy.” While he’s doing this to manipulate his father, it says something about what’s lacking with his mother. It also shows how manipulable his father is. Does the combination of an easily manipulated father and a cold mother produce sociopathy?
    3. The mother seems to feel no guilt whatsoever about what her shortcomings may have been in the creation of Michael’s problems. She feels exasperation and despair, but I couldn’t feel her guilt, and I always notice this about mothers who speak of their sociopathic children. Isn’t lack of guilt a feature of sociopathy? I wonder if lack of maternal guilt breeds sociopathy.

    I don’t know much about this topic, but I do wish we’d start these conversations with the assumption that environment is the major determinant of psychological dysfunction. As Allan Schore, whom you featured on your website, pointed out, the environment will encode in the genome. It so blinds us as a society to collude to gloss over the importance of parenting, and as the article showed, farming the kids out to therapists, and residential programs, etc., etc., did nothing.

    1. With your usual acuity, you hone in on all the environmental clues that something has gone amiss in the parenting. I think you’re absolutely right; unfortunately, to virtually anyone else, these parents do look normal.

  11. Hi Dr. Burgo,
    thank you very much for the link to this article and your commentary.

    When I read the NYT article I was surprised that Michael was labelled “callous-unemotional psychopath”. Does anger not count as an emotion? His mother mentioned that he developed the ability to switch back and forth between temper tantrum and eerily adult behaviour at the age of five. His problems started when he was 3 and his younger brother was born. So there were 2 years in which Michael was not able to control his anger outbursts. Maybe he developed the new behaviour because with the uncontrollable outbursts he could not get his needs met?
    I have heard from many friends with children that the older sibling did not like the new baby at first, even tried to bite it some times. One older brother would – even years after the arrival of his baby sister – still ask his mother when his younger sister would leave for good. None of these kids was treated as a sociopath in the making. There was no hint in the article that Michael tried to hurt Allan between ages 3 and 5. All the examples of his bad behaviour given in the text are of violence directed at himself (pulling his own hair out) or at objects like his clothes or the toilet seat.

    The description of the summer camp was chilling. At first I thought the purpose of the camp was to help the children. But the more I read, the more it sounded as if they were treated like lab rats. To generate data for further studies. Maybe that is why Michael`s behaviour became even worse?

    In your post above, you wrote “I know for a fact that murderous rage is an extremely painful emotion to feel”. I would like to add that it can also be a pleasure to feel it. My father had extreme outbursts of rage, and I think I have inherited the genetic disposition. Even as a teenager, I had much better control of it than my father (maybe because girls get reprimanded more than boys for this kind of behaviour), but the feeling itself is still there. And it is not all bad. There is pleasure in feeling the anger build up inside and then let the red wave of rage wash over me. That`s what makes it so hard to let it go.

    1. Your observation that anger is itself an emotion goes right to the point — it’s not the sort of feeling you’re supposed to have, however. It’s definitely not nice. Also, about rage being pleasurable: I think there is an extreme pleasure to be found in letting it rip, either in fantasy or in reality, and destroying everything. Unfortunately, there’s the fallout to cope with and this is certainly not pleasant. Even if you don’t actually harm anyone else and feel guilty about it later, the explosive rage lays waste to your mind.

  12. My father was a sociopath and lacked all empathy and found himself (or sought to join) a cult that abused and killed children. Despite many police reports, he has never been convicted of anything. The lack of empathy he showed for my feelings and those of my mother manifested in rape, killing my pets etc (I know this is an extreme story, but it is mine…) One of the very hardest parts of my healing is when I experienced a ‘part’ of myself that thought it was my father (I have dissociative issues). What I experienced most was fear, because there really is little way out for a sociopath, all there will be in society generally is punishment and extreme isolation. Thankfully, I know that ‘part’ is not me and I have not followed my father and -generally-have good skills of empathy. I don’t think it’s my role in life to work with/ heal sociopaths, despite great insights into them. One of the most horrible experiences I had in recent years was my son being hospitalized in a children’s ward. I spent the night in there and could identify the man tending to his seriously ill toddler daughter in the next bed as a sociopath/ psychopath. I noticed small things such as how his eyes lit up when he saw another child in the room in pain or undergoing a painful medical procedure; how he would wake and make his daughter uncomfortable just when she was finally resting. At one point there was a big caffuffle (I didn’t see what he had been doing to the child) and the nurses came running. They placed all their own interpretation on the caffuffle ‘Oh my god, she nearly fell out of the bed, she’s OK, you (Dad) must be so relieved, don’t worry, you must be tired…’ People always want to believe the best of people. I expect that father may well have been raping his little girl too. It was like being in hell for me being in that hospital overnight, particularly because I could see what this man was – but how can you explain this to nurses etc. without sounding just deluded or paranoid yourself? That’s why I also feel so much for spouses of sociopaths. Like my mother, they should get away, get the children away, at all costs, but society doesn’t make that easy. It prefers to believe that the person is not the rapist/ murderer/ exceptionally cruel person etc as alleged rather than face the consequences of seeing the situation truthfully, because that is much harder to deal with i.e. what to do with such a person (generally left to the criminal justice system, if that person is ‘caught’).

  13. I have only come across one true sociopath in my life, and I would know one if I encountered one. People like to use this word casually. The one I met was a chronic liar, elicited pity from others (always had some drama going on) was almost -over-the-top in her charm, and knew who to play to to set up an entire group of people. She cheated on her boyfriend, had multiple lovers that he never knew about. She would disappear for days, but was so charming that her boyfriend gave her much leeway. On one of these occasions she was vacationing on an island with one of her lovers. She would get caught, but instead of taking responsibility for her actions, would throw a tantrum and blame someone else, including the person that she lied to, manipulated, or broke promises to. Amazingly, she convinced most people, won them over. She promised the world, but never followed through. Her emotional reactions always seemed a little “off” and contrived. She could fly into a rage or provoke someone into a rage, which would have a normal person feeling “shaken up” and ungrounded for hours, but she was capable of switching emotions on a dime. She could go from rage to joking around with another person in seconds. She never felt remorse about hurting other people, and knew who to enlist to help her maintain her illusion. She was never able to hold down a job, and faked credentials. She taught a class, and regularly did not show up, but her charm was so convincing that none of her participants questioned it, and she continued to get away with it. If you did not enable her behavior, you were targeted and ways were calculated to get you extracted from the group, and would play people against each other.

    This has nothing to do with being a drug addict or growing up with violence. She might have had a childhood like the one experienced above but there was something else about her that was just too creepy that I suspect can only come from some very bad wiring in her brain. She did have a few seizures.

    Just thought I would throw this into the pot. If you meet one, you might feel like you are going crazy. Leave. and never look back. I don’t normally like to say things like this, it sounds so bad, but displaying any empathy towards a person like this only identifies you as a target. They don’t feel any emotion except “win” or “lose”. Again, I’m no expert, but I knew a sociopath. I have no doubt.

      1. This is scary. I fear this is my kid–not necessarily, but that she could be like this. She’s shockingly charming and good with words. Pretty, smart, and also extremely good at identifying other people’s emotions and using them. It’s terrifying how good she is at it. Classic “mean girl” or cheating girlfriend. My ex-husband was the same way. When realized what was going on, I attributed it to his being spoiled as a child (he was one of many, but one of the younger ones, and very charming from the start). When my daughter showed the same amazing people skills, I thought nothing of it. After all, I had limits. I would simply not respond to manipulation, tantrums, etc. but be a calm parent with firm boundaries.

        How naive!

        The more I dug in my heels, the better she got. By the age of four, she was able to drag me into an argument that sounded like one with a teenager: “You never listen! It’s because you don’t care about me!” In tears, I will describe to friends: “I swear to god I didn’t respond to this for more than a month before I realized what was going on. A month–did I really ruin her for life?”

        I just don’t know what to do. She will say and do things that literally have no response that would discourage her behavior, because any response is a good response, except those that the narcissist herself would do. The silent treatment, for example, is effective. Screaming. Yelling. Locking in a room until I can remain calm.

        I feel like my reserves are gone–I exhausted a good 70% trying to make a marriage to an adulterous narcissist work–and the further 30% just trying to remain true to my gentle discipline mantra. I also fear that my being closed off and numb for much of my marriage hurt my daughter. I try to be compassionate and warm but it encourages the more sociopathic behavior. I just don’t know what to do. I have been told that everything I do, from behavioral tactics to gentle discipline to compassionate parenting to yelling to anything, is wrong. I feel like other people think that she was born with compassion and I just have to draw it out.

        But when I do what they say, it does not draw out compassion. It draws out a creepy, chilling power game in which whoever says “I’m sorry” first loses.

        I don’t want to send her out into the world like this.

        (My thoughts on why it’s so often boys: Girls don’t kill or maim because you are worth way more to them alive. You know how some sociopaths hate it when you leave? It’s all about control.)

  14. That is a really disturbing article, especially the child’s total lack of remorse and empathy.

    Just after reading it, an article popped up in my RSS feed about the trial of Ratko Mladic that is happening in The Hague, where he reportedly made a throat-cutting gesture at Bosnian genocide survivors. I guess we shouldn’t expect war criminals to express remorse or empathy given what they’ve done, but it’s as if his being brought to account for his crimes has actually heightened the absence of these emotions as well as his arrogance. He seems like a potpourri of all the labels and diagnoses that are mentioned in the article about Michael.

    1. That’s really interesting. I think that the kind of splitting that goes on during wartime, where the other side is de-personalized and made “evil” or bad, works against any kind of empathy. Then, if you have a sociopath like Mladic, it gives him a sanctioned outlet (even if he now has to pay the price).

  15. My brother is psychotic, with no empathy, but most people would recognize the more overt lack of social skills that make up Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve done acting, and when I play a psychotic, I must admit I imitate my brother – his tensions, his eye movements, his monotone speech pattern. Even as a young child, there was something different about him, but the difference expanded over the years and I think you’re right about difference between empathy and sympathy. There was no empathy in our family for him. Because of that, he used the guilt our parents felt about his Aspergers and differences to get what he wanted. I think there was plenty of rage there, but inability to express emotion limited the visibility.

    Empathy is such an integral part of compassion. How can we truly be compassionate to another without being open enough to feel some of what they are feeling? Last week I asked my partner to say what I really wanted to hear: “I see what you’re feeling and it’s ok. It’s ok to feel that way.”. There are so few places to get that in our society and our cultural judgments for many “dark” emotions. We all need to be all of who we are, including our emotions, and be part of a family or community without putting all of that away.

    1. I completely agree. Unfortunately, as you know, the cultural messages we get so often tell us which emotions we’re supposed to feel — like generosity, compassion, love — and the implication is that hatred, anger and resentment are “bad” feelings that need to be gotten rid of.

  16. When my therapist talks to me in the way you describe in your sample sentences, I feel very angry.
    I KNOW how I feel.
    I assume he also knows how I feel because I just told him.
    When he says, “You feel blah, blah, blah…”, I feel patronized.
    When he responds empathically, when I can see emotions on his face (sadness, distress, etc.) that he feels from what I just told him, THEN I feel like I have been heard… heard and FELT.
    He doesn’t even have to say anything.
    What do you think of that?

    1. The point of making an interpretation is to bring something unconscious into awareness, or to bring something subtle but unnoticed into the light. A therapist who simply mirrors back to you what you’ve already said is trying to demonstrate empathy; it’s a therapeutic technique I find emotionally phony and (like you) patronizing.

  17. Jules and Anne, I am reading your posts with great empathy. I have met one, perhaps two, sociopaths, and I am on the same page as you.

    I am trying to follow the arguments, and I certainly strongly uphold the view that defective parenting contributes enormously to later life problems.
    However, it is hardly the parents’ fault if the infant is BORN “difficult”, is it? So there has to be a genetic component at play here, where this or that infant and not another, is, as you say, “hard to console, intolerant of frustration, full of rage when it happens “. Maybe in the case of “Michael” even if the parents had been as near perfect as possible, he’d be a sociopath anyhow. Besides, and repeating, there are “difficult” infants and less than effective/patient parents, but those infants do not grow up sociopaths.
    Is it not possible that the wiring can be skewed in some infants? After all infants are sometimes born with other defects.

    Sorry if I get to seem a little exasperated here. L.
    But how on earth am I supposed to feel like a sociopath, i.e. to stand in his/her shoes?! Why would I want to. I can understand that something made them that way (call it wiring, poor parenting, anything you like).
    I can’t even imagine – let alone feel – what is called “murderous rage”. Sure, I’ve seen it portrayed on screen, (not the same thing), and I’ve never actually seen someone wreck a place in a “murderous rage”, or in the process of killing someone. I certainly would not stand by and think “Oh, poor thing, I should be empathizing now”. I’d be calling the police.
    In passing might I add that “murderous rage” and ragefulness is not good for physical health either. Only stating the obvious.
    Sure, I can get mad now and then about something, get sad now and then, feel fed up now and then, as most normal people surely do. It is a lot to ask people to empathise with a sociopath, because all you want to do (instinct of self-preservation) is cut and run if you encounter one.
    Because as other posters have pointed out, it is not always about the rages, nor do all sociopaths become killers. But they “kill” people in other ways, kill their souls, wreck their lives, abuse and ill-treat. Accordingly, they don’t come into direct collision with the law, and continue on their merry rampaging way.

    Sure, we all need to be who we are, and have and feel our feelings, but those of us who don’t wreck others, or wreck their own house once a week in rage, or chuck the china at passing neighbours are not necessarily culturally brainwashed.

    Again, I can only echo the last paragraph of Jules’ post above.

    A poster raises this question:

    “Does the combination of an easily manipulated father and a cold mother produce sociopathy?”
    My reply is “not necessarily”.

    Psychopathy is a fascinating topic, of that there is no doubt.

    Meantime, just to lighten the tone (if no one minds) I’ve got the painter in doing up my kitchen. I am going downstairs now, and if I don’t like the colour/the way he is doing it I shall maybe kick his step-ladder from under him, and jam the tin full of paint onto his head.
    Now, there’s an opportunity for me to experience the feeling of murderous rage.
    I’ll report to everyone on my experiment.


    1. This comment reveals the ongoing confusion about empathy vs. sympathy. What you are referring to as “empathy” is actually sympathy … as if “Poor thing, I should be empathizing now.” To think of someone as a “poor thing” is to put distance between you and the other person.

      Hermes, I’ve also noticed that in your posts you often say “I can’t imagine” how someone could feel such-and-such dark emotion, and in this post you make it clear that you don’t want to go anywhere near those feelings. This would place limits on your ability to empathize because you don’t want to have those experiences within yourself.

    2. Hermes, think of it like this: you might have murderous rage, but a much higher emotional injury pain tolerance. Everyone is going to go hulksmash at some point. Maybe you’d have to see one of your own children being tortured to get there. But you’d get there… eventually.

      Think of a psychopath as having a very low emotional injury pain tolerance. While some of us go through childbirth without medication, others faint and even the epidural doesn’t work, though it doesn’t appear more difficult. I truly do not believe they are faking it or trying to be weak. Their brain processes the input differently.

      My daughter feels rage when she is not the leader of the group. I could push her into oncoming traffic, and she’d probably feel less upset than she would have if she didn’t get to choose the game at family game night. I’m not making this up. It is honestly her raison d’etre: to control me. Not controlling the family is for her like being put in a war torture camp and having her fingernails pulled out.

      I, too, find it hard to empathize, especially when empathy is the reaction that *causes her to do more of the behavior I want to change in her*. I am just saying, I think that your interpretation of murderous rage as an emotion you don’t care to feel is a bit off. It is an emotion you can’t imagine feeling *if you are not so injured*. I am sure that like all of us you could summon enough rage if it were appropriate and you needed to defend yourself or your family.

  18. Good points here, interesting. So what does one do? The sociopath I met was not all about murderous rage, it wasn’t what defined her, at all. She was too calculating, but also immature, so yes, temper tantrums were in her repertoire. But it seemed like an act, a way for her to get what she wanted. Maybe the ones that kill are a different breed. Still, she enjoyed destroying people. But it wasn’t rage that motivated her, at least that’s my theory. I don’t know for sure, to be honest.

    Still, I’m not sure she was capable of ANY emotion, certainly not anything subtle. Certainly not empathy. As a matter of fact, she elicited (rage) in me. I had no choice but to get away from her. I suppose I could empathize, from far away. (For my own protection). I realize what a mess she created in ME internally.

    Yikes. Step one, exit. Step two, learn from the experience. How did I get sucked in? Should I be grateful that I have the capacity to feel, and to experience a full range of emotions (including rage) and therefore, the ability to empathize? I’m grateful that I am not judged for experiencing rage, by those on the outside, but others (the ones that she has manipulated via her charm) perceive me as the “crazy, paranoid one”. Another reason to exit, the sociopath, and the entire situation/organization, if need be.

    I didn’t act on my rage, but to this day, I feel ALL of the dark emotions. You name it. grief, depression, anger, even rage.

    I’m not sure I’m explaining this very well. I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all. I was just very affected (negatively) by this person.

    1. You don’t sound at all like a “know it all.” I think that being able to experience all the “dark emotions” is a good thing, and it does make it possible for you to truly empathize. Yes, be grateful for that.

  19. I’d like to add my take on this. I’ve done my own research and in sociopaths, they tend to have trouble identifying the fear expression. In psychopaths, they tend to have trouble identifying the disgust expression. The best working theory I’ve heard is that there’s a damaged right-hemisphere amygdala which sort of fits with my knowledge as the right amygdala allows you to per say, receive eye contact rather than give it. I know in my blog I’ve written about psychopathic parents. I’d love to know if the sociopath and/or the psychopath are actually not able to feel fear or disgust respectively, but if they’re biasing the expression for another one or if they are substituting another emotion for the fear or disgust.

    1. Ben – so much “they,” “them,” and cut-and-dried categorization. “The sociopath?” The historian in me is screaming references to “the negro,” “the )riental.” Maybe in more medical terms – the amputee. Can sociopaths/psychopaths really be reduced to an analytical category? What is more or less human and individual about him, them, you, me?

      1. I’m sorry for my writing. I should expand on the distancing terms. I’m a very scientific person and when speaking about a subject, especially in a scientific manner, I use distancing language to make it sound less personal. This is also embedded in my personality as I am a very black and white human being. My father is a historian and I know my mother finds it often frustrating when he talks on this distanced level. I find it much easier to talk to my father about scientific concepts than my mother, probably due to the vocabulary.

        1. Hi Ben, no need to be sorry for your writing. But this is just what I mean, but didn’t say well before. Psychopaths are people, not scientific concepts. How can you understand persons, individuals, at greater distance? How can we ever help the people who need it the most, when we reduce them to categories?

          1. psychopaths can help themselves. they shouldnt be helped, if you help a psychopath youre helping them WIN, it will be at your expense.

          2. The people who need help the most are not the psychopaths/sociopaths, it’s their victims who really need help.

            Unfortunately, it’s overly empathic “understanding” of psychopaths/sociopaths as “troubled people” who need help that enables them to manipulate the system.

            In my opinion, the ability to empathize deeply sometimes blinds one to the fact that there are others out there who don’t have the requisite hard wiring to even be categorized as human at all.

            This is what psychopaths/sociopaths count on and until our society gets that point they will continue to cut a wide swath of destruction through the lives of anyone they interact with.

  20. Here is a story http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ME2wmFunCjU&feature=related
    that some maybe interested in. The effects of abuse in childhood…
    Maybe there is some biological component involved-or the abuse causes some permanent brain damage-but I know from personal experience being reared in an abusive environment can make you very “cold” and uncaring about others…manipulative, cruel for no reason etc. [maybe the person has “shut down” their emotions so well that U-C is all that is left]. In my case, when I was around 25 or so I had a spiritual experience that changed me.
    In this video the child has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder–but I am wondering if her behaviour is similar to the sociopathic behaviour talked about here

    1. Thanks for sharing that link. It’s a very disturbing story, although as far as we know from the NYT article, Michael’s parents were in no way abusive.

  21. Good points all round! The NYT piece is sadly lacking in many areas though it was a fascinating read. I have a son who resembles Michael in many ways in his earlier years, but it was clear to me that he had needs and was in pain though I could not fathom what they might be. To me he was a sweet child who had suddenly gone beserk and became filled with hate and violence. The grandparents suggested praying over him. The teacher suggested it was first child syndrome.

    We were fortunate to have a childpsychologist who pointed us to the right direction. Her diagnosis was extreme anxiety, and his rage was simply a cover for his anxiety. Like Michael, my son is very bright, and we were advised to read up on gifted children and their needs, as well as early social difficulties in preschool and parenting strategies. I pulled him out of school, and discovered in the following months that he had vision difficulties and impaired depth perception that had resulted in spectacular falls, as well as sensitive hearing. He was lonely in school because other kids ran away when he tried to talk to them about planets, and the teacher thought he was bossy when he told other kids off for breaking school rules. In that first year he turned from a polite happy child to a sullen tantrum-prone child.

    The preschool years were indeed challenging, and sibling relationship was sometimes similar to what was described in the article. I would never leave my two kids alone together for more than ten minutes, but this is because I recognize that my elder one has enough on his plate. Because of sensory overload, my elder son needs a lot of quiet to recharge after school, without which he would be prone to hitting and outbursts. As he got older, he is learning to recognize these physical needs and appropriate responses. (he does not recognize his body cues well, including hunger, thirst, changes in temperature etc until he is past his limits and it would hit him suddenly.)

    Anyway, my point is, the article could easily describe children who are NOT psychothic. I think if the information from earlier years are missed out, it is easy to miss out n critical information on what could have triggered a change in a child. My son is from an intact family, went to a reputable preschool which was great by all accounts, but because of his particular set of conditions and temperament, he turned into a very difficult child. The adults around him made a lot of mistakes too. The grandparents thought he was possessed, my husband thought he had become a spoilt brat, and tried to intimidate him into behaving which backfired big time. At the end of the day, uncovering his vision and hearing difficulties, apologizing for past unintended hurts, improving our parenting skills and teaching him and his brother to respect each other’s space and needs have brought peace back to my home.

    1. Poor Michael could have benefited from an empathic mother like you. As SusanT pointed out in her earlier comment, there is plenty to suggest that Michael’s mother wasn’t terribly in tune with his needs and feelings.

  22. I read SusanT’s comments and those had been things that struck me as well – because we were doing the same things. We were no better and just as lost and uncertain for a prolonged period of time. I have some of the same parenting books as Michael’s parents too! I can understand where his mother was coming from; my son had threatened to kill himself when he was four, and soon after, he threatened to kill me. It was not a child like tantrum but a cold furious attitude that one does not expect in a four year old. He also developed a Hyde-jykell behavior. I once tried to talk to him about an incident that happened a day before when h turned suddenly and punched me with narrowed eyes. After hitting me and warning me not to touch him, he went back drawing placidly and asked conversationally if I liked his drawing. It totally freaked me out. So no, I don’t think I was any more clued in than Michael’s mum. I think I was just luckier in having people point me in the right directions. I chanced across a newspaper article on childhood depression and realised he fitted all the symptoms.. That gave me the courage to ask around for a child psychologist. Two years later, I read Susan Klebod’s article which really summarized all my fears about my son who was fast losing the spark in his eyes. It left a huge impact on me and spurred me on to look for answers and try to build more more positive experiences into his life. Discipline was a very delicate balancing act during that stage and often we wondered if we did the right things. I thank parents like susan who share their journeys and insights so generously.

    1. Thanks for telling us about that experience. It’s so heartening to hear that a parent of a child like Michael found some other avenue and was able to make a real difference. So often, the search for genetic answers or explanations that rely on brain imaging feel so defeatist, as if there’s nothing we can do on an emotional/relational level to help.

  23. I come from an abusive family and have been revictimised by someone who fits a high scoring psychopath profile.
    The discussion on this site is exceptionally insightful and thought provoking. So I have confidance in disclosing. I am also faced with trying to support my son who is in denial about his psychopathic parent and showing damage – low self esteem, extreme anxiety , withdrawal… He like me, over empathises and unlike me has not yet developed self compassion.
    In the self help recovery movement I learnt to distinguish between compassion for the child and the inner child within the adult and excusing the adult perpetrator by attributing (projecting) capacities onto them ie ability to suffer/care/identify …. My own experience suggests that the capacity to learn empathy does not carry over into the adulthood. That mimicing empathy can be learnt for manipulative purpose and that is what occurs when empathy is given to psychopaths.
    I believe my mother “trained” my brother into becoming a sociopath by the role she ascribed to him and the interactions/dynamic she set up in the family. I believe these are very powerful processes. However that does not prove that there is no genetic component. Or that DNA sequencing and scan research should be looked at as leading to fatalistic attitudes or prejudice ! I am very grateful that such technology can rid us of the blame the victim that prevails in society at large ! Whether nature/nurture or an interaction these dangerous persons exist and their victims are very numerous, ill understood and most often do not get support.
    I read the NYT article and spotted the parental inputs and that these were ignored. Surely if first child syndrome is significant factor ie parental failure to handle it well, does result in sociopathic tendences that would show up in statistical data ! I would love to know because ANYTHING that shows promise of reducing the suffering such persons cause would be welcome to a massive population of survivors !

    1. Thanks for adding your experience to the discussion. The nature/nurture issue is indeed up in the air, but I’m inclined to weigh the nurture side more heavily.

  24. My sister is a sociopath. She has been a cruel, unfeeling, charming, manipulative, dual person and quite full of rage. I believe sociopathy is genetic and can be curbed some by parents with both empathy and firm limits. My mother was an extremely empathic mother. She believed she could love the lack of empathy and evilness out of her. She was allowed and excused for her behavior towards my sister and I. I believe because she experienced so much love and care and not enough boundaries, it made her more volatile towards other. I have seen her go after people just to destroy them. She gets a high to see people in pain and agony. She paints herself as a concerned person when someone is in pain and then she exploits them and tries her best to demolish them. Parents definitely play a role but looking at my parents I don’t know what they could have done to stop her from being sociopathic. Even giving her limits would have perhaps made my experience with her better, but it probably would have thickened her armor and helped her to navigate better when limits are evoked. And upon writing this, if my parents did reprimand her for the often cruel treatment towards my sister and I, she probably would have come after us even more. So as you see, I’m lost on what a parent can really do to curb this kind of a person.

    This is a fascinating subject that needs to be better understood and embraced by the public. I believe there are far more no conscience/low conscience people out there but we label them other things. We the “normal” people don’t want to accept that, be it a definable reason or not, these people cause the majority of pain and discomfort in societies life. I say let’s understand them, but in understanding them, we should never under estimate the lengths they will go to when they see a target to go after. If you have not felt the damage from one of these people it is hard to understand and empathize with the frustration, agony, crazy making pain they can do. My advice is to stay away and don’t get caught up in making sense of it all. If you need to make sense, do it from a distance.

    1. I don’t think that trying to “love the lack of empathy and evilness out of her” would be at all helpful and I disagree about setting limits. It sounds as if your mother just pretended it wasn’t true and sentimentalized it. With people like your sister, you have to be able to enter into their actual feelings — in her case, sadistic pleasure and hatred — find a way to understand them but set limits upon their expression of them.

      1. I understand what you are saying however how does one ever really understand sadistic pleasure? And then how do you sit limits of expression when the behaviors are often hidden from plain view; like making our kool aid with toilet water or pouring a huge amount of pepper in our eggs. You can then express your disapproval of that, but how do you curb it? I do believe my parents were in denial and did sentimentalize it. I do have anger over how they choose to stick their heads in the sand instead of make her know that her sadistic behavior was not acceptable.

        Thank you for your reply. The point of sadistic pleasure and hatred was a very valid point. And you can try to understand and set limits or you can just remove yourself from the picture. I’ve chosen to remove myself. It’s too much work trying to feel, analyze and properly defend myself with every action. Great blog!!

  25. This article I think is spot on. I’ve been studying Eric Harris and I wonder if the Columbine disaster could have been avoided if someone could have empathised with Eric, understood his deep anger and rage, nihilism and totally negative view of humanity which he possessed (including himself despite his apparent narcissism). If someone could have entered his world, he would have felt touched and that in turn would have meant everything to him. He might well have started to recover and move toward a more human view of himself an everyone else.

  26. This is an extremely interesting article, thank you very much Dr Burgo!
    I feel the need to express my opinion as this topic touches me very deeply, I am not sure I will make sense as psychology is such a hard topic to talk about. Anyway I have watched the movie “let’s talk about Kevin” and read the article and they both show the same kind of problem namely the parents were disingaged with their kids because their kids showed behaviours and feelings their parents were unconfortable with. These kids appear as nobody wanted to “deal” with them and their “emotional poop”. Now I understand that it must be hard for a parent to deal with these kids but they are their sons and daughters and blame it on genetics seems like the easy way out. I am not excluding there might be some anatomical abnormality in their brain but that has yet to be proved, what has been proved is that the function of their brain is different on a PET scan, but then the brain has the greatest plasticity so I would rather believe that environment is the most crucial factor determining psychopathy. I can understand how adult psychopaths are hard if not impossible to heal, but children??? A child’s brain is clay, so whatever functional damage exists can be healed in a young mind, good docs can teach schizophrenic people how to deal with their disability, why suppose that children with psychopathic tendencies cannot be at the very least given a chance to improve?
    Back at the article and the movie, I noticed that in both cases the mothers didn’t ingage very much like they did not accept their kids and felt very uncomfortable dealing with their negative feelings and that is because our society is hypocritical in believing that young humans are “pure like angels”, we all have our dark side, our emotional poop, and I remember having horrible feelings when I was a very young child. At some point I learned to deal with them, not by stuffing them down in the remotest part of my subconscious, but by exploring them, rationalizing them, understanding them, until my own dark side was integrated in my conscience, until I was aware and accepting of them. By doing so I got a hold of them and never bacame a toxic person. I still explore that emotional poop sometimes by playing safe S/M games. I have come to dominate my predatory side, which after all we all have, being animals in a society that sometimes seems more like a jungle. I did it myself, alone, reading and teaching myself, maybe these kids need someone to guide them help them tame the beast within and dominate them. I am pretty sure some of those kids are very intelligent and I am pretty sure they get ignored perhaps scapegoated by their families and set up for playing that role. I remeber this toddler being taken to the doc office where I was working, one of the kids descibed there, Joshua, to be honest I didn’t like him, he set me off, why? Because he didn’t look ino his mom’s eyes or my eyes and that is weird, did he have RAD? Don’t know, but the most natural thing for a relative is to darn force the kid to look into your face, talk to him and explain things, which sadly didn’t happen, his bad behaviour was the problem but just because it bothered other people, who probably didn’t care about him, and Joshua knew they didn’t so he did what he had to do, manipulated people, coldly.
    Honestly I think little Joshua could be fixed but it’s like the whole family system revolved around Joshua being annoying to others, being the family problem, and nobody really engaged with him in a significant manner. Anything is better than being ignored and then being made the center of attention when you are bad, it’s a conflicting message. Thank you very much and congrats for your wonderful site!

    1. I think you’re on the money in your observations about all of us having our dark, “poopy” feelings, and how those mothers didn’t want to deal with them. I definitely believe these people are “made” and not “born that way.”

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