Sociopathy in Our Ranks: Or, When to Support a Comrade and When You Must Cut Them Out

The DMS defines the profile of a sociopath thus:

  1. Glibness and Superficial Charm; 2) Manipulative and Conning: They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims; 3) Grandiose Sense of Self: Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.” 4) Pathological Lying: Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests; 5) Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt: A deep seated rage, which is split off and repressed, is at their core. Does not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices who end up as victims. The end always justifies the means and they let nothing stand in their way; 6) Shallow Emotions: When they show what seems to be warmth, joy, love and compassion it is more feigned than experienced and serves an ulterior motive. Outraged by insignificant matters, yet remaining unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person. Since they are not genuine, neither are their promises; 7) Incapacity for Love; 8) Need for Stimulation: Living on the edge. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal. Promiscuity and gambling are common; 9) Callousness/Lack of Empathy: Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others’ feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them. 10) Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature: Rage and abuse, alternating with small expressions of love and approval produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused, as well as creating hopelessness in the victim. Believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for their impact on others. 11) Early Behavior Problems/Juvenile Delinquency: Usually has a history of behavioral and academic difficulties, yet “gets by” by conning others. Problems in making and keeping friends; aberrant behaviors such as cruelty to people or animals, stealing, etc. 12) Irresponsibility/Unreliability: Not concerned about wrecking others’ lives and dreams. Oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they cause. Does not accept blame themselves, but blames others, even for acts they obviously committed. 13) Promiscuous Sexual Behavior/Infidelity: Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, rape and sexual acting out of all sorts. 14) Lack of Realistic Life Plan/Parasitic Lifestyle: Tends to move around a lot or makes all encompassing promises for the future, poor work ethic but exploits others effectively. 15) Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility: Changes their image as needed to avoid prosecution. Changes life story readily. That can also be
  1. Contemptuous of those who seek to understand them

  2. Does not perceive that anything is wrong with them

  3. Authoritarian

  4. Secretive

  5. Paranoid

  6. Only rarely in difficulty with the law, but seeks out situations where their tyrannical behavior will be tolerated, condoned, or admired

  7. Conventional appearance

  8. Goal of enslavement of their victim(s)

  9. Exercises despotic control over every aspect of the victim’s life

  10. Has an emotional need to justify their crimes and therefore needs their victim’s affirmation (respect, gratitude and love)

  11. Ultimate goal is the creation of a willing victim

  12. Incapable of real human attachment to another

  13. Unable to feel remorse or guilt

  14. Extreme narcissism and grandiose

  15. May state readily that their goal is to rule the world

I don’t aspire to reproduce here the problematic diagnostics of sociopathy, or anti-social personality disorder, from the DSM. There are many people more qualified to speak on the ways that the DSM is stigmatizing and harmful to many neuro-divergent people or non-normative bodies. Rather it’s my goal to really begin to talk about sociopathy (which I define as any combination of these aforementioned behaviors) as they occur in people within our social justice movements broadly. In doing this, my goal is to actually curb a lot of stigmatization of people with anti-social personality issues and in doing so, pushing us to have more serious, nuanced conversations about these issues when they arise. It was recently  brought it to my attention by a comrade that when we label someone as having a DSM mental illness without this nuance, we often do a disservice to the richness of that person’s complex and intersectional experiences of mental illness. I want to take that criticism seriously.

I should say before going any further that  I AM NOT A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL and people who are looking for professional help or a diagnosis should look elsewhere. In putting these ideas to paper, I’m trying to work out these ideas for myself and provide a resource for others who may be experiencing similar situations of sociopathy in their comrades, adversaries and our movements as a whole.

First, the experience of this disorder needs to be intersectional. Many of the qualities in the “profile of a sociopath”–for example, narcissism, manipulation, opportunism, authoritarianism–are characteristics valued in certain people in capitalist white supremacist patriarchal society. Celebrities, bosses, politicians, and dads are often praised and beloved for having these attributes. Shit, you can even be president of the United States by exhibiting many of these characteristics. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t have that kind of social or financial capital may be accused of having delusions of grandeur. Rage and paranoia in one body isn’t experienced the same in another body, and so forth. Some people with anti-social personality disorder may be charming, sincere, vulnerable, fantastic parents, great leaders. Like many mental illnesses, I imagine it can be managed and treated. People can be in therapy or peer groups and get professional help to cope with their mental illnesses in a healthier way.

People who exhibit sociopathic behaviors are also in our movements. One need only browse through the pages of history to see that charm and grandiose have their place in social movements. I’ve met many of them, been harmed by some and seen many comrades and friends be harmed by others. It saddens me to say that I haven’t in my lifetime seen a movement do a great job of dealing with such people and behaviors. I don’t know the reasons why, though I can speculate. But I can share my story in the hopes of finding some answers together.

Earlier this year, I had a horrible friend breakup. A person who I had been very close to, to the point of considering them family, broke my heart. I loved her like the sister I never had. She exceeded every expectation of the sister I always wanted. I felt liberated in that friendship in a way I had rarely felt before, two radical women of color who had been through the gamut of a capitalist white supremacist patriarchal homophobic world. We tried to hold each other’s traumas in the clumsy, fierce, loving, rageful, democratic, authoritarian, hood ways we could. Broken in our own ways, it was beautiful when somehow we were able to hold each other in comradely love and work towards a greater end. She would consistently abuse me and those around her in ways I don’t even think she understands. One day she crossed my boundaries so far that there was never going back. The heartbreak was unlike anything I had ever felt before. I feel a great loss. The person I knew is dead to me and in her place is this monster who crossed my boundaries, broke my heart and feels no remorse about it.

I’ve come to realize that I had been enabling her. A beautiful queer woman of color friend of mine recently told me, just because you have the capacity to hold someone’s trauma doesn’t mean you have to constantly put yourself in the line of fire. I know this to be true, now.

Developing a relationship, especially in the context of social justice movement, with someone who is broken in this way, is a deeply personal decision. For me, the red flags–the paranoia, authoritarianism, lying, manipulation–paled in comparison with the charismatic, vulnerable, loving, truly exceptional sister I had come to gain. I had met this friendly monster before, in relationships with members of my family and elsewhere. I’m not afraid of it. I understand it. I know it can be helped.

But I’ve come to realize that I was also enabling it. And it wasn’t healthy for me or for my then-friend. You must know when you’re enabling someone. Something in your gut tells you.

They say a person needs to hit rock bottom before they can get well. I personally think that can be very cruel sometimes. When I was younger, I used to watch those reality TV shows where they link up families of drug abusers with a professional team of people to help the family stop enabling the person so they can hit rock bottom. People would ask me why I watched those shows when they seemed so violent and awful. I didn’t know the answer then to that question. Yes, it’s cruel. Yes, there are double standards for who gets to be well and how. It probably doesn’t feel good or comfortable to have to do that to a loved one. But one way or another, you must stop enabling your loved one, your comrade, your friend, your lover. Support might look differently. Sometimes it looks like hurting them because you love them. But sometimes it means putting yourself and your well-being first.




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