How To Deal With A Sociopath

By Jessica Anderson|Updated April 7, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Chante’ Gamby, LCSW

Concerned you know a sociopath? Have you ever met someone who seems to lack empathy toward others, seems egocentric, is manipulative, or appears to have no desire to socialize?  Has that person’s behavior caused you to feel alarmed or fearful of the possibility of aggression or violence?  If so, the DSM shows that you may be dealing with a sociopath, psychopath, or someone who has antisocial personality disorder

Learn More About The Nature And Behaviors Of A Sociopath

Antisocial Personality Disorder

The combination of emotions, behaviors, and thoughts is known as personality.  When disruptions in personality occur and cause significant negative effects in a person's life or relationships, this is often referred to as antisocial personality disorder.   While the exact cause of antisocial personality disorders is not known, genetics, environmental factors, and changes in the structure and function of the brain are believed to be contributing factors to its development. 

Risk factors for developing antisocial personality disorder include having a history of a childhood conduct disorder or a family history of mental health or other personality disorders.  Additionally, living in a violent or unstable family during childhood or experiencing childhood neglect or abuse are believed to be contributing factors. 

Sociopaths are people who have an antisocial personality disorder and who demonstrate a pattern of disregard for others, especially in terms of the rights and feelings of others. It is estimated that one in every 25 people is a sociopath.   With such a high percentage of people considered to be sociopaths, it is not surprising that most people have encountered at least one person with a sociopathic personality at some time in their life. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by clinicians and psychiatrists to diagnose mental illnesses.  According to the DSM-5, an antisocial personality disorder is defined as [a] pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since the age of 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan.
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

Diagnosed As Sociopath Vs. Psychopath

The terms most often used to describe a person with antisocial personality disorder are psychopath and sociopath.  Because sociopathic personality and psychopathic personality cause one to display extremely antisocial behavior, some people use the terms interchangeably.  However, there is a difference between a sociopath and a psychopath.  Criminologists generally differentiate psychopaths and sociopaths based on the behavior they exhibit.

Psychopathic Behaviors

Individuals with psychopathic antisocial personality disorder are extremely organized.  Their need for an organization may occur to the point of being obsessed with the organization.  Although this behavior can be annoying to some people, their constant need for an organization often makes psychopaths favorites among employers.

Contrary to what many people would think, psychopaths often maintain normal social relationships.  They may take on the role of being a caregiver to an elderly or indigent family member.  Despite their lack of ability to experience a genuine emotional connection with others, some people with psychopathic personality disorder get married and have children.

People with psychopathic personality disorder do not experience usual human emotions.  However, they do possess the ability to understand emotion, which often makes them master manipulators. Their lack of respect for authority or rules often results in a person with psychopathic personality disorder breaking the law.  A constant need for organization and excessive attention to detail makes it difficult to catch a psychopath if they commit a crime.  Many plan the unlawful acts carefully to assure they go undetected. 

Sociopathic Behaviors

Sociopathic behaviors differ from psychopathic behaviors significantly.  Sociopaths are generally very disorganized.  Many sociopaths are incapable of maintaining normal relationships both personally and professionally.  Their inability to stay focused or to maintain some sense of order often results in difficulty obtaining or maintaining steady employment or housing.  Because they have difficulty maintaining employment, the loss of their home and homelessness often occurs.  Unfortunately, sociopaths who are homeless may wander from place to place. Sociopaths who commit crimes are often easier to apprehend because their behavior is often unplanned and erratic. 

Unlike people with psychopathic personalities who seem to have no conscience, sociopaths do display signs of having a conscience.  However, their conscience does not dictate their behavior.  For example, a sociopath may know that a certain action is wrong or inappropriate but may engage in the behavior anyway if it benefits him.

Signs And Symptoms Of A Sociopath

It is important to understand the nature of a relationship with a sociopath. Based on a sociopath's lack of empathy and remorse, a true "relationship" (genuine caring, give and take, love, etc.) is not possible.  However, both a psychopath and a sociopath are very good at pretending. Relationships for sociopaths are simply a "means to an end."

As such, they are one-sided and usually don't last long. It has been said that romantic relationships with sociopaths have three stages: assessment (sizing up "prey"), manipulation (doing what needs to be done for goals to be met), and abandonment (mission has been accomplished; a sociopath moves on).

Many sociopaths believe that others will not recognize who they are or what they are, and this leads them to believe they can have power over others.  Understanding the symptoms and characteristic nature of a sociopath can empower you to protect yourself from the harm a sociopath may cause to you emotionally and physically.

Although children can be diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder or other disruptions in personality, the diagnosis of sociopathic personality is usually not established until a patient manifests specific behaviors.  These behaviors may begin to be noticeable in adolescence and early adulthood.  Symptoms may continue for many years. 

Some of the most common signs of a sociopath include:

  • Superficial charm: Sociopaths are usually charismatic and charming.  Many people who have been victims of sociopaths report feeling as if they were unexplainably drawn to the sociopath.  Although the charm can seem powerful and may even appear to be genuine at first, in time, the charm seems to fade.
  • Lack of empathy, remorse, or shame: Sociopaths are generally incapable of feeling empathy, remorse, or shame.  They often manipulate others for personal gain and show no feelings of guilt for doing so, no matter how hurt or betrayed the other person feels.
  • Feigned Love: People with sociopathic personalities are typically self-serving and may be described as being their fans.  They often pretend to have compassion toward or feel love for others to get their way, but they are typically incapable of feeling emotions the way others do.
  • Sense of superiority: Sociopaths tend to hold themselves in high regard and may become easily offended if others expect to be treated with the same level of importance.
  • Poor relationship patterns: Because of their inability to experience emotion, developing healthy relationships is difficult for sociopaths.  Many sociopaths experience fractured relationships and may have a trail of failed relationships in their past.
  • Manipulation: Sociopaths tend to be master manipulators.  They frequently use their influence to control others.  This behavior may come in the form of charm, seduction, or ingratiation. 
  • Hostility: While not all sociopaths exhibit hostility, some may experience persistent feelings of anger or irritability.  These responses may be about even minor insults whether real or perceived.  In many cases, a sociopath’s interpretation of another person’s behavior as hostile drives them to seek revenge or to cause harm to the other person.

Learn More About The Nature And Behaviors Of A Sociopath

Protecting Yourself

If you have someone in your life who is a sociopath, knowing how to handle the situation and protect yourself is important.  Although it may feel challenging at times, there are some things to consider that may help prevent the sociopath’s behavior from having a long-term negative effect on your life. 

Be Careful What You Say

Sociopaths seem to have an uncanny ability to take information from the simplest conversations and use it to manipulate circumstances for their benefit.  Avoid conversations discussing your relationships, your finances, or any other topic which could give a sociopath information that could be used for their gain. 

Sociopaths often use small pieces of information to twist facts and create doubt.  For instance, if you are making plans to start a new business or if you have connections with people who could be influential to your success, it is generally best to keep this information to yourself as a sociopath may use this information to turn things in their favor, even if it means hurting you.  Sociopaths often try to manipulate a target’s – an intended victim’s – personal contacts to try to sabotage their efforts at success. 

Questioning Everything Is Okay

Sociopaths are usually master manipulators.  They often manipulate others to gain emotional control and to cause doubt or trouble for others.  This behavior is reflective of a sociopath’s belief that they are better than others.  Even if what a sociopath tells you seems believable, if it causes you to hurt or harm, question what is said before you let it have a significant effect on you.  Remember sociopaths use lies and manipulation to accomplish goals that benefit them.

Avoid Trying To "Fix" Them

There is no cure for antisocial personality disorder.  Psychopaths and sociopaths generally have no conscience, or no ability to connect with a sense of moral conscience.  Because of their self-inflated ego and sense of entitlement, they generally see no reason or need to change their behavior. 

Sociopaths need professional help.  You will not be able to help them change on your own.  As much as you may want to make a positive difference in someone who is a sociopath, it is important to consider your safety and emotional well-being and leave any intervention to mental health professionals.  

This may be frustrating because sociopaths rarely seek treatment; they usually do not believe they need help. Those who do seek help should work with a licensed therapist in psychotherapy. There, they can receive extensive, extremely specific treatment that friends or family members cannot provide.

Don’t Deny What Your Instincts Are Telling You

Because sociopaths use manipulation so well, it is easy to become a victim to their behavior and second-guess your instincts.  If you feel like you are being manipulated or abused by someone who is a sociopath, take the time to consider what made you begin to feel uncomfortable.  Have you tried to give him/her the benefit of doubt instead of relying on your instincts to warn you that this relationship may be dangerous?  If so, take the time to stop and listen to your instincts and protect yourself.

Avoid Confrontation When Possible

It's important to understand that because they are not influenced by their conscience, some sociopaths can be dangerous and reckless people. This lack of conscience can prompt sociopaths to resort to violent behaviors when they feel threatened.  Although it may feel frustrating, it is usually best to avoid confrontation whenever possible.

Stay Alert

If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, it’s okay to go somewhere safe.  Further, if you feel you are in a dangerous situation with a sociopath or if a sociopath has harmed you, call 911 right away. Do not try to resolve the situation yourself. Staying in an escalated situation with a sociopath could lead to great harm.

Sometimes Leaving Is The Best Option

In a simple world, the best solution for dealing with a sociopath would be to terminate all contact with them immediately. However, this is not practical in every situation.

For example, if a family member or close friend has an antisocial personality disorder, leaving them may not be an option that you can consider.  In these cases, marriage counseling or couples counseling may help you develop a more positive relationship with the sociopath.  One thing that may feel frustrating about counseling with a sociopath is coming to accept that the sociopath does not experience emotions the same way you do.  For therapy to be effective, you must be able to acknowledge that the sociopath does not comprehend your emotional responses and determine how much of their behavior you are or not comfortable with. 

If maintaining a relationship with a sociopath is something you feel like you need or want to do, after coming to a personal awareness of their inability to understand your emotions, you must be willing to explain to the sociopath how their behavior affects you and how it is causing harm to the relationship.  Set personal boundaries and make them clear to the sociopath by setting and enforcing consequences for harmful behaviors. 

Keep in mind, that just because a sociopath doesn’t like boundaries doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set them and enforce them.  Also, if a sociopath is causing you harm, consider the long-term effects for yourself and those for whom you are responsible, such as children or other dependents, and weigh the benefits vs the risks of staying in a relationship with a sociopath.

Learn More About The Nature And Behaviors Of A Sociopath

Seek Professional Help

If you are in a relationship with or have been affected by the behavior of someone you think is a sociopath, consider reaching out for professional help.  Although a person who is a psychopath or sociopath may not feel that they need professional help, taking care of yourself is important.  The weight of being associated with someone who is a sociopath can be overwhelming, even for someone who is usually strong for others. 

If you are concerned about someone with antisocial personality disorder, or if you are experiencing symptoms that make you feel uncomfortable, reach out to your primary care provider or mental health professional.  Don’t be afraid to talk about your concerns.  Talking to a mental health professional can help you make sense of the traits you are experiencing or that you may be witnessing.  With the right help, you can have a plan of care established that will help protect your overall safety and well-being.

Whether you choose to talk to a local counselor, visit a community mental health center, or engage in online counseling, you can learn effective ways to cope.  Online counseling options, such as the services provided by BetterHelp, focus on providing affordable mental health care to individuals that are convenient and easily accessible.  The team of licensed, professional counselors, doctors, and social workers will work with you to identify risks for your safety and well-being and help develop a plan of care that is specific to your needs. 

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If you are currently struggling with a sociopath, do not lose hope. By leaving the sociopath or learning how to safely interact with them, you can move forward. You can also talk with a trained therapist to understand how to handle a sociopath and heal any pain they may have caused. Take the first step.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the traits of a sociopath?

Sociopaths have several traits.  The most common traits of a sociopath include lack of empathy, inflated sense of self-esteem, manipulative nature, charming behavior, overly sensitivity to criticism, and lack of respect for the law or authority. 

What is the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths?

One of the main differences between a psychopath and a sociopath is the presence (or lack of) of conscience.  Psychopaths have no conscience.  They can lie to you, steal from you, or harm you and feel no remorse at all.  Sociopaths, on the other hand, do have a conscience, but they cannot allow their conscience to dictate their behavior.   For instance, a sociopath may realize that a behavior is wrong or inappropriate and may or may not feel some sense of guilt.  However, those feelings are not enough to cause them to stop the behavior.

Do sociopaths cry?

Sociopaths usually exhibit shallow and insincere expressions of emotion.  These expressions are typical tools of manipulation used by a sociopath for personal gain.  Because sociopaths do not generally experience genuine emotions, they do not cry genuine tears.  Make no mistake, though, if tears can get a sociopath what they want, they can “conjure” up tears when needed. 

Can sociopaths love?

Sociopaths tend to be manipulators.  Although some mental health professionals believe that they cannot feel normal emotions such as love, professionals also believe that sociopaths are very good at pretending to love others.  With therapy and treatment, it may be possible for sociopaths to develop healthy emotions. 

What is a sociopath's weakness?

Everyone, even people with antisocial personality disorder, experiences weakness from time to time.  Although sociopaths differ one from another, many professionals agree that one weakness most sociopaths experience is their sense of fearlessness.  Because they generally have an inflated sense of self-esteem and importance and they are master manipulators, many sociopaths overestimate their ability to act any way they please without having to face consequences. 

Are sociopaths dangerous?

Although not all sociopaths exhibit dangerous or violent behavior, some do.  In addition to the possibility of showing dangerous behavior, sociopaths often have a disregard for the law and authority.  This blatant disregard often leads to risky behavior which can put the sociopath and anyone in their path in danger.

Why are sociopaths charming?

Charm is one of the most used tools of a sociopath.  Sociopaths often appear very charming and charismatic to potential victims because, although they do not experience emotion, they have enough of an understanding of emotion to know how to manipulate others.  Focusing attention and showering attention on a potential target/victim, is the sociopath’s way of initiating emotional control and gaining control over others.

What creates a sociopath?

The exact cause of antisocial personality disorders is not known.  However, genetics, environmental factors, and changes in the structure and function of the brain are believed to be contributing factors to its development. 

Is sociopathy a mental illness?

Sociopathy, a type of antisocial personality disorder, is a mental condition that results in a person consistently showing no regard for the rights and feelings of others, or right and wrong. 

Can a sociopath be cured?

Currently, there is no evidence to support the fact that a sociopath can be cured.  Even when treatment measures such as counseling are attempted, they are not always successful.  This is in large part because a sociopath does not believe that anything is wrong with him and for therapy to be successful, a client must first acknowledge the need for help and/or improvement.

Do sociopaths feel fear?

Most mental health professionals agree that sociopaths do not feel fear in the sense that others do.  Their general lack of emotion seems to cause an inability to feel anything, including fear.  Some sources say that the only thing sociopaths fear is exposure to who they are or fear of losing the control they have over others. 

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