Personality and Behavior: DISC Model
Wikipedia defines personality as the “characteristic set of behaviors, cognitions, and emotional patterns that evolve from biological and environmental factors.” I’m sure they probably go on to list those factors in the third through fifth paragraphs, so this short definition seems neat and tidy without really committing to much. But as we all know, when you’re dealing with humans, things aren’t ever simple. In reality, there’s no formal or universal definition, but that’s okay, because it gives psych nerds something to argue about. Because there’s no universally accepted meaning, all definitions are essentially theories, most of which center somewhere around an individual’s psychological motivations and resulting interactions with their environment. Alternatively, people can refer to it as character, temperament, or disposition, but in my opinion, no matter what you call it, the bottom line is that each person has a unique combination of characteristics or qualities that form a distinctive set, and these govern their perspectives, motivations, and behaviors.
Now, before I really get into this week’s topic, this is a good place for me to add a disclaimer: When addressing concepts like personalities and behaviors with a large group of people, I have to simplify and generalize, because these are nuanced subjects with far too many influential and individual factors than I could ever address in a blog. So if there are any psych police out there on patrol, please don’t write me a ticket for simplifications and generalizations.
Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll start with a question: have you ever noticed at times how different the judgement and behaviors of your family and friends can be from your own? My profession means that I literally spend the majority of my life examining what someone does, their behavior(s), and why they do it, their motivation(s). I’m sure you’ve been in many situations where you’ve asked yourself, “Why did he/ she dothat?” or “What were they thinking?” While sometimes it can be frustrating to have a difference of opinion with people, the truth is that life would be boring if we all thought and acted the same way.
So how do you understand and reconcile these differences? Believe it or not, the starting point of understanding people is actually pretty simple; accept just one fact: that while I’m sure you’re fabulous, everyone is not like you. In point of fact, everyone is not like everyone else, either. If you search for a definition of the word personality, you’ll invariably find the words “characteristic” and “unique” included, along with other synonyms. These are all evidence of, and pretty words to convey, one fact: that we’re all different. We all carry our life experiences and opinions with us, and we filter everything we see, hear, and experience through them, so they color our perceptions and motivations; and these in turn influence our behaviors. I believe the saying goes something like “different isn’t bad, it’s just different,” and I can roll with that. Each of us is unique; we think differently, and therefore behave differently. It’s really a good thing; far, far better than the alternative.
But behavior and personality can be easily misunderstood, and if that becomes chronic, these repeated misunderstandings tend to become areas of stress that affect a person’s happiness, which in turn affects motivation and productivity in every aspect of life. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you felt like you couldn’t “get along” with someone, on some fundamental level, you probably just don’t understand them. A lack of understanding and acceptance of differences can lead to tension, disappointment, and miscommunication. When issues like these go unresolved, they tend to build, and ultimately, can lead to resentment. Resentments can be notoriously difficult to untangle, so in the end, it’s far better to avoid the original problem if you can. Admittedly, that’s often easier said than done, especially if you don’t have a clue what on earth is going on inside the mind of another person. I’ll shed some light on that, so that hopefully by the end of this blog, you’ll have more insight on what that may be.
If the problem is associated with misunderstanding(s), then it only follows that the solution to that problem probably has a lot to do with understanding. When I say that, I’m not talking about holding hands and singing kumbaya with everybody… I’m saying that accepting that people have different opinions from yours, and then making reasonable attempts at understanding where they’re coming from, will serve you better than being obstinate and absolutely refusing to do so. That said, the success of nearly every solution is in its application, so how exactly do we better understand people? There is a relatively simple visual model that can serve as a key to understanding the basics on how people behave. It’s called The DISC Model of Human Behavior, aka DISC model. It can be applied to loosely categorize a person’s personality traits and extrapolate their motivating factors and behavioral styles. More on that later.
Before I get into the DISC model, time for another disclaimer: Because personality and behavior are such diverse and nuanced human attributes, and since the DISC model is a theoretical one, it isn’t used for diagnostic or clinical applications. In other words, when you come into my office and tell me your life story, I’m not running through it in my head looking to categorize you as one of four types. People are complex and DISC is by nature more simple and general; and rarely, if ever, does anyone fall perfectly into any one type. That said, I’m covering this model today in blog form because I think it’s an interesting and practical way for everyday non-clinical people to better understand themselves and others, and to apply that in an effort to communicate more effectively with people who have differing perspectives… which is basically everyone!
Why Personality Traits and Behavior Matter
Why should you care to learn about behavior and personality or the DISC model? Believe it or not, personality and people skills are important aspects of life: personal, social, and workplace. If you can’t work in cooperation with other people, it can be really tough to make it in this world. It can affect your ability to keep a job or advance your position, to make friends, and to keep peace with partners, family, and friends. We’re all familiar with IQ, our intelligence quotient, and we spend years in school developing and learning how to effectively use our minds. But developing your personality to effectively use behavior is also vital to successful living. Studies have shown that technical skill, beginning with intelligence and developed through education and experience, accounts for only 15% of success in the workplace; the other 85% has been shown to actually come from people skills. These skills are developed through learning better ways to behave, communicate, and interact with others. The DISC model is commonly applied as a tool to increase your ability to understand yourself and others, and communicate more effectively with everyone.
History of the DISC Model
Even if it sounds like one, this isn’t a new age, hippy-dippy-trippy idea. Au contraire. Let’s get in the waaay-back-machineand go to Greece, around about 300 B.C.-ish. Why? To see Hippocrates. Whenever I hear his name I can’t help but smile despite myself, because it always makes me think of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. When they met Hippocrates, they mispronounced his name like the murderous mammal + crates, pronounced like it rhymed with plates, and in their characteristic burner dude affectations. And now the memory of that movie quote is inextricably linked to his name in my mind.. I hear them say it every time. Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Hippocrates was a physician, but also a rebel! And thankfully so. At a time when most of his fellow Greeks were attributing sickness to The Fates, superstition, and the wrath of the gods, Hippocrates espoused the firm belief that all forms of illness had a natural cause. Which, believe me, is a far better alternative than worrying about appeasing The Fates, the witches, and the gods. At any rate, perhaps in pondering the natural basis of illness, or maybe ways to prove his theory to his colleagues, Hippocrates began to recognize that the behaviors of individuals seemed to follow distinct patterns, and he began to loosely categorize the differences in these behaviors.
While Hippocrates had the original notions on behavioral patterns, many psychologists and scientists continued to explore and expand on his theory. In 1928, Dr. William Marston wrote The Emotions of Normal People, in which he theorized that people are motivated by four intrinsic characteristics or factors that direct predictable behavioral patterns, and described these four factors as personality types. He then created a visual model that utilized a circle divided into quadrants to represent these four personality types. In his original work, he labelled them as D, I, S, C: Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. And poof… the DISC model was born.
From what I’ve read, Marston was kind of a freaky guy, and the slightly(?) deviant undertones of his word choices “dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance” seem to confirm this. Even though he was a well respected psychologist by day, he was also a surprisingly successful comic book author by night, and is in fact credited for creating the comic book character “Wonder Woman.” She’s an Amazonian, a race of female warriors from an island where men were not allowed. This actually isn’t too much of a stretch, because Marston was also a champion of women’s rights. Despite this, he seemed to have had more than his fair share of female-centric scandal in his life. I found several references that said that he invented the first lie detector test, but also found some that credit someone else with this feat. Regardless, apparently he wasn’t exactly always on a first name basis with the truth, because he lied to the public about being a bigamist. Evidently, after he married his second wife (who was also a former student) and she moved in with him and his first wife, he told the public she was just a relative staying with them… and they fell for it. So during his bigamist marriage, they all lived together in a ménage à trois, and he actually fathered children with both women. But in spite of the scandal he caused with his colorful private life, Marston’s theories of human behavior are still widely accepted today.
What is DISC Used For?
The DISC model is applied as a personal assessment tool designed to ascertain a person’s personality traits and behavioral styles. It’s essentially a series of questions that evaluate human behavior in various situations. For example, it looks at how you respond to challenges, rules, and procedures, how you influence others, and what your preferred pace is.
While Marston’s theories and DISC model were generally well received, some organizations later modified it and created a negative tool used by organizations and employers to weed out undesirables. But in later years, to reflect a change in attitudes, it has since seen several iterations. Now all existing forms of it are used exclusively as positive tools of inclusion rather than being negative and judgemental. DISC assessments are used to foster understanding and respect, improve people skills, build better teams, increase productivity, reduce conflict, and relate and communicate with others more effectively; all of this is meant to translate to increased cooperation and the creation of better working relationships. In fact, the DISC model is widely accepted in the business community; so much so that many organizations and employers incorporate it into all associate training programs, but it is especially used in fields and positions related to sales, marketing, customer service, and management.
I was surprised to learn that DISC assessments have confirmed use in 70% of the Fortune 500 companies, including Exxon/Mobile, General Electric, Chevron, and Walmart. Pretty impressive, as these are strong companies with good management; and according to what I read, that’s where most of them focus their DISC utilization.
But you can also apply the model to your personal life, to learn more about yourself and grow as a person, increase people skills, illuminate your own motivations, and uncover your strengths and blind spots, some of which you may not even be aware of. As a bonus, you’ll then be better prepared to answer certain questions that may come up in life; for example, when a prospective employer asks “What would you say your strengths are?” or even better, when your spouse or partner looks at you exasperatedly and asks, “Why the *bleep* do you do that?” Wouldn’t it be nice to have a handy answer to that one?!
In the end, despite its generalizations, the model is sort of like “personalities for dummies”- not that I’m saying you’re dummies- I’m just saying it’s a simple and useful way for non-clinical people to better understand themselves and their own motivations, and apply that knowledge to relationships and everyday interactions, both in and out of the workplace.
DISC Terminology: Four Behavioral Patterns
Since Marston’s time, while the general concept surrounding the DISC model has remained the same, some of the terminology has changed several times. Some publishers and reference models use a lowercase i in DISC as a way of distinguishing between different models and for trademarking assessments and reports (read: as a way of making money). DISC with a capital I can’t be trademarked, so I’ve used that form for our purposes. The terms used to convey the DISC personality/ behavioral types have also changed for several reasons: to reflect a change in attitudes and more positivity, as a way of distinguishing between different models, and for trademarking purposes; so now there are a few different versions that vary slightly. Different companies and publishers determine and apply their various terms, and I’ve listed the most popular ones, in an order with the ones that I find most applicable first and Marston’s being last.
D: Dominant / Dominance
I: Inspiring / Interactive / Inducement
S: Supportive / Steadiness / Submission
C: Cautious/ Conscientious / Compliance
No matter what term is used, the basic traits and behavioral styles are essentially the same; I’ll cover those later.
I should note that now some publishers have apparently modified assessments to further extrapolate personality traits and behavioral styles; I’ve seen some that will describe up to twelve types, and even an article that referenced exactly 41 personality types. I didn’t fact-check or verify that, but just wanted to mention it as kind of an outlier.
This model is based on two fundamental observations about what drives people to behave the way they do, which are essentially their motivators. I want to emphasize something to keep in mind: as you look at fundamental behaviors, you’re looking at tendencies, not absolutes. Most people will tend to behave more one way than the other, but will behave both ways, to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the situation they find themselves in. Also, behaviors are fluid; they can and do change over time and vary by situation.
DISC: Two Fundamental Observations
(Internal) Motor and (External) Focus
-Some people are more outgoing, while others are more reserved. This is each person’s “pace,” or “internal motor.” It is sometimes simply referred to as the “motor” drive. Some people engage quickly and always seem ready to go, and these are considered outgoing types. Others engage more slowly or more cautiously, and these are considered reserved types.
-Some people are more task-oriented, while others are more people-oriented. This is each person’s “external focus” or “priority” that guides them; sometimes simply referred to as “focus.” Some people are more focused on getting things done, and these are considered task-oriented types. Others are more attuned to the people around them and their feelings, and these are considered to be people-oriented types.
Visualizing the DISC Model
As I mentioned, DISC is a visual model, and it utilizes a circle to represent the range of “normal” human behaviors. You can imagine it as a clock face.
To illustrate the application of the first fundamental observation, aka motor drive, imagine you divide a circle in half horizontally, as from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock on a clock face. The upper half then represents Outgoing (or fast-paced) people, while the lower half represents Reserved (or slower-paced) people.
To illustrate the application of the second fundamental observation, aka focus drive, imagine you divide a circle in half vertically, as from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock on a clock face. The left half then represents Task-Oriented people, while the right half represents those who are more People-Oriented.
When the two motor and focus circles are superimposed to combine them, you end up with four behavioral tendencies to help characterize people: Outgoing, Reserved, Task-Oriented, and People-Oriented. The balance of these four tendencies shapes the way each person sees life and those around them.
To illustrate the incorporation of the two drives (motor and focus) you can imagine one clock face with two divisions (horizontal and vertical) and therefore in four quadrants. Starting at 12 o’ clock and moving clockwise, you would then see Outgoing at 12 o’clock, People-Oriented at 3 o’clock, Reserved at 6 o’clock, and Task-Oriented at 9 o’clock.
By combining the two drives, you now have four total behavioral tendencies: from the upper left quadrant, moving clockwise, those tendencies are then:
Outgoing and Task-Oriented (upper left quadrant)
Outgoing and People-Oriented (upper right quadrant)
Reserved and People-Oriented (lower right quadrant)
Reserved and Task-Oriented (lower left quadrant).
Then to further define and describe these four behavioral tendencies, the DISC terms are added, one letter per quadrant: Dominant, Inspiring, Supportive, and Cautious.
Illustratively, these are added to each of the four corners of the diagram, again starting with the upper left quadrant and moving in a clockwise direction: Dominant in upper left quadrant, Inspiring in upper right quadrant, Supportive in lower right quadrant, and Cautious in lower left quadrant.
Once added, starting with the upper left quadrant and moving in a clockwise direction, each DISC term correlates with the four behavioral tendencies such that:
Dominant types are Outgoing and Task-Oriented (upper left quadrant)
Inspiring types are Outgoing and People-Oriented (upper right quadrant)
Supportive types are Reserved and People-Oriented (lower right quadrant)
Cautious types are Reserved and Task-Oriented (lower left quadrant).
What emerges is the full graphical description of the complete DISC model.
To make the quadrants easier to discuss, we typically call each quadrant a behavioral style or type, though some people use the phrase personality type. I’ll spare you the specifics as to why, but technically speaking, it’s not really accurate to use the word “personality” type or style with the DISC model, because it’s actually a behavioral model. While I tend to refer to it as a behavioral style, either term- personality or behavior- is generally acceptable for a colloquial discussion or a blog.
DISCussion: Four Primary Behavioral Styles
While DISC refers to placement within four primary behavioral styles, always keep in mind that each individual person can, and usually will, display some of all four behavioral styles depending on the situation. The resultant blending of behavioral tendencies is often called a style blend, and each individual’s style blend will have more of some traits and less of others.
The Dominant “D” Style
An outgoing, task-oriented individual will be focused on getting things done, solving problems, making things happen, and getting to the bottom line, usually as quickly as possible. They can sometimes be blunt, outspoken, and somewhat demanding. The key insights in understanding and developing a relationship with this type of person are respect and results.
The Inspiring “I” Style
An outgoing, people-oriented individual is generally enthusiastic, optimistic, open, and trusting. They thrive on interaction and love to socialize and have fun. This person places emphasis on persuading others and is usually focused more on what others may think of them. The key insights in understanding and developing a relationship with this type of person are admiration and recognition.
The Supportive “S” Style
A reserved, people-oriented individual will place an emphasis on cooperation, sincerity, loyalty, and dependability. They enjoy working together as a team and thrive on helping or supporting others. They usually focus on creating and/ or preserving relationships and on maintaining peace and harmony. The key insights in understanding and developing a relationship with this type of person are friendliness and sincere appreciation.
The Cautious “C” Style
A reserved, task-oriented individual enjoys independence, and often fears being wrong. They will seek value, consistency, and quality information, and will usually focus on details, facts, rules, accuracy, and being correct. The key insights in understanding and developing a relationship with this type of person are trust and integrity.
I should also note that some organizations use a shortcut in discussing the different behavioral types, where the dominant type is also known as High D, the inspiring type is also known as High I, the supportive type is also known as High S, and the cautious type is also known as High C.
Behavioral Styles: Elevator Test
As you’ll see, this is a pun meant to give you an idea of your own behavioral style and to help you identify others. Captain Obvious says it’s not meant to be scientifically or clinically valid, people, it’s just to illustrate the four behavioral styles in a relatable, “everyday situation” kind of way.
The doors are about to close on a person who is eager to get on an elevator, which already has four people inside. One of the four people already inside glances at their watch, because they’re in a hurry and would prefer not to wait. But also inside is the bubbly, smiling, energetic second passenger who actually holds the door open while encouraging the newcomer to climb aboard. The third rider doesn’t mind if the new person gets on, and they simply step back to make room while patiently waiting for them to do so. The fourth passenger barely looks at the new guy, as they’re busily calculating the sum of everyone’s weight in their head while also looking around to estimate the age of the elevator.
Did you see yourself in this scenario? Did you recognize the behavioral styles of the other elevator passengers? Read on to find out if you’ve got it.
This scenario demonstrates behavior of the Dominant (outgoing / task-oriented) person who wouldn’t really mind if the elevator door closes before the new guy can get on, because they’re just focused on getting where they need to be as quickly as possible. But that possibility is dashed by the Inspiring (outgoing / people-oriented) person who feels energized by the addition of yet another positive interaction to their day. The Supportive (reserved / people-oriented) person just calmly steps back to make room for the new guy because they empathize with him and are willing to be accommodating. All of this while the Cautious (reserved / task-oriented) person almost can’t help but make sure the added person doesn’t exceed the weight limit of the old elevator and potentially cause them all to get stuck… or worse.
Notice that there were four different people who responded to the same exact event in very different ways? People are motivated differently, and therefore think differently, so they behave differently.
Every individual person has a unique combination of characteristics and qualities that form a distinctive set, and these govern their perspectives, motivations, and behaviors.
The DISC model developed by Marston is used as the basis for varying assessments of personality traits and behavioral styles.
While it is simplified and generalized, it can be an effective and empowering tool to examine motivating factors, to uncover and address blind spots, and to identify, highlight, and articulate strengths.
It can be used by people to better understand themselves and others, and to apply that understanding in an effort to improve people skills and to communicate more effectively with people who have differing perspectives.
It is commonly used in the professional arena, especially in Fortune 500 companies. Employers often use it for determining placement of new employees, to build better teams, increase productivity and communication, reduce and resolve conflict, and foster acceptance and understanding.
Each person has a unique blend of all of the major personality traits and behavioral styles to a greater or lesser extent.
Behavioral patterns are fluid and dynamic, and can change over time or as a person adapts to his or her environment.
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Thank you and be well people!
Sociopath or A-hole?
How to Tell the Difference
When you think of a sociopath, you probably picture someone like Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, or Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery. But like most mental health conditions, sociopathy- otherwise known as antisocial personality disorder, or ASPD for short- exists on a spectrum. And clearly, kidnapping and hobbling your favorite author or enjoying a cannibalistic dinner with a nice chianti would be pretty out there on that spectrum.
Before I get started on the details of recognizing sociopathy, I want to quickly remind you about last week’s blog topic, the differences between sociopathy and psychopathy. Both disorders are considered ASPD’s, but people tend to use the terms sociopath and psychopath interchangeably, though they mean different things. Typically, sociopaths are a product of their childhood environment or upbringing. Disturbed and unhinged, they’re not always big planners, so they’re more prone to impulsive behavior. They’re very likely to break rules and/ or laws without thinking twice, but as for going on a murderous rampage? Not so much. On the other hand, psychopaths are essentially born, and have an innate disdain for others coupled with a compulsive need for violence. They are cold and calculating, and can even be charming when it suits their purposes, a la Ted Bundy. Psychopaths are at the most extreme end of the antisocial personality disorder spectrum, and while all psychopaths are antisocial, not all antisocials are psychopaths.
There are many people with difficult personalities out there, all of which can impact your life to varying degrees. These are your garden variety a-holes, and they’re usually pretty simple-minded and relatively harmless if you don’t pay them much attention. But sociopaths have one of the most hidden personality disorders, as well as one of the most dangerous. They often slip under the radar because they put so much energy into deceiving people. In my vast experience with sociopaths, most people don’t know what to watch out for, and they’re generally shocked at how easily they can be manipulated. In truth, anyone can be a target. The point of this week’s blog is to explain sociopathic behavior, help you identify potential sociopaths in your life, and share how to deal with them once you do.
Sociopathy occurs in nearly 4 percent of the U.S. population, which works out to about one in 20-ish people. There is a clear link between ASPD and sex. You are 3 to 5 times more likely to be a sociopath if you own a Y chromosome; and only 25% of sociopaths are female. Obvi not all men are sociopaths, but being male can be one clue in identifying them.
Whether someone has intentionally deceived you for their own perverse pleasure, or you’ve had a college roommate eat the last of your mom’s famous homemade lasagna without asking before or apologizing after, you’ve experienced sociopathic behavior. Fortunately, your selfish roommate’s sociopathic behavior probably doesn’t make him an actual sociopath… it just makes him rude AF.
So that begs the question: how can you differentiate between an a-hole and a sociopath? It’s not always as easy as it seems, because sociopaths can be masters of deception, and some traits might be hidden by their frequent lies. Remember too that they can be intelligent and good at manipulating people into doing what they want, so they may come across as friendly and outgoing when it’s really all a ruse.
That said, here are some of the general themes to be on the lookout for:
Sociopaths can be highly effective at getting you to overlook any warning signs you see or sense. That’s why they’re called con artists: they take you into their confidence, and you trust them. You will doubt yourself before you doubt them. They are narcissistic, believing they are better, smarter, cuter, funnier, and more interesting than anyone else.
In a dating relationship, a sociopath may be the most loving, charming, affectionate, and giving person you have ever met. But, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. They are likely to be secretly dating several other people. They can be very promiscuous and are loyal to no one. They’re also very quick to anger. If you dare to question them, their anger response is totally outside the scope of what would be considered ‘normal’.
They can be fast talkers and bull$#&t artists. They’ll say anything to cover up their secret activities, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. I have a patient that was actually living with 3 different women in 3 different houses, at the same time- and the women were happy and had no clue about his deception. I actually had him bring each of them (in separate appointments, of course) for a couple’s session, because I had to see it for myself. Get this…he would tell them that he did contract work for the CIA, so he couldn’t give them any details about it. When he would leave a woman to be with one of the others, he’d just say that he’d be gone all the next week on a secret mission. And then he would lament about how much he wished he could tell them all about it, but he just couldn’t, so they must never askhim about it. And they bought it, hook, line, and sinker!
They quickly lose interest in a girl-/ boy- friend, but they’ll keep them hanging on with a few words of love, so that they can still have sex with them, borrow money from them (which is never returned) and maintain access to their house or car. They have no empathy, so they’ll use them until they’re not useful anymore, and then leave, feeling no remorse for any damage they’ve left in their wake.
They are secretive. They may pretend they are going to work at the office everyday, when they’re actually going out to deal drugs. Or gambling away their paycheck, then saying they were robbed. They’re often impulsive and irresponsible, and unable to maintain a job, so they don’t have money and need to find a reason to cover that up. They like to see how far they can control a situation, what they can get away with. Everything is done for their personal gain, and they have a greatly exaggerated sense of self-worth.
Sociopaths love to play the victim. They’ll tell you a story about how someone else took advantage of them, or how life circumstances treated them very badly. This is a calculated tactic to get you to feel sorry for them, so that you’ll want to help them. This ploy works, because normal, healthy people naturally care about others, even strangers. Ted Bundy tore a page out of the sociopath’s play book and used to put a fake cast on his arm or leg, then drop a bunch of books near an isolated young woman on a college campus. Then he would ask her to help him carry his books back to his car, and when they leaned into his car to put the books in the back seat, he would shove them inside. And the rest was history.
I’ve seen firsthand how all of these kinds of activities have gone on under the radar for so many people in relationships with sociopaths. The targets are always shocked, because the sociopath was so good at living a lie. But as I tell the victims, that’s what they do.
Officially diagnosing someone as a sociopath using the DSM-IV isn’t always as simple as you might think. But, if someone has three or more of the tendencies listed below, as Jeff Foxworthy would say, they might be a sociopath:
-Failure to conform to social norms (i.e, they break the law)
-Repeatedly lie or con others for profit or pleasure
-Fail to plan ahead or exhibit impulsive behavior
-Repeated irritability or aggression (i.e, they always get into fights)
-Reckless disregard for the safety of themselves or others
-Consistent irresponsibility (i.e, they can’t hold down a job or meet financial obligations)
-Lack remorse (i.e., they rationalize their actions or are indifferent to other people’s feelings)
Following is more information on some of the red flag symptoms of sociopaths to watch out for, based on criteria listed in the DSM-IV.
Symptom: Lack of empathy
Perhaps one of the most well-known signs of a sociopath is a lack of empathy, particularly an inability to feel remorse for their actions. When you don’t experience remorse, you’re basically free to do any horrible thing that comes to your sick mind. That’s a problem.
Symptom: Difficult relationships
Sociopaths find it hard to form emotional bonds, so their relationships are often unstable and chaotic. Rather than forge connections with the people in their lives, they might try to exploit them for their own benefit through deceit, coercion, and intimidation.
Sociopaths tend to try to seduce people and ingratiate themselves with the people around them for their own gain, or just for sheer entertainment. While some are charming, this doesn’t mean they’re all exceptionally charismatic. I’ve seen plenty that I would not call charming in any way, shape, or form. But they think they are of course; this can be an important distinction.
Sociopaths have a reputation for being dishonest and deceitful. They often feel comfortable lying to get their own way, or to get themselves out of trouble, whatever motivation they may come up with. They also have a tendency to embellish the truth when it suits them.
Some sociopaths can be openly violent and aggressive. Others will cut people down verbally. Either way, they tend to show a cruel disregard for other people’s feelings.
Sociopaths are not only hostile themselves, but they’re more likely to interpret others’ behavior as hostile, which drives them to seek revenge. Revenge is a primary goal when a sociopath feels wronged.
Sociopaths often have a deep disregard for financial and social obligations. Ignoring responsibilities is extremely common, which can include not paying child support when it’s due, allowing bills to pile up, and regularly taking time off work. Their needs and wants supersede everyone else’s, no matter who they are, even including their children.
We all have our impulsive moments: a last minute road trip, a drastic new hairstyle, or a new pair of shoes you just have to have. But for sociopaths, making spur of the moment decisions with no thought for the consequences is part of everyday life. They find it extremely difficult to even make a plan, much less stick to it.
Symptom: Risky behavior
Combine irresponsibility, impulsivity, and a need for instant gratification, and you get risky behavior. It’s not surprising that sociopaths get involved in risky behavior, because they tend to have little concern for themselves, let alone the safety of others. This means that excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, compulsive gambling, unsafe sex, dangerous hobbies, and criminal activities are all on the sociopath’s to-do list.
Can sociopathy be cured or treated?
There’s no cure for sociopathy, and there isn’t a lot of evidence that it can be successfully treated. Typically, the main issue in treating it is that it’s unusual for a sociopath to seek professional help. One of the curious things about this disorder is a general lack of insight on the sociopath’s part. They may recognize that they have problems, might notice that they get into trouble on the job, and may recognize that their spouses are not happy with them. But they tend to blame other people, and other circumstances, for the trouble; this is part and parcel of the diagnosis. The good news is that symptoms of sociopathy and other ASPD’s seem to recede with age, especially among milder cases and in people that don’t do drugs or drink to excess. Cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t very helpful for treating the disorder itself, but it can help people to stop certain devious behaviors. Sociopaths might not really develop actual empathy or learn to feel badly about their actions, but they could possibly learn to stop eating their roommate’s lasagna.
So now you know the symptoms of sociopathy to look for and you’re better prepared to recognize a sociopath. But if you suspect that you’re dealing with a sociopath, what should you do?
The best and simplest answer is to get far away from them, to permanently extricate them from your life. If you don’t, they will seriously complicate that life. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible. If it’s your boss or a relative, you might not be able to just cut ties and bolt, but you can learn how to deal with their sociopathic behavior and still remain true to yourself and your own mental health.
First, trust your instincts. A person doesn’t need a DSM diagnosis to be a manipulative a-hole who’s causing you harm. If they don’t care about your feelings, repeatedly lie to you, and manipulate your emotions for their pleasure, they aren’t someone you should be around, sociopath or not.
Secondly, remember that you cannot change this person. They may not realize that what they’re doing is abnormal, and they definitely don’t give a flip if it hurts you. You must let go of any illusions that you can fix them or get them to be a better person.
As you distance yourself from them, the sociopath might try to make deals with you. Do not go along with it! They don’t care about your feelings and they don’t obey any rules, so they will never honor any deal they offer. And even worse, when it fails (because it will) they will say that you were the one that ruined the deal; they’ll try anything to put any and all blame on you. So your best bet is to just avoid that crap all together.
If you’re not sure how to distance yourself from this person, or you need other tools to deal with them, talk to a therapist. They’re far better able to spot the true tendencies of a sociopath, and they can help you learn how to set boundaries or remove yourself from the situation. They can also help you cope with the harm the sociopath inflicted and the damage they left in their wake.
If the person seems like they’ll cause extreme harm to themselves or others, you can call an emergency mental health line. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 1-800-662-4357) is a good one. And If you are, or anyone else is, ever in any physical danger, call 911 immediately.
Now you know all the hallmark behaviors of a sociopath and what to do when you realize there’s one squirming around in your life. There are a bunch of sociopaths out there, so by all means, share the knowledge with your friends and family.
For more information and patient stories on sociopathy and other personality disorders, you can read my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. And you can also check out my lectures and subscribe to my YouTube channel by searching under Mark Agresti.Learn More
That dude in the little blue speedster flying down I-95 and using all three lanes to cut everyone off and pass them… what a total psycho! The captain of the high school cheerleading squad who’s demanding that her boyfriend work extra hours to pay for her hair and nails to get done every week… that chick is such a self-centered sociopath! We pin these labels on people easily, and often jokingly, but psychopathy and sociopathy are pretty serious states of being, sometimes far from a joking matter.
Do you know someone who seems to have no understanding of what it means to show empathy or concern for others, someone who has no regard for right or wrong, or someone who actually seems to derive pleasure from hurting others? To you, this behavior and personality seem calloused and unreal, maybe even impossible to believe; but believe it…if the above characteristics sound familiar to you, you’ve probably crossed paths with a psychopath or sociopath.
A lot of people use the labels psychopath and sociopath interchangeably when referring to a person who exhibits a wide array of creepy, odd, or dangerous behaviors. But while the two do share some common traits, there are other points that separate them as well. Both sociopaths and psychopaths have a patent disregard for the safety and rights of others, and manipulation and deceit are central features to both personalities. Contrary to popular belief and what you see in the movies, psychopaths and sociopaths are not necessarily bloodthirsty or violent. Surprised? Violence is actually not a necessary requirement for a diagnosis of psychopathy— but it is often present. In this blog, I’ll shed some light on sociopathic and psychopathic traits, go over why they’re grouped together, and also what sets them apart from one another.
In actuality, neither psychopathy and sociopathy are official diagnoses on their own, but The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness puts them under the heading of antisocial personality disorders, meaning that people with psychopathy and sociopathy have a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, hereafter ASPD.
ASPD is a mental health diagnosis characterized by a lack of empathy, ie an inability to care about the needs or feelings of others. Approximately 3 percent of the US population qualifies for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. It is more common among males and more often seen in people with an alcohol or substance abuse problem, or in forensic settings such as prisons. People with antisocial personality disorder are usually master manipulators and absent of moral conscience. The exact cause of ASPD is not currently known, but environmental factors, genetics, and possible changes in the function and structure of the brain are believed to be factors that contribute to its development. Other contributing factors may include having a family history of mental health disorders or a history of living in an unstable or violent family in an abusive or neglectful environment. In both cases, some signs or symptoms are nearly always present in a person before the age of 15, so that by the time that person is an adult, they are well on their way to becoming a full fledged psychopath or sociopath.
The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis and key characteristics of ASPD:
Lack of empathy toward others
Constant deceitful or manipulative behavior
Little regard for the safety of others
Difficulty with all relationship types
Aggression or irritability
Lack of remorse or guilt for actions
Reckless and/or dangerous behavior
Laws/ Rules don’t apply to them
Regularly breaks or flouts the law
Impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
Prone to fighting and aggression
Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
As with many things in life, there are different levels of both psychopaths and sociopaths.
Some might be thieves or cheaters, while others could be actual killers. The most concerning difference between psychopaths and sociopaths is that when someone is a psychopath, you’ll probably never know it, never have the faintest idea… which is what makes them even more dangerous.
You’re probably familiar with some famous fictional psychopaths and sociopaths. How about psychopath Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, or the psychopathic detective Dexter from the primetime crime drama of the same name. Or sociopathic pop culture hero, King Joffrey from Game of Thrones, and the sociopathic Joker in The Dark Knight. These characters all had ASPD and lacked empathy, broke laws and disregarded rules, ignored others’ rights, exhibited violent tendencies, and never felt an iota of guilt for their behavior, if they even knew they behaved badly and hurt people in the first place. Which they probably didn’t.
Traits of a Psychopath
Psychology researchers generally believe that people are born psychopaths, as it’s likely associated with genetic predisposition. The flip side is that sociopaths tend to be a product of their environment, perhaps as a result of abuse. But that’s not to say that psychopaths may not also suffer from some sort of childhood trauma.
Research has shown that psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences, as psychopaths often have underdeveloped areas of the brain in regions that are responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control.
Generally speaking, psychopaths are superficial, egocentric, and emotionally shallow. They’re practiced and smooth operators, and they will compliment you, make you feel good, and say all of the right things, until you find out later they’ve been playing you for their own purposes, using you, stealing money from you, or plotting some kind of crime…like your murder.
They’re extremely manipulative and pros at gaining others’ trust. They have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others, so they intentionally form shallow, artificial relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits them. They see people as pawns to be used to forward their own goals and agendas, and rarely, if ever, feel any guilt regarding how they treat others or how much they hurt them.
Psychopaths can often be seen by others as being charming and trustworthy, as they hold steady, normal jobs. They tend to be very successful and well liked, much like master con artists. They may even have families and seemingly-loving relationships with a partner. And while they tend to be well-educated, they may also have learned a great deal on their own, living in and experiencing the real world. They are the princes most charming of all…until they aren’t anymore. Legendary psychopath Ted Bundy comes to mind here. Women found him smart and attractive, and they took him at face value; and that was their undoing.
When a psychopath engages in criminal behavior, they tend to do so in a way that minimizes risk to themselves. If that means they must implicate an innocent party in the behavior, so be it. They will carefully, and even obsessively, plan criminal activity to ensure they don’t get caught, having contingency plans in place for any and every possibility.
While psychopaths are like chameleons, seamlessly blending into their environment, sociopaths are easier to spot. The cool, calm psycho attitude is replaced by the hot-headed sociopathic one. They are rage-prone, and if things don’t go their way, they’ll get angry and aggressive, with emotional outbursts.
Traits of a Sociopath
Researchers tend to believe that sociopathy is the result of environmental factors, such as a child or teen’s upbringing in a very negative household; or in any situation that resulted in physical abuse, emotional abuse, or childhood trauma.
In general, sociopaths tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their psychopath counterparts. While they also have difficulties forming attachments to others, some sociopaths may find it easier to form an attachment to a like-minded group. Unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths have a difficult time holding down a long-term job, fitting in properly with some social situations, and presenting a normal family life to the outside world.
When a sociopath engages in criminal behavior, they may do so in an impulsive and largely unplanned manner, with little regard for the risks or consequences of their actions. They may become agitated and angered easily, sometimes resulting in violent outbursts. These kinds of behaviors increase a sociopath’s chances of being apprehended.
Who is More Dangerous?
As with many things in life, there are different degrees of severity in psychopaths and sociopaths. In reality, both pose risks to society, because they must constantly, 24/7-365, find ways to cope with a way of thinking and a way of life that is different from society’s accepted norm, and this can make them edgy. But, that said, psychopathy is the more dangerous disorder, because people with it experience far less guilt connected to their actions. Also, a psychopath is better able to dissociate from their actions, meaning they can easily separate emotional feelings from any actions they undertake. Without this emotional involvement, any pain that other people suffer is completely meaningless to a psychopath. All of the most famous serial killers have been psychopaths.
Psychopath v Sociopath: Childhood Clues
Clues indicative of later psychopathy and sociopathy are usually available in childhood. Most people who are diagnosed with sociopathy or psychopathy have had a previous pattern of behavior in which they violated the basic rights of others or endangered their safety. They also often have a childhood history of breaking rules and laws, as well as societal norms too. These kinds of childhood behaviors are recognized as a conduct disorder.
Four categories of problem behavior
Aggression to people and animals
Destruction of property
Deceitfulness or theft
Serious violations of rules or laws
If you recognize any of the above four symptoms or any of the specific childhood clues of conduct in a child or young teen, they’re at much greater risk for having antisocial personality disorder. We’ll talk about what to do with that next week. Also next week, we’ll get deeper into how to spot a sociopath.
Check out my website for more blogs at dragresti.com/blog/ and pass them around to friends. Search my name on YouTube to see all of my lectures there and subscribe to my channel, people. And share with your friends! Also, as always, my book Tales from the Couch is available on Amazon.com.Learn More
What are Personality Disorders?
An individual’s personality is a set of characteristics that defines how they perceive the world around them. It is made up of features that cause them to think, feel, and act in a particular way. Our style of behavior, how we react, our worldview, thoughts, feelings, and the way we interact in relationships are all part of what makes up our personality. Having a healthy personality enables a person to function in daily life. Everyone experiences stress at some time in life, but a healthy personality helps us to face the challenges and move on. Genetic make-up, biological factors, and environmental surroundings all help to shape personality. Personality makes each of us different…makes each of us an individual.
A personality disorder is officially described as “A deeply ingrained, inflexible pattern of relating, perceiving, and thinking that is serious enough to cause distress or impaired functioning.” In order to receive a diagnosis of a personality disorder, an individual must meet certain criteria, which are discussed below.
For someone with a personality disorder, the features of everyday life that most of us take for granted can become a challenge. When an individual has a personality disorder, it becomes harder for them to respond to the changes and demands of life, and to form and maintain relationships with others. These experiences can lead to distress and social isolation, and can increase the risk of depression and other mental health issues.
There are ten types of personality disorders, and The Psychiatric DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition) groups these ten personality disorders into three broad clusters, referred to as A, B, and C.
Cluster A personality disorders involve behavior that seems unusual and eccentric to others.
Paranoid personality disorder
Schizoid personality disorder
Schizotypal personality disorder
Cluster B personality disorders feature behavior that is emotional, dramatic, or erratic.
Antisocial personality disorder
Borderline personality disorder
Histrionic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder
Cluster C personality disorders feature behaviors that are motivated by anxiety and fear.
Avoidant personality disorder
Dependent personality disorder
Obsessive-Compulsive personality disorders
Ten Types of Personality Disorders
1. Paranoid Personality Disorder
Affects approximately 2% – 4% of the general population. A person with paranoid personality disorder finds it hard to trust others. They might think that people are lying to them or manipulating them, even when there is no evidence of this happening. The inability to trust others can make it hard for people with paranoid PD to maintain relationships with those around them.
People with this may exhibit
– Mistrust and suspicion
– Anxiety about others taking advantage of them
– Anger over perceived abuse
– Concern about hidden meanings or motives
2. Schizoid Personality Disorder
Affects fewer than 1% of the population. A person with schizoid personality disorder may feel more comfortable with a pet than with another person, and in fact may form attachments with objects or animals rather than people, because they feel very uncomfortable when they are required to relate to others. Others may see the person as aloof, detached, cold, or as a “loner.” Note that schizoid personality disorder shares some features with schizophrenia, but they are not the same, as psychosis and hallucinations that are required for the diagnosis of schizophrenia are not part of schizoid personality disorder. However, individuals with schizoid personality disorder may have relatives of with schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder.
The person will tend to:
– Avoid close social contact with others
– Have difficulty forming personal relationships
– Seek employment that involves limited personal or social interaction
– React to situations in ways that others consider inappropriate
– Appear withdrawn and isolated
3. Schizotypal Personality Disorder
People with this disorder may have few close relationships outside their own family, because they have difficulty understanding how relationships develop, and how their behavior affects others. They may also find it hard to understand or trust others. A person with this condition has a higher risk of developing schizophrenia in the future.
For diagnosis, the person must exhibit or experience five or more of the following behaviors:
– Ideas of reference; example, when a minor event happens, they believe it has special significance for them.
– Odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences their behavior; such as superstitious thinking, beliefs in telepathy, or bizarre fantasies or preoccupations
– Unusual perceptual experiences, including bodily illusions and odd thinking and speech; example, metaphorical thinking, minute detail, and overelaboration.
– Suspiciousness or paranoia
– Inappropriate or bizarre facial expressions
– Behaviors that seem odd, eccentric, or peculiar
– Lack of close friends or confidants, other than first-degree relatives
– Extreme social anxiety
4. Antisocial Personality Disorder
A person with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) acts without regard to right or wrong, or without thinking about the consequences of their actions on others. It is more likely to affect men than women. Approximately 1% – 3% of the general population have ASPD, but is found in approximately 40% – 70% of the incarcerated (jailed) population. When found in children under 15, commonly referred to as conduct disorder, which significantly increases the risk of having ASPD later in life. Researchers studied specific genetic features in 543 participants with ASPD. They found similar genetic features, as well as low levels of grey matter in the frontal cortex area of the brain. They determined that genetic, biological, and environmental factors are all likely to play a role.
This can result in:
– Irresponsible/ delinquent behavior
– Novelty-seeking behavior
– Violent behavior
– High risk for criminal activity
5. Borderline Personality Disorder
A person with borderline personality disorder will have trouble controlling their emotions.
They may experience:
– Mood swings
– Shifts in behavior and self-image
– Impulsive behavior
– Periods of intense anxiety, anger, depression, and boredom
These intense feelings can last for only a few hours or for much longer periods, even up to weeks. They can lead to relationship difficulties and other challenges in daily life, resulting in:
– Rapid changes in how the person relates to others, for example: swift shifts from closeness to anger
– Risky behaviors, ie dangerous driving and spending sprees
– Self-harming behavior
– Poor anger management
– Sense of emptiness
– Difficulty trusting others
– Recurrent suicidal behaviors, gestures, threats, or self-mutilation, such as cutting
– Feelings of apathy, detachment, or dissociation
6. Histrionic Personality Disorder
A person with histrionic personality disorder feels a need for others to notice them and reassure them that they are significant. This can affect the way the person thinks and acts. It is considered to be one of the most ambiguous (ie non-specific) diagnostic categories in mental health. The person may feel a strong need to be loved, and they may also feel as if they are not strong enough to cope with everyday life alone. The person may function well in social and other environments, but they may also experience high levels of stress, and this can lead to them having depression and anxiety. The features of histrionic personality disorder can overlap with, and be similar to, those of narcissistic personality disorder.
It may lead to behavior that appears:
– Provocative and flirtatious
– Excessively emotional or dramatic
– Emotionally shallow
– Insincere, as likes and dislikes shift to suit the people around them at the given moment
– Risky, as the person constantly seeks novelty and excitement
7. Narcissistic Personality Disorder
This disorder features a sense of self-importance and power, but it can also involve feelings of low self-esteem and weakness. These features can make it hard for them to maintain healthy relationships and function in daily life.
A person with this condition may show the following personality traits:
– An inflated sense of their own importance, attractiveness, success, and power
– Craving for admiration and attention
– Lacking regard for others’ feelings
– Overstatement of their talents or achievements
– Expectation of deserving the best of everything
– Experiencing hurt and rejection easily
– Expecting others to go along with all of their plans and ideas
– Experiencing jealousy
– Believing they should have special treatment
– Believing they should only spend time with other people who are as special as they are
– Appearing arrogant or pretentious
– Being prone to impulsive behavior
People with narcissistic PD may also have a higher risk of:
– Mood, substance, and anxiety disorders
– Low self-esteem and fear of not being good enough
– Feelings of shame, helplessness, anger at themselves
– Impulsive behavior
– Using lethal means to attempt suicide
8. Avoidant Personality Disorder This personality disorder can make it hard to form friendships. A person with it avoids social situations and close interpersonal relationships, mainly due to a fear of rejection and the feeling that they are not good enough. There may also be a higher risk of substance abuse, eating disorders, or depression, and the person may think about or attempt suicide. A person with avoidant personality disorder may want to develop close relationships with others, but they lack the confidence and ability to form relationships. They generally appear extremely shy and socially inhibited.
They often exhibit:
– Feelings of inadequacy
– Low self-esteem
– Distrustfulness of others
9. Dependent Personality Disorder
People with dependent PD often lack confidence in themselves and their abilities. It is difficult for them to undertake projects independently or to make decisions without help, and they may find it hard to take personal responsibility. They are especially vulnerable to ill-treatment from others, including emotional, verbal, physical, domestic abuse. Any mistreatment can lead to further complications, such as depression and anxiety.
A person with this condition may have the following characteristics:
– Having an excessive need to be taken care of by others
– Being overly-dependent on others
– Having a deep fear of separation and abandonment
– Investing a lot of energy and resources in trying to please others
– Going to great lengths to avoid disagreement and conflict
– Being vulnerable to manipulation by others.
– A willingness to tolerate mistreatment to keep a relationship
– A preference to not be alone
Others may see their behavior as:
10. Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
A person with OCPD can find it difficult to accept when something is not perfect. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD relates to everyday tasks, while OCPD focuses specifically on following procedures. In addition, OCD can interfere with the way a person functions in everyday life, whereas OCPD can enhance a person’s professional performance, while also potentially interfering with their personal life outside of work. Some people may experience both OCD and OCPD, and research has shown that there appears to be a link between them. An excessive concern with perfectionism and hard work dominate the life of a person with OCDP. The individual may prioritize these ideals of perfectionism and hard work to the detriment of close personal relationships. In fact, others may see the individual as sanctimonious, stubborn, uncooperative, and obstinate.
A person with OCPD may:
– Appear inflexible
– Feel an overwhelming need to be in control
– Find that concerns about rules and efficiency make it hard to relax
– Find it hard to complete a task for fear that it is not perfect
– Be uncomfortable when things are messy
– Have difficulty delegating tasks to others
– Be extremely frugal, even when it is not necessary
– Hoard items
Personality Disorders: Treatment and Outlook
People with personality disorders often don’t feel there is anything wrong with their behavior, but they may seek help because they are experiencing social isolation and fear. Regardless, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can result from living with a personality disorder. For this reason, it is important for them to seek help early. Personality disorders often share features, and it can be hard to distinguish between them, but there are sufficient criteria for an appropriate diagnosis. Following that diagnosis, treatment can help people with the various types of personality disorders. The physician may prescribe medication, and will often recommend therapy or counseling. Individual, group, and family counseling can help. One type of counseling is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps a person to see their behavior in a new way and to learn alternative ways of reacting to situations. In time, this can make it easier for the person to function in everyday life and to maintain healthy relationships with others. So overall, the outlook is positive if the person with the personality disorder is willing to dedicate themselves to diligent work.
PsyCom has several online tests you can take for yourself or for someone else in your life, and then submit for results. Just for funsies, below are links to some tests related to this week’s topic, personality disorders.
Do you have antisocial personality disorder, commonly referred to as sociopathy? Use this quiz to determine whether you or someone you know may be a sociopath.
Do you have narcissistic personality disorder? Use this quiz to determine whether you or someone you know may be a narcissist or have a more severe case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
If you enjoyed this blog, please comment and share. For more information and stories on personality disorders, please check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
A Coronavirus PSA
Before we get to this next blog on suicide, I must say something related to Coronavirus transmission, because I’m tired of yelling it at my television when I see people doing it or talking about it, how “safe” it is. What is it? It’s “elbow love,” bumping elbows with someone to say hello, goodbye, good job, whassup, whatever. Think about this, people: during this viral outbreak, what have we been asking people to do when they sneeze or cough? Ideally, to do so in a tissue, but that’s not realistic, it rarely happens, so we ask them to sneeze or cough into their bent arm, at the elbow. Get the picture? The droplets they expell during that sneeze or cough are deposited everywhere surrounding that area, including the part you bump, so if your “bumpee” has Coronavirus, even if they have no symptoms, you, the “bumper” get those bijillions of virions on your elbow, and you can take them home with you. Then maybe your spouse or partner welcomes you home by putting their hands on your arms to give you a kiss… and now half a bijillion virions may be on one of their hands, just waiting to be deposited everywhere. Bottom line: for as long as this virus is around, use your words, not your body, to say whassup. So pass this knowledge on…not the virus.
Suicide is always a very difficult topic for every family, and in thirty years as a psychiatrist, it’s never gotten much easier to broach this subject. What motivated me to write this blog is a recent conversation I had with the father of one of my young patients, a fourteen-year-old named Collin, who in fact had just made what I believed was a half-hearted suicide attempt; the proverbial ‘cry for help.’ Understand that half-hearted does not mean it’s totally safe to blow it off, but we’ll get to an explanation about that later. His father, Lawrence, who prefers to be called Law, was a single parent, a widower after metastatic melanoma devastated the family of three about eighteen months before. Shortly after the mother, Sharon, passed away, Law brought Collin to my office. It was clear from the first appointment that Collin was depressed, and had been for some time. Psychotherapy was difficult with him, and it took about five appointments to establish more than a tenuous relationship and for him to begin to open up to me. I had tried him on a couple of medications, but they never seemed to do the job. I strongly suspected that it was due to a compliance issue. Actually, I’m certain that it was. He just didn’t take them regularly or as directed. That always mystifies me, patients who are miserable, anxious and depressed, but they take their meds haphazardly, at best; meds that could turn their worlds around…not because they’re inconvenient, and not because of side effects, just because. So, the tenuous connection made for less than optimal psychotherapy sessions, and that, combined with the absence of appropriate meds, put Collin on a path that led here, my office, 22 hours after his attempt. I was a little shocked by his attempt, but very shocked at how effectively, how deeply, he was able to hide the monumental amount of pain that he had obviously been feeling. His father Law looked exhausted, shellshocked, and was having such difficulty talking about it for a number of reasons, but he told me that one of the main reasons was shame. He was ashamed that Collin was so ill, and even ashamed that he was ashamed of it. He was ashamed that he could do nothing to help him, and ashamed that he had possibly caused or contributed to his son’s illness. I told him repeatedly and in several different ways that I understood, that his feelings weren’t unusual among parents of children like Collin, that he absolutely was helping him, and that while mental illness does have a familial component, he was not responsible in any way for his sons illness or attempt. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really heard a word I said. In my experience, suicidal ideation, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and the actual act of suicide affects everyone it touches in a way that no other psychiatric illness does. But in this situation, I think Law was thinking about what his life would be like if Collin tried again and succeeded. It would be very sad, alone, and lonely.
Facts and Figures
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 47,173 lives in 2019. Montana and Alaska have the highest suicide rates, which is interesting because both of those states have very high gun ownership rates. Believe it or not, New Jersey is the lowest. I have no clue why that would be the case. There were 1.4 million suicide attempts last year in the US. Men are 3.54 times more likely than women to commit suicide. Of all the suicides in the United States last year, 69.67% were white men; they don’t seem to be doing so well. The most common way to commit suicide is by firearm, at about 50%; suffocation is 27.7%, poisoning is 13.9%, and other would be the rest, things like jumping from a tall building or bridge, laying on train tracks or jumping in front of a subway car or a bus. Among US citizens, depression affects 20 to 25% of the population, so at any given point, 20% of the population is a bit more prone to suicide, as obvi people must first be depressed (chronically or acutely) before attempting suicide. There are 24 suicide attempts for every 1 completed suicide. The most disturbing statistic is that suicide rates are up 30% in the past 16 years, with a marked increase in adolescent suicides, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24.
You would think the US would have the highest suicide rates in the world, but in fact, Russia, China, and Japan are all higher.
Suicide Risk Factors
What are some factors that may put someone at higher risk of suicide?
– Family history of completed suicide in first-degree relatives
– Adverse childhood experiences, ie parental loss, emotional/ physical/ sexual abuse
– Negative life situations, ie loss of a business, financial issues, job loss
– Psychosocial stressors, ie death of loved one, separation, divorce, or breakup of relationship, isolation
– Acute and chronic health issues, illness and/ or incapacity, ie stroke, paralysis, mental illness, diagnoses of conditions like HIV or cancer, chronic pain syndromes
But, understand there’s no rule that someone must have one or more of these factors in order to be suicidal.
Mental Illness and Suicidality
In order to make a thorough suicide risk assessment, mental illness must be considered. There seem to be 6 mental health diagnoses that people who successfully complete suicide have in common:
– Bipolar disorder
– Schizoaffective disorder
– Post-traumatic stress disorder
– Substance abuse
Suicidal ideation refers to the thoughts that a person may have about suicide, or committing suicide. Suicidal ideation must be assessed when it is expressed, as it plays an important role in developing a complete suicide risk assessment. Assessing suicidal ideation includes:
– Determining the extent of the person’s preoccupation with thoughts of suicide, ie continuous? Intermittent? If so, how often?
– Specific plans; if they exist or not; if yes, how detailed or thought out?
– Person’s reason(s) or motivation(s) to attempt suicide
Assessment of Suicide Risk
Assessing suicide risk includes the full examination/ assessment of:
– The degree of planning
– The potential or perceived lethality of the specific suicide method being considered, ie gun versus overdose versus hanging
– Whether the person has access to the means to carry out the suicide plan, ie a gun, the pills, rope
– Access to the place to commit
– Note: presence, timing, content
– Person’s reason(s) to commit suicide; motivated only by wish to die; highly varied; ie overwhelming emotions, deep philosophical belief
– Person’s motivation(s) to commit suicide; not motivated only by wish to die; motivated to end suffering, ie from physical pain, terminal illness
– Person’s motivation(s) to live, not commit suicide
What is a Suicide Plan?
A suicide plan may be written or kept in someone’s head; it generally includes the following elements:
– Timing of the suicide event
– Access to the method and setting of suicide event
– Actions taken toward carrying out the plan, ie obtaining gun, poison, rope; seeking/ choosing/ inspecting a setting; rehearsing the plan
The more detailed and specific the suicide plan, the greater the level of risk. The presence of a suicide note suggests more premeditation and typically greater suicidal intent, so an assessment would definitely include an exploration of the timing and content of any suicide note, as well as a thorough discussion of its meaning with its author.
I spent years teaching suicide assessment to other physicians, medical students, nurses, therapists, you name it. It all seems super complicated when you look at all the above factors written out, but as I always taught, it becomes clearer when you put it into practice. What are we doing when we embark on a suicide assessment? We’re determining suicidality, the likelihood that someone will committ suicide. You’re deciding how dangerous someone is to themselves using the factors discussed above. You’re either looking at how lethal they could be, how lethal they are at this time, or how lethal they wereduring a previous episode of suicidal ideation or previous suicide attempt.
When we put this all into practice, we look at statements and actions to determine how dangerous a person is. Did someone say, ‘if so and so does this, I’ll kill myself’ or, did someone act but just scratched their wrist? Those would be low level lethality, and they would not be very dangerous. Did someone buy a gun, load the ammunition, learn how to shoot it, go to the place where they planned to kill themselves at the time they planned, and then practice putting the gun to their head…essesntially a dry run? That would be the most lethal; that person would be the most dangerous. Those are the two poles of lethality and danger, but there are variant degrees and many shades of gray, so you really have to discuss it very thoroughly with each individual.
Let’s say a 15-year-old is in the office after taking a big handful of pills in a suicide attempt. I ask him if he realized that taking those pills could have actually killed him, and he says no. He’s not that lethal, not that dangerous, because even though his means (pill overdose) was lethal, he didn’t know it was, so lacking that knowledge mitigates the risk, making him less dangerous. Example: acetominophen is actually extremely lethal. People who truly overdose on it don’t die immediately, but it shuts down the liver, killing them two days later. A person that takes a bunch of it thinking it’s a harmless over the counter drug is not that dangerous, because even though their method was lethal, they didn’t know it. In a similar manner, I’ve had people mix benzos with alcohol, which is another very lethal method. It’s a very successful way to kill yourself, but a lot of people don’t realize it, so it’s not that lethal to them. In the reverse case, people who know about combining alcohol and benzodiazepines, who know how dangerous it is, are dangerous, highly lethal to themselves.
People who play with guns, like Russian Roulette-type stuff; or people who intentionally try asphyxiating or suffocating themselves, as for sexual pleasure; or people who tie a rope to a rafter and then test their weight…these people are very dangerous, very lethal, very scary to psychiatrists.
Where someone attempts suicide is also very telling, very instructive in determining their lethality, how suicidal, how dangerous they are. If they do it in a place where there is no chance of being found, of being interrupted, they are very suicidal, very dangerous. Contrast that to doing it in a place where there are people walking by, or in a house where someone is, or could be coming home, then they are not as suicidal, not as dangerous. As an exaple, let’s say someone leaves their car running in a garage when they know that no one will be around for 2 days. That is very dangerous, they are very suicidal. If someone takes an opiate overdose at night when everyone’s in bed so they won’t find them for many hours, they are dangerous. If someone takes the overdose during the day, when people are awake at home, they are less dangerous.
A change in somone’s behaviors and/ or outlook can also help determine lethality. When people start giving away their possessions, that is a sign that they are very lethal, very dangerous. Another factor that can be informative is if an unnatural calm comes over them, and they say that they have no more problems, and everything is great. That is an indicator of serious lethality, major danger. These people have a sense of ease because they know that they’ll be dead very soon, and they don’t have to worry about things anymore. These are ominous signs.
Giving information about an attempt also informs a person’s level of lethality. If someone makes a statement of intent to commit suicide, they are not very dangerous. For example, a spouse saying ‘if you leave me, I’ll kill myself’ or ‘you broke my heart, I can’t live without you, I’m going to kill myself’ those statements alone do not indicate a very dangerous person. Not telling anyone and hiding when they plan to attempt is much more dangerous. There are many cases when people don’t come out and tell, but they aren’t being very secretive, intentionally or not, possibly even subconsciously. They leave clues, almost giving people a road map. This is very common, and these people are typically discovered. The discovery can either totally abort the act before it’s attempted, or can abort after the attempt, but in enough time to get the person help. This is why for every 1 “successfully” completed suicide, there are 24 failed suicide attempts. Similarly, someone who says ‘if this thing (interview, event) goes my way, I’ll be good, but if it doesn’t, I swear I’ll kill myself’ is not that dangerous, not very suicidal, because they’re bargaining, which means they’re still living in the real world. But, someone who does not want to negotiate, doesn’t care to affect things one way or another, may not be living in the real world, and they’re dangerous, they may be high risk to enter the world of the dead.
There are a couple other things to be considered in assessing risk of suicide, determining how dangerous someone might be. If someone is impaired, using drugs and/ or alcohol when they attempt or consider suicide, and if they are not suicidal when they’re clean and sober, they are generally not that suicidal, not that dangerous, they just have a drug or alcohol problem. When they get clean and sober for good, the risk is essentially zero, barring anything else. In a similar way, if someone is suffering from a mental illness when they attempt or consider suicide, but when you correct that mental illness they are not suicidal, they are not a huge danger.
So during suicide risk assessment, you can be looking at someone having a nebulous thought and/ or making a statement that a lot of people may have or make, and you know that they’re not very dangerous; or looking all the way to the opposite side, someone who thinks about it, formulates a thorough plan, picks the place and time, aquires all the things needed to commit the act, writes a suicide letter, and practices the complete act soup to nuts, and you know that they are very, very dangerous. And all the shades in between.
So that’s my primer on suicidal thinking and assessing suicide risk. There are lots of factors to keep in mind, and sometimes it’s a little like reading minds, but you get more proficient as the years go by…it’s easier to tell when someone is misleading or being honest and open. If you enjoy a humorous approach to character studies in all sorts of diagnoses, you would enjoy my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. I mean, most of you are isolating, sheltering in place anyway, right? Might as well entertain yourself! Check it out. – Dr. Mark AgrestiLearn More
Why are people going crazy?
Why do I ask? Well, sadly, because these days, some people like to pick up a weapon or cache of weapons and commit mass murder. The images of the aftermath on CNN have become all too familiar. If you asked the average person on the street to use one word to describe the type of person that commits these mass murders, what word would the majority use? Crazy. Or a smile thereof, like insane or nuts. So, let’s take a look at what the word ‘crazy’ means. The accepted definition is ‘Mentally deranged, especially in a wild or aggressive way.’ It is not a technical term. As a psychiatrist for more than half of my life, I have never diagnosed a single person as crazy. Crazy is not a term for mental illness. Mental illnesses are things like psychosis, bipolar, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, panic disorders, anxiety disorders and personality disorders, to name a few. These are the illnesses I know and deal with on the daily; they do not generally create an individual who wants to go out and fire upon a random group of people with no intent but to maim and kill. Because doing that, randomly wiping people from the face of the earth, is not in and of itself mental illness. No. Killing a group of people is crazy. So, what is it about our society that creates members that go crazy?
First, let’s specify who I mean when I say “members of our society.” I have researched this topic, looked at every mass shooting/ killing in the United States, and I’ve come up with some commonalities here. Basically, the shooters are male, they are white, and they are young, under 35 years of age. Oh, and they are absolutely, unequivocally, totally crazy/ insane/ nuts/ cuckoo/ Looney Tunes/ whacko; you get the idea. What else? They spend a lot of time on the internet, typically a minimum of 4 hours a day. Some are on the internet constantly, either playing video games, watching videos or surfing chat rooms, literally every waking moment. A mind boggling 28% of the under 35 crowd spend every waking moment on the internet, and another 45% are on and off it maybe 4 to 5 hours a day. What does that mean? Keep in mind, being on the internet is not like watching TV or watching Netflix…with TV and movies, there are producers and directors that, to some extent, have decided what content will be shown in the program or movie. On the internet, content cannot be controlled in the same way. A fairly simple search can take you to very specific, very isolated sites that talk about anger, white resentment, white nationalism, and hate groups of every kind. On these sites, you find others of like mind, who agree with you on these distorted views, and as a result, there is a phenomenon of mutual brainwashing. Imagine for a minimum of 16 hours a day, being constantly bombarded by hate, negative thoughts, resentment and feelings of oppression. You fall into groups that encourage the need to lash out, groups where you seek out a singular message and you get back a singular message. The more you seek it out, the more it comes to you, the more you read about it, the more you think about it. The more you talk to people about it, the more people who want to talk to you about it. It just snowballs as it brainwashes, and people become obsessional about hate and killing, perverse topics of all sorts. These negative messages are constantly being broadcast on the internet, and the more someone does, the more they want to do. So, excessive time on the internet, seeking out hate and perversity, that’s the first factor associated with these young white men who go crazy and shoot people.
Another factor is that these people are constantly getting messages from the media: television, radio, blogs, podcasts, talk shows, that white men are responsible for many of society’s problems. They are responsible for all sorts of racism, oppression, slavery, income inequality, starvation in the third world, climate change… young white men are responsible for everything that is wrong in our society. That is the current message broadcast from the media; the cause, if you will. The effect? Well, the creation of some really pissed off, young white guys that feel like you keep putting them down, keep stepping on them, keep telling them that they’re bad. You rarely hear a good message about white men. It is generally stereotypically negative, negative, negative. If you were to do that in any other group, it would be called racism; but if it’s focused on the white privileged, it passes. Their feelings of oppression have abnormal repercussions, and I think that’s why we get white men lashing out in crazy bizarre ways. So these repercussions from negative messages and perceptions are the second factor associated with these young white men who go crazy and shoot people.
A third factor contributing to the mass shooting phenomenon is the availability of guns, drugs and alcohol. So these guys have the means to kill in all manner of ways, and they are impaired by drugs and alcohol. Gun ownership is up. And have you seen some of the guns that people are legally allowed to own? AK’s, 50 cals, grenade launchers…the type of firepower legally possessable is mind blowing. These weapons are made to kill people, plain and simple. And of course, drug use is also up. Last I checked, there are 30 million Americans abusing drugs, and most are not in the work force. The availability of guns and prolific drug use make up the third factor associated with why these young white men go crazy and shoot people.
Another factor is that these people spend an inordinate amount of time alone. Most do not have jobs and are loners for various reasons, so there are no checks and balances for them, they are not expected to be anywhere. Also, there is no one to positively influence them, to tell them do this, do not do that, that is not appropriate, etc. They are alone. They are alone with nothing but negative thoughts, on the internet all the time, satisfying perverse needs, being brainwashed, and getting negative messages about white men. Combine that with the availability of drugs and alcohol and weapons, and you have a fire just waiting for a match. These make up the fourth factor associated with why these young white men go crazy and shoot people.
While those are four factors that these young white men are doing that contribute to the mass shooting phenomenon, there are some things that they are not doing that also contributes to it. They are not making friends, entering relationships or having sex, which would probably tone things down. Also, they are not involved in religious organizations, which would teach ideas of forgiveness, the sanctity of life, to be good to your fellow man, and how to help others. Religion would offer a positive group consciousness. There is not that religious component to our lives like there used to be, or to the extent it used to be. The lack of the positive motivator that religion brings plays a role in the mass shooting phenomenon. Another thing they are not doing is participating in team sports. Why do parents put kids in pee wee football, soccer, or softball? Team sports are where we teach moralities, sportsmanship, working as a team, caring for others, and helping others. As we grow up, team sports reinforce these ideals. Because these guys don’t participate in these things, they are not learning group behavior, team building behavior. What’s more, they are not feeling part of a community. What they have is the internet and its vague, nebulous, untethered existence. They may play video games with people all over the globe, but there is no sense of community and no checks and balances that community brings. No care of presence or absence. On a more national level, there is less sense of true patriotism. We are not one people. To these young white men, patriotism is twisted at best, and it feels to them like they are not part of America anymore. They are marginalized and spout anti-patriotism. Even at the school level, they are ‘apart from’, they have no school pride, no sense of belonging to a group. Their lives are just a random series of interactions with electronic entities that they do not even know. They don’t know who or what these people really are that they may find on the internet, that they may blindly follow. They have no relationships to positive groups or organizations that help stabilize people and steer them to do appropriate things. These things are not happening. This is what I call the collective consciousness of our society. It has broken down, fragmented, partially by us. So now the common good or the common morality has alluded us. It has been diluted, been made to be a smaller component in our lives. Instead we are fed a diet of negativity. So some people are not being socialized by positive groups. Instead they go to the internet, video and social media. There they find material that appeals to their deepest, darkest negative thoughts; places where those thoughts are promoted and nurtured. I think that these are the reasons why people go crazy, the factors that contribute to the making of mass murderers. I get more into true mental illness in my book, Tales from the Couch, by Dr. Mark Agresti, available on Amazon.com. Please check it out.Learn More
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a personality disorder described as a prolonged disturbance of personality function in a person (generally over the age of eighteen years, although it is also found in adolescents), characterized by depth and variability of moods. The disorder typically involves unusual levels of instability in mood; black and white thinking, or splitting; the disorder often manifests itself inidealization and devaluation episodes, as well as chaotic and unstable interpersonal relationships, self-image, identity, and behavior; as well as a disturbance in the individual’s sense of self. In extreme cases, this disturbance in the sense of self can lead to periods of dissociation.
BPD splitting includes a switch between idealizing and demonizing others. This, combined with mood disturbances, can undermine relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. BPD disturbances also may include self-harm. Without treatment, symptoms may worsen, leading (in extreme cases) to suicide attempts.
There is an ongoing debate among clinicians and patients worldwide about terminology and the use of the word borderline, and some have suggested that this disorder should be renamed. The ICD-10 manual has an alternative definition and terminology to this disorder, calledEmotionally unstable personality disorder. There is related concern that the diagnosis of BPD stigmatizes people and supports pejorative and discriminatory practices.Learn More