I Have Psychopathic Tendencies — Can I Change With Self-Help?

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Reader’s Question

I have read Dr George Simon’s description of psychological manipulation techniques. (Editor’s note: see Dr Simon’s series on Manipulation Tactics and Impression Management and Tools of Personal Empowerment: How Not to Be Manipulated. Also see Psychopathy 101.)

I believe that I match a lot of those. I can also say that I exhibit characteristics of psychopaths. It is causing major problems in ALL of my relationships. I do not know how I got to be this way. I had a domineering mother and a passive stepfather. I am 45, married and have two children.

What could you recommend for self-help — books, speakers, etc.? I have been for counseling numerous times. It has not worked. I think they are not equipped to solve the underlying problems I have. I think I’ve managed to ‘fool’ everyone.

Psychologist’s Reply

Please allow me to congratulate you on your willingness to change your behavior. This is not an easy decision to make but it sounds like you’ve already started doing your homework. Although I am not generally a fan of self-help types of intervention (they can end up being too generic to be of much assistance), in this instance I do have some suggestions.

Two of the central characteristics of psychopaths are thought to be lack of empathy and lack of remorse, so I would start there.

Empathy probably has innate as well as learned components. It could be that you got less of the genetic parts, so learning may be a more important aspect for you — you may be able to teach yourself how to empathize better. While you can read books on empathy, I think a better way to go is to start turning situations around for yourself and learn to figure out how other people feel. Whenever you see characters on television or in books, ask yourself how they feel and develop your empathic skills that way.

Figuring out the lack of remorse may be a bit harder. Some research on people with psychopathic personalities has shown that their brains may function differently. This could explain why they don’t feel the guilt that the average person does when they do something wrong. If this is indeed the case for you, behavior modification techniques should help. If you set up a behavioral reinforcement program for yourself, it won’t matter whether or not you feel the emotion as long as you perform the behavior. In order to do this, you will need to learn about behavior modification. You may also need someone who can help you figure out what behaviors you need to change.

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While all of this can be done in a ‘self-help’ fashion, I still think counseling may be worth another try. I’m guessing that you may have gone into the counseling situation with a perspective that is not conducive to healing. For one thing, you seem to place emphasis on the counselor’s ability to “solve underlying problems”. While it can be helpful to know why a problem developed, it is not always necessary in order to change. An apt analogy is that if you get a nail in your tire, you don’t drive all over town trying to find out where you got the nail. You simply take out the nail, patch up the tire and move on. The same could be true of your situation.

Similarly, I’m wondering if you’ve considered looking at the counseling process as a reciprocal one. Counselors cannot do all the work; all we can do is guide based on the information we’re given. The real work is up to the patient and it sounds like so far much of the work you’ve done has been in the opposite direction of healing, by “managing to fool everyone.” How can any counselor truly help you if you have not brought with you the tools (e.g., honesty, sincerity) to help them do so? If you’re serious about changing your behavior, then you need to be prepared to be vulnerable and experience the uncomfortable feelings. A counselor can really help you with that if you let them. Consequently, if you’re truly ready to change your behavior, that could be the best way to do so.

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