Isolated as a Child; I Have No Empathy. Am I a Sociopath?

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Reader’s Question

I grew up an extremely shy kid. I was an only child and lived in a big house in the woods with very busy parents. My parents were wonderful, but didn’t communicate well, didn’t show emotions, and had really high expectations. Growing up, I had very few friends and very little to no social life in school. I was “that kid” who was reading novels by first grade and always scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on early standardized tests. I went through a several-year long phase where I wanted Harry Potter to be real to the point of going out into the woods and screaming and smashing my hand against a tree. I also never took criticism well, and got in horrible screaming fights with my parents. Until high school, I went to a rich-kid all-male private school, where I was picked on a lot. It made me sarcastic and cynical. In high school I got along with people just fine but had absolutely no social life. Around the middle of 9th grade, I started to think I might be a sociopath. It’s not like I wanted to kill anyone or anything; I simply started thinking that I didn’t have real emotions or morals. I started stealing some things around school to see if I would feel regret, which I didn’t. I also started fantasizing about burning down my old school.

Now, I’m a sophomore at a small private liberal arts college. I have a perfectly normal social life, am in a fraternity, have lots of friends, and get great grades. Everyone tells me I’m extremely self-aware and I pride myself on my ability to doubt my own beliefs. I’m also a complete sociopath: I don’t have any desire to hurt people, but I have no pity or empathy for anyone. I hook up with lots of attractive girls but only because of the social pressure to do so. I actually have very little interest in sex. I’m vain and shallow, and I know it. I work out because I want to look good and my goal in life is to make lots of money and live by myself in a big fancy house. I care about no one else’s problems but my own, but I’m not a threat to anyone. I wouldn’t do anything illegal because I would be worried about being punished. I sound like a narcissist on paper, but on the other hand, I constantly point out my own faults to myself, and people always tell me I’m incapable of taking a compliment.

I guess my question is, what’s wrong with me?

Psychologist’s Reply

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There are clearly positive aspects of your character and your life, including your intellect, your academic achievements, and your vibrant social life at college. However, there seems to be an element missing from your life, namely, you may not have the current ability to access or experience your emotions. I say this because you readily point out your shortcomings yet you do not articulate how they limit you or affect you negatively. While you are aware of your low self-esteem, inability to empathize with others, lack of sexual desire, and superficial life goals, you do not state how these issues impact you. For example, why is your inability to empathize a problem for you? Do you feel a yearning to be more connected with others or, alternatively, do you feel like you should be closer to others because that is more socially appropriate?

I have the impression that you feel emotionally detached from others, yet you are either unaware of, or are disconnected from any emotional pain this might cause you. Instead of complaining of feelings of loneliness, for example, you instead ask whether there is something “wrong” with you and label yourself as a potential narcissist or “sociopath.” Your inability to connect emotionally with anyone could be the root of your problems, but that would be premature for me to conclude as I have not formally evaluated you in-person. People with mood disorders, and various forms of autism and Asperger’s disorder certainly have social deficits, as do individuals with schizoid, avoidant, and narcissistic personality traits. Does this mean you fit any of these psychological diagnostic terms? It is impossible to determine whether you have a formal psychological diagnosis at this point. However, a diagnostic label may be less informative than learning how to connect with yourself and your feelings and, in turn, others.

If you were my client, I would want to know more about your family life and peer relations as you were growing up. It sounds like you were quite isolated; this must have been extremely difficult for you. You say your parents were “wonderful,” but acknowledge they were emotionally constricted and held exceedingly high expectations. How, in turn, did this affect you personally? Did it cause you to shut down emotionally? What did you learn about relationships when you were teased and socially ostracized in school? A therapist can certainly help you sort through these underlying concerns and assist you in developing deeper connections to yourself and others. I encourage you to seek psychological assistance when you are ready to address these issues.

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