I am a sociopath

ME Thomas is a law professor, who has many friends and an enviable lifestyle.

I am a sociopath

But she has a secret, revealed in the title of her pseudonymous memoir, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight.

This is Thomas’s life story, from childhood to the moment a colleague told her she might be a sociopath, and her attempt to understand what this means for her. “I had no negative connotations when she first mentioned the word,” says Thomas. “But, now, thanks to TV shows like Dexter, sociopath is a label for someone evil.”

Thomas counters this negative perception. “I want to be more open,” she says. “Right now, it’s not safe, though. I want to take off the mask, but not until I change the world to make it a safer place for me.”

Between 1% and 4% of people are thought to be sociopaths. That’s one in 25 people. It could be you, or someone you know. If the label doesn’t signify a serial killer, how do we recognise sociopaths? A sociopath is egocentric, seeks new sensations, has high self-esteem and is intelligent and charming. “They don’t sound that bad, do they,” says Thomas, who is in her early 40s and lives in the States.

There are more negative characteristics. Sociopaths lack empathy; they don’t react to the emotional cues of others. They lack remorse and are deceitful.

Thomas felt she was on the outside looking in, separated from others by their emotions, which she did not feel. She was perceptive, able to sense how power moved between groups. She manipulated classmates and teachers.

Everything was calculated, including studying popular children and copying their interests to make herself more likeable. “I mimicked others, so that I could live in their midst,” says Thomas. “I learned from others how to act.” If this doesn’t sound unusual, there are more shocking stories. She drowned an animal in a swimming pool because it was easier than saving it; she writes of a metro worker she considered killing, or the people she has ruined.

“I crave being able to act in whatever way I want, without having to worry about the consequences,” says Thomas. “I typically fight that craving, but I have to have a way to blow-off steam. So I ruin people.”

This means befriending vulnerable people, making them dependent on her, and exploiting this dependence. She tells of Morgan, whose weaknesses she played until she lost her job, developed an eating disorder and became dysfunctional. “I was only sated when she hit rock bottom,” says Thomas.

Thomas has learned to regulate such behaviour. She says that sociopathy may not be clear-cut. She says we all belong on an empathy spectrum, with sociopaths at the extreme end.

Dr Patrick Ryan, director of clinical psychology at University of Limerick, agrees. “Sociopathy is just one of the labels we use to try to bring together the myriad factors that make up our identity,” he says. “But all of us have different elements of these types of personalities in our makeup.”

All of us, sociopaths included, need to regulate our emotions. “We become dangerous if we don’t,” says Ryan.

Sociopathy is nature and nurture. The genetics that underlie personality interact with your environment as you develop, making you the person you are.

“If someone has a vulnerability to aggression and grows up in a family where aggression is the norm, they will be entirely different to someone with that same vulnerability who grew up in a calm, loving family,” says Ryan.

Thomas thinks this was true of her. Her parents were volatile and paid such little attention to their children that they once left Thomas and her brother in a park.

“I think my genetic predisposition to sociopathy was triggered because I never learned to trust my parents,” she says. “They taught me I couldn’t rely on anyone to protect me, so I learned to depend on myself.”

She also learned to use her sociopathic traits — her charm and manipulation — to her advantage as a lawyer. “I’m a success in my professional exploits, not in spite of my sociopathic tendencies, but because of them,” she says.

Ryan says such tendencies are common to leaders. “Sociopaths are low in empathy, which leads to the popular belief that they don’t care much about others,” he says. “You wouldn’t want one as your childminder, but a sociopathic CEO of a multinational organisation would be popular with shareholders, because they would achieve the targets they desire.”

Ryan says the world needs such people. “We need them as leaders, especially in politics,” he says. “They don’t get overly concerned with their impact on others. They can rise above it, because they are not interested in if they’re liked or disliked.”

It might be easier if society knew how to deal with sociopaths. “There’s a way to do it,” says Thomas. “If a sociopath upsets you, the worst thing is to try to make them feel guilt or remorse. They’ll be insulted.

“Punishment doesn’t work, either, as they don’t care about bad consequences. Positive incentives are better, even just good words.”

She also encourages people not to be emotional. “Don’t get upset,” she says. “Go away, and come back when you can talk rationally. You’ll get a much better result. Sociopaths can be accommodating. You just need to approach them the right way.”

Thomas says she’d prefer not to be a sociopath. “I have difficulty maintaining relationships, especially romantic ones, so I would change if I could,” she says.

Ryan says we can learn from Thomas’s example. “It’s all about knowing the parts of yourself and regulating them,” he says. “Very few people are only evil and very few only good. The vast bulk of us are in the grey area and sociopathic personalities are no different.”

Speaking to ME Thomas was an oddly disconcerting experience. Like many people, I had certain preconceptions about sociopaths and was anxious that she might try to manipulate me by steering our conversation in a particular direction.

Instead, I found her utterly charming. She answered every question I asked with honesty and rationality and even sometimes with laughter. I found myself easily identifying with her. I also found myself wondering if I might be more like her than I’d previously realised. If one in every 25 people is said to be a sociopath, why not me too?

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