This is a question I get all of the time: How not to raise a child sociopath or narcissist? People ask this question because teenagers can look like they’re sociopaths or narcissists, but they’re healthy teens.
So, what’s the difference?
To start, we need to understand what a sociopath and narcissist are. If we don’t fully understand this, we’re not going to be able to avoid it or avoid raising a child sociopath or narcissist. These terms have been in the news a lot, and we in psychology have them under the umbrella of personality disorder. It’s a terrible phrase, I know, but that’s the phrase we use. Personality disorders have many different forms, two of them which are sociopaths and narcissist.
So, what’s at the heart of that?
People with personality disorders can’t do relationships. Some people actually can’t tolerate relationships, but they want them terribly. It’s an awful dilemma for them, and most of this is unconscious. What you’ll see is they can’t tolerate closeness, and they can’t tolerate distance. And those two things are kind of at the poles of all healthy relationships.
What do I mean by that?
If you’re healthy and in a healthy relationship, what that means is you’re getting close, and you’re getting distant, you’re getting close, and you’re getting distant. Let’s say you have a girlfriend, you see her, and you have a great time, and then you don’t see her, and you do other things; all healthy relationships are like that.
They Can’t Tolerate Closeness or Distance for Very Long
What happens with a narcissist or sociopath is that they can’t tolerate closeness for very long because it feels like being taken over. So, to them, closeness starts feeling like being invaded, being taken over, being eliminated; it becomes a terrible feeling for them. Just like distancing becomes an awful feeling for them because it feels like abandonment, a terrible loss.
Both of these feel like extremes to the personality disorder patients, so they avoid them. And how they avoid them is by wiggling around in the middle; instead of doing close and distancing they’re getting close and then doing something to break the closeness such as arguing, cheating, lying, attacking – whatever it is, they’ve got to get away, and they do, but they can’t stay away. After they’re apart, it starts to feel like a terrible loss, terrible abandonment. Then they become charming and loving, helpful, and wonderful to get close again. And then the cycle repeats.
So, we’ve all seen people have these types of relationships. When they’re together, everything is great, and then they have a big blow-up and breakup and repeat this cycle; it can even be marriage and divorce, marriage, and divorce. This is the hallmark – winging around back and forth between the two extremes.
What to Look for
One tip-off to spot if you’re dealing with somebody who is a narcissist, sociopath, someone with some other personality disorder: inconsistencies. If you spot someone friendly with somebody and they’re close, but behind their back, they talk negatively about that person – it doesn’t add up. They’re getting close with the person; then they get the distancing they need by talking badly about them.
The other way you may see this is a lie. You may see somebody tell someone news about something like, “the stock is doing great,” but behind their back, you hear a lie, “well, the stock isn’t doing well.” And it’s confusing because you can’t see the advantage. Until you think about it in these terms, right? They got close to the person by being “helpful,” and the person was probably very grateful, and they had this bonding moment, which they then had to break by lying. The lying is like a secret: “I have distance from you because I know something you don’t.”
Or the other way you may see this is they may become a trusted advisor or a trusted person with this person as a worker, a helping hand. This is like embezzlement: what sociopaths do with embezzlement or thieves is they become the trusted housekeeper or trusted pet-sitter or the trusted right-hand person at the office, and then they’re doing something to break that by undermining it somehow – undermining the business, undermining the person, stealing, taking things – somehow breaking the closeness.
That inconsistency you’ve never understood before, you may be able to understand now in terms of closeness and distancing.