Whether we're trying to describe the ex from hell, or the friend who ghosted out of nowhere, we tend to throw around the word "sociopath" a lot. But sociopathy is complex, to say the least.
"Sociopath is basically defined as someone who lacks empathy and really has an absence of it," says Laura Dabney, MD, a psychiatrist based in Virginia. "They can’t tolerate intimacy or abandonment."
Sociopathy is also known as antisocial personality disorder, though it's very different from what we would think of as being antisocial (i.e., not wanting to spend a lot of time with other people). Dr. Dabney says that the behaviors we think of as antisocial, on layman's terms, are more accurately described as social withdrawal.
"Social withdrawal is a symptom, whereas sociopathy is actually a disorder and a large group of symptoms," she explains. "Social withdrawal, on the other hand, can be a symptom of other disorders, like social anxiety, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder."
Sociopaths, she says, typically don't socially withdraw, at least not for a lengthy period of time.
"They typically only socially withdraw when they feel too close to someone, but they rush back because they don’t like to be away from people for too long," Dr. Dabney says. "So we usually don’t classify [social withdrawal] as a symptom of sociopathy."
Sociopaths typically only socially withdraw when they feel too close to someone.
Laura Dabney, MD
It's normal to retreat inwards when we feel exhausted by people, but Dr. Dabney says that sociopaths break ties with people in a more egregious way — typical behaviors can include lying, manipulating, or generally disrespecting someone.
In that sense, she says that it isn't possible to have a relationship with a sociopath and it's advised that anyone who has a loved one with antisocial personality disorder gets help from a mental health professional for themselves. Having a loved one who is a sociopath can mean a lifelong process of managing that relationship, if it's a person who is going to stay in your life, and it's important to have professional support.
It's not impossible for the sociopath themselves to get treatment, but because sociopaths have a hard time seeing themselves objectively, they often recognize the need for professional help.
"You have to be able to say 'there’s something wrong with me' or 'there's something wrong with this thing that I’m going through' to be able to go to a therapist," Dr. Dabney says. "They’re so vulnerable that they can’t do that. Instead, they find justifications for their behavior."
There aren't very many statistics out there on exactly how many people have antisocial personality disorder, but Dr. Dabney says that rest assured, it's very rare — way rarer than simply feeling antisocial every now and then.