Thank you for your kind words. I'm going to go ahead and take a stab at responding to the question from the "young psychopath", as surely you knew I would when you appealed to my vanity, you sly devil you. ;-) You'll notice that my response does not include anything you've said about the non-existence of free will. Although I am in complete agreement with your thoughts on the subject, in the end, I don't know how practical it is. I have had some, shall we say, interesting epiphanies which lead me to believe that the self as it is normally understood, (and thus free will) are fantasies. But I also saw that there was nothing to be done about it after you see a "truth" like that yourself. I just had to get on with it, know what I mean? As they say in Zen, "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." I think you get what I'm saying.
And now, without further ado:
Dear Young Psychopath,
First of all, I am hesitant to call you a psychopath. A lot of people believe it it's not a good idea to label someone as young as you are that way for a variety of reasons. Also, I'm leery of using labels like sociopath and psychopath as descriptors because I think that outside of strictly clinical settings, they can be more confusing than helpful. You have to be particularly discerning to determine how useful these labels are on your own journey towards greater self understanding. Having said all of that, we are guests at Dr. Robert's site, and since for his own reasons he makes use of the term psychopath to describe people with little to no conscience, we will just go with it for conversational purposes and call it a day.
You sound like an intelligent and self aware young man. I've always been intelligent myself and I've known for as long as I could remember that I've been "different", but I didn't know how or why I was different when I was your age. Also, you are brave to ask for the unvarnished truth. I know people three times your age who "can't handle the truth" about almost anything. I could be wrong, but I think you may be underestimating yourself. You are far stronger than you think you are.
And now to get to your main question which was how to become "more human" and avoid hurting people. Let me ask you this. Have you hurt any animals yet? If you have, I'd say you definitely have reason to worry about possibly "moving up" to harming a human animal. Let me give you a warning. Once you have experienced sexual release as a result of killing an animal, it would probably only be a matter of time before you felt compelled to up the ante by taking a human life. I imagine (since I've never done this myself) that it's akin to trapping yourself in an obsessive loop of needing more and more sadistic pleasure. It would be like becoming an addict. Addicts have given their personal power away to their need to obtain their next fix. That is what you'd become. You would be no better than a crack wh~re. You are insightful. Surely you can see that giving in to the desire to physically hurt an animal, even once, greatly increases the likelihood that you will become a slave to your impulses, which would in turn make you weak, vulnerable and powerless. You also greatly increase the likelihood of spending your life in prison. All of which is why you must never kill an animal if you wish to maintain your autonomy, both personally as well as socially. If you haven't harmed an animal, then I'd say you've been successful in reigning in your more destructive impulses. Keep doing what you're doing.
I'd also add, since you seem to be concerned about becoming a serial killer (because that's what this is about, isn't it?) that you practice some kind of what I call down and dirty cognitive therapy on yourself. It requires vigilance, but you sound capable of it. By cognitive therapy, I simply mean that you watch for "triggers", events in your environment that are like an invitation to certain parts of your brain to generate thoughts that in turn lead to sadistic fantasies. If you haven't tried this already, you might want to start off with just noticing those thoughts as they appear in your mind. Don't resist them or argue with them in any way. But don't act on them either. Just take notice. Watch them as they appear and watch as they disappear within your consciousness. The act of merely observing the sadistic thoughts will detach you from them. This detachment will return your internal power back to you as you realize that you are not merely your thoughts or your fantasies. (What I've just suggested is a meditative technique of sorts. Trying meditation itself might be something you can look into as well.) Next, if you feel this is wise or safe, try writing down or typing some of the specific thoughts surrounding your desire to harm others. After doing that, question the truthfulness of those thoughts. For example, say you write down a thought like, "Killing that woman would give me great ecstasy and bliss." After writing that thought down, ask yourself if it's true. Is it true that killing that woman would give you ecstasy? If your mind says yes, continue to challenge it with questions like these: Are you sure? How long would the ecstasy last, realistically speaking? What happens after the "thrill is gone?" What happens to you after you have to pick the pieces and clean up your mess? What would acting on your impulse to kill make you and do you really want to be that? Would killing that woman be in your long term best interests? And so on. In a sense, the idea is to cross examine yourself. Then you could try following the thought you have just questioned with more productive ones, like "Killing that woman might lead to all sorts of consequences that I do not wish to experience." Perhaps you might even take a few moments to visualize what those consequences might be like for you. And if none of the above resonates with you, use it as a means of spurring on your own research into various ways you can perform what I call mental hygiene, which is nothing more than a cutesy label for thought regulation.
Another option is to develop an ethical code that you will adhere to no matter what. Granted, it might be harder for you if you have no strong innate moral emotion, but if you're truly afraid of what you might do, then strictly following a code of ethics as a behavior management technique can't hurt. I am not the best one to advise anyone on ethics mind you, but it could work in your case.
Yet another option is telling your parents the truth and asking them to get you professional help, especially if you think you really are on the verge of doing something you'll regret. Obsession thrives in the dark of secrecy after all.
Also, consider the possibility that this is just a phase. You might resent the idea of some anonymous adult suggesting that to you. But, as a smart and self aware young man, surely you understand that it might be true nevertheless. Perhaps your sadistic desires will level off with time. There is such a thing as simply "growing out of" something.
Finally, a few thoughts about striving for normality. First, you can never be like other people, whether you're a psychopath or not. You can only be yourself and that is definitely a good thing. Believe me, "being normal" is not a worthy aspiration in any event. That is something that a little casual observation will make abundantly clear to you, if it hasn't already. I don't even know if such a place called "normal" exists anyway. Second, although being relatively conscienceless does indeed separate you from most people, you would be surprised to discover that many so called normal folk feel alien also. A lot people your age in particular have felt alienated from their peers in one way or the other. You can take some solace in that. What normal folk call growing up so often really means learning to become comfortable wearing a mask in order to blend in with other inauthentic mask wearers. As you will see for yourself, it's all absurd, hence the widespread sense of alienation. Third, if by "becoming more human" you mean something like developing a conscience where none currently exists or enabling yourself to experience deep and complex emotions in the way that other people appear to, then I'm afraid you're out of luck. If you are telling the truth about all of this, then I would advise you to accept that you will not change. You are not going to grow a conscience if you haven't grown one by now and because of that, you will always be apart. You will live and die knowing that you were not quite human, at least not as "being human" is popularly defined. But if you can accept this now, you will save yourself loads of confusion and hassle later. Resisting what you are might in fact make what you're resisting stronger. As the cliché goes, what you resist persists. Accept yourself as you are and then learn to manage your thoughts and behavior. That's my advice. And again, judging by the tone and quality of your email, I'd say that you have an excellent chance of refraining from doing other people bodily harm and of playing the role of productive adult, only as you define productive.
You are welcome.
As much as I do not mind being called
"sly," or being called "devil" for that matter
(and knowing full well that occasionally a therapy will require
something of both roles from the therapist), in this case it was not
specifically your vanity to which I meant to appeal, but only
the vanity, and possible good thinking, of some reader or another.
Nevertheless, it was you who replied, and your reply is, I believe,
another well-thought out and useful one. Thanks for it. I will add it
to the dr-robert website as a reply to the "young sociopath."
Regarding my use of the term
"psychopath," I agree that labeling people is not a good
idea—indeed, I have said as much at many places in my dr-robert
writing—and this goes double for young people. I use the
word because psychopathy is still a term of art for psychiatrists and
psychologists, and because the meaning of that term has become
increasingly burdened by connotations of behavior instead of a
pertinent focus on psychological tendencies.
As a psychologist, my essential stance
towards any behavior is to try to understand what underlies it
prior to judging or condemning it in any way, and certainly
prior to explaining it away by pasting a label on it. My method of
fostering that non-judgmental approach to psychopathy (or sociopathy
if you prefer that word) involves using the word (which I
agree is a loaded word which carries negative connotations
inevitably, and for which a substitute should be devised), but then
unpacking the psychology behind the word to try to rescue it
insofar as possible both from the largely incorrect public
imagination, as well as from the forces of social control who want to
redefine every psychological category in terms only of
As I have explained often, the same
action might be carried out by two different people, and appear as
similar or even identical behaviors, while the psychology
behind the action is very different. For example, two men rob a 7-11.
In the course of the crime, the clerk is murdered. Back at their
hideout, one man thinks, "What have I done? Suppose there really
is a hell?," while the second says to himself, "It was his
fault. If he hadn't resisted he would still be alive, the fool."
In my understanding, the second man is psychopathic; the first is
not. If we pervert all the psychological terminology by morphing
their original meanings into new meanings defined only by
behavior, we will have taken the focus of "psychology" away
from the psyche, and put it simply on law-enforcement and
As for "chop wood, carry water,"
yes, simply noticing something doesn't exempt one from having to
carry on living, but my speculation is that a first look at the
idea that free will is a chimera—a first look into the void,
so to speak—might engender in someone a new appreciation of the
need for what you call "ethics." It certainly did in me. By
the way, you and I agree on that point too: that "strictly
following a code of ethics" could help the young man. I have a
draft of a reply to his question which suggests that specifically. I
was not fully satisfied with that letter, so it is still sitting on
my desktop, but your reply to him covers the point well enough, so it
will become the "official" one.
Interesting. You say compassion dawned in your own awareness when you saw that we’re all doing the best we can under the peculiar circumstances we happen to find ourselves in. (I’m obviously paraphrasing your last two comments.) Can you tell me if you feel compassion, as in, is it an emotion as well as a kind of behavior for you?
You know, it sounds to me as if we’ve had similar “insights” into the nature of subjective experience. But it also sounds like our differing genetic endowments lead us to dissimilar interpretations of those “insights”. For instance, you say that compassionate intelligence, self forgiveness and giving others a break were for you the direct results of seeing things more deeply than most. I completely understand that. It makes sense even. As you can imagine however, I have a colder and more arid view. These “insights” also gave much more credence to my instinctively nihilistic world view. I’m inclined to believe that of the two, my cynical view is more likely to be accurate and reliable than your kinder vision. Would you agree, or is there in your opinion, a “truth of the matter”? Doesn’t your “insight” lead you to amorality? If not, why not?
Various traditions have posited
compassion as a basic human endowment. For example, the Buddhist
teacher, Chogyam Trungpa maintained that the deepest ground of our
being is characterized by what he called "fundamental sanity,"
by which he meant that beneath all the fantasy and the endless
internal chatter lies a calm center which exists prior to and apart
from the endless stream of thoughts, fears, desires, etc. In this
view, through intentional effort one can shift attention away from
the chatter and self-centered striving and so make contact with the
"original mind"--an awareness free from seeking, free from
self-aggrandizement--a mind which naturally, according to this view,
feels kinship with all sentient beings.
For many people, this is a comfortable
idea, but it might be mistaken. Perhaps someone like yourself who has
"a colder and more arid view" is also in touch with some
kind of fundamental sanity, and that sanity—a psychopathic
sanity (I know you dislike the term, but at present there is no
substitute)—sees the world differently from Trungpa or Dr. Robert,
but perhaps not less meaningfully or less realistically. In fact, you
believe that your view is more accurate than mine, which
implies, in a way, that you believe it to be more sane.
I think the lesson here is that
probably the matter at hand will never be resolved. After all, the
human brain evolved to hunt, gather, and procreate, not to fathom
ultimate matters, so why would anyone believe that such a brain could
ever understand its own nature as a "mind." Anyway, I do
not necessarily agree with Trungpa. I think it more reasonable to
suppose that human evolution has provided for various kinds of
minds—some compassionate and some not—all of which were helpful
in the struggle for survival of the species, which is why those same
traits have perdured into the present. This is why I continue, unlike
most of my colleagues, to try to understand psychopathy as a natural
state of mind and not a "disease" or mental illness.
To answer your questions directly:
1. Like love (which perhaps you also
have never felt), for me compassion is both a feeling and
something I do in the world—a way of being with others, let's say.
For example, if I see a hungry person sitting alone in an alley, I am
quite likely to buy some food and present him with it. Why? Because,
requiring food myself, I understand hunger, and feel the suffering of
someone who is hungry. If I come across an animal with a thorn in its
foot, I will try to remove it—just as I would want someone to
remove a thorn from my foot.
2. As my behavior is not guided—not
consciously anyway--by any tradition, rule book, or statement of
religious principles, I would say that I am amoral. In fact, I
view conventional morality as a mode of social control aimed at
people who do not have sufficient intelligence to think for
themselves, just as I view doctrinal religion as a mode of social
control aimed a people who lack sufficient imagination to search for
meaning in life without requiring fairy tales to sustain that search.
I do, however, feel myself influenced by an ethical understanding
which is finds its roots in my awareness of the fragility of living
beings and their capacity for suffering.
Daniel, you have added a great deal to
this forum. Your questions are good ones, and go to show that one
does not require a capacity for remorse in order to think deeply. By
the way, you will find your helpful reply to the "young
Hello again, Daniel--
Yes of course questions about ultimate matters don’t exist outside of the human brain, and, because questions of any stripe are a human experience, neither does any other category of question, nor does compassion, which also is a human experience. That seems clear enough, so we agree.
In my own life, compassion was not something learned—morality or ethics can be taught and learned, but not compassion--but arose when I felt the full implications of ones absolute aloneness as a ego. I am quite willing to admit that such an experience may not be universal. Evidently just from reading some of the posts on this forum it is clearly and emphatically not universal. But that does not make it imaginary unless you want to torture the world "imaginary" by using it to characterize any thought or emotion whatsoever.
In other words, to feel compassion, like feeling love, is a human possibility, but perhaps not one which is available to each and every human being.
My argument about so-called "psychopathy" is simply that those to whom such experiences are not available are not necessarily somehow deficient—at least not all of them--but perhaps just different, and that as long as a psychologist insists on defining such differences as pathological, he or she will never fully appreciate or comprehend the psychological details behind them.
Empathy is a strong suit of mine, but I do find people like yourself a bit difficult to understand empathically, so I am forced to use whatever intellect I can bring to bear instead. I leave it to you and others like you to judge how I am doing in that regard. However, your sarcastic comments about the picture did not annoy me at all. I took your experience of the picture at face value—as a true reflection of what you felt when you looked at it. Everyone is different, and I am rarely—almost never--annoyed when confronted by such differences. In fact, appreciating the differences between one person and another, and seeking to explore them as deeply as possible is the sine qua non of the work I do.
Yes, I have gotten some nasty feedback from fellow psychologists, but the worst abuse comes from people who imagine that anyone who lacks compassion is automatically a criminal, and that I, by refusing to condemn such people wholesale, am simply encouraging them.
I think your open minded approach to colder fishes like me is refreshing. I imagine you get a lot of questions from so called socio/psychopaths for precisely this reason. Also your definition is simple and clear (if a person lacks what is thought of as a conscience, you consider them psychopaths) which is nice for those of us who can’t put an affirmative checkmark next to every item on Hare’s famous list. And you don’t consider people like me to be evil incarnate, which is always a plus. :-) I think you’re doing just fine in the psychopath empathy category.
Thank you for taking my response to that picture at face value. Again, really noticing my lack of instinctive empathy is new to me, so for a while after that initial interaction, I looked up a variety of pictures and videos online of human and animal violence just to see if I could generate feelings of disgust or righteous indignation or sadness or fear, etc. I did find some of it intriguing to watch, but no, even the infamous 3 Guys 1 Hammer video didn’t stir any great feelings of sympathy within me, although I didn’t like the gurgling sounds the victim made. The closest I could come to something resembling pity was wishing they’d go ahead and finish it already.
So for you, seeing absolute aloneness lead to a growth in compassion, while for me it did not. Fascinating. I don’t think compassion is imaginary per se. It’s no more imaginary than any other emotion. If you feel it, you feel it. And in modern society, compassionate action is made easier. Even so, I think compassion, like so many other emotions normals report feeling, especially love, can be a blinder if one isn’t careful. I imagine that outside of the safeguards of modernity, compassionate and love inspired action can be maladaptive in an environment composed of other selfish individuals.
Speaking of, you asked in one of your previous comments if I’d experienced love. I know I don’t I have to make any arguments with you about the subjective nature of love and how the definitions of said emotion differ among various groups and blah, blah, blah. You obviously get all of that already. I could say yes I have loved, but I gather that my experience of love would seem rather paltry comparatively speaking. I mean, I have what I think of as affection for a few people, especially my nieces and nephews when they were young. (Once they became teenagers they also became tedious in all of their never ending, hormonally driven drama.) But I can hear about folks dying or being gravely ill and not feel a thing for instance, family included. I of course change my facial expression and tone of voice to mimic concern since I understand this greases the wheels of social interaction. In fact, my family and friends consider me to be one of the kindest and most understanding people they know. Only my niece has seen a truer version of myself in recent years. She’s in her late teens and seems to fit the profile for what they call Oppositional Defiance Disorder to a tee. Unfortunately for her, she wears her aggressive feelings on her sleeves, which makes life difficult for her and almost all who have to deal with her. Except me. She never gives me the problems she gives others because I understand her and she knows that. I am relatively honest with her in a way that I’m not with most other people. Does that mean I love her? (That question is half rhetorical, half not.)
I’m also being uncharacteristically honest here on these forums because it’s anonymous and it costs me nothing. Everyone else in my life interacts with a series of masks I’ve honed since I was a teenager myself. And recently I’ve increased my deception quotient considerably as I considered implementing several ideas I’ve been mulling over. Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting here that I’m planning anything violent or even illegal. I just figured it was time for certain folks in my life to serve me, so I used the lies they live their lives by to my advantage. They’ll give me what I want without them ever knowing it. You might even say that they’re using my lies as an excuse to generate happy feelings within themselves. It was all too easy, absurdly so even. Some of these people are members of my family. Do I love them, these people I’ve lied to? I’d like to think I care for my mother, even though she’s one of the people I’ve deceived. I do care for her. I’d also like to think that I’d be upset if she died. But do I love her? I could say yes since there is no objective definition of the term. Maybe that means love is whatever we want it to be, like any other nonsense term. But like I said, when I compare my experience with what other people report when they talk about loving someone, perhaps I don’t. Perhaps I’ve never actually loved anyone else. I don’t really know. How would I know?
How do you know when you love someone? I don’t just mean romantically either of course.
For me, loving someone means that you wish the best for that person (or other species of animal, for that matter), and that you hope for him or her to find contentment and happiness even if that means that you end up losing out somehow. For example, a mother goes hungry so that her child can have something to eat.
The excellent British film, "Separate Lies" deals with just this theme, and I commend it to you if you can find it. If you do, let me know what you make of it.
However, as you rightly point out, love may mean something different to someone else--it is one of those words which defy exact definition. Much easier to say what it is not: not desire, not sexual heat, not need to possess, etc.
Thanks for making the effort to see the
film. I am glad you enjoyed it. And, yes, the movie was a classic
character study which was why I recommended it to you as part of our
conversation about differences in human character.
You wrote, "I love how reason and
science sweeps away the cobwebs of mythology whenever they turn their
piercing gaze on any subject, especially ones like religion, human
origins, and love."
Yes, science has great explanatory
value, but also has its limitations. Reducing all human experience to
mechanics fails to explain many things, and the best scientific minds
avoid such reductionism. This is particularly true in areas such as
beauty, poetry, love, etc. Evolutionary psychology is an interesting
field, but, in my opinion, falls very far short of elucidating the
origins of love and compassion. Speculation--even very intelligent
speculation--is not evidence.
I understand that it might be
comforting to someone who does not feel love or compassion to reduce
such experiences to mere operations of the brain--and in a way they are,
as I said in my last post--but human experience comprises enigmas
which the best science understands are unfathomable. For example, Max
Planck. 1932: "Every advance in knowledge brings us face to face
with the mystery of our own being." Or Sir Arthur Eddington.
1929: "We have learned that the exploration of the external
world by the methods of the physical sciences leads not to a concrete
reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods
are unadapted for penetrating."
This is because the brief of science is
to understand things which are quantifiable, but love and
compassion, when truly experienced, are quite beyond measure. This is
why universities have faculties of science and faculties of
arts and letters. This, by the way, does not imply anything
"supernatural." It simply means that science has no way to
explain our internal experience of the world, which might be quite
natural but also inexplicable. For example, science can analyze the
chemistry of an apple, and can pinpoint the areas of the brain which
are activated when one bites into an apple, but science has no way to
explain the subjective taste of an apple. To put this in generalized
formal terms: qualia are beyond scientific interpretation.
Now this is the very point you miss
when you ask, "How can we say what it's not if we can't say
what it is?" Let me explain. Suppose you were blind to the color
red, as many people in fact are, but you could see other colors. If
you came to me, who can see red, and asked me what red is like, I
would have absolutely no way to explain that to you. Speaking of the
wavelength of red or the receptors in the retina or the brain
(science) would avail not at all. The best I could do would be to
say, "Well, Daniel, red is a color but it isn't blue, it isn't
green, and it isn't yellow." This is what happens when a
psychopath (sorry, I know you hate that term, and I don't like it
much either, but have no other) asks me to explain love or elucidate
compassion. In fact, this happens sometimes in my practice. I am
reduced to saying what those experiences are not, which is,
basically, that they are not about getting your way, or achieving
your goals, or being satisfied, or coming out ahead.
I stress this point because while it is
true that fallacious cobwebs need sweeping away, and that good
science often serves as the broom, that does not mean that
love, compassion, beauty, poetry, etc. are fallacies, or can be
explained away by science. That is why I emphasized in my last post
that such experiences are not imaginary. A self-described
"cold fish" such as yourself might want to reduce
everything to science and logic, but doing that is like wearing
blinders which will screen your view from much of human experience, even if it is not your experience.
No, love certainly is NOT simply
cognitive in nature. That is the entire point. Love is a mystery
which is quite beyond explaining. That mystery has a particular
flavor which, once tasted, can never be forgotten. It cannot be
taught. It cannot be learned. It can only be felt and experienced (or
In the film, Bill felt no love at all.
He cared only for himself. But James truly loved Anne, and his last
gesture in the story demonstrated that love. His concern was not that
he had somehow been cheated, but that she might feel guilty for
having abandoned him, and he wished, motivated by his love for her,
to assuage her guilt and leave her happy even if he was not. Clearly,
as you stated, you would not be capable of such a gesture since, like
Bill, you care only for yourself, and would be more attracted to
vengeance than tenderness. Please understand that in saying that I
mean no disrespect at all. Having taken my measure by reading my
website and my replies to you, I think you already know that. I just
like to see things as they are without judgment either pro or con.