baked byKaren McGrane
“How can you live with yourself?”
Everyone has been hurt by a loved one or close colleague, sometimes badly wounded. Callousness, lies, back-stabbings, betrayals—these knives pierce deep. The most damaging cuts come from the people we thought we could trust.
Truth is, none of us are saints. We’ve all hurt other people. How do you live with yourself, knowing you’ve damaged—even devastated—someone you care about?
Asking implies a simpler and yet more damning question: Do you have a conscience or not?
Most of us have a conscience. Conscience sits someplace closer than morals, more intimate to your self than external religious or legal dictums. It’s the still, small voice that speaks loudest in the middle of the night. It’s empathy and compassion, an inability to behave cruelly towards the people closest to you because you can imagine how you’d feel in their shoes. You strive to act honorably towards other people because you couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t. Go against your conscience, and your feelings of regret, remorse, guilt, and shame remind you to act differently next time. The pain you feel when you violate your conscience ensures that you consider and respect other people.
Not everyone has a conscience. Like a small but vital subroutine absent from their operating system, some people simply don’t feel empathy, aren’t troubled by guilt. Remorse doesn’t wake them up at 3am. They know right from wrong—they just don’t care. Research shows that 3–4% of the population operates without a conscience:
About one in twenty-five individuals are sociopathic, meaning, essentially, that they do not have a conscience. It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. —Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door
“Sociopath” makes you imagine a cold-blooded murderer, a serial killer who wears his victim’s skin as a hat. The reality of not having a conscience can be more mundane and more insidious. It’s the investor who buys a business by promising to help it grow and then shuts it down, destroying a life’s work. It’s the girlfriend who gives you a hug and tells you how much she cares about you while she stabs you in the back. It’s the husband who carries out multiple affairs, lying to his wife’s face and making her feel like she’s crazy for being suspicious. It’s the boss who takes credit for her employees’ accomplishments when they’re useful and fires them without a second thought when they’re not. It’s the freeloading boyfriend who gets his comfortable lifestyle provided by a string of girlfriends.
It’s someone who repeatedly and callously uses people as pawns, manipulating and deceiving and betraying them, who then walks away without so much as a backwards glance when she gets what she wants—what she believes she’s entitled to.
People without a conscience are usually quite charming, glowing with charisma. People who behave horribly don’t wear a sign around their necks to warn you. Just the opposite. Their social skills are like prosthetic devices, learned behaviors to help ingratiate themselves with the rest of us. They teach themselves how to build a false sense of intimacy; they learn how to play off your pity.
With one in twenty-five odds, chances are you’ve met a few sociopaths in your life. Even if you think this phenomenon must be more rare—say, one in a hundred? One in a thousand? They’re still out there. If you’ve met someone whose behavior left you gasping “how can you live with yourself?” the answer might very well be that they just don’t have the inner sensibility that keeps them in check. They run roughshod over the rest of us, because they simply don’t feel pangs of remorse.
This difference between normal emotional functioning and sociopathy is almost too fantastic for those of us with conscience to grasp, and so for the most part, we refuse to believe such a hollowness of emotion can exist. And unfortunately, our difficulty in crediting the magnitude of this difference places us in peril. —The Sociopath Next Door
There is no reasoning with a sociopath. He’s not going to grow a conscience because you explain his behavior was wrong; she’s not going to feel compassion when you tell her how much she hurt you. The only answer is to walk—no, run—away. Cut your losses, and don’t look back.