Updated: Oct 27, 2021
This post is a summary of Nancy McWilliam's chapter on Psychopathic personalities in her book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis.
In simplest terms, psychopaths are people that have no attachments to other people and have a strong desire to control and use them. This can range from monstrous serial killers to callous corporate executives willing to sacrifice human lives for profits or a promotion. Some psychopaths can be difficult to tell from “normal” people such as Bernie Madoff who integrated well into upper-class society only to be found out that he cared nothing for the people he was surrounded by, bilking them of billions of dollars. He’s what we might call a “passive-parasitic” psychopath versus an “aggressive-violent” one like Jeff Dahmer. In other words, it’s not what a psychopath does that makes them a psychopath, it’s what their internal world is like.
How did psychopaths get that way? Mother’s with multiple children can see plainly that even from birth, children have different temperaments. Some temperaments are likely more conducive to psychopathy. When combined with environments of abuse and neglect, or other critical events, a psychopath may emerge. Psychopaths have some key brain differences in the areas related to moral development, relational feelings (they only learn to speak in a relational way absent the actual emotions), and reactivity. For example, a psychopath might have the same emotional reaction to words like rape, and torture as they do to words like cup and carpet.
Psychopaths rely upon the defense of omnipotent control most often. Rather than feeling shame or guilt, they seek to control others and use them. While other personality types may end up making other people feel used because of how they relate to others, the psychopath uses people quite consciously and deliberately. They may dissociate from their actions and minimize the effects on others when discussing them, unless they are trying to impress someone. They act out their internal fear and anger on external objects (people).
Like narcissistic personality types, psychopaths may experience a profound shift in middle age when life exposes their limitations. Some of this might relate to decreases in hormones and also the development of some wisdom that they can’t control everyone and everything as they’d hope.
Psychopaths typically have developmental histories that include lack of stability and deep feelings of insecurity. For example, children who grow up in orphanages with no stable, loving figure present, may not internalize the ability to love. The urge to use omnipotent control as a defense is a reaction to combat this internal world of chaos and powerlessness.
There is no real sense of self within the psychopathically structured personality. They haven’t internalized other people the way most of us do. Other people are used in order to temporarily assert a sense of self, but this will diminish over time until the person must resort to another defensive act of omnipotent control to become “real” again. If you are noting the narcissism in this, you are correct. Psychopaths many times have a narcissistic grandiosity that they adopt to feel superior to others. Of course, this is a reaction to wanting to avoid the deep sense of emptiness and self-hate that is the true inner world of the psychopath. Envy, rather than jealousy is a dominant emotion of psychopaths. They wish to destroy what attracts them. Since they don’t possess a sense of self-worth, and don’t feel they actually deserve things or people that draw their attention, they react with an urge to obliterate those things.
A person who encounters a psychopath should avoid expressing empathy or sympathy as it will only be interpreted as weakness. One may feel a sense of being prey and should take that feeling seriously as attempts to ignore or not acknowledge those feelings may only result in the psychopath attempting to prove their power. You can’t expect love from a psychopath, but you can earn their respect by having strong boundaries and being tough-minded and honest.
Personality Analysis of the Psychopathic Personality References
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.