Friday, July 30, 2010

The Accidental Sociopath

My partner and I often discuss the film, Girl, Interrupted, as a blurred portrait of the borderline/sociopath.  In the film, the borderline personality is the main character, Susannah, played by Winona Ryder, but the character we both think most people see as borderline in the film is Lisa, played by Angelina Jolie. Lisa, however, is a sociopath.  (For Angelina's critique of the film, click here.)  Part of the reason we imagine this blurred portrait happens is that the general public misconceives of borderline personality as a standard sociopath.  Someone who will, as a therapist once described to me, cut your throat and laugh while you bleed out on the floor.  This is partly a problem of misinformation, partly a problem of cultural and professional bias against borderline personalities as difficult, scary, or overwhelming, and partly a problem of there being something a little bit true in the blurring of these two types.  There are moments when borderlines skid sideways into sociopathy:
Clearly there are fundamental differences between borderline personalities and sociopaths, differences which I appreciate. At the same time, when the borderline personality’s rage or desperation is evoked, one sees (and not rarely) responses that can closely correspond to the sociopath’s calculating, destructive mentality.
Once inside this mentality, I’m suggesting that borderline personality-disordered individuals can lapse into a kind of transient sociopathy. Commonly, victims of the “borderline’s” aberrant, vicious behaviors will sometimes react along the lines of, “What is wrong with you? Are you some freaking psychopath?” They will say this from the experience of someone who really has just been exploited as if by a psychopath.

Because this isn’t the borderline personality’s default mentality (it is the sociopath’s), several psychological phenomena must occur, I think, to enable his temporary descent into sociopathy. He or she must regress in some way; dissociate in some fashion; and experience a form of self-fragmentation, for instance in response to a perceived threat—say, of abandonment.

These preconditions, I suggest, seed the borderline personality’s collapse into the primitive, altered states of self that can explain, among other phenomena, his or her chilling (and necessary) suspension of empathy. This gross suspension of empathy supports his or her “evening the score” against the “victimizer” with the sociopath’s remorseless sense of entitlement.

For the most part, this article by Steve Becker trips my internal Borderline Bias Alarm System.  Lights flash.  Sirens set my teeth on edge.  For one thing, it's posted on a blog called LoveFraud.  Ick.   The article is part of the dense cyberforest of anti-borderline treatises, rants, warnings, and notes of regret posted to the web by non-borderlines about borderlines.  So I take what Steve Becker says with a grain of salt.


I'm intrigued by the idea of the transient sociopath.  It rolls off the tongue like the accidental tourist or armchair psychologist or incidental charges.

If you read the chapters, "Rocket Girl" and "Tantrum Artist," in Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, you will see that I descended into near-psychosis as a result of remaining suspended for too long in an affair with an unavailable lover.  I didn't have thoughts of "evening the score," as Becker says, but I definitely regressed, dissociated, and experienced temporary self-fragmentation.  I lingered on the psychotic end of the neurotic-psychotic borderline spectrum.  I collapsed, on occasion, into primitive, altered states of consciousness.

So.  What do you think of Becker's ideas about borderline personality and transient sociopathy?  

Do admissions (like my own) of a borderline breakdown that blurs lines between crazy-borderline and crazy-sociopathic risk further misidentifications of and biases towards the borderline personality?

Has your borderline personality ever threatened to trade hats with its sociopathic best friend?

What are we to make of this intersection of diagnoses?


  1. I remember being a freshman in high school, when my mother and I went and saw Girl, Interrupted. Since that time (1999, 2000...something like that)I have worn out 2 VHS and 2 dvd copies of that movie (my third dvd copy is beginning to skip, so it looks like I'm going to have to buy it again soon). For so long, I had felt so lonely, and although my favorite performance was Ms. Jolie's, I have to say, never in my life have I related so much to a character like I did Susanna Kayson. It wasn't until February of 2009 when I was finally "diagnosed" as borderline, when everything about myself finally started making sense. I, too, have outbursts that could easily be considered "sociopathic"...I was late for work this morning as I had an "episode" that lasted from 7:00 last night to about 8:00 this morning. I become scary, I know I do. I terrify my friends, family, and my loved ones when it happens. I can see how the lines can be blurred, but that isn't what I'm like all the time, unlike a 'true' sociopath. But I don't think that there are solid, defining lines to anything psychological really. All of the "disorders" tend to morph into one another quite frequently.

    By the way...reading this was really what I needed this morning. Thank you.

  2. Danielle, I'm so glad it was timely for you today! Thanks for responding. As we "come out" of the borderline closet, we still have to own up to these embarrassing episodes of rage so we don't replace one partial picture (borderline as sociopath) with another (borderline as abandoned child).

  3. Great post! I, too, think that non-BPs on the web are too quick to speak from their own wounded child places. However, like you, I find this guy to have some good points. The "suspension of empathy" definitely sounds right. It is not that the BP wants to "even the score," and therefore is going to hurt you and lash out. It seems to me that when having these episodes, the BP is frantically trying to get her/his own needs met and isn't much concerned at that point with the feelings of the person who has kept them in emotional limbo.

  4. i never realized "fear of abandonment" as the main reason for my stumbling into the more negative part of the bpd spectrum. i think when one is angry/frustrated, there could be ways of channeling that anger in productive ways or at least so as to tire one out (i.e. running, kickboxing). On the other hand, I try the "opposite action" approach--lean towards forcing myself to partake in cheerier music, literature and social activities. i have only recently tried this, but i think i do freak out at all of the associations with bpd and violent crime in the media. i know i am not always an angel and if i had endured what aileen wuernos had...then maybe i would be prone to more violent orientations. i just thank my lucky stars that i did not end up in a less helpful or healthy scene of sorts. i have many glbtq male and female friends and have dated women. for fear of sounding reductive and plain stupid, do women with bpd traits have more of an open/fluid understanding of gender roles and respresentations. it is not good to lump/stereotype but lohan and jolie are rumored to have bpd traits and both have publicly been with women and there are a few "out" women living with bpd traits involved with women. i am not man hating by any means, but i feel a bit more physically, sexually and emotionally attracted to women more so than men. ok, enough for now--hope it makes sense without offending anyone. tricky stuff--so individualized yet there are these shared experiences and perceptions.

  5. I've had these episodes too, that have caused others in my life to accuse me of being psychotic, but the word sociopath was never used, because in my experience, my episodes were always motivated by strong emotion-- so strong that I felt I couldn't control it. And in that way it was very different from the "stab you and watch you bleed out while laughing" type of situation because directly following and even sometimes-- during-- my episodes I would experience extreme guilt.

    I think for me, "psychotic" episodes involved instances where I felt very betrayed-- and in a way that is a type of abandonment, I suppose. So I would strike out in "revenge" but I was never happy or proud of this revenge, there was always a self loathing and sadness involved.

    Another thing, is that apart from these episodes-- in my experience-- I am not normally incredibly difficult to deal with the way Angelina Jolie's character is, in the film. And in my experience, I have been able to have good relationships free from drama in some settings-- it's only in moments of real, or presumed betrayal that I have lost control and had episodes.

    It's sad that the episodes end up being the one thing that people remember, though. I know I have a problem and am working to fix it but being stereotyped or remembered for a few really bad instances, makes it rather hard sometimes.

  6. Thanks for that distinction, Meg - the motivation is very much rooted in emotional dysregulation, so that surely distinguishes these tantrums or lashings out at people from the behaviors of sociopaths.

  7. I enjoy the phrase "transient psychosis," for the same reason you mention here ... it's so euphonious, somehow. I also like its seesaw im/balance ... PSYCHOSIS! ... but TRANSIENT! ... but PSYCHOSIS!

    I never thought about "transient sociopath" before. My understanding of "sociopath" is that it is a persistent personality trait, so the phrase seems to me kind of oxymoronic.

  8. I've been having a tussle of a discussion with a young memoirist on She Writes who feels that her relationship and undergrad studies in psychology have qualified to diagnose her ex-partner. I cautioned her against the harm that could be done in pointing the finger/playing the game of "who's sicker." I have a post at Loquaciously Yours, Don't Call Me Borderline. I'm all about changing this stigmatizing terminology and going with something like Trauma Survivor. I would love to have some of you read and weigh in. -- Jenne'

  9. Jenne- Will take a look asap! Thanks for the link. I am very much in favor of, if not changing the term, revising its description to foreground PTSD as a key part of the structure of borderline personality disorder. More soon . . .

    Margaret- Good point about personality disorders as persistent (dis)organization of personalities or psyches.

    Question for everybody- Can sociopathic be used as an adjective to describe a certain *modality* that the borderline shifts into, or would anti-social or some other term work better to capture the borderline facets of rage and violence?

  10. Can anyone here say specifically what they did or said during these states? And how should family members cope with them? As someone said, these states are terrifying. They are especially terrifying for the children who witness them. All partners are tremendously concerned about this, and they want to know what to do.

  11. I'm in the diagnostic process.. My friends and partner regularly complain I am psychotic.. Sometimes I feel it.

    I was diagnosed with Boderline Schizophrenia over 10 years ago as a teen, I have now been informed that diagnoses has mostly been re classified as BPD. For years I have been told I'm depressed/nervous/anxious/stressed but I've always known I'm different in some ways although I am now starting to get answers finally. I'm not scared, I'm relieved.

    When I lose control, I threaten suicide, I lash out and I make great lists of all the negative aspects of the person I am arguing with and ou relationship. It takes me days, sometimes weeks to 'get over' these outburst. also experience severe disassociation and cannot remember a lot of the things I've said.

    2 weeks ago, I 'came round' to find a knife in my hands, against my wrists...

  12. I too am concerned about stigmatizing BPD. I can't figure out how those of us who are friends and relatives are supposed to talk about our own experiences, which are often very, very bad, without stigmatizing. It's a quandary. I blog on this, too, and would welcome comments there.

  13. I really crave an emotional connection with someone, but once I see the potential, and someone accepts me, I worry for them. Not that I'm going to physically hurt them. I just know how needy I am. So, if my empathy seems suspended it's really just a desperate attempt to keep the void filled as much as possible. I went through DBT years ago, so I am a lot better off now than I was, but the pain still creeps in often during times of stress, getting 'close' to someone, etc. All of my 'tools' have potential to fly out the window and I let loose. I might then seem like a sociopath. I'm not sure. My biggest scenes look something like me screaming on a couch whie curled up and rocking (as if to put pressure on the void), begging for a hug after I've just verbally lashed out at the person. It would seem more desperate than anything.

  14. As for the "transient sociopath" article, I'm sure the patients of the therapist would LOVE to his article. I would surely fire my therapist if she wrote something so insensitive about this disorder. How unprofessional!

    With regard to "Girl Interrupted", I don't identify with Susanna as much because little is shared about her. It almost seems to me that she is in a mental hospital because her behavior (affair with married man, uncertainty about her future) was outrageous during the point at which the story is written. She just seems like a pretty ordinary girl whose life gets "interrupted" because her parents commit her to a hospital.

    When I have been to the hospital, I have been suicidal because I "sensed" abandonment from my boyfriend(s). I would identify more with Angelina's character with regard to having uncontrollable rage and sadness.

    Also, Angelina's character might be a sociopath, but she hardly shows herself as a sociopath during the movie. When I think of a sociopath, I think of a murderer or rapist and of someone with no regard or empathy for others. She shows lack of empathy in some scenes but nothing outrageous.

    Of my four hospitalizations, I have seen nothing really representative of "Girl Interrupted".

    The other thing that is not shown about Susanna is a pattern of BPD. We know little of what led up to the hospitalization and see none of the therapy that might of led up to a breakthrough. It seemed like she just got bored of being in the hospital so she told her doctors what they wanted to hear and then was released. True Borderlines, myself included, tend to have a longstanding history of BPD behavior and many (like me) have had a lot of early childhood trauma.

    BTW, THANKS for your book. I identified with the story and identified most with the feelings expressed. Your description of your feelings are incredibly well written. I don't think anyone but a borderline could be so on target. Your experience brings hope to me - not of a perfect life, but a manageable and sometimes a joyful life.

  15. Well, my GF was diagnosed with borderline and indeed turned in to a sociopath. Painfully, to the ones that love her the most, have supported her the most and in a nonjudgemental way. She wnet into mania 9so bipolar aswel) 2 months ago after she fucked up during rehab. Which of course was not her fault (nothing is). Wnet directly to a psych clinic. Fled 3 time,s put her phone off so we were worried sick. Was found near the highway by police with suicidal thoughts. Later on told me on an evening she was suicidical and needed NO help. worries: I arranged it. She made huge debts and we already paid her tax, but not her rent. She became furious, wnet to france without teling us. We got a message 3 weeks later. i got her on the phone: she was enjoying this, was very angry and told us this was our lesson for not paying her ent. In her paranoia, she said we wanted to teach HER a lesson so. We were also to blame for her going to fance wihtout money. for her to sell her phone for some food and shelter. She met a Ghanese on a reggae festival and is now with him. he is lying consitantly. So a transient sociopath by doing deliberate harm and having fun about it to those she loved so much until 15 july: YES.

    I have cut of all contact, but this guy keeps sending messages asking for money. Our feelings (fam and I ) are our pitfalls, money seems to be theirs. It is all pretty sad for everybody, including her. If she ever return, the guilt wil be tremendous (but may be she won't feel it at all).

  16. As a therapist with BPD, I agree with Steve Becker's observation. I tried for years to understand my states of "transient sociopathy", and came across his article about a year ago. Everything made sense after reading it. When I enter these states, I try to find a pro-social outlet before engaging in something that is harmful to others.

  17. Yes if my defense mechanisms kick in a can very quickly cut off any empathy and can become highly manipulative and vengeful, I believe at this point I become sociopathic. I always need to even the score before I can find peace. Then I return to being my usual, happy go lucky self. I never feel guilt for getting my own back on people who cross me though.