Reader dilemma: 'I worry I may be a psychopath!'

Advice: 'The psychological explanation for what you describe would certainly not be that of a psychopath'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Dear Virginia 

Please don’t laugh, but I worry I may be a psychopath! All my life I’ve found it very difficult to feel emotion. Although I often pretend to be upset about bad things, inside, I don’t feel anything. When my father died, I didn’t feel anything except rage – and I also got very ill, but I couldn’t cry. Sometimes, I’ll cry about something I read in the papers, but anything personal leaves me cold – except for physical symptoms. What do you think? And if I am a psychopath, is there anything I can do about it?

Yours sincerely, Rebecca

Virginia says

The psychological explanation for what you describe would certainly not be that of a psychopath. A psychopath feels nothing – not even for sad stories in the papers. Psychopaths also would never declare, as you do, that they “worry” about being one. They may know that they have psychopathic tendencies, but they’re strangers to worrying about it.

It sounds to me as if you’re one of these people who may well have suffered some trauma in their lives, and, as a result, have cut themselves off from their feelings. It’s a bore, but it’s a coping mechanism. At some point in your childhood, you decided that you couldn’t cope with any more and you shut down. That’s why you can feel sympathy and joy and sadness about other people but not when it comes to anything personal.

Your shutting down mechanism became a defence – against thinking you’d go mad, perhaps, or a feeling that if you let anything in you might crack up completely. Rather than fret about this, and try to uncover what it was, remember you may have taken the right decision. 

We are made up of three components – mind, heart and body – and sometimes the body can behave in ways that leave us baffled. Hence your getting very ill after your father died. Getting ill was your form of grieving. Your body, however, has not shut down, and like a lot of people, often you find that your body does your feeling for you. Psychopaths do not get ill after difficult events. They sail through, unperturbed.

There is a common misconception that we all respond in the same way when it comes to major events. When disaster happens, we scream and cry. When something joyful happens, we dance and whoop with joy. But we’re not all like that. Quite a few of us have other ways not only of expressing emotions but of feeling them. And that doesn’t mean we’re mentally ill.

The other thing to remember about your ability to stay cool is that it can be a tremendous bonus. You couldn’t be a brain surgeon if you were too empathetic or, at least, didn’t have the capacity to shut down your emotions during the operation. You couldn’t be a bomb disposal expert because you’d be a gibbering, shaking and sweating wreck the moment you reached out to untangle the wires. Some judges have psychopathic tendencies, and a very good thing too, or they’d be leaves in the wind when it came to listening the sob stories of the accused. Not all psychopaths are grinning serial killers. Many are good and noble – and essential – members of society.

Don’t worry about yourself and your reactions so much. Yes, you may be a bit unusual, but there are plenty of people like you. And try to dwell on the pluses – the ability to keep calm in a storm, the ability, perhaps, to reason your way out of difficult situations instead of succumbing to shrieking and lashing out – and consider yourself not, perhaps, cursed, but rather, in your own way, admirable.

Readers say...

You’re just out of touch with your feelings

Although psychopaths come in various guises, they don’t usually have any insight into their behaviour and couldn’t care less if they were described as such. They usually live for the moment, take risks and don’t learn from their mistakes. They are also often quite narcissistic as well as being very charming and manipulative – in other words, utter shits!

It sounds as though you are blocked from feeling deep emotion and out of touch with your feelings. This may be the result of some earlier childhood trauma, or maybe you had emotionally cold parents. I suggest some psychotherapy or one of the “talking therapies” to reach your inner self.

Isobel Hutton

by email

You need help

I would love to give you a big hug. No, no, you are absolutely not a psychopath. You are a very deeply tender and feeling person, who needs gentle professional help to untangle the reasons that your emotional walls came to be built.

Other people’s pain can shift an emotional brick a little bit, but then it slides back into place.Please take small steps now to get help.The very best of luck, and I am sure you have the love of others to support you.

Joan

by email

You are as you are

No, of course you are not a psychopath, nor are you “left cold” by personal losses. In a way, you are fortunate, because if you are made physically ill, people will rally round, whereas only the staunchest of friends will comfort a weepy person for long. As for crying over sad stories in the press, you do this because you are not personally affected and so do not exhibit physical symptoms.  You are as you are, and don’t need to do anything!

Jennifer

Ickenham

Find out more

Jon Ronson wrote a fascinating book called The Psychopath Test. Do read it. You’ll discover that you definitely do not fit the profile of a psychopath – and lots of other interesting stuff, too.

Justine

Sheffield

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