Understanding the Anti-Empathetic on an Individual Structural Basis


Hells Canyon, Idaho/Montana Border

Understanding the Anti-Empathetic on a structural basis is challenging — mostly because the ones we run into at work may, for the most part, seem just fine, most of the time.  There’s a distortion in much of the web content, as well as some of the psychological literature, that people suffering empathy disorders, or High Conflict People (HCPs), as Bill Eddy describes, are always out to lunch.  I remember seeing a video posted on a psychological diagnosis website describing Narcissistic Personality Disorder –whatever that exactly means — remember that even the insurance companies a la the DSM V can’t come to a consensus.  The actor displayed happened to be a woman, and she was wildly unlikable.  No one, upon encountering such a person, would ever listen to them.  But that is absolutely not the way they regularly roll.  HCPs/empathy-disordered people are often very charismatic.  And some are quite famous.

There are reasons for the distortion of image.  One is that much of the psychological research on personality disorders are done on people in prison populations — not the ones loose in the world.  The second is that there are no truly effective treatment modalities.  Aside from some modest gains with techniques like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which was invented by a self-admitted personality disordered researcher — Dr. Marsha Lineham at the University of Washington — there’s not much out there.  And there’s not likely to be much in the future.  People with empathy disorders tend not to think they need treatment, or that there’s anything wrong with them.  When they have a problem or conflict, they think there’s something wrong with you.  As such, they tend not to go to psychologists.

And then there are problems in understanding how they interact with the people tasked to study them — namely psychologists.  My observations have been based on systems theory — connecting things together.  If you ascribe to the theories in this blog, that social/relational systems create the way different communities think, there are few communities that are as heavily legalistic as the psychology community.  Only small offshoots of the community delve deeply into connection issues (family systems therapy comes to mind), and the field has been slow to work its way out of gender stereotypes of the different personality disorders — which once again, are a reflection of the knowledge structure produced by the social structure of psychologists!

If you’re having a hard time swallowing this, I do understand.  But examine your own thought in the following scenario.  You are depressed.  You are sitting in your therapist’s office.  You tell the therapist:  “I am depressed.”  The therapist says to you “now XXX, who’s in charge of your happiness?”  What do you impulsively answer?

If you’re a typical American, we all know the answer.  You’re almost 100% likely to answer “I am.  I am in charge of my happiness.”  Yet we all know intrinsically that this is simply not the case all of the time.  Sometimes we are — but sometimes we are locked in a system with an abuser.  And if that abuser is of the chronic variety, odds are they have an empathy disorder — or are a High Conflict Individual.

How then to understand these people?  The conclusions that follow are my own — but at some level, I want to make sure I make perfectly clear that I lean on my external definition 🙂 — I am an engineering professor — not a professional, certified psychologist.  I’ve read widely, but I am sure not completely.  So this is my informed take.

High Conflict Personalities (HCPs), especially when activated, reside primarily in the Authoritarian/Egocentric v-Meme.  It is not clear that they really possess any other intrinsic behavior other than what serves them.  But they have a tremendous ability to use Mirroring Behavior to blend in.  What does that mean?

Like everyone, HCPs have two primary relationships with self.  One is Externally Defined — what culture, organization, and in general, the outside world think of themselves.  For this, HCPs are extremely sensitive — in fact, there is a case to be made that they are hyper-sensitive.  This hyper-sensitivity may come from hypervigilance — basically a sense of constant arousal and awareness to threats.  Hypervigilance, and the anxiety associated with it, may be a forcing function that creates the empathy-disordered mind.  If one is hypervigilant, it means that someone’s temporal and spatial scaling is constantly activated, and as a result, temporal scales essentially collapse inside the individuals’ head.

Hypervigilance often comes from a trauma background, and is often associated with PTSD.  But trauma alone does not explain the complete profile of the empathy-disordered.  There is likely a genetic component, and this is poorly understood.  For those interested, do look up Simon Baron-Cohen’s work.  HCPs and the empathy disordered also likely have symptoms of what is called an attachment disorder —  an inability to attach, or form appropriate empathetically based relationships with primary figures in life during childhood.  I believe (and maybe someone’s beat me to this thought!) that this results in poorly formed ego boundaries.  This has profound consequences in how the HCP/empathy-disordered individual moves about the world.

How does all of this work?  The HCP/empathy-disordered individual lives in a world of poorly defined self.  In many ways, their Independent Relationship with their self is in shambles. And since that poorly defined self has poorly defined boundaries, the person is not able to discriminate between themselves and the outside world in any instantaneous mode.  When you fold in a phenomenon such as hypervigilance, where they feel constantly under threat, they adapt.  But the way they adapt is to develop mechanisms of control — it’s control uber alles.  

How they develop those strategies then depends on the Survival v-Meme assets that individual has.  For someone who is physically attractive, it’s not surprising that they would develop traits associated with narcissism.  For someone like Josef Stalin, small in stature and with a pockmarked face and uncharismatic  personality, it is again not surprising that they would develop more direct methods of control.

Regardless, the fundamentals of empathetic development cannot be avoided.  The collapsed sense of independent self leads to a collapsed sense of independent time. While appearing to be a liability, also serves as an asset — the HCP/empathy-disordered can shift time in their head at will, without conscience.  Lack of boundaries also manifests themselves in varying ways.  Something that gives them pleasure is there for their taking — it’s not really separate from them anyway.  Social conventions, if not explicitly enforced, are something the HCP/empathy-disordered can use at their liking.  There is no internal feedback loop that constrains behavior.  Ever try to conceive how a child molester, an extreme manifestation of these types of behaviors, justifies their behavior?

The key to understanding, though, lies in the well-developed Mirroring Behavior function in the empathy pyramid.  In many ways, deficits in other areas of empathetic development are exaggerated as surplus quantities in this level.  For the HCP/empathy-disordered, hypervigilance becomes an asset.  A true, high functioning HCP/empathy-disordered individual can walk into a room of people and immediately know what those people want to hear.  And not worry if what they tell them is utter B.S.  Lying doesn’t affect them internally — because there is no internal ‘there’ there.  It is merely one more tool in the toolbox.

The lack of boundaries also serves as an asset.  HCPs can distort and lie willfully, even when the truth may be easily accessible. It’s not surprising that various CEOs have been accused of being psychopaths.  Many of the advantages associated with disassociated temporal and spatial scale processing have advantages in the business world of today.

There is deep cultural knowledge of these types of personalities, contained in myth.  One of my favorites is the vampire.  What does a vampire see when he (or she) looks in the mirror?  Nothing, of course — what could be a better paradigm for a collapse of independent definition?  And how does a vampire dress (always in a tuxedo)?  Remember that daylight (exposure to scrutiny) will make the vampire wither and die.  When presented like this, it’s pretty obvious that the archetype comes from aggregated cultural knowledge of narcissists — not some creepy dude in Transylvania.

It should be noted that there are degrees of empathy disordered.  Not every person that has some level of anti-empathy is completely unhinged, and some can be reached with epiphany during crisis.  But for those real Princes and Princesses of Darkness,  realize that they are only constrained by immediate external scrutiny.  And that’s terrifying.

Takeaways:  HCPs/empathy disordered suffer from core empathetic deficiency — a distorted and typically collapsed sense of time and space.  This leads to extreme egocentric/Authoritarian v-Meme behavior, and a strong desire to control.  Some of this may be caused by an attachment disorder — a early childhood failure to attach to appropriate authority/parents.  Trauma can also lead to this type of behavior, turning hyperawareness/hypervigilance from a liability to an asset.  Poorly separated through appropriate ego boundaries, and knowing no inner peace because of it, the HCP/empathy-disordered person works to control their world with the talents and tools available to them.

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