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Counseling encounters with the puppet masters

By Gregory K. Moffatt February 5, 2019

Utter the words sociopath or psychopath in any public forum, and everyone knows what you’re talking about. “Like serial killers, right?” Yeah, like serial killers. Even in clinical settings, these dated terms are sometimes still used. They’re simply easier to say than antisocial personality disorder (APD), the label currently given in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Years of working with law enforcement agencies on cases involving shootings, serial crimes and sexual homicides have given me plenty of exposure to APD. But diagnosing was rarely my role with those cases, and the subjects were always men in trouble with the law — a distinctly biased sample. In clinical settings, I rarely found use for the APD diagnosis until about a dozen years ago, when my entire perspective was transformed by reading Martha Stout’s 2006 book The Sociopath Next Door. Stout, a clinical psychologist, does a masterful job of describing the disorder and providing examples of the various ways in which the disorder manifests. As I should have known, not everyone diagnosed with APD is — or will become — a serial killer.

As a young clinician many years ago, I assumed that I wouldn’t see APD in my general practice. After all, serial killers weren’t known for voluntarily pursuing psychotherapy. Knowing what I know now, however, I must have seen clients with APD many times without realizing it. Estimates on the frequency of the disorder vary widely, but according to the DSM-5, the presence of APD in the U.S. population is about 4 percent. Given the broad effects of APD, this is a very large number, and mere probability means that most clinicians will be exposed to APD at some point in their careers. After reading Stout’s book, I began to understand why. My two experiences — homicide work and the clinical office — might also explain the wide-ranging estimates. My law enforcement sample increased my exposure to individuals with APD. In the clinical setting, on the other hand, I was misdiagnosing or underdiagnosing — thus limiting my perception of the existence of APD.

Hiding in plain sight

This is an oversimplification, but I probably missed correctly diagnosing APD because I associated it only with criminals. Although many individuals with APD are criminals, there are many other manifestations of the disorder.

In brief, the DSM-5 criteria for APD require that a person be at least 18 years of age and do the following: lie, deceive, have a reckless regard for the safety of others, be impulsive or irritable, manipulate, lack remorse for actions, fail to conform to social norms and behave irresponsibly. This very broad and generalized set of criteria can be exhibited in a variety of ways. According to the DSM-5, APD is much more common in males than in females, and my experience — both in the world of criminal justice and in the clinical setting — reflects that claim. 

Some years ago, I was consulting with a business, helping with team building among its upper-level administrators. One senior administrator in particular frustrated me. Alex (not his real name) would give the impression that he was working on something for our project, but then it would become evident that he had no intention of doing anything. If I asked Alex directly if he planned to do the project work, he wouldn’t come right out and say “no” in defiance of his superiors. Rather, he was simply evasive.   

I didn’t trust Alex, and he gave me little reason to. He gave slippery answers to simple questions, and more than once, I noted contradictions in things he told me. On some occasions in private conversation with me, he would slip into an arrogant attitude regarding his bosses, as if he perceived that he — rather than the CEO — should be leading the company. A time or two he even tipped his hand to me, describing how he had lied to his co-workers or others. He seemed quite proud of getting away with his deceptions. I reasoned that if Alex lied to others and was proud of it, he would probably lie to me too.

In the few meetings Alex attended and in conversations in the hallways, he could be kind and often flattering. He used all the right lingo, especially if the boss was around, and in my view seemed so overly effusive on occasion that it bordered on disingenuous. At other times, Alex condescended to his fellow employees, the secretarial staff and other “underlings,” both in private and in front of others, as if these co-workers were idiots. He would then cast glances at those around him, suggesting that they were all in on some big joke of which the target was unaware. His attitude came across as if he believed everyone was too stupid to see what he was doing.

Alex consistently failed to show up at meetings where his presence was critical, including during my final week with the project, when he was supposed to lead the meeting with our team. Instead, he left us all waiting in the conference room. I found out he had instead decided to go on a picnic with his family. He had left a message with a secretary saying he would get back to me about rescheduling, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be returning after that week.

It was no wonder this administrative team had troubles. Alex wasn’t lazy and he most definitely wasn’t incompetent. In fact, he was very bright and capable. At times he seemed so on top of his game that I wondered if he might be bored with the relatively minor challenges of his job. But that wasn’t his problem.

Instead, I think it delighted him that nobody could tell him what to do. He believed he was pulling the wool over the eyes of his bosses, his colleagues and his “underlings.” I think he reveled in messing with them, making their jobs harder and knowing that they couldn’t do anything about it. For example, I don’t believe that Alex had any reservations about leading my final meeting or that he hadn’t done the work. On the contrary, he probably had. It was part of his insurance package. If the boss had asked Alex about his work, he would have pulled it from his hip pocket in a heartbeat. Instead, the picnic with his family was a way of flipping me the bird and knowing that I couldn’t do anything to stop him. After reading Stout’s book, the APD diagnosis for Alex seemed obvious. That diagnosis answered all my questions regarding his behavior with me and with his co-workers.

But these individuals with APD aren’t always men. One client from years ago was referred to me from an employee assistance program because she was exhibiting symptoms of paranoia. In my assessment, Linda (not her real name) was indeed clinically paranoid. In a cruel twist of irony, however, her boss was working hard behind the scenes to get Linda fired and, more relevant to this conversation, a fellow employee (whom I’ll call “Millie”) knew that Linda was troubled and used that realization to her advantage. So, although Linda was clinically paranoid, people really were out to get her.

Millie tormented Linda, dropping hints that this person or that person in the company was asking about Linda or questioning the quality of her work. Millie carefully crafted comments that went to the very heart of a paranoid individual’s anxieties. As Millie inflamed Linda’s paranoid thoughts, those thoughts exacerbated Linda’s annoying behaviors in the workplace — the very things that led Linda’s boss to seek options for her dismissal.

At other times, Millie would overtly lie, saying a manager or vice president had come by looking for Linda when she was out of the office. These statements would aggravate Linda’s fears that she was in trouble or that her bosses thought she wasn’t working — neither of which were true. Out of fear of confrontation, Linda wouldn’t ask any of the administrators if they had come by to see her. If she had, Millie would have been exposed, but Millie knew Linda wouldn’t risk that confrontation.

Millie did similar things to other co-workers. For example, one woman was struggling with the fear that her husband was having an affair, and she confided this to Millie. Thereafter, Millie would find opportunities when she was alone with the woman to talk about a movie she had seen in which a man was unfaithful or to gossip about a co-worker who was suspected of philandering. On another occasion, she shared details about a friend whose husband had been exposed for having a long-term affair and how “foolish” her friend had been not to have seen it.

Millie’s purpose was not to gossip but rather to cause turmoil within these two employees — throwing gasoline on the fire of paranoia with one and on the fire of emotional anguish with the other. All the while, she could innocently defend herself, saying she was merely discussing company business or the sad facts behind a broken marriage.

Antisocial personality simplified

The abridged way that I describe APD beyond the DSM-5 criteria for my students and interns is twofold, with one additional caveat. First, we have to think of those with APD as puppeteers — a metaphor that I borrow from Stout. Each time the puppet master moves the wooden cross pieces of the marionettes, the strings move the puppets below them. These puppeteers are essentially saying, “Dance for me.” Millie made my client and other employees dance any time she wanted. To Millie, these women were toys she could manipulate at will. Both Millie and Alex were very good at covering their tracks so that they could keep their jobs. They had perfected plausible deniability.

The second thing to know about individuals with APD is that they are takers. In some cases, they can be violent, such as the taking of another person’s life in the case of serial killers or the taking of someone’s sexuality in the case of rapists. But there are many other things that people with APD can take. For example, they take advantage of the goodness of others, becoming leeches who move into someone’s home under the guise of getting back on their feet. Instead, they won’t leave until they are kicked to the curb. Some people with APD become police officers and federal agents, reveling in the taking of another person’s freedom. And some of these individuals become hucksters, taking money whenever they can for the sheer pleasure of getting away with it.

Individuals with APD create chaos in their homes, workplaces, sports teams and social environments, taking peace from those around them. I served as the vice president for student life at a Southern university for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During one particularly challenging year, the first several weeks of school brought one crisis after another. Issues in dormitories, in classrooms, on athletic fields and even in the cafeteria had me investing hours, on a daily basis, to manage these crises. By October, it dawned on me that one particular student had been involved to some degree in each and every major problem that had come across my desk. He was either the complainant or the target of a complaint in each instance.

In the end, this student had stolen credit cards, jewelry and cash from various students. He repeatedly lodged baseless accusations of racism against professors, staff and fellow students. He was suspended for the stolen property issue and left our campus — but stayed in his dormitory room until the very last minute he was required to vacate. And he wasn’t done yet.

In true APD style, he later filed a baseless lawsuit against our university with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and used his college mailing address on the paperwork — an address that obviously was no longer valid. He also listed me as a reference for a job he applied for just hours after leaving our campus, undoubtedly hoping that the company wouldn’t follow up on his references. In his job interview, he completely misrepresented the reasons for his withdrawal from school, telling this employer that he had decided to take some time off to figure out what he wanted to do in life. The ACLU lawsuit was dropped for lack of evidence, and the employer did, in fact, follow up on references. Fortunately for us, after this student was dismissed, peace returned to the community.

The caveat that accompanies these two descriptors regards the conscience. It is an oversimplification to claim that individuals with APD have no conscience. In fact, some argue that they must have a conscience. It is proposed that to enjoy the suffering of others, one must have at least a minimal sense of right and wrong and one must have the ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling. We know this as empathy. Simply put, our conscience is a powerful voice that keeps our behaviors in check, even when primal urges push and pull us in other directions. This voice allows us to empathize and causes us shame when we violate its dictates. But in clients with APD, these violations cause pleasure. At a minimum, there is either a deficit in that governing voice with these clients or they lack it altogether.

Prognosis and the APD continuum

The most common question I get regarding clients with APD is whether they can be treated. That is not an easy question to answer. There is very little research on the efficacy of therapy for these clients. There is also the problem of biased samples. Most research is done on hospitalized patients or on those who have been mandated to counseling, which may not be reflective of the population of individuals with APD at large. Given APD’s symptoms, we can expect that many, if not most, of these clients won’t engage in counseling voluntarily. Therefore, in therapy we may see only those who want help (motivated clients) or those who have been mandated (resistant clients).

But there is hope. A 2010 comprehensive report by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the U.K. provided some important information for clinicians, including that treatments for APD do exist. The study notes that treatment is most helpful when there is early intervention. The second important bit of information is that even though there is no “cure” for personality disorders, symptoms can be treated. Medication and treatment for comorbid issues (anger management, social skills training and relaxation training) are the most likely areas of focus. 

It is important for clinicians to recognize that most mental health issues exist on a continuum. We formally recognize this continuum in several areas, including autism, suicide risk and developmental delay. Although the DSM-5 does not provide a continuum for many disorders — APD included — anyone who has been in the field for very long can recognize that the continuum exists. Most of us have seen clients with major depressive disorder who cannot get out of bed, and we have also seen clients with the same diagnosis who function far better. Personally, I miss the Global Assessment of Functioning scale in previous DSM editions because it provided exactly the continuum I’m describing.

Follow-up on Alex

The case involving Alex had an interesting conclusion. A few months after my summary meeting with Alex’s company, I got a call from the CEO asking me to see Alex on a one-to-one basis. The CEO wanted to retain Alex but was considering firing him because of a series of problematic behaviors like the ones he exhibited when I was working with the management team. 

For weeks, Alex and I worked together as I tried to help him salvage his job. He resented his employer, and he resented having to come see me. Every session was a battle for control — Alex trying to manipulate me and me trying to stay on task.

I wish I could say that I discovered some therapeutic magic trick and that Alex changed. Unfortunately, he did not. I tried anger management, relaxation, social skills training, perspective-taking exercises, problem-solving exercises and long-range planning. I repeatedly appealed to Alex’s self-interest in keeping his job. Nothing worked. Alex’s marriage was cold and emotionless, he had only cursory involvement with his two daughters, and he had no hobbies or activities that brought him pleasure outside of work — the one place where his puppet stage was always open. My therapeutic attempts were interrupting his theater.

Even though I tried to give Alex control as much as possible, just as I do with most of my clients, we butted heads repeatedly. He fought me every minute of our monthslong therapeutic relationship. Just like when we worked together on the team-building project, I suspect Alex had no intention of working on anything in counseling from the start. In the end, we terminated therapy after his required period of intervention. The CEO fired him, and I’ve never heard from Alex again. 

But this doesn’t discourage me. The NICE study confirmed what I experienced: The older the client with APD is, the harder it is to intervene. Despite my frustrations with Alex, I don’t regret trying to help him. As I tell my clinicians-in-training, anyone can work with the easy clients. Professionals work with the hard ones. Sadly, Alex wasn’t one of my success stories. Linda, on the other hand, was.

Follow-up on Linda

Helping clients whose lives are being disrupted by individuals with APD is no easy task either. Just like people who batter their spouses, people with APD are very good at manipulating others while making it appear that they didn’t. This causes the individual being manipulated to introspect rather than to see the inexcusable behaviors in front of their eyes.

Linda was mandated to counseling because of her paranoia and the challenges in her job. Yet because of her paranoia, she was convinced that people were trying to get her fired, and that was a claim that I couldn’t deny. However, by acknowledging that people really were out to get her, I risked feeding her paranoia. What a challenge.

This is what I did. We spent much of our early clinical work polishing relaxation techniques. Then we moved to reality testing. This helped Linda in two ways. First, when she feared someone was plotting something, she now had tools to evaluate the legitimacy of that claim. For example, when Millie said a boss had come by “wondering” where Linda was, we looked for ways to confirm or deny such claims.

We then worked on Linda’s assertiveness skills. This, combined with reality testing, almost completely put a stop to Millie’s manipulations. The next time that Millie said Linda’s boss had come by or implied that a supervisor might think that Linda wasn’t doing a good job, Linda confronted Millie and asked her whom she was referring to specifically. Then Linda went to that boss to see what she might do to improve. Millie never counted on Linda taking that assertive action. When she could no longer easily manipulate Linda and predict what she would do, Millie moved on to other targets.

These three skills also helped Linda salvage her job. Because she was more relaxed at work and felt more confident when she faced her fears head-on, her paranoia no longer created workplace issues. As a result, her boss who had been seeking a way to fire her backed off and let her do her job.

Summary

There is no question that many people involved in crime could be diagnosed with APD. Actions that seems so reasonable to them are sometimes comical. One individual I worked with explained his stealing behavior to me: “I saw the woman’s purse in her car and the car was unlocked. So, I’m like, ‘God brought that purse with the money in it to me, and I helped that lady because I taught her not to leave her car unlocked.’”

But as Stout so clearly outlines in her book, there are many other ways that APD is manifested. Individuals with this disorder can be cutthroat businesspeople or politicians. They can be covetous psychopaths — individuals with an inordinate desire for the possessions of others. They can be individuals who steal, lie and commit fraud. They can appear lazy — living in a rent-free house, sleeping on someone’s couch, or taking advantage of their spouse and children. They can be people like Millie who “gaslight” others, a descriptor taken from a movie of the same title in which a man tries to drive his wife mad. If those with APD are intelligent, like Millie and Alex, they can manipulate social impressions. Those with APD who are less intelligent end up in trouble, in prison, homeless or dead.

These individuals aren’t bothered by cheating on their spouses, causing chaos at work, or defrauding and stealing from their friends. They use their charisma to deflect attention from their devious behaviors, essentially hiding in plain sight. Their accomplishments, such as financial success, can conceal their dysfunctional motives. And when challenged, they use intimidation and their domineering personalities to cause anyone who might question them to back off.

And perhaps most important for us to know as counselors, individuals with APD will manipulate us if we aren’t careful. We will see these clients in our offices, but what is even more likely is that they will be the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, bosses and co-workers of our clients. The seemingly inexplicable behaviors that our clients relate to us will make much greater sense in the context of the potential APD diagnosis for these people in their lives. That powerful knowledge can help us set goals and establish solutions for managing these situations.

 

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a licensed professional counselor, a certified professional counselor supervisor and a professor and department chair of counseling and human services at Point University in Georgia. He has been in private clinical practice for more than 30 years, specializing in work with traumatized children for much of that time. An author and international speaker, he has also worked as a consultant to the FBI and as a homicide profiler. Contact him at greg.moffatt@point.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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