This is one interesting question people new to psychopathy will often ask. These characters are poisonous, toxic, destructive, yet do they actually know they are psychopaths? Is there any aspect of self awareness with psychopathic characters?
At a very basic level, all psychopaths realize at some point they are not like other people, in that they don’t have the same emotions that others do, nor do they understand things like conscience, guilt and empathy. The more intelligent ones even realize that the term “psychopath” is what describes their character and behavior, and even read books on the topic.
Either way, they don’t care and only use any knowledge they gain of their abnormality to better conceal themselves and more cleverly manipulate others. They never use any knowledge of their condition to change or evolve. Psychopaths appear permanently stuck the way they are and see no reason for growth or change.
In this sense, psychopaths are to some extent aware of the difference between themselves and the rest of humanity, some more precisely than others. They use this knowledge to look down on normal people, seeing them as having emotional restraints and weaknesses like remorse, conscience, guilt and empathy that they don’t have.
This explains why psychopaths can engage in seemingly normal interactions with others, but without meaning any of the words or feeling any connection, but simply robotically observing people and collecting data to more effectively manipulate them.
Psychopaths live a life of cold detachment and see themselves as superior to others.
Anti-Social Personality Disorder (Psychopathy) 101
Let’s look in more detail at just how much psychopaths know about themselves.
Psychopaths Realize They Are Different To Everyone Else
At the very least, psychopaths realize sooner or later that they are different to most other people. What other people describe as emotions, conscience, guilt, empathy, remorse – a psychopath doesn’t know what these qualities are. They quickly realize this sets them apart from normal people with a conscience.
This is where the predatory nature of psychopaths is formed, since they realize this lack of human traits and qualities actually gives them an advantage in some areas of life, especially the world of work. It allows them to get ahead more easily, because they can do morally dubious and unscrupulous things without a second thought.
A great quote on the mindset of the psychopath can be found from John Malkovich’s Ripley character in the move Ripley’s Game. When asked by a curious onlooker about who he actually is, he responds:
“I’m a creation. A gifted improvisor. I lack your conscience and when I was younger, that troubled me. It no longer does. I don’t believe in being caught because I don’t believe anyone is watching.”
Tom Ripley from Ripley’s Game (2003)
This is why psychopaths seem to move up the ladder so smoothly in certain sectors of the workplace, since they can easily and glibly do the more dark and dastardly things required in some industries, without having the same emotional hangups of conscience and guilt that normal human beings would have. They just shrug it off like it’s nothing.
Similarly in personal relationships, it allows them to observe and exploit human emotions, whilst remaining coldly detached from them.
They can say the things they know others want to hear, can do the exact things they want them to do, because they can see what works in manipulating people. See our article on the idealize-devalue-discard cycle they common take victims on for more on this trait.
They can exploit human foibles and emotions without getting caught up in them. Human interactions become like a robotic game for them, where they are manipulating and charming people to elicit certain reactions, “not sharing in the pleasure but calculating it’s effect”, as one brilliant reviewer summarized of the psychopathic Ripley’s Game character masterfully played by John Malkovich.
In this sense a psychopath does in some sense realize they are not normal, but very quickly comes to see this as an advantage to them, and quickly become very adept at manipulating others for their own ends, since they can see that others have emotions, but have little or no emotional range themselves.
In this way, psychopaths often look down on humanity with a curious, contemptuous detachment. They see that other people have these things called emotions and conscience, but they see it as a weakness which they don’t have, and this makes them superior and detached to the rest of us.
Lifelong psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare brilliantly sums up this key defining aspect of psychopathy in the opening segments of this documentary. In regards to a psychopath’s relationship with emotions, he puts it like this:
“The psychopath is using facial expressions, hand movements, body language that seems appropriate to an underlying emotional state, but it’s fake…The psychopath has learned that there are certain facial expressions, body language that is associated with what other people say is a particular emotion”
Dr Robert Hare
Psychopaths see themselves as god-like and superior, and look down on the rest of humanity with an arrogance and contempt
Some Psychopaths Know They Are “Psychopaths”
Whilst it is true that all psychopaths in some cases realize they are not normal, many of them simply stay on this level of realization, and become social predators in the sense they use their emotional detachment and coldness to manipulate others for their own ends.
Their understanding of their abnormality doesn’t go any deeper than that; they can’t put a word or term to it. They just know they are not like others, but are happy to use this to their own advantage.
However, some of the more intellectually intelligent psychopaths – we could call them white collar or corporate psychopaths – do come to learn that there is a term “psychopath” or “sociopath” which accurately describes their condition.
They may stumble across the term or may learn it when a victim finds out about the term themselves and confronts them on what they are. They then go and start researching the term, and this allows them to better understand their condition, but only so they can refine and upgrade the act they put on for others, not to fix themselves.
The more cunning psychopaths will go to great lengths to do this, such as reading up on books, videos and blogs like this, so they can understand how they are seen more thoroughly and create new and different ways of duping unsuspecting victims.
This is one reason why confronting a psychopath is not recommended, since they will use the information you give them not to change, but simply to create a more convincing facade to more effectively deceive others with in the future. As one excellent resource on parasitic personalities puts it:
“In the end, after being well and truly drained and poisoned, idealistic fixers realize that they have made no progress (with the psychopath) whatsoever. (They have) merely upgraded their arsenal and become more experienced in deception”
How Psychopaths Mimic Emotions
Resources on the Self Awareness of Psychopaths
Interestingly, there are some resources which are written by people who are psychopaths and sociopaths, and can therefore shine more light on the internal thinking process and worldview of this personality disorder.
Here are some a couple of suggestions to follow up on for those interesting in a psychopath’s depiction of themselves:
M.E. Thomas – See M.E Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath, available on Amazon. This is a book written by a sociopath, detailing how she sees the world, how she manipulates others, and how she enjoys causing harm to others.
Sam Vaknin – See his YouTube channel. He is an expert on personality disorders, having been diagnosed multiple times as both a psychopath and a narcissist. Has huge knowledge on both these conditions, and a large library of videos where he goes into the thinking motivations and mindset of these personality disorders.
Interview – See this interview with a psychopath. Is done in an irritating computer generated voice layover but has some useful information.
Spotting the Self Aware Psychopath
If you get caught with one of these smarter, more cunning psychopaths, then you really are in for a world of trouble, since their facade or mask will be so much more cleverly constructed, since they know the common things people are looking for to spot them.
Thankfully, a psychopath will always still give themselves away over time by displaying a series of predictable character traits, even though they may be very cleverly and subtly concealed at first with the more intelligent psychopaths.
You will still spot the red flags and see the contradictions; it just may take longer with some psychopaths than others.
Here are some bigger picture traits to watch out for, which a psychopath will always display, otherwise they wouldn’t be a psychopath:
- A complete lack of ability to ever grow, change or evolve. Will come up with a silly, superficial, nonsense answer if you broach the subject with them.
- A lack of real empathy, care or compassion for others or the world. The world, and others, are there to be consumed and discarded.
- A lack of any vocational traits. Strictly power, emotional reaction and pleasure fixated (hedonism).
- A desire to provoke emotional reactions in others. Addicted to drama and conflict.
- Inherent deceptiveness and relentless lying about large things and small.
- A lack of ability to tolerate any downsides or reality checks in life. The fun times must never stop. Will run at the first sign of any difficulty.
- They don’t value you; only the feelings they get when they are around you. A key thing to test for. Will turn nasty the moment you question them and burst their bubble.
- See our Psychopathy Checklist article linked below for a comprehensive guide on more traits to look out for.
Another thing to always remember is that psychopathic abuse will always leave you with the same predictable patterns of confusion, self doubt, anxiety, stress, anger, etc. regardless of all the smoke and mirrors a more self conscious psychopath will put up to try and deceive you.
See our article on the rollercoaster ride a psychopath will take their victim on for more on this.
If you go by this barometer as well as looking for any psychopathic traits, then sooner or later you will be able to spot one in your midst. Over time a psychopath will get you so irritated and agitated internally that you will know something is seriously off, and you can take it from there.