One of my earliest memories is of learning to put on my own shoes. The first time I put on my black Mary Janes by myself, I proudly went to show my big brother. I was three and he was four. He just looked at me and didn’t say anything. His lack of response was disappointing, so I went to show my mom.
She laughed and said that I was wearing them backwards. They seemed okay to me. How did SHE know they were on backwards? She explained that there is a left and a right shoe but she didn’t say how I was supposed to tell the difference. I switched the shoes on my feet. They felt different, but why was that better? My little, three-year-old feet hadn’t developed a preference.
Determined to understand this and gain my independence, I studied all my shoes. Some shoes were more obvious than others as to which was the right and which was the left. Other shoes were more rounded and it was harder to tell the difference. I wondered why the shoes were made that way. Why didn’t they just make both shoes the same so you could wear them on either foot? It was hard enough learning to put on my own shoes, only to find that there was this other complication nobody had told me about!
I figured out that when the toes seemed to point outwards, they were on the wrong foot and they weren’t as comfortable. I quickly got the hang of wearing the right shoe on the right foot and the left shoe on the left foot. When I wasn’t sure, I learned to figure it out by trying each way and determining which way felt more comfortable.
I don’t know when I finally looked at my own feet and noticed that each foot was not symmetrical and that the shoes were made to accommodate the dissymmetry of each foot. At some point, I made the connection that there was a good reason for the way shoes were made: It was to make walking more comfortable.
Psychopaths are emotionally arrested.
When I try to understand how psychopaths think, I just remember the way my mind worked when I was a little kid. Like children, psychopaths don’t have a sense for why human nature is the way it is, so they oppose it. They deny their own emotions. They resent human beings who trust that the universe is unfolding as it should. They can’t imagine that there might be reasons beyond their limited understanding.
Emotions can be painful and the benefits of painful emotions aren’t always easy to see. As a defense mechanism against painful emotions, psychopaths learned early in life to invalidate their own emotions and repress them. In repressing their emotions, psychopaths believe they’ve become a “superior” being.
At first glance, you might imagine that liberating yourself from your emotions would have its benefits. Without emotions, it might seem that you could evaluate any situation to a logical conclusion. On the contrary, most decisions aren’t black and white. In these cases, according to Antonio Damasio, without emotion you don’t know what you want. Damasio says that emotions are the basis for your preferences. They are the basis for knowing what you want.
Donald Nathanson (as cited in Carnes & Adams, 2002) explains the difference between the words affect, feelings and emotion:
Nathanson (1992) provides a clear delineation of affect in terms of how it originates within an individual and how it may be experienced in terms of its intensity. For example, affect describes innate responses to stimuli, which are instinctive. Feelings, however, describe the subjective experience of affect states. In this sense, feelings provide conscious representation and awareness of affective states. Emotion is described as the memories of subsequent experiences with particular subjective states. It is the recollection of past episodes involving distinct affect that provides the intensity experienced as emotion, whether strong or weak. Nathan (1992) summarizes the distinction between these three terms as affect is biology, feeling is psychology and emotion is biography. (p75-76)
I propose that somewhere between affect and feelings, psychopaths lose the connection. They prefer to interpret their rapid heartbeat as an illness rather than admit to experiencing fear. Their stomach distress feels like sickness rather than anxiety. Without understanding their feelings, they have no history of emotions and consequently can’t have any preference.
A psychopath, by disdaining his own feelings, never evolves the ability to know what feels right and so he doesn’t know what he wants. Instead, he mirrors the desires and values of another person and that person becomes the source of his envy. Rene Girard, in A Theatre of Envy, describes envy this way “Envy involuntarily testifies to the lack of being that puts the envious to shame” (Girard, 4).
The Psychopathic Limp
There’s a rare genetic disorder that makes people unable to feel physical pain: Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis, CIPA. Someone with CIPA might seem almost super-human. They can be physically hurt and just keep going because they don’t feel pain. Ironically, these people are actually more vulnerable than a normal, feeling person because they don’t know when they need to stop and take care of their injuries. It’s difficult for CIPA sufferers to learn how to avoid injury because they don’t get pain feedback from interacting with their environment. Unlike a normal person who reacts automatically to a pain stimulus, a CIPA sufferer has to analyze each potential danger to avoid it. The condition is sometimes misdiagnosed as leprosy because all the unnoticed and unattended injuries over their lifetimes, leave them disfigured. Most, rarely survive past 25 years old.
If I could see a psychopath’s emotional state as a physical representation, I imagine it might look like a disfigured leper, with decaying flesh and missing limbs. Each compounded narcissistic injury making him more dysfunctional until he ceases to resemble a human being. After a lifetime of unfelt affects and misinterpreted feelings, the damage to his “being” might be beyond repair. What is left of his “being” is so grotesque now that he has no choice but to hide it. At some point, he had come to believe that his “being” was shameful and had to be suppressed behind a borrowed mask. Over time, that belief manifests itself and he becomes a monster.
A psychopath self-sabotages by relying on only his intellectual abilities and denying his emotional faculties. Consequently, a psychopath limps awkwardly through life. Like a three-year-old, he may be able to learn and memorize acceptable behavior but without an understanding based on emotion, he would still believe that these are arbitrary or outmoded conventions based on faulty understanding or lack of imagination, on the part of the human race. When he interacts with others, he’s doomed to stumble over and over again. Unable to feel the pain, he can’t learn from his mistakes.
Girardian Theory states that human beings are mimetic and we borrow our desires from others. Antonio Damasio says we are informed of our desires by our emotional responses to the options presented. So, which is it? Do our emotions dictate our desires or, are our desires simply mimetic? I believe that without connection to our emotions, our desires can only be mimetic. Our connection to our emotions determines the authenticity of our desires and our lives. Children, without a history of emotional feedback, are naturally mimetic. They learn from their parents what is good and what isn’t. Psychopaths stay mimetic because they can’t feel, so they never learn from experiencing good or bad emotions.
None of us is perfect. To some extent, we all deny, repress or numb our emotions. These are the defense mechanisms we learned as children when we were powerless. Psychopathic behavior epitomizes these defense mechanisms. Observing psychopaths allows us to see where the complete denial of our feelings can lead. The affects and feelings are still there, but they remain infantile, narcissistic, based on envy and shame.
Conversely , when human beings learn to accept their feelings, both joyous and painful, those feelings inform us. We learn what feels right through this life-long learning process. With time, we learn trust based on experience. The process gives us wisdom, combining intellectual and emotional experiences that give meaning to our being. Wisdom allows us to live and “be” more gracefully.
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