How do we distinguish between your common jerk, abuser, and psychopath? Surely, the lines can be quite murky. If you’re a psychopath, by definition you are all three; if you’re an abusive personality, then you’re at least two of the three; and if you’re just a jerk–nothing more than a good old jerk–well then, comparatively speaking, congratulations, you’re a pretty good guy. 🙂
Let’s begin with the assertion that psychopaths are uniformly abusive personalities. I think we can define abuse, in essence, as the exploiting, in one form or another, of others’ vulnerabilities.
By this standard, psychopaths are universally abusive, exhibiting disturbing patterns of such exploitation. What is especially striking and identifying is the callousness and remorselessness with which they exploit–not whether they exploit. We know they will exploit.
Do these distinctions even matter? Not all abusive individuals, for instance, are psychopaths. In fact, a statistical majority aren’t. But this isn’t necessarily such great news. Abusive individuals, after all, abuse as a pattern. What drives their abuse is a particular “mentality”–the “abusive mentality.”
Non-psychopathic abusers may feel remorse for the damage their abuse causes, but they will abuse again and again unless they confront the attitudes–deep-seated–that support and drive their abuse.
It’s not enough that, unlike psychopaths, non-psychopathic abusers may possess the capacity to regret the harm they cause; so long as they refuse to probe, and own, the attitudes that fuel their abuse, their capacity for remorse is essentially moot, for their abuse will continue.
Conversely, where the abusive non-psychopath, rarely, is motivated to confront the attitudes fueling his abuse, he stands a chance at becoming a “recovering abuser.” This can happen, but not often.
And so you don’t want to be in a relationship with a psychopath, or an abusive personality, whether the latter is psychopathic or not. Because their abuse will cause untold harm. And it quite rare for abusive individuals to confront the malignantly narcissistic attitudes that underlie and sustain their abuse.
Now a jerk, who is not more than a jerk, may exhibit from time to time abusive behaviors, but will possess neither an abusive nor a psychopathic mentality. This means that when a jerk behaves abusively, he will know it, and feel deeply uncomfortable about it. He will feel remorse and regret, but more than that, as if he’s violated his ideal of his better self. He will be able to say, “Wow, that was really f’d up, what I just did. I was really wrong. That was messed up. I can’t be doing that. I have no right to do that.”
When you are dealing with someone who f’s up, who does something seriously wrong, damaging, or transgressive, and reacts with mortification, recognizing, “Wow…I had no right to do that. I have no right to do that…ever…ever again,” then you are dealing with someone who, at worst, is just a jerk, but neither seriously abusive nor psychopathic.
A jerk knows he’s been a jerk, and feels like a jerk after he’s been a jerk, sooner than later. He doesn’t like the feeling, either. Initially he may rationalize, “She deserved it…my attitude…my abuse…she asked for it,” but soon he’ll shed the rationalization and own, “No, she didn’t. That was me…acting like a jerk. Jesus…I was wrong. I better get a handle and make amends.”
The abusive individual, psychopathic or not, holds to the rationalization that his abusive behavior was justified. He will assert, “Yeah, I was nasty…but she deserved it…she asked for it,” and cling to this position much longer than a “just a jerk” will. But the non-psychopathic abuser may recognize the wrong, sinister nature of this rationalization. And unlike the psychopathic abuser, it is possible (if unlikely) that he will realize and confront the flimsiness of this rationalization.
But this recognition will be owned more easily by “just a jerk,” and never, under any circumstances, by a psychopath.
This article is copyrighted © 2015 by Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T