Friday, March 18, 2011

The Pathological: a Child Prodigy-Savant of Human Behavior - Part I

By Sandra L. Brown, M.A.

People often want to know why people with personality disorders (pathology) often have the worst and most inappropriate behavior indicating they are clueless about others feelings AND YET they are often enabled with the uncanny ability to know human behavior so well that they can con even the most knowledgeable of people.

This 'savant-like' experience with human behavior reminds me of the Scripture that says, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." Cluster B Personality Disorders, no doubt, rack up their miles in huge emotional and behavioral deficits. ("The Lord Taketh Away"). I've discussed this at length in articles and books-- what causes a personality disorder has to do with what DOESN'T happen when the personality is forming from 0-8 years of age.

Deficits = Disorders.

Not getting what a child needs WHEN they need it can help create a personality disorder. Normal childhood development does not include severe neglect, being raised by a pathological and learning to see the world through the eyes of a narcissist or sociopath, or being abused. 

Whatever the 'cause' of the personality disorder, (exposed to pathological parents or being born with neuro-abnormalities) let's consider the budding pathological child for a moment. Let's put out of our mind just for now the disordered adult he grows into. Let's say we have a 9 or 10 year old child. We'll call him Pathological Pete. Through no fault of his own, has a personality disorder. That means he:

· does not have the full spectrum of human emotion

· has blunted feelings of love/compassion/guilt/remorse

· has impulse control problems

· has difficulty being able to know right from wrong

· is not motivated by punishment when he does wrong

· is tantalized by risk and reward

His friend across the street is the same age and not personality disordered. We'll call him Normal Ned. Normal Ned:

· has a full spectrum of emotions

· feels bonded

· feels, love and compassion

· is motivated by punishment so he feels guilt and remorse

· has impulse control over many of his actions

· understands the basic concepts of right and wrong.

· Although he likes risk and reward, he has enough impulse control not to be led consistently by pleasure.

One day Pathology Pete is over at Normal Ned's. While playing in the house, the boys knock over a vase and break it. Normal Ned knows the story behind the vase: it's the only thing his mother has left from her mother. His mother got it as a gift on the death bed of her mother. She always prized the vase and felt her mother's presence when she looked at it.

Normal Ned's mother begins to cry; her son has empathetic feelings that his mother is sad and experiencing loss because of the broken vase. Normal Ned goes to her and tries to comfort her as Pathological Pete watches.

Pathological Pete has NO idea why Normal Ned:

(a) feels bad that the vase was broken (he thinks: so what, go get another one)

(b) why Ned would go to his mother and hug her and pat her (he thinks: why does she need that?)

(c) why Ned offers to replace the vase

(d) why it was even wrong to be playing with a ball by the vase.

Pathological Pete stands off to the side watching this 'unusual' reaction and interaction between Normal Ned and his mother. In comes Normal Ned's brother, Normal Nathan. Normal Nathan sees his mother crying and also tries to comfort her. Pathological Pete watches, wondering "Why did Normal Nathan go to her? He didn't even break the vase?"

Pathological Pete stands awkwardly aside, watching what to him is like a Sci-Fi movie--feelings, actions, behaviors, and motivations he doesn't understand. Over and over, throughout his childhood and into his adolescence, this incident is repeated.

Pathological Pete witnesses people having feelings he doesn't experience. They have emotional reactions that he doesn't understand. They have reactions, behaviors, and motivations that are foreign to him. Pathological Pete is bright--he is a smart child, but he can't figure out why he doesn't 'know' what other kids seem to know:

· how to act

· how not to act

· how to feel certain emotions and when and why

Pathological children figure out early they are 'different'--they just don't know why.

Since he has a need to appear normal and fit in with everyone else, the pathological child studies the behavior of those around him, looking for clues on how to appear normal. If he sees someone cry:

1. He watches how other people respond to the crying. (he learns behavior)

2. He studies the face of the person who caused the crying. (he learns the "I'm sorry" look)

3. He tries to determine what made the person cry. (he learns what makes a person cry and what the potential benefits/consequences are to the person who caused the crying)

Children who grow to be pathological become little psychologists by their teenage years. They have studied other people's behavior so intently that they understand on a manipulative level:

· what makes people hurt

· how to get out of consequences for having hurt others

These little child-prodigies have studied human behavior since they were 5 or 6 years old--they are emotional savants.

On one hand:

The "Lord Taketh Away" part: they do NOT have the full spectrum of emotions, so they cannot fully understand how others experience emotion. In this, they are somewhat emotionally retarded.

On the other hand:

This is the "Lord Giveth" part: They compensate by using their intelligence to study the reactions of others, learning to mimic facial gestures, language, lingo and behaviors. They develop a mask for any occasion.

Pathologicals "mirror-image" you in a relationship: they watch and listen, then mimic and parrot back all you say and do. This is why they feel like a soul mate--you are essentially looking at a mask of yourself.

The pathological polishes these skills through years of practice. He starts using them on his mother, his sister, his Sunday school teacher, girls at school...and later on his bosses. He practices those skills anywhere he can tweak the manipulation and look normal enough to fit in.

What began as a simple adaptation in a child--trying to understand how normal people relate and behave--evolved into manipulation. At some point, the child/teen must come to the conclusion that they DON'T have these feelings, limits, boundaries, and experiences. "What the hell...just gotta go with it" is their normal reaction.

The adaptation is no longer to understand normal people and compare/contrast them to his own experiences. It has become a survival behavior to help him get what he wants. He learned to produce masks to mimic the emotions and understanding he lacks.

Sandra L. Brown, M.A. is the Founder of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education, as well as the author of several books, including her latest, Women Who Love Psychopaths.


  1. There is a lot of me in Pathological Pete. A therapist once commented to me when I explained that I could not define feelings within myself that I probably felt them but did not have the 'definitions' of them within me. Whichever of these two versions is actually it still brings me to the same question: what is someone that is this person supposed to do to change their state from one to the other? What steps would I take to go about changing it, please?

  2. Maybe check out Byron Katie?


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