Antisocial behavior is characterized by diagnostic features such as superficial charm, high intelligence, poor judgment and failure to learn from experience, pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love, lack of remorse or shame, impulsivity, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, poor self-control, promiscuous sexual behavior, juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility among others. As a consequence of these criteria the antisocial individual has the image of a cold, heartless, inhuman being. But do all antisocial individuals show a complete lack of normal emotional capacities and empathy? Like healthy people, many antisocial individuals love their parents and pets in their own way, but have difficulty loving and trusting the rest of the world. Furthermore, antisocial individuals do suffer emotionally as a consequence of separation, divorce, death of a beloved person or dissatisfaction with their own deviant behavior.
Antisocial individuals can suffer emotional pain for a variety of reasons. Like anyone else, antisocial individuals have a deep wish to be loved and cared for. This desire remains frequently unfulfilled, however, as it is obviously not easy for another person to get close to someone with such repellent personality characteristics. Antisocial individuals are at least periodically aware of the effects of their behavior on others and can be genuinely saddened by their inability to control it. The lives of most antisocial individuals are devoid of a stable social network or warm, close bonds.
The life histories of antisocial individuals are often characterized by a chaotic family life, lack of parental attention and guidance, parental substance abuse and antisocial behavior, poor relationships, divorce, and adverse neighborhoods. They may feel that they are prisoners of their own etiological determination and believe that they had, in comparison with normal people, fewer opportunities or advantages in life.
Despite their outward arrogance, inside antisocial individuals feel inferior to others and know they are stigmatized by their own behavior. Although some antisocial individuals are superficially adapted to their environment and are even popular, they feel they must carefully hide their true nature because it will not be accepted by others. This leaves antisocial individuals with a difficult choice: adapt and participate in an empty, unreal life, or do not adapt and live a lonely life isolated from the social community. They see the love and friendship others share and feel dejected knowing they will never take part in it.
Antisocial individuals are known for needing excessive stimulation, but most foolhardy adventures only end in disillusionment due to conflicts with others and unrealistic expectations. Furthermore, many antisocial individuals are disheartened by their inability to control their sensation-seeking and are repeatedly confronted with their weaknesses. Although they may attempt to change, low fear response and associated inability to learn from experiences lead to repeated negative, frustrating and depressing confrontations, including trouble with the justice system.
As antisocial individuals age they are not able to continue their energy-consuming lifestyle and become burned-out and depressed, while they look back on their restless life full of interpersonal discontentment. Their health deteriorates as the effects of their recklessness accumulate.
Social isolation, loneliness and associated emotional pain in antisocial individuals may precede violent criminal acts. They believe that the whole world is against them, eventually becoming convinced that they deserve special privileges or rights to satisfy their desires. As antisocial serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilson expressed, violent psychopaths ultimately reach a point of no return, where they feel they have cut through the last thin connection with the normal world. Subsequently their sadness and suffering increase, and their crimes become more and more bizarre.
Dahmer and Nilsen have stated that they killed simply for company. Both men had no friends and their only social contacts were occasional encounters in homosexual bars. Nilsen watched television and talked for hours with the dead bodies of his victims; Dahmer consumed parts of his victims' bodies in order to become one with them: he believed that in this way his victims lived further in his body.
For the rest of us it is unimaginable that these men were so lonely -- yet they describe their loneliness and social failures as unbearably painful. They each created their own sadistic universe to avenge their experiences of rejection, abuse, humiliation, neglect and emotional suffering.
Dahmer and Nilsen claimed that they did not enjoy the killing act itself. Dahmer tried to make zombies of his victims by injecting acid into their brains after he had numbed them with sleeping pills. He wanted complete control over his victims, but when that failed, he killed them. Nilsen felt much more comfortable with dead bodies than with living people -- the dead ones could not leave him. He wrote poems and spoke tender words to the dead bodies, using them as long as possible for company. In other violent antisocial individuals, a relationship has been found between the intensity of sadness and loneliness and the degree of violence, recklessness and impulsivity.
Violent antisocial individuals are at high risk for targeting their aggression toward themselves as much as toward others. A considerable number of antisocial individuals die a violent death a relatively short time after discharge from forensic psychiatric treatment due to their own behavior (for instance as a consequence of risky driving or involvement in dangerous situations). Antisocial individuals may feel that all life is worthless, including their own.
In the last decade, neurobiological explanations have become available for many of the traits of antisocial behavior. For example, impulsivity, recklessness/irresponsibility, hostility and aggressiveness may be determined by abnormal levels of neurochemicals including monoamine oxidase (MAO), serotonin (5-HT) and 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA), triiodothyronine (T3), free-thyroxine (T4), testosterone, cortisol, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and hormones of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axes. Other features like sensation-seeking and an incapacity to learn from experiences might be linked to cortical underarousal. Sensation-seeking could also be related to low levels of MAO and cortisol and high concentrations of gonadal hormones, as well as reduced prefrontal grey matter volume. Many antisocial individuals can thus be considered, at least to some degree, victims of neurobiologically determined behavioral abnormalities that, in turn, create a fixed gulf between them and the rest of the world.
It may be possible to diminish traits like sensation-seeking, impulsivity, aggression and related emotional pain with the help of psychotherapeutic, psychopharmacological and/or neurofeedback treatment.
Long-term psychotherapeutic treatment (at least five years) seems effective in some categories of antisocial individuals, in so far as antisocial personality traits may diminish.
Psychotherapeutic treatment alone may be insufficient to improve symptoms. Psycho-pharmacological treatment methods may help normalize neurobiological functions and related behavior/personality traits. Lithium is impressive in treating antisocial, aggressive and assaultive behavior. Hollander (1999) found that mood stabilizers such as divalproex (Depakote), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and neuroleptics have documented efficacy in treating aggression and affective instability in impulsive patients. To date there have been no controlled studies of the psychopharmacological treatment of other core features of antisocial behavior.
Cortical underarousal and low autonomic activity-reactivity can be substantially reduced with the help of adaptive neurofeedback techniques.
It is extremely important to recognize hidden suffering, loneliness and lack of self-esteem as risk factors for violent, criminal behavior in antisocial individuals. Studying the statements of violent criminal antisocial individuals sheds light on their striking and specific vulnerability and emotional pain. More experimental psychopharmacological, neurofeedback and combined psychotherapeutic research is needed to prevent and treat antisocial behavior.
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