The other night after putting my baby daughter to bed, I was faced with a four-load, multi-day-old laundry pile that I needed to fold and sort.
Knowing this chore would take more than a little while, I popped open my laptop and started browsing for a movie to watch and keep me company.
I came across a movie I’d certainly heard of, but never watched: The Wolf of Wall Street.
I remember hearing about the movie when it was released back in 2013 but didn’t feel compelled to watch it.
I imagined it would be too triggering.
But for whatever reason, I felt ready and intrigued that other night so I rented it and started to watch it.
Five minutes in I felt a pit in my stomach and, by the end when the credits rolled, angry.
Why was I angry?
Because the film did what I feared it would do: in many ways, and perhaps unintentionally, it aggrandized and valorized the psychopathic behavior of the main character instead of explicitly denigrating his actions and educating and showcasing what the negative impacts of his actions were.
One major streaming service bills the film as such:
“Audacious, risk-taking Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort amasses wealth with his brash, drug-fueled attitude, drawing the attention of the FBI.”
I’d prefer it be marketed this way:
“A film in which the destructive and dysfunctional behavior of psychopaths is irresponsibly valorized, ignoring the extensive and potentially life-long relational and financial damage these individuals may have caused to others.”
Of course, my marketing isn’t going to sell many movie tickets (or streaming rentals as were the case now).
But it sure as heck would better illustrate, what I in my clinical opinion, saw as the major themes of the movie.
And so, because Netflix hasn’t yet come knocking on my door for any clinical consultations, I wanted to write today’s post specifically to talk about what the potential collateral damage of psychopaths and sociopaths can be on those around them with the hopes that, in writing this, even one person who had a “Jordan Belfort”-like person in their life can feel more seen and heard and less alone in their experience.
What exactly is a psychopath or a sociopath?
Let’s start this article off with some psychoeducation about the terms psychopath and sociopath.
First of all, neither of them are exact clinical terms in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the bedrock clinical text and diagnosis book of mental health).
Psychopathy and sociopathy are terms that emerged in the late 19th/early 20th centuries to describe what psychiatrists and psychologists were then seeing as the egregious and consistent violations of legal, moral, and social standards by some individuals they treated.
Today, neither term is officially used though the characterological essence of these terms persists.
Instead, the DSM-4 gives us the category of antisocial personality disorder which would effectively be an “umbrella” diagnosis for anyone who would previously have been called a psychopath or sociopath.
And I personally like the added detail you can find in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to further illustrate and drive home the qualities and characteristics of these individuals.
Effectively, psychopaths and sociopaths (or someone diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder – ASD) demonstrate some or all of the following characteristics:
- Glibness/superficial charm;
- A grandiose sense of self;
- A need for stimulation/proneness to boredom;
- Pathological lying;
- They are conning/manipulative;
- They display a lack of remorse or guilt;
- They have a shallow affect (i.e., reduced or no emotional responses);
- They are callous/lack empathy;
- They live a parasitic lifestyle;
- They have poor behavioral controls;
- They exhibit promiscuous sexual behavior;
- They’ve had early behavioral problems;
- They lack realistic, long-term goals;
- They are impulsive;
- They are irresponsible;
- They fail to accept responsibility for their own actions;
- They have many short-term marital relationships;
- They have a history of juvenile delinquency;
- They have a history of criminal versatility (i.e., commits diverse types of crimes) and possible prison time;
Quite a list, isn’t it?
If you’ve watched The Wolf of Wall Street, you can clearly identify many of those qualities in the portrayal of the main character.
(Note: To be clear, I am not diagnosing the actual person, Jordan Belfort. I am only diagnosing the character portrayed in the movie. How real or deviant that portrayal from the reality is I don’t know.)
And, if you haven’t had the experience of having a psychopath or sociopath in your life directly (think of that as a blessing!), it may be easy to think that these personality types would only show up in a field as bombastic and cut-throat as finance or that they even seem fantastical in a way, not really possible to actually exist.
But there’s actually some interesting data that illuminates the top ten careers where psychopaths and sociopaths can actually be found (I’ll admit, numbers 8 and 10 really surprised me) and, notably, psychopaths and sociopaths aren’t just men but statistically are typed at higher rates than women (specifically at a 3:1 prevalence ratio).
So, to further widen the vision of who and how a psychopath and sociopath can look, I’ll anecdotally add that in my personal and clinical experience, a psychopath and a sociopath can be as “successful” as the high flying stockbroker of the film or take the form of a global politician, but they can also look like a small-town insurance salesman, a mediocre gallery owner and art dealer, a PTA president, a college professor, or anyone’s husband, wife, mother or father in any part of the world.
As Martha Stout, Ph.D. in her brilliant book, The Sociopath Next Door* points out, a shocking 4% of ordinary people (that’s 1 in every 25 Americans) can be categorized as a sociopath.
So chances are that if you don’t know a psychopath or sociopath personally, you’ll know someone who had one in their life.
The collateral damage of being in a relationship with a psychopath or sociopath.
Some of the core characteristics of psychopaths and sociopaths, existing on a spectrum of severity, create a fundamental inability to care for and regard the personhood of others with dignity.
They may not intend to harm and abuse those around them (such as their spouses, children, grandchildren, and colleagues) but in the course of moving through the world and in moving through the lives of these people, they create collateral damage because of their lack of capacity for authentic, genuine connection and relational abilities.
Why do I say collateral damage?
In military terms, collateral damage is what happens when people, places, and things are unintentionally hit as a result of trying to hit the main target.
I use this term intentionally because not every psychopath or sociopath has the clearly defined and explicit goal of physically, mentally or emotionally abusing their family members (though some do have this intent), but this can and often happen as an unintended result of contact with them.
These people CAN be the collateral damage of the psychopath or sociopath’s efforts towards wealth, fame, success, and grandeur.
A perfect (but hard to watch) example of this kind of collateral damage occurs late in the film.
It’s a scene where the main character and his wife are in a screaming match after she tells him she’s divorcing him.
He’s outraged that she would divorce him and that she would seek custody of their kids, so he punches her, slaps her, snorts cocaine, then barges into their little girl’s room where she’s sound asleep and rips her from her bed.
He piles the little girl into his Porsche in the garage, all the while his wife is screaming at him to stop, he’s screaming back at her, the child half-awake watching and listening.
Then the mom breaks the driver’s side car window with a crowbar to stop him from driving off with the young child, and he retaliates by driving the car through the still-closed garage door and accidentally backing into a retaining wall at high speed, slamming the little girl’s head against the seat of the car upon impact.
Even if she didn’t get a terrible physical injury from a moment like that can you imagine the emotional impact of that kind of event on a child?
The child wouldn’t understand, couldn’t make sense of what had happened.
She had been sound asleep and then suddenly she was in the midst of a terrifying event.
If she didn’t have support from the adults in her life to metabolize and process the scary experience, it would likely get lodged in her as a trauma.
The impact events like this can have on a child are profound.
And THIS is what I mean by collateral damage.
The child wasn’t the intended recipient of abuse and trauma by her father in the film, but she becomes one because of her personality disordered parent and the chaos this person created around him.
This scene was fictional (or perhaps real in the life of the main character, I don’t know) and while elements of it may seem far fetched and hard to relate to (the cocaine, the Porsche, driving through a garage door) the theme of a child or spouse being the direct or indirect recipient of or witness to reckless, abusive, chaotic or irresponsible behavior of a psychopath or sociopath is not far fetched.
In fact, sadly, it’s likely a common experience for anyone who has had close personal contact with someone like that.
So why do we still – even subtly – celebrate and valorize these personality types?
If being in contact with a psychopath or sociopath is often damaging, why do many people individually and collectively still, even at some small and maybe even unconscious level, valorize and stay fascinated with these personality types?
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t.
We’d put mensch’s on pedestals and look to folks like Mr. Rogers or Ellen Degeneres or Dolly Parton as models of kindness and good character.
We’d all include compassion, kindness, goodness, and integrity on the list of the 10 “Must Haves” when making our lists of our ideal partners, and we universally would decry bullying and compulsive lying, whether on the playground or in the White House.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
We live in a world still infused with oppressive, toxic patriarchal forces where systems – often including the media, religious institutions, the military, and industry sectors such as finance and business – still implicitly and explicitly valorize ideas of what archetypal masculinity and “success” should look like, often leading to a cultural response where we see these disordered personality types and their exploits as seductive and fascinating in some ways.
To compound this, we often don’t see the toxic behavior of these folks which may play out behind the scenes; instead we see a charming, often dashing public veneer.
Remember the Hare Psychopathy checklist I mentioned earlier?
Superficial glibness and charm are hallmarks of a psychopath and sociopath.
They are masters at manipulation, extraordinary social chameleons, actors on par with the great Meryl Streep in their capacity and ability to make most people see what they want them to see.
It can be, for some, hard not to be swept up by what a psychopath or sociopath seems to represent.
And for those who can’t see behind the veneer of charm, good looks, bespoke suits, and traditional success, for those who still find psychopaths and sociopaths fascinating if not aspirational in some way, there’s a steep cost.
What’s the cost to celebrating and valorizing (even a little) psychopaths and sociopaths?
The cost to celebrating, valorizing, or even letting yourself be around these personality types certainly be huge if a person finds a psychopath or sociopath so charming that they wed and bed them, decide to raise children with them, go into business with them, or even trust them with their life savings or business matters.
The cost can then extend to the children of those seduced by psychopaths and sociopaths, or the spouses or kids of the business partners they bilk.
And the secondary cost when we as individuals or as a society see psychopaths and sociopaths as interesting and fascinating in some way is that it undermines the subjective experience of the partners, kids, colleagues, and clients of those who have experienced relational trauma or abuse at the hands of these folks.
When we make and consume movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and position them to be about “risky bold men sometimes acting badly” (that horrible, abuse-permissing phrase “boys will be boys” comes to mind) instead of more accurately describing how damaging and toxic they and their actions are, collectively we can undermine and even gaslight the experience of those who have survived narcissists and sociopaths.
Remember: a spouse, child, grandchild, staff member, business colleague, etc. of a psychopath or sociopath possibly has already experienced gaslighting and invalidation of their experience (not to mention undermining of their personhood and dignity) with these folks.
And so, when we as a community celebrate and praise, let’s say, the handsome local lawyer for all his achievements, or more largely feel entertained and excited by the exploits of the Con Man in the movie theatre, unintentionally we can often add to the self-doubting experience of a spouse/child/colleague/client of this individual who actually knows them to be different than how the rest of the world sees them.
Victims of the psychopath/sociopath’s bad behavior may ask, in watching everyone else like and admire this person for what they’ve achieved or who they seem to be outside of the family home may ask themselves:
“Am I crazy for feeling this way?”
“Everyone else loves dad so is there something wrong with me if I hate being around him?”
“Am I making this up? Is it really as bad as I think it is?
And so the experience of the victim of the psychopath or sociopath is further undermined, leading to greater emotional suffering in the form of doubting their own experience.
How do we heal from having been raised by, married to, or in business with a personality type like this?
The healing work required by those who have been impacted by relationships with psychopaths and sociopaths may include the following tasks:
- Protecting yourself. First and foremost in the healing journey, you have to protect yourself and establish safety for yourself (and any children you may have). This may mean setting more boundaries in your relationship with them (If you would like to learn how to set healthy boundaries, please be sure to explore my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries). It may mean opening your own bank account. It may mean going to couples counseling to get an impartial witness and advocate. It may, ultimately, mean leaving them. This may mean getting restraining orders. This may mean emancipating yourself from them if you can. This may mean moving. Whatever it takes, creating logistical, physical safety for yourself is the first priority.
- Educating yourself. Whether this is through books and articles (see my list of further reading below) or through professional support, you will likely need to begin learning about what psychopathy and sociopathy is, what this can look like in relationship, and what the possible impacts of it can look like. The first step in any healing process is bringing awareness to what is, and I find that psychoeducation about psychopaths and sociopaths can be deeply illuminating as you begin your healing journey.
- Confronting your personal history. I strongly recommend working with a therapist or other trained professional as you begin to remember, talk about, and make sense of your past and your experiences with a psychopath or sociopath. And, as a side note, don’t necessarily look to your own family of origin for an accurate reflection or validation of your personal history. They may not be willing or able to support you based on their own trauma with the psychopath or sociopath and/or because they’re still taken in by them.
- Grieving. Inevitably, in the course of educating yourself and confronting your past, you will need to grieve the impact a psychopath or sociopath had on your life. This grieving process may take quite some time, it can, at times, often feel endless, but it’s so valid and necessary to your healing process.
- Seek out healthier, more functional relationships. At first, these may feel hard if not impossible to recognize and you may not trust yourself that you can actually draw these kinds of relationships into your personal life. That’s okay. Start with your relationship with your therapist (a trained professional whose job it is to show up in a healthy, functional way) and allow them to help show you what could be possible in healthier relationships. Over time, may influence who you attract into your personal life.
- Take whatever steps you need to move forward and build a beautiful life for yourself, despite the pain of the past. The tagline of my business is this: No matter where you’re starting from, change is possible. I truly believe that, despite whatever experience you may have had with a psychopath or sociopath in your life, no matter how extensive the “damage” of that person may have been for you, it’s never too late to move forward and create a life that feels safe, healthy, enlivened, and fulfilling for yourself. It may take some time, it will definitely take some effort, but it is possible. And it’s the ultimate gift you can give yourself.
I conclude a lot of my articles with the phrase “moving forward” because, in so many cases when we’ve experienced complex relational trauma (as we inevitably do when a psychopath or sociopath has been in our life, particularly at critical developmental phases), there is no better mindset to maintain than one in which we feel we can move forward and create something good and beautiful for ourselves despite what our past experiences have been.
I hope, if you’ve felt alone in your experience of having been at the receiving end of being in a close relationship with a narcissist or sociopath, or if you yourself even felt upset watching The Wolf of Wall Street and couldn’t understand why other people weren’t as angry about the film as you, that my post today made you feel just a little bit less alone and more seen and supported.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself.
*This is an affiliate link and any purchases made through this link will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you).
Further reading to support you:
- How to Spot a Sociopath. (And How to Protect Yourself From Them.)
- How To Recover From Growing Up With A Narcissistic Parent.
- All The Little Fragments: Understanding Complex Relational Trauma
- Dispelling The Myth of Child Abuse.
- How Boundaries Impact Every Area of Your Life and What To Do If Yours Need Work.
- Why you don’t “need” or “have to” forgive anyone if you don’t want or feel ready to.
- The Power of Being “The Black Sheep” In Your Family.