Rewilding Shame

I ended the last post with the question, “where else do we see psychopathic behaviors in nature?”

I still want to explore this, but not today. Today let’s talk about remorse.

Shame and guilt has done tremendous emotional damage to many rewilders. In the modern world, we use shame and guilt as a whip to motivate the enslaved and the colonized. We embed emotional violence in our very language (see the excellent writings of Marshall Rosenberg on Nonviolent Communication). We condemn, in order to compel others to behave as we want, and praise for the same reasons.

Even for those of us who want to create a richer life, unless we spend regular time examining our language, we unknowingly injure those we love with “shoulds” and “oughts” and “you’re so wonderful!”

For these reasons, I don’t speak of shame and guilt lightly. However, in order to talk about conscience (or the lack thereof), we must talk about the empathic experience of our hearts hurting because we “feel how others feel about us” – their anger, sadness, whether imagined or real. On this blog, and in the research on psychopaths, we mean the term “conscience” in this way. And though our culture uses guilt and shame as a weapon, I also know that human communities stick together partly because of this capacity to feel shame and guilt over actions that have hurt the group, and therefore drive action to repair damage and heal communal bonds.

Remorse, shame, guilt, all of these words describe painful feelings that cause us to want to grow, want to change, to improve ourselves. Painful feelings of shame, in a healthy conscience, happen on their own without any blaming or coercion, and help us to point our learning towards growing as a community and strengthen bonds. Maintaining these bonds feel deeply nourishing to human beings. We pursue them because of how they make us feel.

We work on our ability to “get along” and connect with each other precisely because of the twin phenomena of a hunger for the deep pleasure of familial ties and friendships, and the experience of remorse when we fail at obtaining or maintaining these well.

Except the psychopath, who of course, seems to only have the ability to feel emotions very shallowly – frustration and pleasure, for example, rather than anger, fear, and joy.

I alternate between talking about “people who exhibit psychopathic behaviors” and simply using the label “psychopaths”. Honestly, the word “psychopath” gets in the way of what we need to talk about here, because it implies, no matter how many disclaimers I write, an on/off, either/or extreme neurobiological state. Until I can come up with a better way of talking about them – not only does “psychopath” imply an all-or-nothing condition, but it also causes an instant hot-button emotional reaction trained from media across countless movies, true crime novels, and decades of television – perhaps we at least need a new word, like “disempath”, that connotes the true issue at hand: the inability of certain individuals to experience or empathize with emotions. I’m not sure. Creating a new label still perpetuates the innate problem of labeling, still leaves unaddressed the degrees and dimensions in which you can express the extent of the individual’s undeveloped emotions and empathy. We’ll just have to exercise our e-prime I suppose!

Now let’s start tracking. I want to review some of the behaviors psychopaths exhibit that act as “warning colors” to their biological inability to feel deep emotion or remorse, and thus crave thrills that require predation on other human beings.

Psychopaths live in the moment, immersed in an impulsive Now, and if you meet them on those terms, you will surely fall prey. You must look at their tracks, their trails, their history, in order to recognize them.

You’ll notice first that psychopaths don’t really seem to grow or change over time. Because of their inability to feel remorse, they don’t and can’t focus their learning on how to “get along” and build more satisfying relationships. Therefore they leave a trail of drama and bitter ex-friends, ex-business associates, and family members. And they continue on in the present moment, just like they always have, in a kind of perpetual adolescence, using the same tactics to get their needs and wants met at the cost of developing a healthier community around them. They can’t even see this trade-off, because they don’t have the emotional eyes to see it (or the lack of it).

They have a poor sense of smell. Yes, as recent research suggests, due to their poor ability to use the front part of their brain, a region involved in planning and impulse control, other capacities governed by this area, such as distinguishing between different smells, also seem to fall victim to their handicap.

Gestures (while talking) increase when describing emotional states or using emotional words. As you may know from my work with endangered languages, the use of hand gestures increases “fluency”, even in our mother tongue. When we struggle to use a word, or with language that we haven’t mastered, hand gestures can help us “pull it out” more fluently. Psychopaths seem to need gestural support when talking about subjects that they really can never understand; emotions and empathy.

They seek thrills and edgy experiences, often seeming “more alive” than other people. They may seek physical thrills, along with creating crises so that they can then solve them. Drama seems to follow them wherever they go, whether or not it affects them.

Grandiosity. They value themselves and their own abilities quite highly; they have a very healthy self-esteem.

They use tantrums and crocodile tears to get what they want. Because they’ve mimed these emotions, they can shake them off as if nothing happened.

They seem glib and charming, using language oddly; they go on more tangents, more often than others, connect sentences oddly, contradict themselves. Like the psychopath who replied, when asked if he had ever committed a violent crime, “No, I never have, but once I had to kill someone.” This may derive from a combination of the unusual structure of their brain, and an innate desire to manipulate. In any case, their cobbled-together syntax reveals the strangely scrambled cognition (even if brilliant!)

Their behavior doesn’t change with the application of consequences, punishments, or pain. This may connect with their impulsivity and shallowness, but psychopaths don’t seem to care about any future pain; they don’t experience fear or anxiety. You can’t threaten or intimidate them. They only respond to rewards, not punishments, and in fact they seem to experience pleasurable stimuli twice as intensely as non-psychopaths. Imagine the behavior of someone completely driven by their own pleasure, with little or no experience of fear or anxiety.

Their predatory focus may act like tunnel-vision, damping their awareness of surrounding context. Does this imply a bias towards the focused-manipulation hemisphere of the brain, over the expanded-awareness hemisphere, even more so than already exists in Western culture? Would a psychopath struggle with using “owl-eyes” (wide-angle vision)?

They lie consistently, even in minor situations that may defeat their purpose. This odd compulsion means that it doesn’t take much to discover the trail of lies; just start double-checking, out of habit, what most folks say, and if you run across a trail of consistent lying it will instantly become obvious.

I don’t claim this as a complete list – certainly I’ve left out the violent behaviors and criminality that the most extreme psychopaths exhibit – but I think this works great as a starting point for those of us wanting to have a rough sense of what to look for.

Again, these behaviors and symptoms will all happen to a degree, not in an all-or-nothing manner.  It depends on the extent of the particular individual’s emotional damping. I assume, as with all things, that a whole range of emotional perception must exist, from almost zero emotions (full-blown psychopath) all the way to an inability to distinguish between one’s own emotions and others (full-blown empath). Perhaps other dimensions too – could humans who mostly experience anxiety, or only love, exist?

It also happens that children, with fully felt emotions, with poor parenting and/or a toxic culture, can grow up ill-equipped to connect with others’ emotional experience. Psychiatrists call these people “narcissists”, and they may resemble psychopaths in every way (grandiosity, aggression, charm, tantrums, etc.) except one: they feel ongoing pain over their inability to create and maintain healthy relationships, losing contact with friends, spouses, children. They experience emotions; but they never had the chance to develop empathy.

For my own children, to keep their empathic capacities healthy and intact, and out of common-sense good parenting, I don’t ever “punish” them. I constantly redirect their minds to their feelings and the feelings of others, without much explaining or discussion. How do you feel? How do they feel? Why? What can you do to make it better?

Again, we still have more to talk about, perhaps one more blog post, on what we can do about it if we run across these individuals. From a rewilder/tracker’s point of view, how can we possibly respond to psychopathic behavior?

Written by Willem