The Psychopath: An Empty Boat

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If a man is crossing a river

And an empty boat collides with his own boat,
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout to him to steer clear.
And if the shout is not heard he will shout
Again, and yet again, and begin cursing –
And all because there is somebody in that boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and he would not be angry.

(Chinese mystic Chuang Tzu)

What is the point of this story, for us?

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The point is that the psychopath who came crashing into our lives was, in fact, an empty boat. They were compulsively driven to act as they did by a brain disorder, therefore they could not have acted differently.

Until we realize this, we remain prisoners of our grievance and our past, which prolongs healing and keeps us closed to the currents of life and love that are flowing around us.

Of course, we believed there was someone driving that boat. We thought we knew that person intimately. But now we know there was no one at the helm. It was just an empty boat on a foggy lake.

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We’ve all heard that psychopaths know right from wrong, but they just don’t care. The truth is, they know right from wrong—but they just can’t care. Their disorder leaves them without a conscience and unable to love. Remaining angry long after they’re gone, after we learn the truth, is like staying angry at an empty boat that rammed into our own.

Once we understand the boat that hit ours was empty, we can focus on rebuilding ours without the ongoing anger that slows and complicates the process.

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When we see life as it is, rather than our thoughts about it, we can move forward through calmer waters with a little less effort.

Understanding that psychopaths have a brain disorder that makes them act the way they do can help resolve anger, self-blame, doubt, and confusion. There’s still a lot to deal with. But this shift in perspective made a difference for me, and I hope it will for you, too.

A neurological basis for the lack of empathy in psychopaths

A cognitive neuroscience perspective on psychopathy: Evidence for paralimbic system dysfunction

Suffering Souls: The search for the roots of psychopathy

It’s Not You, It’s Me… and My Hyper-Reactive Dopaminergic Reward System

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42 thoughts on “The Psychopath: An Empty Boat”

  1. Golden Goldman

    Very good observation! keep going, so far so good. Thank you

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you, Golden.

  2. Jessica

    Simple, but powerful.
    CAN’T.
    Not capable.
    SO sad. Pity.
    Glad for me.
    I CAN.
    yay me.
    Better to feel pain that nothing at all.
    Keep your head up, my love

  3. Eva Sophia

    Every time I start to wonder why and try to make sense of what happened, I remind myself that it’s due to a brain disorder. Reading articles like this are very helpful in re-framing things. Instead of thinking I handled it wrong, its clear that I wasn’t dealing with a well-adjusted person.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Fantastic!

  4. Matthew

    Blame is powerful. I think this perspective helped me personally almost immediately. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Excellent!

  5. Linda

    Excellent post! Helpful information! Following the links you have provided has given me a new perspective on the brain of that predator who did indeed crash into my life, causing chaos and pain. I can replace “Why?” with understanding now, and relase any lingering anger and guilt. Thank you Adelyn! As always, I do appreciate your valuable work!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you, Linda! I’m so glad it helps. Once I realized the P I knew had a disorder, I wasn’t angry any more, and that helped me immensely. He acted in the only way his brain allowed him to act. It was still a deeply disturbing and traumatizing experience, but understanding why he did what he did made it possible for me to take a giant step forward.

  6. Laura

    Great analogy. I grew up with a narcissistic mother. Very disturbing.

  7. Deborah

    Thank you so much. Reading this really helped me today. I have recently gone no contact with my ex P and even with all the knowledge gained from lots of reading, I still am overcome with sheer disbelief of how he pretended he loved me and how badly he treated me, and how I am left to pick up the pieces of my life with my 10 year old daughter and a continual how could he do that and behave like that? Thank you so much, as someone mentioned, your post really helped me to reframe things today. I have only just found your site so it is the first post I have read. Thank you so much x

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’m very happy to hear this post helped you, Deborah! I wish you and your daughter all the best x

  8. Frances

    Fascinating post! You speak as if psychopaths have no free will. We “can’t care?” Or, maybe, you can’t help caring. Or maybe both. If psychopaths are so totally unable to “steer the boat,” I guess you believe we shouldn’t be punished for crimes. Our court system sees it differently, of course. This brings up the whole free-will/determinism argument. Some philosophers deny that anyone has free will. I don’t agree with them. But, as far as psychopaths are concerned, I just read an interesting book, The Myth of the Born Criminal which is pretty debunking on the brain deficit claims. I wrote my own blog about this book and other related issues, https://kiasherosjourney.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/deconstructing-psychopathy you might want to take a look at. BTW, I really like your blog. It’s a lot better than most of its ilk.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I think it’s both, Frances. As far as crime goes, the rest of us need protection from anyone who is a real danger to others, no matter what the reason. People who commit crimes–whether they’re psychopathic or not–do it because of some faulty decision they made based on what they have to work with between their ears. I believe that in the UK, criminal psychopaths are confined in psychiatric hospitals, and that’s fine with me. I think psychopaths do steer their own boat–they’ve just got a different boat, one that’s prone to harming others around them, and whether it’s a brain disorder or some sort of evolutionary adaptation, as some believe, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. No matter the cause, psychopathy leaves people with little emotion and no care for the welfare of others, and with motivations and goals that oppose our own. There is nothing in that boat for us, which is why I say it’s empty. Free will is another matter entirely,one I haven’t come to any conclusions about (for any of us), so I won’t comment on that point except to say we probably have similar levels of it.

      1. Frances

        I didn’t mean I thought you opposed locking up dangerous criminals. Thanks for your reply.

        1. Adelyn Birch

          I knew you were making a point. I believe they’re just as responsible for their actions as any other criminal is, because I think most dangerous criminals have a severe lack of empathy that’s rooted in one disorder or another. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Deborah S.

    Excellent, as always.
    Deborah

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you, Deborah!

  10. Naomi

    #The psychopath an empty boat# Thank you , Adelyne. It answers the question “why? “.It is comforting to know there is no humanity person in the psychopath.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’m glad you found some comfort in finding out “why,” Naomi.

  11. Lissa

    Your empty boat analogy was helpful to me. I left my N 9 months ago and have No Contact every since. I had to educate myself just to understand what happened. And I have come understand that there is an emptiness inside of these disordered people that just cannot be filled. They try to by draining us, just to feel something, just to try and feel a twinge of what normal people feel. But it’s so fleeting, that feeling, that have to provoke and manipulate others again and again, just like a drug addict. I’ve come a long way in my understanding of the Why. And, the most important lesson I have learned is that there are men out there that will say they love you, care for you, act like they do, but from Day One are planning to hurt you, trick you, cheat on you, lie to you, deceive you, and they will enjoy every minute of observing your anxiety, fear, confusion, and tears. They want to see you spin. Thank you for “fleshing” out the idea of the emptiness. It’s a difficult concept to understand and you have to understand it in order to move on and get better. Well done.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’m glad you’ve educated yourself, Lissa, because it would be very difficult to heal without doing that. All of this was a complete surprise to me, too. I had no idea that it was even a possibility. So very glad to hear my writing has helped you xx

  12. Spring

    The learning curve for really understanding what is happening in their brain is a long, drawn out process. I’ve been diligently researching this topic for almost 3 years.(when the ‘relationship’ ended.)(although I am still cyber stalked) Your posts are so cutting edge, and are really helping me understand at a deeper level so I don’t take it so personally anymore. I also re- read your books frequently as reminders. It’s great to have this support and learning resource. Thank you Adelyn.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you for letting me know—I’m so happy to hear my work helps you!

  13. Alice

    Brilliant, thank you so much Adelyn!

    It’s so tough because the boat that collided with ours wasn’t totally empty. Actually, there was a creature sitting inside of it that looked like a very interesting person.

    The point is that we didn’t realise that it was all fake, because we weren’t 100%ready and able to see and process that truth back then.

    Today, we would probably see through the fake and would realise that the boat was indeed empty/void of humanity.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I believe we would see through the act. We’ve all learned a lot, and we will spot the empty boat headed our way.

  14. Mistea1

    Hi Adelyn, thank you for this post. I am a very visual person and the boat example helps.

    Instead of telling myself the ‘story’ of why I need to avoid these people I let the vision of the empty boat hold the explanation. All I have to do is insert the empty boat every time my thinking starts to get disordered and I don’t have to ‘go there.’

    I still have a lot of cognitive disonance and I try to be a little distant with acquaintences because I can tell by their response to me that I’m still a little disordered. I’m now starting to realize how deep this is and am treating myself as kindly as I can and hoping for the best.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      It’s great that the vision of the empty boat is holding the explanation for you.

      Treating yourself kindly is so important for healing, so I’m glad to hear you’re doing that. Have you read the post on self-compassion? The Self-Compassion Effect

      The trauma does go deep, and the cognitive dissonance we experience is a sign how confused we are afterward. We’re left feeling very much like Alice in Wonderland: Alice encounters a series of puzzles that seem to have no clear solutions. Alice expects that the situations she encounters will make a certain kind of sense, but they repeatedly frustrate her ability to figure out Wonderland. As you figure things out and your doubt clears, the cognitive dissonance will start to lessen.

  15. Paige Abrams

    Thank you for sharing your experience, strength, and hope. I have been feeling like this experience of ramming into an empty boat has rendered me unable to live a ‘normal’ life. My inner landscape has completely changed, making me unknowable to myself. In my struggle to stabilize, I have become more compassionate for people with PTSD (Veterans of war, rape victims, etc). I am amazed when I get up in the morning, when I brush my teeth, when I smile and when I laugh. Most of the time I don’t feel like eating. It has been an epic and horrible battle. I pray for it to one day be easier and flow better. By sharing your words and experience, you provide hope and understanding where there was none before. As I educate myself about the brain disorder my ex has, I wonder at how I never knew what psychopathy encompasses. How is this not a part of public health education?! People don’t believe me when I describe him, when I explain what I went through. They look at me with blank and unsympathetic eyes; wondering how I got so crazy, so derailed…

    1. Adelyn Birch

      You’re rebuilding your boat, Paige, and you can turn it into the finest boat you’ve ever had. It is amazing when you can get up in the morning, and smile and laugh despite what’s happened—it’s called resilience, and it’s a wonderful quality we develop when faced with hardship, one that’s ours to keep.
      You’re feeling more compassion for others now, which is a sign that your heart is alive and well. You may not have noticed it yet, but if you take a close look at that battlefield you’re on, there are little green sprouts coming up—sprouts that will turn into strong trees and blooming flowers. When we go through such a trauma, we change in ways that can surprise us. Right now you’re in between two places–your old world and your new one. It’s filled with uncertainty, but things will start to shift: Liminality, the Unsettling Space of In-Between Understanding and hope are two things that can help on your journey, and I’m so glad you found them here xx

      Want To Reclaim Your Power? Re-Write Your Story!
      Post-Traumatic Growth

  16. Alice

    There is a very interesting series of Webinars coming up at the end of April, called “The Insanity of Narcissism: What Women Should Know About Abusive Relationships”. It is organized by Certified counseler Fanny LeFlore WHO also co-authored “The Road Less Travelled” by Scott Peck. I am unfortunately mit able to insert the link to the event page, but you can find an announcement on Carrie Reimer’s narcissistic abuse recovery blog ladywithatruck.com or go directly to eventbrite.com where you will be able to find the Fanny LeFlore Communication event page.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thanks for telling us. I wish it was on TV instead! If anyone is interested, you can get more info and sign up here:

      The Insanity of Narcissism: What Women Should Know About Abusive Relationships

      It’s a 2-hour seminar (price is $25)

      “The dynamics of Narcissistic Abuse are very deep and often complicated, which is why most people simply cannot understand why many women have difficulty leaving a toxic situation.

      Abuse that involves a partner with a personality disorder (pathological narcissist/sociopath/psychopath) is different in many ways– and requires higher levels of awareness and understanding in order for people who’ve been victimized to begin the healing and empowerment process and ultimately recover. That’s because the innate qualities and behaviors of a pathological narcissist cause inevitable harm, due to relationships characterized by never-ending conflict, ongoing stress and confusion, and a lack of closure.

      Narcissists are often initially charming and usually seek to convince someone that they are “soul mates.” They create a period of intense involvement and idealization of their partner, followed by cycles of devaluation and discarding. The escalation of mistreatment often catches their partner off guard, leaving the “nice, forgiving and empathic” person who wanted the relationship to work, feeling victimized and traumatized. The depletion of energy from engaging with a pathological person leaves most people feeling abused and used up — to the point of becoming a “Shadow” of their former self that once was kind or loving, confident or successful.

      This is because abuse breaks people down, but many people don’t understand how emotional abuse can result in psychological rape akin to “soul murder.” At the beginning of a relationship, pathological narcissists only reveal their “ideal” — but False Self. Once someone commits to a relationship, marriage, business or other partnership, the true nature of the narcissist emerges through often insidious forms of abuse. Manipulation and exploitation are at the core of every interaction with a narcissist, whose lack of empathy and sense of entitlement.allow him to lie, mislead, belittle, ignore, cheat, sabotage and possibly physically abuse another in various ways.

      The most intense, unsettling, disruptive and destructive experiences usually occur within intimate relationships and families. Those are people most likely to engage in consistent interactions with a narcissist, and over longer periods of time. Narcissistic rage, silent treatment/stonewalling, smear campaigns/spreading rumors and attempts at full-blown annihilation (in the forms of psychological torture and murder-by-suicide) are among attempts by an abuser to maintain power and control at all costs.

      Since pathological narcissists do not take responsibility for relationship difficulties, they exhibit no remorse and often engage in flipping reality to view themselves as the victim. A narcissist’s feelings of inadequacy are projected to blame others in ways that can make people question their own sanity. This is known as gaslighting, and can become so extreme that some individuals are pushed to the brink of suicide to escape the pain of psychological and emotional abuse.”

      1. Alice

        Thank you Adelyn! xx

        1. Adelyn Birch

          You’re welcome! xx

  17. stripped

    So profound, so healing, you totally blow my mind and I would like to thank you for all of your help. I’ve read two books and can say that you’ve helped me understand and heal more than anything has…three years since the “breakup.”

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you so much, Stripped. You made my day. I’m sincerely happy that my work has helped you!

  18. stripped

    Additional Info FYI:
    He pretended to be my son, there was no sexual or romantic relationship.
    He had no gender identity, wasn’t straight, wasn’t gay, hated nudity which was “revolting,” top interest was in watching clothed women smoke–his obsession.
    His wife told me he mocked and belittled her, made fun of her teeth, etc.
    In his own words, “I am a terrible lover.”
    He could not love or care about others and was always surprised that I showed care and love towards his wife.
    He had several relatives that were clear psychopaths with long histories–two uncles and several cousins.
    I definitely now believe it is an inherited brain disorder.
    His favorite mottos were “Let it go,” “just get over it,” and “be groovy or take a hike.”
    I finally opted for being groovy WHILE taking a hike.
    Any yet, every single thing you describe here happened to me, obsessive thoughts, heartbreak, blaming myself, but I knew it wasn’t really my fault because I was the one who had cared and not him.
    In my experience, ALL of your theories are right on the money!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      So glad you chose “groovy” and let him take the hike. People like him, who have no empathy, are true poison for the rest of us. It doesn’t matter what the nature of the relationship is. If you get close to them in any way, it can be devastating. I’m sorry that happened to you, and hope you’re recovering.

  19. stripped

    And one last ironic thought which you will recognize as classic psychopath:
    He himself was the one who initially told me he was a Ps after I had questioned some of his reactions and behavior, saying oh so casually, “Well, it’s probably because I’m a psychopath…you know one time I did an online survey and that was the result I got…my wife and I just sat and laughed over it for a long time!” I thought, yes, that’s just the reaction a true Ps would have…a normal person would be concerned or upset to get that result.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      It is classic psychopath, except that he took it a step further and came right out with it. They KNOW that even if they do, we won’t believe it. As one psychopathic gal said,

      “My hypothesis is that anything short of literally screaming “I’m a psychopath” at the top of my lungs (and that still may not work…) and my family will never put two and two together. No matter how blatant the clues. Because of the human tendency to paint people as something they’re not, the people who cling to me will never accept that I’m not who they want me to be, unless I shove it in their face and even then, I ‘must be confused.’”

      If a normal person got test results that said they were psychopathic and they were upset about it, it would mean the test wasn’t accurate.

      1. stripped

        Exactly! But your site gave me the key to unlock all the mysteries and see the whole situation in an entirely new light, which has made all the difference!

        1. Adelyn Birch

          I’m thrilled to here it! That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. Thank you.

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