You might think you could be called antisocial if you prefer a quiet night in with a book to going out to dinner with a group. Or if your move is to hide in a bathroom at a party to take a break from mingling. (A room full of people is so exhausting.)
But being antisocial doesn’t always mean that someone is simply shy or introverted. If you consider yourself antisocial, this article will talk about the differences between the casual use of the term “antisocial,” how it may factor into social anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and how this all differs from antisocial personality disorder.
What does it mean to be antisocial?
We often use antisocial in a colloquial way to describe someone who is shy, reserved, or prefers the quiet of their own company. “Some people may just think that it’s easier to be alone than to be around people,” says Patrick McGrath, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD.
But just because you like to be alone—most of the time or on occasion—does not mean that you are antisocial. Instead, it can be a sign of social anxiety, stem from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or be a product of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Dr. McGrath. (In the case of PTSD, you may avoid being around others out of fear that a situation or person will trigger specific symptoms like flashbacks.)
Other times, of course, you might not have any particular condition whatsoever, and people may call you “antisocial” simply because you have an introverted personality. Remember that if a disinterest in highly social activities isn’t interfering in your ability to live your life the way you want to, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it—no matter how others might refer to your personality.
This bears no relation to more clinical definitions of “antisocial,” however. One of the definitions of antisocial, according to Merriam-Webster, is being “hostile or harmful to organized society.” This is the meaning of the word as it’s used in antisocial personality disorder, or ASPD. As the National Library of Medicine defines ASPD, “antisocial personality disorder is a mental condition in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others without any remorse.”
“People who have antisocial personality disorder are people who you don’t generally want to associate with. They don’t care if they hurt you. They will start dating you to convince you that you’re wonderful then swindle you out of money all while being involved with two other people. It’s a condition that generally features a lack of moral conscience,” Dr. McGrath describes.
You might also hear it by its more common name: sociopathy. This comes up in casual conversation, too. Ever heard someone call their ex a sociopath? In this case, it’s to describe someone who has little regard for their feelings and acts in really hurtful and damaging ways. They might meet the symptoms for ASPD, or sociopathy—or they could just be a jerk. Read on to learn how to tell the difference.
What are the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder?
The American Psychiatric Association says that somewhere from 0.6% to 3.6% of adults have ASPD. The disorder affects more men than women and commonly occurs alongside depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders.
The development of antisocial personality disorder has many factors, including genetic, behavioral and emotional problems like conduct disorder, and abuse and neglect in childhood. Antisocial behaviors overwhelmingly show up in childhood—and if they’re not addressed, children can develop ASPD, says StatPearls.
If it were possible to sum up the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, it would be this: they simply don’t care about others. On the other hand, they can be extremely personable and charming in order to get what they want, which can make it tough to pinpoint someone with ASPD when you first meet them. But when they flip that switch, being around a sociopath can be dangerous.
The Mayo Clinic has a more complete list; here’s a selection of common symptoms:
- Telling lies to take advantage of others
- Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or pleasure
- Having problems with the law, including criminal behavior
- Being hostile, aggressive, violent, or threatening to others
- Doing dangerous things with no regard for the safety of self or others
How is antisocial personality disorder different from social anxiety?
There are no meaningful similarities between ASPD and social anxiety. Social anxiety is an anxiety disorder where you feel anxious because you have a fear of being negatively judged and evaluated by others, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
If you have social anxiety, you may find that anxiety takes hold when you have to go on a date, give a presentation, or attend a party. Because of that, it can often feel easier to avoid places or situations where there are a lot of people or where there will be new people. And this is how you can become labeled with the term “antisocial.” (But really, you’re not against being social—you’re intimidated and nervous about it.)
Having social anxiety doesn’t say anything about your morals or how you treat others. In fact, you might regularly show people respect, appreciation, and kindness, because you’re especially worried about how you will be received. Did they think that when I didn’t make eye contact it was because I was bored of the conversation or didn’t like them? If I ask for help, is that wasting their time?
Someone with antisocial personality disorder, however, does not worry about judgment from others because they’re not thinking about others when they make their decisions, which are done only to benefit them. Social anxiety is constantly looking outward—What will people think of me?—while ASPD is only focused inward: What can I gain from this?
How is antisocial personality disorder treated?
Treating antisocial personality disorder is a challenge. People with ASPD don’t tend to seek help, because they don’t see that anything is wrong, and they can’t usually be convinced by a family member or friend to get that help. “No one would see a therapist on their own because they have a belief that they’re right and everyone else is wrong,” Dr. McGrath says.
It is possible, however, that early intervention by a parent could force a child who may be predisposed to developing ASPD to get help, says Dr. McGrath. Early intervention for young people who have conduct disorder may influence the progression into ASPD, says StatPearls.
Another factor that complicates treatment is that there is not a validated treatment plan that clinicians can pull from to effectively address ASPD. Instead, someone would be evaluated for other co-occurring conditions, such as bipolar disorder, and be treated for those, potentially with medications. Antipsychotics may also be given to address aggression. In some instances, certain tools from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may benefit people with ASPD—but the person with ASPD needs to be a willing participant in these sessions.
How is social anxiety treated?
Many treatments for social anxiety are available to make people feel more confident around others. The NIMH says that treatment options include:
- Support groups
A specific type of CBT, called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is great for treating social anxiety, says Dr. McGrath. With ERP, you’re basically facing the things you fear. And once you realize that you can survive the discomfort that they bring, the anxiety surrounding them diminishes.
In using ERP for social anxiety, Dr. McGrath might have a client practice the following exercises:
- Purposefully make mistakes to learn you can handle them, such as going up to a cashier and paying with the wrong amount of money or calling someone the wrong name. (This hits on a fear of making a mistake.)
- Ask for someone’s help or time, such as going to a store, asking for information about an item, and saying “thank you” and leaving without buying anything. (This hits on the fear of wasting someone’s time.)
- Draw attention to yourself by dropping a handful of pennies on the sidewalk in front of a group of people or wearing a funny hat in public. (This hits on the fear of receiving attention.)
Why being seen as “antisocial” is common in OCD
OCD is a chronic mental health disorder where you experience a cycle of obsessions—recurring and distressing thoughts, images, sensations, feelings, or urges—and compulsions, which can be mental or physical, done to neutralize the distress of an obsession. These can be things like checking, mentally reviewing, seeking reassurance, continually counting, excessively praying, and many others, including avoidance.
“OCD is like having an overly evolved high moral conscience,” says Dr. McGrath. With OCD, there is a distinct fear about what if I were to act this way and do bad things. “No one with antisocial personality disorder would have a fear of doing something wrong, because they don’t care,” he explains.
When you have OCD, you can experience what’s called thought-action fusion. It’s a line of belief that having a thought is equivalent (or morally equivalent) to actually doing it. Meaning: I am a bad, violent person because I had an intrusive thought about hurting someone else. This is not true because thinking is not the same as doing.
“People with OCD often feel that they’re terrible, awful, horrible human beings because of their thoughts,” says Dr. McGrath. “They frequently worry: ‘What if I’m a horrible person? How can I know for sure?’ But that’s only because being a good, moral, or responsible person is so important to them. It’s the opposite in ASPD. People who have antisocial personality disorder will never feel terrible because they try to gain personal advantage from all situations,” he says.
Like social anxiety, ERP is also highly effective for OCD—in fact, it’s considered the gold standard, and was developed specifically for the condition. With OCD, your therapist will intentionally trigger an obsessive thought or worry, which will cause discomfort. But instead of seeking immediate relief, you’ll work with your therapist to resist the urge to respond with compulsions. As a result, you teach your brain over time that you can endure the distress and anxiety that comes from your fears, and OCD symptoms begin to fade away.
How to get help for ASPD, social anxiety or OCD
Unfortunately, antisocial personality disorder is notoriously difficult to treat, and it relies on the willingness of the person with ASPD to participate in treatment. If you think someone you care about may have ASPD, you can start by finding a therapist who specializes in personality disorders. Outlets like Psychology Today have search tools where you can locate one in your area. That’s a great place to get the ball rolling. If you have someone with ASPD in your life and have been harmed by their actions, you can also seek out therapy yourself to learn coping skills and heal from the experience.
If you think you may be struggling with social anxiety, or if OCD fears make you fearful about engaging in social situations, there is help available. NOCD not only treats all types of OCD, but also provides evidence-based ERP therapy for anxiety disorders like social anxiety.
We can connect you with a licensed therapist who is specially trained in ERP, and you can access virtual, face-to-face sessions in a way that helps you regain the confidence you need to live life on your own terms—social situations and all. I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s accessible, holistic approach to treatment for OCD and social anxiety.