Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

The Criminal Does "Sweat the Small Stuff"

To a criminal, the "small stuff" may not be small

All too often, we hear an account of someone who pays with his life in a dispute over a jacket, a costume piece of jewelry, or some other material item. Or a lethal assault occurs during an exchange of name-calling and challenges.  The reason that such arguments result in tragedy is that for at least one of the parties involved, his entire self-image is on the line.  People with a criminal personality have many fears.  They don’t talk about the fears because they want to avoid appearing “lame,” “sissy,” or “weak.”  Among their fears is the possibility of getting caught, convicted, or confined for a crime they commit.  There also are fears of injury or death in high risk offenses.  Criminals are able to shut off all of these fears long enough to engage in the act they are contemplating.

The greatest fear of all is being “putdown” or diminished.  The criminal has a glass jaw.  He will dish out incredible abuse, but he may react explosively to the slightest threat to  the image he is trying to maintain to himself and convey to others.  Consequently, a conflict over something that appears minor invariably escalates if a person believes his entire self-image is on the line.

Bear in mind what a criminal brings to such a conflict – namely an entire world view characterized by very unrealistic expectations.  He sees himself as similar to the hub of a wheel around which everything should revolve.  Life is a one-way street according to him.  He has a sense of ownership.  To his egocentric manner of thinking, the item in dispute already belongs to him.  He is simply endeavoring to take possession of that which he deems is his.  Most likely, he has already thought about what he will do with the item. He envisions himself wearing the clothing (and having others admire him) or having the jewelry adorning him.

A basically responsible person does not think this way. Consequently, he is unlikely to fathom how a dispute over an item of little value could result in someone losing his life. The concept of “don’t sweat the small stuff” is totally foreign to a criminal.  Because there is no “small stuff” when his self-image is on the line.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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