‘You’ fans think Joe is a psychopath, but mental health experts say they’re wrong

Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg in

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Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg in “You” on Netflix.
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Netflix

Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for the television show “You.”

  • When season 1 of “You” aired, fans took to Twitter to discuss Goldberg’s mental health, though he’s never diagnosed with a particular condition in either season. Still, many viewers seemed to believe he is a psychopath.

  • But according to mental health experts, Goldberg’s mental health is more complicated, especially since the term psychopath doesn’t hold much meaning, clinically speaking.
  • Goldberg shows signs of antisocial personality disorder, narcissism, and codependency in season 1.
  • In season 2, however, flashbacks to Goldberg’s past suggest he could actually be none of those and have an attachment disorder.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more.

On December 26, Netflix released the highly-anticipated second season of its original thriller series “You,” which centers around narrator Joe Goldberg, a young man who has a pattern of becoming obsessed with certain women, stalking them, winning them over, and killing anyone around them he believes has wronged his lover.

The release reignited Twitter speculations about Goldberg’s mental health that have been swirling since season 1. While Goldberg never receives an explicit diagnosis in either season of “You,” many viewers seem to believe he is a psychopath.

But according to mental health experts, Goldberg’s mental health is more complicated, especially since the term “psychopath” doesn’t hold much meaning, medically speaking.

“People use the word ‘psychopath’ colloquially to describe a person whose behavior defies social norms and conventional understandings of right and wrong,” Kelly Scott, a therapist at Tribeca Therapy in Manhattan, told Insider. “From a clinical perspective, the word ‘psychopath’ doesn’t mean anything.”

Scott did say, though, that the closest clinical diagnosis to a “psychopath” or “sociopath” is antisocial personality disorder, and that Goldberg does indeed show some hallmark traits of the disorder. He also demonstrates characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder, experts say.

At the same time, more information offered in “You” season 2 suggests Goldberg may not have antisocial personality disorder, but an attachment disorder related to childhood trauma.

Goldberg embodies some symptoms of antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders

One reason it’s difficult to pinpoint a single mental health condition for Goldberg is the simple fact “You” was created for television, according to Pamela Rutledge, a social scientist who researches the intersection of media, human behavior, and neuroscience.

Goldberg “seems to be an amalgam of personality traits at abnormal levels that are constructed to make a good story and create a character that elicits a certain amount of empathy” in viewers, despite the fact he murders people, Rutledge told Insider. In reality, very few people with mental illness behave like this in real life.

The fact that Goldberg comes off as extremely charming from the first time viewers are introduced to him also suggests he could be a narcissist.

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The fact that Goldberg comes off as extremely charming from the first time viewers are introduced to him also suggests he could be a narcissist.
source
Netflix

Rutledge added that in her expert opinion, Goldberg’s actions suggest he has symptoms of certain mental illnesses like antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

According to the National Institutes of Health, people with antisocial personality disorder lack empathy, and as a result, may act in ways that society considers morally unsound, like manipulating others to get what they want or violating another’s privacy.

People with narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated sense of self-importance and lack of empathy for others, which are typically mechanisms used to mask their low self-esteem, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In some ways, Goldberg embodies both conditions because he’s constantly violent when he believes a person has wronged him, a common justification people with both illnesses make for their behavior.

For example, in season 1 of “You,” Goldberg hit a man named Benji, his love interest Beck’s boyfriend, over the head with a mallet, locked him in a glass box, and killed Benji a few days later. Later in the season, Goldberg also killed Beck’s best friend Peach because he didn’t like how Beck and Peach’s relationship interfered with his and Beck’s relationship.

Goldberg committed all of these heinous and unlawful acts without showing remorse and did so for his own benefit – in this case, being closer to Beck – which suggests he could be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, Scott said.

Indeed, people with antisocial personality disorder are more inclined to break the law than those with narcissistic personality disorder, psychologist Stanton Samenow wrote on Psychology Today.

Goldberg’s charm is representative of narcissism

The fact that Goldberg comes off as extremely charming from the first time viewers are introduced to him is another reason he could be a narcissist, something that ranges from the full-blown disorder to a personality trait.

Often narcissists fly under the radar because they use their charm and wit to seem normal and unsuspecting. In fact, Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and a licensed clinical psychologist, previously told Insider that extreme charisma is a common red flag that someone could be a narcissist.

“I always tell people: Pay attention when there’s too much on the front end,” Durvasula said. “I know it seems fun and romantic, but it’s probably a trainwreck waiting to happen.”

Goldberg’s penchant for harming or killing those close to his love interest and obsession Beck also suggest he’s morbidly codependent, according to Rutledge. People who are severely codependent tend to control their partner or the person they’re codependent towards and define themselves primarily in relationship to their partner rather than having their own identity, Insider previously reported.

“You” season 2 suggests Goldberg has an attachment disorder

Season 2 of “You” gets deeper into Goldberg’s past and uncovers clues that suggest he actually has an attachment disorder, according to Scott.

Attachment disorders typically develop in early childhood when a child has unhealthy or difficult relationships with family due to emotional or physical abuse or neglect, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Symptoms include difficulty managing their emotions, being overly friendly, irritability, and refusing to engage in social situations.Not all people with antisocial personality disorder or an attachment disorder will act violently like Goldberg did.

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Not all people with antisocial personality disorder or an attachment disorder will act violently like Goldberg did.
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Netflix

“Joe [Goldberg] would be a good example of misdiagnosis,” Scott said. “If he was my patient in season 1, sure, he could be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, but upon further excavation, his behavior reveals itself as a trauma symptom versus antisocial personality disorder.”

According to Scott, this shift in understanding his diagnosis makes “You” feel like a more realistic portrayal of mental health.

“Mental health relies on nuance because it is nuance,” Scott said. “A diagnosis is almost never clean-cut and disorders overlap. It’s not like a strep test with ‘yes, you have strep,’ or ‘no, you don’t.'”

At the same time, Scott said it’s important to note that not all people with antisocial personality disorder or an attachment disorder will act violently.

“You don’t have to kill someone to get that diagnosis,” Scott said. “You can do it in a non-physical way. It can come out in parenting and using your child to meet your own needs in a way that is massively detrimental to your child’s needs,” like Goldberg’s mother is seen doing in flashbacks during season 2.

These flashbacks help viewers better understand the root cause of Goldberg’s behavior and, according to Scott, these scenes led her to believe Goldberg acts how he does not because he lacks empathy and has antisocial personality disorder, but because his violent and turbulent childhood caused him to develop an attachment disorder.

“[Goldberg] was attached to someone, his mom, who was unresponsive to his needs, inconsistent, and not a safe person to him,” Scott said. “He’s positioned as alone in the world, abused and neglected by his mom.”

That’s why later in life Goldberg becomes obsessively attached to women he believes can give him what he needs and is motivated to get the love, or idea of love, he craves by any means necessary while still showing glimpses of empathy.

According to Scott, a season 2 scene when Goldberg looks distraught after he learns his landlord Delilah has been killed proves that Goldberg does indeed have empathy and therefore doesn’t have antisocial personality disorder. Another season 2 scene, when Goldberg says he won’t kill Forty even though he hates him because he means so much to Love, further suggests Goldberg has empathy, to an extent.

Season 3 of “You” is slated to debut in 2021.