Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T, who has a private psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and clinical consulting practice in New Jersey, USA. For more information, visit his website, powercommunicating.com.
We can begin by noting something that both narcissists and psychopaths share: a tendency to regard others as objects more than persons. Immediately this raises concerns: you don’t have to empathize with objects; objects don’t have feelings worth recognizing. You can toy with objects; manipulate and exploit them for your own gratification, with a paucity of guilt.
Welcome to the world of the narcissist and psychopath. Theirs is a mindset of immediate, demanded gratification, with a view of others as expected—indeed existing—to serve their agendas. Frustrate their agendas, and you can expect repercussions, ranging from the disruptive to ruinous.
Distinct explanations for their actions
The behaviors of narcissists and psychopaths can look very similar in their staggering disregard and abuse of others. Distinctions arise, however, in the explanation of their actions. The narcissist will crave recognition and validation. He will demand that others notice and appreciate his special qualities; his special qualities make his needs special, which leaves him feeling entitled to their satisfaction. He demands all this as if his inner self is at stake, and it is. Disappointment leaves him feeling unappreciated, neglected. Anger and rage then surface in aggressive and passive-aggressive displays, often in proportion to the hurt and vulnerability he can’t own.
The psychopath is less obsessed than the narcissist with validation. Indeed, his inner world seems to lack much of anything to validate: it is barren, with nothing in it that would even be responsive to validation. An emotional cipher, the psychopath’s exploitation of others is more predatory than the narcissist’s. For the psychopath, who may be paranoid, the world is something like a gigantic hunt, populated by personified-objects to be mined to his advantage.
Example: narcissists and psychopaths as cheaters
As an example, let’s take a hypothetical narcissist and psychopath: Both males (females can be narcissists and psychopaths), both married, with families; and both compulsively conducting extra-marital affairs. Both have managed to avoid exposure principally due to the ease and remarkable skill with which they routinely lie and dissemble. They are equally persuasive in declaiming their fidelity to their wives as they are at contriving their unmarried status to their mistresses. Nevertheless, from time to time, their wives may approach them with uneasy suspicions, to which they’ll respond not with accountability, but as with outrage to have to deign to address their wives’ anxieties. They will impugn their wives for raising doubts about them, leaving the latter feeling defensive, guilty, and perhaps ashamed.
Narcissist is insecure
To this point, there is little on the surface to distinguish them. But going deeper, we discover that our narcissist is actually terribly insecure and needy. For him, having affairs validates his masculinity. His seductive abilities reassure him of his manhood. If he can no longer seduce and sleep with women, he is nothing; he has “lost it.” Feeling his nothingness/worthlessness, he grows depressed, despairing. He might even feel like killing himself. To salvage his collapsing self-image, he needs an infusion of reassurance, sought in a new affair. In the narcissist’s world, the more his psychic welfare is threatened, the more hers is disposable.
The narcissist will rationalize his actions with his greatest defenses—blame and contempt: My wife has been nasty to me for a long time, and doesn’t remotely appreciate me anymore. She’s lucky all I do is cheat; I could leave her instead, with nothing. The fact that I’ve stayed is almost charitable. And these women I cheat with”¦sure, they all think I’m unmarried, and you know what, I basically am.
Our narcissist, as you see, has a dim notion of ethics; but his ethics are corrupted by alarming rationalizations. He is expert at furnishing these rationalizations seamlessly, leaving him as if with the untroubled conscience of the psychopath.
Psychopath plays a game
Our psychopath, meanwhile, has no ethics, and thus no need for rationalizations. He has affairs because he wants to. Life, for him, is a game. The game is about figuring out how to get what he wants now, by whatever stratagems necessary. And it’s a game without rules. Without rules, there is no violation, no exploitation; and even if there is, it’s part of the game. So our psychopath makes up the rules as he goes along, duping this individual and that, lying like a shameless child as he improvises his way in and out of his schemes, sometimes smoothly, sometimes not—but always heedless of, and absolutely indifferent to, the damage he causes.
The psychopath will sit back, reflecting on his infidelities, and laughing, think, “I’ve still got it.” He will mean, “I’ve still got the ability to maneuver these women like a puppeteer.” This will amuse him. The narcissist will sit back, and likewise think, “I’ve still got it.” But he will mean, “I’m still attractive. Women still find me irresistible. I’m okay, for now.”
Commonly, the psychopath is upheld as the incarnation of the murderous bogeyman. While it’s true that many cold-blooded killers are psychopaths, most psychopaths are not killers. The majority of psychopaths would find a messy murder too inconvenient and personally unpleasant a task to assume. This—the personal inconvenience and unpleasantness, not empathy for the slaughtered victim—explains why a great many more psychopaths than not, with chilling non-compunction, are more likely to target your life’s savings than butcher you, and dispose of your remains in several industrial-strength Hefty bags.
This doesn’t make the non-murderous psychopath “less psychopathic,” or “more sensitive” than the murderous psychopath; it merely reflects the calculus psychopaths apply in their decision-making: how can I get, or take what I want, for maximum instant gain, at minimum personal inconvenience?
I must say the distinctions confuse me, as they seem to vary in all the books I read. The books also tell us that comorbidity is common with the personality disorders in that particular cluster.
My ex did claim to suffer from depression but that to me seemed like part of the ‘pity play’ and the ‘if you don’t do what I want I might kill myself’.
If we can’t rely on the honesty of any of these people, how can we really know if deep down it’s fuelled by neediness and insecurity, and not just tactics?
I know that sociopaths/psychopaths are meant to be Antisocial Personality Disorder on that scale, but are they really all that different? I thought sociopath and psychopath simply meant ‘not having a conscience or empathy’ – doesn’t that apply to narcissists as well as people with ASPD and even those with BPD?
I think the psychopath you speak of here is schizoid as well as psychopathic. The psychopath I was involved with fit this but was clearly psychopathic:
The narcissist will crave recognition and validation. He will demand that others notice and appreciate his special qualities; his special qualities make his needs special, which leaves him feeling entitled to their satisfaction. He demands all this as if his inner self is at stake, and it is. Disappointment leaves him feeling unappreciated, neglected. Anger and rage then surface in aggressive and passive-aggressive displays, often in proportion to the hurt and vulnerability he can’t own.
Studies also show that many narcissists do not have unstable self esteem. Impulsivity seems to differentiate the two more than anything else, other than perhaps the hypomania that is part of psychopathy.
I would like to see clinicians and researchers debating these points for the public on this site. So feel free to debate away!
My next book explains the association between ASPD/sociopathy/psychopathy and narcissism-
MANY people lack conscience and empathy BUT because they are also NOT driven to do evil, they don’t damage others much. Perpetrating evil requires BOTH poor conscience/empathy AND motivation to hurt others.
Those with conscience and empathy may be motivated to hurt but these hold them back.
I can’t wait to read it! I never thought I’d get so interested in a subject again – I could almost thank my ex some days! 🙂
What was it about what I said that made you think schizoid? From the descriptions I think my sociopath fits closely to either ASPD or NPD. I don’t think he fits so well with schizoid (endless sexual relationships and ‘relationships-in-waiting’) but it never occurred to me before.
The whole thing’s made me think about ‘evil’ and what it is a lot though. I thought that they didn’t necesarily have motivation to hurt others – quite often it seems to be a happy accident, as by-product of their desire to dominate everything. Oh I don’t know. It’s all scrambling my brain! (But it’s something to think about! 🙂 )
It is not EnnLondon’s description that overlaps with schizoid it is this quots from the post above:
“Indeed, his inner world seems to lack much of anything to validate: it is barren, with nothing in it that would even be responsive to validation. An emotional cipher,”
again though many have described narcissists with those words.
Ah thanks for clarifying – I thought you must have meant that.
My ex is definately a Narciccist but he is very predatory as well. I am tried to figure out for sure what he is but “no one has a good clean disorder” (I read that in a book by the way).
Anyway, I enjoy the clarification and I will definately read the new book when it comes out.
When I read all the classifications, my ex is definately a Narcissist, then he seems to be abit of all of the classifications! The classifications are not cut and dried. When I read Sam Valkin’s narrative on Narcissists, he is describing my ex perfectly, because he picks up the behaviours that may not at first appear to be Narcissist, but are a different blend in that Narcissistic category.
My ex was a narcissist, and my former was a sociopath. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two, but apparently both (according to the article above I have tried paraphrase to understand it better) have 1) blatant disregard for people 2) regard people as objects 3) both demand gratification 4) people exist to meet their agendas
But they vary in the following:
1) Can have rage and passive/aggressive tendencies , 2) they view themselves as “special” 3) they are insecure and needy 4) affairs validate their masculinity 5) they rationalize their behaviors (a dim notion of ethics)
1) are more predatory 2) have no ethics 3) view life as a game WITHOUT RULES 4) they are indifferent to the damage they cause 5) having an affair will amuse him that he can manipulate people
My narcissist husband didn’t damage me emotionally, but the 3-year relationship with the sociopath has caused emotional devastation (4 months hence). The sociopath’s blatant disregard for the pain of others, and his statement “done is done” meaning that when they walk out that door, they’re gone, and they aren’t coming back. Furthermore, they’ll never think of you again (unless they have an agenda that there is some way you can benefit them). I think of an analogy for the sociopath’s departure as a diaper… after you’ve thrown it in the trash, you never consider it again.
Both my ex and former had affair(s), but the former (sociopath) was so smooth and cool in his lying that I thought he was a man of integrity and I trusted him implicitly. Even when I had evidence of the sociopath’s affair…pictures, e-mails, phone records, etc., he denied it and then accused ME of having an affair (I didn’t). Only much later did I realize that he was just the best actor I had ever met. Nothing in life has prepared me for the deep sense of betrayal in this relationship. Of course he has moved on to his next victim…within 4 months he has conned himself into an expensive house, car, etc. He’s good. He’s very, very good (at “loving” and at conning).
I do have a question about the differentiation between NPD and Malignant Narcissism. The latter has been defined by Kernberg as falling between NPD and AsPD. Malignant Narcissism is manifested by more aggression, exploitation and sadism than NPD itself.
Even though the Malignant Narcissist displays similar characteristics to someone we might deem to be psychopathic, the Malignant Narcissist retains the capacity for feeling ‘guilty’, being loyal and caring about other people (if it suits their needs; definitely not altruism).
I appreciate this passage in particular: “He demands all this as if his inner self is at stake, and it is. Disappointment leaves him feeling unappreciated, neglected. Anger and rage then surface in aggressive and passive-aggressive displays, often in proportion to the hurt and vulnerability he cannot own. ”
When a Narcissist is threatened with defeat (after all his heroic efforts to maintain the False Self have failed), he may protect his fragile ego and shame-based emotions with increased aggression towards others; though it’s not a sustained pattern of criminal behavior such as we see in sociopaths/psychopaths.
While narcissists are frequently referred to as Predators, I think it’s imperative to make the distinction between people suffering from a NPD and those who are Malignant Narcissists (predatory).
Also, the narcissist is terrified of being exposed and thus ‘shamed’. My understanding is that this is not the same with psychopaths who lack even the most basic of human emotions.
Thanks for any clarification…it’s been very rewarding reading everyone’s replies. (Lots of confusion ‘out there’ about Psychopathy & Narcissism. ) I’d love to have a clear understanding about the distinctions.