The Borderland of Narcissism and Sociopathy

In a prior post, I discussed some differences between the narcissist and sociopath, a focus I’d like to continue in this post. For convenience’s sake, I’m going to use “he” and “him” throughout, although we can agree that “she” and “her” could easily be substituted.

The narcissist, if I were to boil his style down to one sentence, is someone who demands that his sense of self (and self-importance) be propped-up on a continual basis. Without this support—in the form of validation, recognition, and experiences of idealization—the narcissist feels depleted, empty, depressed.

The narcissist struggles to define himself independently and sustainedly as significant and worthwhile. The fragility of his sense of self is no big news; it is how he manages his fragility, his insecurity, that is telling.

The narcissist, for instance, feels entitled to a sense of inner comfort and security. More specifically, he feels entitled to what he requires in order to experience an unbroken state of inner comfort.

But wait a second? Don’t we all feel somewhat entitled to what we need in order to feel secure and comfortable?

Most of us, after all, feel entitled to the air we breath that keeps us alive. You might feel entitled, when dehydrated, to a cold stream of water from your kitchen faucet? Imagine feeling an intense thirst, yet when you twist the faucet, no water comes out? The pipes are empty”¦everywhere in the house.

You are deeply thirsty, and yet the water you count on to salve your thirst is being withheld. In this circumstance, especially if your thirst is great, you might feel outraged? Incensed? Even panicked?

You might even feel furious enough to hurl curses and imprecations on the forces conspiring to frustrate your thirst!

Imagine the narcissist’s thirst as constant and deep—a thirst for things like recognition, appreciation, for validation of his importance, and special signifigance. When the narcissist’s thirst for recognition is unmet, it is no small matter—anymore than it would be a small matter to find a spigot unresponsive in the midst of your urgent thirst.

In other words, the frustration of his demand of recognition is a major disappointment, a major problem for the narcissist—a problem felt not merely as an inconvenience, but as a threat to his fundamental equilibrium, sense of security, and comfort.

In a certain sense, then, that the narcissist feels “entitled” doesn’t make him a narcissist. It is what he feels “entitled to” that is most relevant.

Specifically, it is his sense of entitlement to an undisturbed stream of others’ approval, admiration and recognition that most separates the narcissist from the non-narcissist.

But the narcissist demands more than others’ idealization; he also demands others to idealize. The narcissist needs to idealize others.

For instance, when he finally meets, yet again, the “perfect woman,” he puts her on a pedestal—i.e., he idealizes her. Idealizing her—putting her on a pedestal—makes for thrill and excitement (which, by the way, he misjudges again and again as fulfillment).

After all, he is tasting perfection. He must be pretty special to have the enviable attention of someone so perfectly, admirably beautiful. He looks and feels good thanks to the reflection of her perfection on himself.

One of many problems here is that idealized states are inherently temporary and unsustainable; they don’t hold up permanently; they are fraught all the time with dangers of collapse.

Thus, the narcissist can’t permanently hold his idealizations. And he finds their collapse, over and over again, discouraging and deeply disillusioning. But instead of recognizing the futility of his need, he will blame the formerly idealized object for failing to have remained as perfect, and perfectly satisfying, as he demanded.

The narcissist loses something urgent here, namely the key to his feeling of vitality. Inarticulately, he feels betrayed; and in his sense of betrayal, he feels angry, even enraged.

Enter his “contempt.” The underbelly of the narcissist’s idealizing is his contempt. The narcissist tends to vacillate between experiences of idealization and contempt. In either case (or “state”), others are regarded as objects—objects, we shall see, not quite in the sense that sociopaths regard others as objects.

For the narcissist, others have an obligation to maintain his peace of mind. In the narcissist’s world, it is on others, through their cooperation with his demands, to ensure his ongoing inner comfort and satisfaction. When meeting his demands, others are idealized; when disappointing him, they are devalued contemptuously.

What else does the narcissist demand? The narcissist on pretty much a constant basis demands various forms of reassurance. It may be reassurance of his attractiveness, superiority, special status in a girlfriend’s eyes (and history). He may seek reassurance of his virility, that he is still feared, respected, admired, idealized, and otherwise perceived as impressive.

For the narcissist, such reassurance, even when felt, proves always only temporarily satisfying, and is translated as something like, “I’m okay, for now. I’ve still got it. I’m still viable.”

In his pursuit of reassurance, the narcissist is a very controlling individual. His controlling tendencies arise from his desperation—his desperation, that is, for the reassurance he demands. And desperate people tend to be heedless of the boundaries of those who have what they want.

The narcissist, for instance, may grill his partner controllingly about her ex-boyfriends in order to establish (demand assurances of) his unique, special status with her. Or, he may text her during the day compulsively, in the guise of his interest in, and love, for her, when, in fact, it is not about his love or interest but rather about his demand to know that she is thinking about him that drives his invasive behavior.

He will rationalize his invasiveness as his thoughtfulness and love of her. And he will feel entitled to an immediately reassuring response, anything less than which will activate his anger/rage.

The narcissist’s legendary self-centeredness, to some extent, is a function of the fact that so much, if not all, of his energy is invested in resolving anxious questions about his present standing.

He is vigilantly afraid lest his present, fragilely, and externally supported status be upended, a development he struggles to tolerate. Consumed as he is with obviating this disaster, he has little energy left with which to be genuinely interested in others.

How about the sociopath? What’s his deal?

To begin with, the sociopath lacks the narcissist’s insatiable underlying neediness. Unlike the narcissist, the sociopath’s violating behaviors stem less from a deep insecurity than from his impulsive or calculated greed, and especially his basic view of others as objects, as tools, to be exploited for his entertainment, amusement and ongoing acquisitive agenda.

The sociopath is a more purely exploitative individual than the narcissist. For the narcissist, others are desperately needed, and demanded, as validators. Athough the narcissist will use and exploit others, he does so typically with the ulterior motive of reassuring himself, on some level, of his persisting viability.

For the sociopath, others are his potential “play-things,” their value a function of the gratification that can be extracted from them.

The less validating you are, the less worth you have for the narcissist.

The less exploitable you are, the less worth you have for the sociopath.

Said differently, the narcissist uses others as a means to establish (or reestablish) the sense, and view, of himself, as special, impressive, dominant, compelling, whereas the sociopath uses others more for the pure amusement of it; more for the sheer entertainment of seeing what he can get away with (and how); and/or for the immediate satisfaction of his present tensions, itch, and/or greed.

The term “malignant narcissist” seems to me to describe the sociopath more accurately than the narcissist. This term has been used to describe megalomaniacal individuals whose grandiosity and sinister appetite for control (over others) better reflect, to my mind, psychopathic processes of exploitation.

The “malignant narcissist” is, to my mind, driven by the sociopath’s (or psychopath’s) pursuit of omnipotent control over those he seeks to exploit. He is a power-hungry, often charismatic, ruthless and exploitative personality whose grandiosity serves more psychopathic than classically narcissistic purposes.

Don’t misunderstand me: The malignant narcissist is someone whose most toxic narcissistic qualities have attained malignant status (hence the concept). In the end, however, he is as coldblooded, callous, exploitative and deviant a creature as the most dangerous sociopath.

Does it matter, finally, whether a cult figure like, say, Jim Jones, who led hundreds of his followers to mass suicide, was a “malignant narcissist” or psychopath? Not if you regard the terms, and destructiveness of the personalities, as essentially indistinguishable, as I do.

(This article is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)

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226 Comments on "The Borderland of Narcissism and Sociopathy"

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“It was all an act, and not a very good one at that.”

Amen brother. When my P roommate moved in he showed me a picture of the cat he had to give to a neighbor when he left Ireland and said “I miss him”. Can you hear all the girls say “aaaaaw!”? I wasn’t paying more than usual attention but his words sounded weird, slightly too jovial and spirited for someone talking about missing someone else if only a pet. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he was good looking and a foreigner. That was just the beginning.

He had dated his girlfriend for 6 years, moved all the way from Ireland to be with her and then dumped her because her ex was trying to get back with her and the P thought that she should have been more vehement in her refusal. He didn’t cry but although he said he was sad, , and sat around with a doleful expression on his face, the underlying tone in his voice was as chipper although he spoke in a subdued voice. And he only did this the night they broke up to try and get me to come on to him; the next day he was emotionally back to normal! I am pretty sensitive to people’s feelings and pay close attention but after that I watched him like a hawk. And yes, his acting wasn’t that good.

Sometimes I think the only reason people talk about what good actors they are is because we don’t expect that ordinary people will create elaborate lies to tug on our heartstrings. When we realize it’s happening we give their thespianism more credit than it deserves.

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