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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I’m glad your computer is working again (or you’re using another one, maybe?)

I can so relate to your “good son” attitude (sub “good daughter” for me). Now that I’m on the outside of the drama, though my psyche is bloody and bruised , I am so very, very grateful to have “gone” that way. (‘The other’ way being angry and abusive myself, and continuing the pecking order. Besides as the youngest, I would have had to kick the cat. How satisfying would that have been?)

I was interested by the description of your dad’s religious views. I am a Christian, and it is now the heart and soul of who I am. But I came to it late (baptized at age 30). So I recognize that I tend to have an outsiders view of it, even though, technically I’m an insider. I am also a scientist by training, and by temperament. (Behind Jesus, CS Lewis is the man I’d like to meet. He wasn’t a scientist per se, but had a very analytical mind.) But anyway, I don’t think having a spirituality derived from Einstein-ian physics excludes God by any stretch. Though it will exclude many churches.

And though some churches are cesspools of power hungry, sociopathic, judgmental people, some can be a home, with a new, real family that cares about all its members, flaws and all. The trick is determining which is which. I lucked into a really, really, good one. Not perfect, but good enough.

Ohh… “… sweet but very naive.” I had one of those. Not my mother, but my father’s second wife. The one that had an affair with him since I was a toddler. (My parents fought through their divorce settlement during my senior year in HS.) I’ll leave out a whole lot here, and just say, I went NC with her first. Why? because her memory is Swiss cheese (major, major repression, bordering on episodic amnesia) and she was Switzerland: neutral. She agreed with whoever she happened to be talking to at the moment. She was so sweet, and so very, very dangerous. I hope she is nothing like your mother. Anyway, enough of my sweet, naive step-mother.

As far as your Q #2 goes, have you thought about it in more concrete terms, like physical abuse? (Analogous, but not exactly the same?) If someone from a healthy family, who never saw or experienced physical abuse, was smacked around by her boy friend, what would she do? She would confide in her family. She would dump him. Not necessarily in that order. There is a slight possibility that she would believe his apologies and take him back. But only because, she didn’t have experience with liars. However, when he hit her again, she would be so gone.

It’s the same with emotional abuse, funky confused signals, substance abuse, no-show dates…. People expect and want what they are used to, not necessarily what is good for them or what they say they want. Read that again: People expect what they are used to.

You have to work consciously to change your expectations.
What are you used to?

Darn it! I rambled again!

OxDrover & Cedrus,

Some good stuff to think about, in particular:
“be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”

“by the fruit you shall know if the tree is good or bad.”

did NOT trust them until he had TESTED them quite harshly

my Victim red flag was that I was trained to “be responsible for everyone else’s happiness”

I don’t think having a spirituality derived from Einstein-ian physics excludes God by any stretch. Though it will exclude many churches.

People expect and want what they are used to, not necessarily what is good for them or what they say they want.

You have to work consciously to change your expectations. What are you used to?

I’ve always had a pretty good gut feel, which I ignored until recently. When I learned that ’gut feel’ is a form of implicit memory, I began to believe that it can be disciplined, so that through careful introspective analysis and journaling you can bring to consciousness exactly what it is that’s giving you the willies.

My second workplace SS stared at me the first time I met him, was ’too friendly’ the second time, and third, I saw him publicly ridicule a superior who didn’t seem to deserve it. As a result of my reluctance to respond to my gut, I eventually had valuable books stolen, significant stress, job loss, and character assassination issues which persist to this day. I could have allied myself with that bullied superior and others and come up with a plan.

Long ago ’my gut’ quickly disliked a new boyfriend of my cousin, who I was visiting while on a cross country vacation. Observing his interactions with my extended family I noted that he was too arrogant, too critical of people he didn’t know, and enjoyed ’playing’ with people a bit too much. A year later I heard that in an heated argument, she slapped him for insulting her and he decked her. She never saw him again. She has the roughly the same temperament and attitudes as I do, but guess the difference was that her feisty mother would back her up 100%. I clung to an emotionally abusive BPD girlfriend for far too long, my short term rationalization was always defeating my ’long term gut feel’. When she left suddenly for a ’bigger better deal’ I didn’t bother going to my father for advice, as I’d always assumed he wouldn’t care and would use my poor judgment against me somehow, anyways.

I guess the next step is figuring out whether to ’fight or flight’. Fight if you can gain support or unify other victims together, go NC if you cannot. Doing nothing after one’s been targeted seems to be the worst strategy.

Dear SOS,

I spent some years in AFrica a long time ago as a wild life photographer and we spent a lot of time, naturally, in the bush with native trackers etc. and I wish I had been older when I was there to learn more, but I did learn some things about “intuition.” The Bushmen call their “intuition” (for lack of a better word) “tap-tap” in the chest and when they “get a message” they are signaled by the tap and they will sit and listen to the tapping until it is over. Then they will make a decision based on that.

They are so observant of their environment that they can literally track ONE zebra or wildebeaste in a herd of 1000 by its hoof print. We “civilized” folks have lost that power of observation by atrophy. We have not used it for a long time. There are still vestages of it inside us but we use our “thinking mind” to tell it to SHUT UP that it doesn’t know what it is talking about. Then we IGNORE this “ancestoral memory” (for lack of a better word) about danger lurking nearby.

I have read all of the very good books of a flaming narcissist named Sir Laurens van der Post. I know his daughter and several of his friends, but never met him. He has all of the classic life story of a highly toxic but very “socially acceptable” Narcissist or psychopath. He rose quite high(godfather to Prince William of Engladn), as he was a poor farm boy growing up in South Africa, and became a world famous explorers, genuine war hero, pedophile who impregnated a 15 year old girl, deserted his wife and family, serial adultery, and wrote some marvelous books about Africa. He was an excellent wordsmith and did know his stuff about the bush and its peoples of 75 or more years ago.

The Bantu and Bushmen’s intuition and their awareness of their enviroment is well described in his book. You might find them insteresting. You can find most of his books on used books. There are about 24-5 of them as well as his biography written by a man named Jones who DID have an ax to grind against Laurens, BUT his information was verified. There is a NEW biography being written now by another friend of mine, and I will be interested in how his take is on Laurens who was an outstanding spinner of tales. Much of it fiction, but none the less great tales even if he did lie a bit in them about himself and paint himself as more than he was. There is no doubt though that he was a genuine hero in WWII in the prison in Java. I have seen interviews of men whose lives he saved by his own sacrfices.

SOS & Oxy,
what you’ve written about intuition is very interesting. In the US it is blatantly underrated and even ridiculed. But I believe 100% that intuition is real, quantifiable and valuable. We just haven’t discovered how to measure it yet (or more properly, what ‘substance’ we’d be measuring).

I agree SOS that “Doing nothing after one’s been targeted seems to be the worst strategy.” You’ve gotta do something, or you’ll be attacked again.

This is not the right place to ask this, but I’ll ask in case you know another article to look at about it: Do sociopath’s feel sadness? Thinking about the Ss I know, I have seen them cry in frustration and anger, out of fear and pending uncertainty. I assumed they were sad. But I think I was wrong. It explains a lot if Ss have no capacity for true grieving. (The kind that isn’t full of blame and thoughts of revenge, or who will cut the grass for them now. Just plain ‘sad’ because something precious was lost.)

have a good weekend!


Robert Hare said it best (and I’m paraphrasing here) — sociopaths are capable of great shows of emotion. But, if you watch them very closely you’ll be aware that there’s not much going on below the surface.

My S knew how to turn on the waterworks — generally at the moment when he knew I had reached my limit and I was ready to walk.

The first time he cried, early on in the relationship, he told me, in a torrent of tears, that he had just been released from prison, how he didn’t want to bring the problems that his being an ex-con to my doorstep, and that his mother was brain dead in a nursng home, and how much he missed her.

I bought it hook, line and sinker and forgave him everything.

The second time he cried, it was another full-blown, public display of tears. I heard how his father had told him the night before at his brother’s wedding that he was disconnecting the mother from life support, how hard he was trying to keep on the straight and narrow, etc, etc, etc.

I watched him closely. The waterworks were shut off as fast as they came on. And what struck me was how there was no emotional content behind his words and tears. There was nothing going on below the surface. It was all an act, and not a very good one at that.

“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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