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Are Psychopaths Actually Narcissists?

Updated on December 27, 2015

Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to encounter a sociopath will tell you that sociopaths are the most selfish people on the planet. They care literally nothing for other people. All they truly care about is what they want. Seeming to have no genuine feelings of their own, the sociopath is like an empty machine which can only fill it's own wants and endlessly hunger for more. This is not so different from the way the pathological narcissist behaves. So how similar are they? What's the difference?

The Science

Both sociopaths and narcissists suffer from what is called "the narcissistic wound." This is the defining injury to the psyche which occurred during the young sociopath or narcissist's development. It is the trauma or series of traumas that made them what they are.

In the narcissist, the trauma(s) occurred after some emotions developed but before regulation of these emotions or empathy was learned. Therefore, we could say the narcissist suffers from "too much" emotion, rather than not enough. The emotions he does possess are out of control and unregulated because he is unable to control them, much the same way a very young child is unable. The narcissist's emotions are all self-focused however - again like a very young child - and if he possesses empathy at all, it is generally maladaptive and dysfunctional. His few emotions are simply too important; they are the focus of his entire being. It is for this reason that he is unable to empathize with other people. Other people just don't matter as much as how he feels.

In the sociopath, the narcissistic wound occurred before any truly genuine feelings developed at all. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, the sociopath has no real feelings. These feelings have never developed and they never will. There is no empathy, dysfunctional or otherwise - even for himself. He may feel primitive variants of fear or anger (the kind all animals feel to ensure self-preservation, like fight-or-flight), but many sociopaths don't even feel those. There is literally nothing there. They only feel "physical feelings," such as when something feels good to the body and they can become addicted to these things because it is the only experience they have with "real" feelings. This is the dynamic we see at play with serial murderers and sociopaths that are adrenaline junkies.

The Difference

In relating to other human beings, there are some differences between the sociopath and the narcissist, and there are many similarities. The main difference seems to be in interpersonal relationships. The pathological narcissist and the antisocial personality are both manipulators and both wear masks. However, the narcissist needs other people very much. The sociopath does not. Unencumbered as he is by the emotional baggage carried around by the narcissist, the sociopath can play out a role for a very extended period of time if he must. He can derive private satisfaction from his wrongdoings, without relying on external validation of how powerful he is. This is something the narcissist has a lot of trouble with; his true self always comes through in the end, because it demands acknowledgment and it demands satisfaction - loudly. His end goal is purely selfish. The sociopath's goals are selfish as well, but they do not rely on the validation of others. Because of this, his ego does not come in to play the same way the narcissist's ego does and the sociopath can remain "hidden" for far longer. In fact, unless he makes a very serious mistake (which is rare but does happen), he may never be revealed.

The difference between sociopaths and narcissists then, is one of degrees. We could say that a sociopath is an "end stage narcissist." When narcissism is taken to the nth degree and the personality is so self-involved and self-focused that literally the only feelings which may occur are those aimed at making the self feel good, you have a sociopath. This is why there is so much overlap: sociopaths are narcissists. Many narcissists have antisocial tendencies as well.

The Theory

In healthy people, there is a level of narcissism but it is not pathological. That means that it isn't inflexible. Healthy narcissism does not demand that others worship, revere, admire or give things to the person just because the person wants these things. Healthy narcissism does not scream that it's being oppressed or abused just because the person can't have what they want. People with healthy amounts of narcissism do not insist that others go without so that they can have more. People with healthy amounts of narcissism do not insist that you must set yourself on fire to keep them warm - and that if you won't, you are abusive and uncaring.

This graphic shows the whole narcissistic spectrum for human emotion and personality. As we can see, cluster B personality disorders are grouped beneath "pathological narcissism."

As seen in the above graphic, there is a theory which postulates that all cluster B personality disorders sit on a "pathological narcissistic spectrum." This is a theory which carries a lot of weight. The cluster B personality disorders are: histrionic, borderline, narcissistic and antisocial. If we were to envision the spectrum of malignant narcissism to start at histrionic personality disorder and end with sociopathy, we can see that there is indeed quite a bit of validity to this theory.

Note that this particular spectrum does not encompass all narcissism, as the first one did. This second graphic measures malignant narcissism, or pathological narcissism. All of the cluster B personality disorders express some type of pathological narcissism. The further down on the spectrum someone is placed, the worse the pathological narcissism is, until we arrive at Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is the complete absence of empathy or conscience.

Notice that there is not a large gap between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder. This is because there is a great deal of overlap in these. It is interesting to note that most of the cluster B disorder do occur in "clusters;" that is, they rarely exist on their own. There is almost always another cluster B personality disorder that is co-morbid. Many people will be diagnosed with HPD, NPD and BPD. Or they may be diagnosed with BPD, NPD and APD. This is another signal that the "narcissistic spectrum" theory is right on the money.

There is more than one type of sociopath and another interesting thing to note is that the further down the spectrum a person is placed, the fewer symptoms of the other cluster B personality disorders are present. You wouldn't expect a sociopath to go into the hysterical tizzies that Borderline Personality Disorder is famous for, and most of them don't. This can probably be attributed to sociopaths having no true emotions. If a sociopath were to have such an emotional outburst, it would serve you well to investigate if it's an act first, before concluding that it's genuine. It probably isn't. Histrionics, Borderlines and Narcissists feel cheated, overlooked and discarded by the rest of the world. The sociopath just doesn't look at things that way. As the quintessential narcissist, it is impossible for the true sociopath to feel anything about or for other people at all. This usually includes anger.

The idea that sociopaths are "mad at the world" is interesting but really a misnomer; they feel nothing for the world or the people in it. The difference between this and the narcissist is that the sociopath generally feels nothing for himself either, whereas the narcissist feels only for himself 95% of the time. Most sociopaths don't fear death, illness or injury (whereas many narcissists fear these things greatly). This could be because - as some experts have stated - sociopaths are never even really alive in terms of human existence.

The Conclusion

If we follow the spectrum, we see that the focus on the self increases like a balloon being inflated more and more until it reaches a frenzied, unsustainable importance in Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Then we hit Antisocial Personality Disorder and it is as if the balloon bursts. The focus has become so narrow that not even the self can fit into it. It is as if rather than being a slave to the hungry, selfish, malfunctioning ego - as the histrionic, borderline and narcissist are - the sociopath becomes the hungry, selfish, malfunctioning ego. The narcissist, histrionic and borderline are miserable because they are forever trying to silence and appease the ego but they still exist outside of it. The sociopath is the ego; he is empty but does not feel miserable because those kinds of more "evolved" feelings exist outside of the primitive desire and selfishness of the ego, and he does not.

Since all sociopaths are "end stage" narcissists, we can therefore conclude that sociopaths are in fact narcissists and that narcissists are in fact "lesser" sociopaths.

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      Anthony 14 months ago

      I've been in a seven year relationship with a narcissist. I've educated myself and have slowly emotionally withdrawn so I don't get hurt. I've watched her slowly change getting closer to that time when she will be a sociopath. A few years ago she looked at me and said "why do I do things that I know are wrong." when I followed up later that night she back peddled then she said "I'm not going to change because I don't want to change." She is aware of right and wrong she just doesn't put any value on anything except what she wants. She is a pathological lier, promiscuous, selfish and self centered

      She has feelings, love and sadness. It took me two years of intentionally pushing her buttons before she showed any anger, then it only lasted for a minute. She has gone through at least twelve boyfriends in the time we have been seeing each other. She finds them mostly at KODA meetings or on the church dating site. She eats them up in about two months. I just blocked her number and I moved fifty miles away. I expect her to come looking for me, so she can end it with her usual vindictiveness.

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      norm 15 months ago

      I'm a borderline and have come to a similar (or exactly the same) conclusion as stated in this article. That I'm not nearly anything close to a a narcissist - yet still I am next in line. Narcs and psychopaths I have in my family and I have know are either truly evil or completely disordered. My histrionic cohorts and borderline peers are passionate and altruistic but you do NOT want to cross us because we have been raised by the narcs and the psychopaths and thus we fight very dirty - and carry out sustained actions long after the typical narc or sociopath moves on. We do this BECAUSE sociopaths and narcs move on - waiting them out while playing their exact game (mirroring) is what we do. But We are high on caring and feeling... too high that we may become self-involved.. but never do we lack empathy at the core of our character. Not a pure borderline. We're sweet and cute but possessive Dahmer and vengeful as Attila The Hun. Did I just say that out loud? :) No, seriously... the prototypes have conscience. How else would those SOB narcs and psychopaths been able to massacre us so badly? I remember when my reality-shattering abuse began. I was already six or seven years old. The histrionics I have known and loved - all strippers and then nearly all on to female bodybuilders - were all traumatized through provocation by older males around age 8 to 10. Not sexually assaulted necessarily - mostly they were just very pretty sweet innocent little girls everybody wanted to photograph or talk to male or female of any age. They need to sustain the attention. I feel histrionics are like mini somatic narcs and borderlines are like mini cerebral narcs. This was a great article.

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      laststep 18 months ago

      Having been married to a psychopath I would say there is a huge overlap. He was extremely selfish, but I think a true narcissist has a conscience that is otherwise lacking in the psychopath. My opinion is that all mental illness is just different levels of self occupation. The psychopath however does not have the insight to even wonder if he is selfish. Mine thought he was doing God's work on earth. Essentially because he was so much smarter than everyone around him. My relationship with him almost completely destroyed my life. As a result I share my story at http://www.laststep.org. I had no idea that people like him existed and I am sure there are many other women who don't as well. Great article! Thank you.

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      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      In my younger days when a boy showed signs of narcisscism (we called them 'skites' back then!) in the school play ground you'd get your head punched in by your peer group. We were conditioned not to love ourselves and has lived with me to this day. Here in London U.K. unfortunatly we have a segment of society who can at best be described as 'full of themselves' or at worst 'up themselves'. These fellows have been diagnosed as passive aggressors and nick named 'gonks' which may or may not translate in the U.S.A. terminology of 'geek'. Now, as for sociopaths thats a different story in my case!

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      SinDelle 2 years ago from Macon, GA

      Definitely true. Autism is a developmental disorder. Personality disorders are more like a pattern of learned maladaptive behaviors.

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California

      I have a nephew with autism. He's being taught how he should behave with other people. But I'm sure in his mind he can't fully understand why these behaviors are necessary and why he can't do all the things that he wants to do that are socially not acceptable. So I always wonder with other disorders do people really not understand or do they just not care about other people. I'm sure it varies based on the disorder.

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      SinDelle 2 years ago from Macon, GA

      @Learn Things Web: I think they have an academic understanding of right and wrong; as in, intellectually they understand. But I think that for many of them, they really DO feel they are the victim in many circumstances - no matter how crazy the blame-shifting appears to other people. And then in other situations, they are just trying to escape responsibility and it's a lie to cover guilt.

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      Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California

      I often wonder if these kinds of personalities have an understanding of right and wrong. Even if they don't feel emotion can they understand that society considers certain behaviors wrong? Because it seems with these kinds of people when they're accused of wrongdoing they play the victim and insist the accuser is out to get them. I wonder if they know they've done wrong but won't admit it or if they really can't comprehend that they've harmed someone and truly believe they are the victim.