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The Difference Between a Narcissist and a Sociopath

Can an abusive relationship improve?

Key points

  • While sociopaths qualify as narcissists, not all narcissists are sociopaths.
  • Sociopaths are more cunning and manipulative than narcissists because their ego isn’t always at stake.
  • Sociopaths don't have any real personality and can take on any persona that suits them. Thus, they may be harder to spot.
Yuriy Zhuravov/Shutterstock
Source: Yuriy Zhuravov/Shutterstock

You may wonder whether someone is a narcissist or a sociopath and, if it's your partner, whether or not the relationship will improve. Information can empower you. People loosely call others narcissists, but there are nine criteria, five of which are necessary to diagnose someone with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The following summary diagnosis is controversial:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Narcissism exists on a continuum, but someone with NPD is grandiose (sometimes only in fantasy), lacks empathy, and needs admiration from others, demonstrated by five of the following traits:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
  2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
  4. Requires excessive admiration
  5. Believes he or she is special and unique and can be understood only by, or should associate only with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  6. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
  7. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
  8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
  9. Has “an attitude” of arrogance or acts that way

There are several types of narcissists—ranging from the common “Exhibitionist Narcissists” to “Inhibited Narcissists,” or closet narcissists. There are narcissists who aren’t vindictive and abusive. However, narcissists who exhibit all or most of the above characteristics intensely and/or frequently are considered malignant narcissists. Narcissists who have fewer and less severe symptoms, along with “narcissistic” people who don’t have full-blown NPD, can have insight, guilt, remorse, and an ability to connect emotionally, as well as to love. (See "Dealing With a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Limits with Difficult People" to determine if your loved one is capable of change and whether your relationship can improve.)

Antisocial Personality Disorder

The labels sociopath and psychopath have often been used interchangeably. The clinical term is “Antisocial Personality Disorder” (APD). Like NPD, it’s long-lasting and affects all situations. Sometimes permanent, personality disorders are difficult to treat. Someone with APD must have had a conduct disorder by 15 years old and show at least four of these traits:

  • Doesn’t sustain consistent work (or schoolwork)
  • Doesn’t conform to social norms, including unlawful behavior, whether or not arrested
  • Disregards the truth as indicated by repeated lying, conning, using aliases, not paying debts
  • Impulsive or fails to plan ahead; moves around without a goal
  • Irritable and aggressive: e.g., fights or assaults
  • Recklessly disregards the safety of self or others
  • Consistently irresponsible, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
  • Lacks remorse and feels justified in having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
  • Doesn’t sustain monogamy for more than one year

Narcissists vs. Sociopaths

Loving a narcissist is painful. Malignant narcissists are the most malicious and destructive and can look like sociopaths.

Shared traits

They both can be charismatic, intelligent, charming, and successful, as well as unreliable, controlling, selfish, disingenuous, and dishonest. They share exaggerated positive self-images and a sense of entitlement. For example, when they’re abusive, they believe they’re justified and deny responsibility for their behavior. They lack insight. Although they might feign appropriate emotional reactions, this is usually insincere, as they lack empathy and emotional responsiveness.

Distinguishing traits

While sociopaths qualify as narcissists, not all narcissists are sociopaths. What drives them differs. But the main distinction is that sociopaths are more cunning and manipulative because their ego isn’t always at stake. In fact, they don’t have any real personality. They’re the ultimate con artists and can take on any persona that suits them. Thus, they may be harder to spot, because they’re not trying to impress you or win your approval—unless it serves their agenda. Instead of bragging, their conversation might center on you rather than on themselves, and they can even be self-effacing and apologetic if it serves their goal.

A sociopath is more calculating and might premeditate aggression in advance. A narcissist is more likely to react sooner with lies and intimidation. Narcissists often work hard to achieve success, fame, and perfection but may exploit others along the way. In contrast, sociopaths try to swindle, steal, or exploit others financially. Although both characters may be motivated to win at all costs, narcissists are more interested in what you think of them. They need others’ admiration. This makes them dependent and codependent on others and actually capable of being manipulated. They’re less likely to divorce their spouse than a sociopath, who might leave or vanish if they’re exposed or don’t get what they want.

Help and Treatment

If you’re in an abusive relationship, whether your partner is a narcissist or a sociopath is irrelevant. You cannot change another person, but changing your behavior will change the relationship. You need support to restore the trust in yourself and others that becomes damaged in an abusive relationship. Find help to set boundaries and raise your self-esteem.

Narcissists and sociopaths don’t usually seek treatment, unless, in the case of NPD, they’re experiencing severe stress, depression, or their partner insists. Those with APD are sometimes unwillingly court-ordered to therapy, which presents problems of trust and receptivity. Therapy should focus on helping them access their feelings and learn from the negative consequences of their behavior.

Many narcissists can improve with a specific treatment, and those who have insight can benefit from psychodynamic psychotherapy. If you suspect you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, learn more about narcissistic relationships and get my checklist of narcissistic behaviors.

Everyone is unique, and people don’t always fit neatly into defined categories. Severe NPD resembles APD, and any differences are really irrelevant. If you’re being abused, get help immediately. Don’t be concerned with a diagnosis; instead, heal yourself from trauma or PTSD and codependency. Become assertive and set limits. Whether you’re thinking of staying or leaving the relationship, neither will be easy. Focus on gaining awareness, protecting yourself, and getting help and support. Follow the steps in my book, Dealing With a Narcissist, to raise your self-esteem, set boundaries, and evaluate the prospects for improving your relationship. When you argue and fight with an abuser, you lose. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't confront what is going on. However, you need to do so calmly and strategically. Change and a better life are definitely possible.

© Darlene Lancer 2016

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