In long and short-term relationships, in the workplace, and in society at large today there is increasing concern about the terms narcissist, sociopath, and psychopath. Each are distinctive disorders significant not only to parents raising children who do not want their kids to grow up to have these personality disorders as adults but also to neuroscientists who are studying variations in the brain based on findings from MRI’s.
The terms or conditions are too often used interchangeably which is incorrect as you will find in the specific characteristics described below. Furthermore, the psycho-therapeutic treatment of these disorders are controversial. The treatment for the narcissistic personality is the most well-defined because it has been studied for decades by prominent psychoanalysts who believe change is possible. Most likely this personality disorder has been the most frequently addressed clinically because this group is the most likely though not necessarily available to seek treatment.
The psychoanalytic findings are presently buttressed by the concurrent work of psychotherapists and current neuroscientists. But, as you will read, the belief that psychopaths and sociopaths can change is viewed much more pessimistically.
The main difference between the narcissist and the sociopath or psychopath is that the narcissist may experience or learn to experience some remorse and eventually some empathy for actions that hurt others and his maltreatment is verbal not physically aggressive or violent. It is also more likely as noted above that the narcissist will seek treatment or be pressed to do so by others who care about him and have been hurt by him emotionally.
This is not the case for the sociopath or psychopath who may be court mandated for treatment but find it nearly if not totally impossible to experience any remorse or empathy. Their abnormal brain development severely limits such a possibility. As will be described below it may be possible for some behavioral treatment with solely positive rewards for societally appropriate behavior to be valuable for the psychopath.
Narcissism means self-love which in itself is not pathological. It is how we come to understand accepting one’s strengths and weaknesses and building self-esteem. This is normal and as a ‘normal’ person matures, they learn to have regard for themselves as well as others. This is the primary distinction between normal and pathological narcissism which is recognized as a full-blown disorder by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders carefully revised over the years as new clinical findings come to light.
Core Characteristics of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
- They talk about themselves almost exclusively. That is, those with narcissistic personality disorders (NPD) tend to think and speak of themselves most of the time. They are very conscious of their physical appearance, wealth, talents or achievements of which there are often many, and they expect to hold your attention to these attributes as they speak. However, these comments may tend to be exaggerated or at least overemphasized and are not necessarily accurate reflections of their whole lives.
Even when their views are based on reality, they are repeated endlessly, and those in their close environment hear their stories over and over each time they meet someone new. It’s taxing to listen to them repeat their stories but to them they are delighting everyone in their presence. They would never suspect others are being polite as they go on about themselves because they have little regard for those around them. They rarely, if ever, ask others for their thoughts or feelings.
This is because they are centered on themselves and lack empathy, their Achilles’ heel.
- They have fantasies of greatness so that their minds tend to be filled with elaborate fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate. Because of these imaginings, they feel they should have the best of everything—including houses, cars and clothing or other status-affirming things like their level of medical care and where they attend school. Sadly, these wishes, or fantasies are a way for narcissists to fend off inner emptiness and shame and instead feel special and in control, avoiding feelings of defectiveness and insignificance.
Budding narcissists who are young are more open to explaining and exploring their lack of an inner core that they hope to fill with other’s admiration. In older men this is denied at first because they are rarely rooted in reality. Thus, they experience immense frustration and anger when their visions are not achieved.
Men with NPD who are 50-75% of the population of narcissists compared to women often have a grandiose sense of self-importance, leading them to feel superior to others or that they should always be in the company of greatness. They believe that only others who are just as special as they are can truly understand them, and those are the people they want to be surrounded by.
To maintain feelings of superiority, they will resort to disparaging others by focusing on their flaws—whether they’re real or imagined. For narcissists, this is an effective way to hide (and project) their own shortcomings and preserve their self-image. If those they are speaking to or about tend to question if what the narcissist says is true, their beliefs, not the narcissist’s are minimized or at least questioned because the narcissist is so convincing.
- They require constant praise. Therefore, despite how outwardly confident narcissists may portray themselves, they are often quite vulnerable and insecure with fragile self-esteem. To continually prop themselves up, they expect and thus, require near-constant attention, praise and admiration. They also may expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it.
Due to their fragility when it comes to their sense of self, narcissists are highly reactive to criticism that they don’t feel they deserve. Any comments that shine on their deepest insecurities or flaws may be met with a burst of narcissistic rage, causing the person to lie or divert the conversation in an entirely different direction.
- They experience a sense of entitlement feeling others ought to offer them special favors and fulfill their requests immediately without question. If such treatment isn’t given to them, they may become impatient or angry or give others passive-aggressive silent treatment because they view others as existing primarily to serve their needs and don’t have regard for other’s wants and desires.
This behavior is kin to the egocentric toddler who never learned he is not the center of the world and becomes enraged when others don’t meet his immediate demands. As children these people often were extremely demanding, threw temper tantrums, and needed insatiable attention after even three years old when such behavior is considered normal though it needs devoted parental attention.
- They take advantage of others in misleading ways. That is, many people are naturally drawn to narcissists, finding them attractive, charismatic, and exciting and want to be a part of their lives, which the narcissist expects to be the result. Thus, most often people with NPD may not have any issues getting people to do what they want. They are easily bored and seek constant entertainment whether their partner wants to participate or not.
The partner tends to give in and go where the narcissist wants for entertainment because otherwise the narcissist passive-aggressively broods and scowls for not getting his way. But in cases where the narcissist’s needs are not being met, they have no problem taking advantage of others—with little to no regard for the feelings or interests of these people. As a result, narcissists often have tumultuous ‘friendships’ and romantic attachments that are short-lived or long term but always suspect.
If they have long term relationships, they are easily disloyal to their spouses and friends, lying and cheating with little or no remorse if they are not caught.
- They are envious of others because of their low self-esteem and need to be superior to others. Thus narcissists see people who have things they don’t—such as tangible items, status or admiration—as threats. They don’t understand why they don’t have everything they want when they want it and seek vengeance toward those who seem to stand in their way of getting satisfactions that they feel are their due.
Narcissists may also believe that others are envious of them. And while this is exactly the type of attention the narcissist wants, accusing people of such feelings may put an eventual end to the relationship or confuse the other person who is trusting and innocent of these characteristics themselves.
- They relish being the center of attention thus narcissists need constant praise from others to feed their low self-esteem, and because they ironically feel superior to others at the same time, they crave attention and will often seek it out quite effectively. Narcissists dominate conversations. They talk about themselves extensively and they exaggerate their knowledge and accomplishments.
There are different characteristics of narcissists that stand out such as the grandiose type, thick skinned narcissist and the vulnerable, thin-skinned type. It’s the grandiose narcissist that craves attention and often receives it by being outspoken, arrogant, self-loving, and entitled. The vulnerable type lives in fear of not being admired and accepted by those with the prestige and status he feels he deserves to be a part of.
- They lack empathy so they are unable to empathize with others or understand that others may have struggles of their own. If they recognize other’s struggles, they don’t understand why these people don’t change according to the narcissist’s needs.
They seem to have an inability to recognize the needs and feelings of other people. They don’t understand why others don’t always view themselves from the narcissist’s perspective. Sometimes a person with NPD can seem totally reasonable until they say something that’s provocative and insensitive.
This characteristic in particular has recently been studied by neuroscientists whose MRI’s of the brain reveal a thinner cerebral cortex than a control group of normal individuals with a thicker cerebral cortex. This current finding will continue to get more attention from scientists as well as psychotherapists who still believe change in this particular area, empathy, can be improved with a parental environment that fosters this ability.
- They have boundless ambitions. That is, having goals or ambitions in life is a good thing, but narcissists make their dreams the center of their world and expect others to want for them what they want for themselves. Because they feel superior to others and want to believe others find them naturally special, they often set endless ambitions for themselves.
Narcissists fantasize about not only doing their best, but being the best, and when they fall short, they are enraged or deeply disappointed to the point of depressive negative thinking about themselves because they aren’t as powerful as they think they should be, or as beautiful and wealthy as others who they feel they deserve to have in their world.
This sense of entitlement and superiority is why they tend to associate themselves with ‘high status’ people and obsess over status symbols (from the right shoes to the right cars) — and even demean anyone who they don’t perceive to be part of the same exclusive club. This can be quite literal as they attempt to join and be accepted by prestigious clubs and when they fall short, they are devastated and angry, and take a long time getting out of this dilemma.
- They are incredibly insecure. This may be counterintuitive when you first meet a narcissist because they come across so charming, entitled, and believing they are superior to others, but people who suffer from narcissism are usually incredibly insecure which is why they feel the need to put others down. They often speak of people who are liars, disloyal friends or co-workers, when they share the same characteristics that they are unconsciously denying.
Because there are grandiose and vulnerable types, the former is more outspoken while the other is more introverted. The insecurity of vulnerable narcissists often seems to stem from the fact that they internally question whether they are truly special and unique and therefore are more likely to seek and rely extensively on positive affirmation from others.
Thus, they regularly strategize how to get the attention of those they find superior and ruminate excessively about how to be in the ‘in-crowd.’ Networking is part of their everyday life, always seeking confirmation of their perceived greatness.
- They are remarkably charming. That is, upon first impression, narcissists come off as charming and confident, but as the relationship develops if they are no longer perceived that way, they become denigrating of others and sometimes verbally aggressive in an impulsive way. Such maltreatment of others must be distinguished from physical aggression that is not characteristic.
They may gossip impulsively without regard for the eventual consequences when others reject them for this behavior. They seek out positions of power and leadership and will turn on the charm to manipulate others into giving them what they want. People are generally at first drawn to narcissists because of their confidence and charm, though many find them suspect and conning for attention.
While confidence is charming and those who are successful leaders are often more assertive and demanding, when they don’t have as many followers as they expect, they are disbelieving and enraged. They expect with all their strategic networking, that they should be extremely popular, and get deeply depressed when this does not occur.
- They are extremely competitive. In their world view, there are only winners and losers and they will strive to be part of the former group without realizing how their manipulations may put people off. They must make themselves out to be superior to everybody else. Their incessant need to win contributes to their inability to embrace another person’s success.
They inadvertently may put themselves in vulnerable situations where they don’t feel superior to their opponents. This is the point. Others are opponents, not just people, human beings who have similar aims and ambitions. It’s all win or all lose, leading to depression if the latter prevails.
- They hold long lasting grudges. That is, on the outside, narcissists seem like they are extremely confident and that they don’t care what others think, but they are extremely sensitive and care very deeply about maintaining their idealized image of who they think they should be. As a result, they harbor vengeance toward those who insult or disapprove of them or don’t give them what they want.
Thus, they end up holding a nasty grudge because they take criticism or not being given what they asked for as a personal attack or assault. When they feel slighted, or abandoned, they don’t get over it. They feel persecuted and unjustly treated and hold onto these feelings for long periods of time (years) desperately demeaning those in their way.
While they may claim they want to dialogue with those who made them feel this way, in the end, they can’t hold an actual discussion because they do not take to others’ points of view as possibilities. If someone understands their point of view but still does not take action to fulfill their wants, they are offended, feel disrespected, and seek to punish them.
- They find criticism intolerable. While most of us have experienced a time or two when we’ve become frustrated over things not going our way, or had a hard time taking criticism from others. But when it comes to a narcissist, their inability to handle fault goes deeper. They are unable to cope when things don’t go their way and will be hard pressed to ever admit fault when they are wrong which makes it impossible for them to take any kind of criticism, even if it’s constructive.
Therefore, they hold the criticizer up as the person who made them a loser when they never deserved it. They cannot bear the insult and need a lot of space on their own to recover and get back into the fray. They may react with outbursts of disparaging others ruthlessly, yelling, crying, and denigrating others who are close to them and care about them.
- They are constantly on the go, not to feel boredom. Narcissists push others to attend concerts, plays, expensive dinners, and prestigious parties because they can’t be idle. To be idle is to feel the inner tension of maybe not being as superior as they believe. Others are put off by this constant pressure to “do” and the narcissist can’t relax alone or enjoy their own company except as a respite from their inner strivings.
For example, they may tend to travel extensively and feel they deserve the best accommodations in planes and hotels. Often wealthy, they obtain these travelling needs even if their partners sit in coach while they’re in business class.
- They need total control, so the narcissist leads, not following others. They will make all the travel arrangements, schedule all appointments, leading their entourage. They don’t care if this bothers others because they are unaware of their sense of well-deserved leadership at any cost to others’ needs. They subjugate others in these endeavors without thinking of others’ feelings or any alternative plans to their own.
For example, they text and call persistently to make sure their objectives are first and foremost in everyone’s minds. They expect others to drop what they are doing to respond to these constant contacts and only find it is their own schedule that matters. They stay very busy to ward off any boredom and a sense of emptiness.
They may do very kind things for others, especially in their professions, but it is not out of deep caring for others, but to be perceived that way. They collect people who adore them excessively in this way. They are always on the look-out for being recognized. Because they see themselves as larger than life, it only makes sense to them that they control others’ plans because they are the center and demand and expect others to see them that way. They are the most important person in the family, the CEO and COO wherever they go.
On their birthdays, or other days that highlight their importance as fathers, or husbands, they expect large gatherings that applaud them. Then they control these events by being at the center of all their guests. They glower at others who don’t put them in control and meet all their needs like a child in a toy store with parents of endless wealth.
On such occasions, it is a given to them that they are the star and will walk out on any crowd that is gathered on their behalf or give them the silent treatment if they feel any measure of disappointment. Ironically, the guests go along and will feel that they should not disappoint this self-acclaimed star and even fault and berate themselves mercilessly and urgently if things don’t always go according to the narcissist’s plans to be the center of attention. He is the captain of the ship and they are just the dutiful passengers affirming his greatness. The narcissist manipulates with gifts and conversation starters, only to come back to himself as the center.
Core Characteristics of the Sociopath
Key to differentiating the narcissist from the sociopath is that the sociopath cannot experience remorse and may be violent. The sociopath, however, does have all the narcissistic characteristics above. Keep that in mind as you read the defining characteristics below.
(The diagnostic statistical manual for mental health clinicians groups the sociopath and the psychopath together, called an anti-social personality. Neuroscientists also group them when looking at brain abnormalities, thus I will only discuss the findings about the brain when I explain characteristics of the psychopath.)
- Superficial charm often with glibness
- Manipulative and conning behavior characterized by not recognizing the rights of others, but instead have self-serving behaviors, are covertly hostile and dominating, see other people as props or instruments to be used for their benefit and consequently humiliate and dominate others.
- Grandiose behavior characterized as the right to be entitled to whatever they wish.
- Pathological lying so that they easily find it impossible to be consistently truthful. As a result, they get caught up in a complex belief that they have extraordinary powers. They are so expert at this they pass lie detector tests.
- A consistent lack of even the concept of remorse, shame, or guilt that conceals a split off from consciousness deep seated rage. People are seen as targets, props, and opportunities to use like property or objects. There is a deep belief that the end justifies the means and they act accordingly.
- Shallow emotions conceal feigned warmth, joy, and compassion. They have ulterior motives when they act as if they feel these emotions. They are manipulating instead to gain what they are sure is their due by playing the part of a caring individual. While they are often outraged by insignificant matters especially if they feel slighted, while unphased by what would be more normal upsets. Their lack of genuine emotions behind their behaviors, they cannot be trusted. Promises will not be kept.
- There is a severe inability to love because they only seek what benefits themselves. Others may be misled by the above-mentioned play acting of emotional caring, but this is always suspect.
- Their need for stimulation can lead to ‘living on the edge’ so that risks are taken by themselves as well as expected of others. Expect verbal and physical punishments. This physical aggression clearly distinguishes them from the narcissist’s verbal maltreatment without violent physical behavior. They may commonly be promiscuous and gamble without control.
- They do not understand empathy but instead feel contempt easily taking advantage and manipulating others.
- Their uncontrolled impulsivity leads to highly misleading care for others as if they have love or approval of others that rapidly changes to verbal and physical abuse cyclically. Without the capacity to have actual concern for others, they feel boundless entitlement with no personal boundaries, or any ability to sense or care about the impact they have on others.
- Although they most likely have a history of misbehaviors and cruelty to people and animals, they may get by with their excessive lying and conning but are clearly unable to even understand nevertheless develop friendships.
- Consequently, they blame others easily without any notion of the impact they have caused, always finding untruthful excuses to fault others.
- An extension of their lying and conning is an ability to avoid persecution for illegal acts and cruel behaviors by changing their stories rapidly. However, they may rarely be in trouble for illegal acts instead finding out where their tyrannical behavior is condoned by others like themselves.
- They state openly a belief they want to rule the world
- All the narcissistic characteristics above. (But the narcissist does not share this list of sociopathic characteristics.)
- There is a belief that the sociopath’s characteristics and behaviors are a result of environmental not genetic influences.
- This disorder is referred to diagnostically as an anti-social personality disorder marked by a lack of moral and legal standards as early as the age of fifteen when they disregard the rights of others.
- Treatment is only considered viable if as a child with a conduct disorder early intervention is available that needs to be maintained for years.
Core Characteristics of the Psychopath
A major differentiated characteristic of the psychopath and sociopath is that the former is innate while the latter is environmental. Both have narcissistic characteristics.
- There is no regard for right and wrong and thus violate the law and the rights of others
- All the above characteristics of the sociopath and narcissist.
- Brain pathology is found in many research studies that reveal abnormalities such as less volume in the area of the brain called the amygdala where fear is processed, empathy is generated, and emotional regulation takes place and in the orbital frontal cortex where decision making occurs.
- Due to these brain abnormalities it is believed that psychopaths don’t process punishment in the same way as normal people. Thus, they are not inclined to respond to punitive behavior by parents or others in authority. That is, punishment does not discourage immoral or violent behavior.
- Thus, positive reinforcement at an early age for any positive behaviors in accordance with societal norms is the recommendation if psychopathic behaviors are caught early on. However, there is no evident cure for this pathology. The positive reward method is called the Decompression Model instituted by the Mendota Juvenile Detention Center that recognizes what I mentioned above that the brain of the psychopath does not respond to punishment or shame or negative reinforcement so that only rewarding ‘the good’ makes for more of it.
- Psychopaths have differences in specific regions of the brain such as fewer connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex where feelings of empathy and guilt are processed. It is also found that there are abnormalities in the amygdala where fear and anxiety are mediated.
- It is variously reported the psychopaths commit more crimes than others and make up about one per cent of the population. These statistics vary however and are not definitive.
- It is also believed that psychopaths betray themselves in that their speech patterns when they describe their crimes which may be a giveaway to their criminal behavior. Researchers who studied 52 convicted murderers, for example, found when using computer programs to analyze what the men said that they focused on cause and effect when describing their crimes and basic needs such as food, drink, and money. These were verbalized without emotion.
- Psychopaths have a disproportionate impact on the criminal justice system. For it is reported by various sources that less than 1% of non-institutionalized males age 18 and over are psychopaths
- Although most studies suggest there is no cure for psychopathy, it is rather frequently suggested that early positive environmental influences may prevent the troubled child from growing up to commit crimes.
Clearly more research is and will be done in our century not only to alleviate the pain of those with these pathologies and the impact they have on others but also to discern the most effective criminal justice system.
However, it is vital to separate out the Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the Anti-Social Personality Disorder which includes sociopaths commonly affected early on by environmental influences and psychopaths commonly viewed as having innate abnormalities regardless of their environments.
Furthermore, the latter view about psychopaths is being contested in that if early characteristics of psychopaths are identified in childhood, with positive environmental influences, there may be some moderating effects.