So, you suspect your partner, ex, family member, or friend is a narcissist, or even worse, a sociopath, and all of your friends just nod their heads in agreement because they really have no idea what either one really is, much less the difference between the two. Even you aren’t so sure of the difference. All you know for sure is that when you read the descriptions of an abusive narcissistic, or sociopathic relationship on the Internet, the accounts are all rather eerily familiar.
Even though, you have probably heard your friends and family tell you to just “forget about it” and “move on”, you know that having answers, and being able to put a name to your experiences, will bring you some relief, and help to free you up to move forward, and permanently detach from the toxic relationship.
So how do you tell the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath?
In the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), which is the guidebook used by mental health professionals for diagnosing mental disorders, there is no disorder called sociopath or sociopathic disorder. The closest equivalent is Antisocial Personality disorder (ASPD). ASPD and Narcissistic Personality disorder (NPD) are categorized under a group of disorders called Cluster B Personality Disorders. This group consists of four disorders: Antisocial, Narcissistic, Histrionic, and Borderline.
Cluster B personality disorders are characterized by personality styles that are impulsive, dramatic, highly emotional and erratic, making a healthy relationship an impossibility.
Both narcissists and sociopaths cause harm and do damage to their spouses, partners, family members, and friends, and for this reason knowing whether you were involved with a narcissist or sociopath doesn’t change the outcome, or diminish the damage, but for those who are still curious about learning what the differences between the two disorders are, here are some ways to distinguish between them.
All sociopaths are narcissists, but not all narcissists are sociopaths. Sociopathy is associated with a lack of conscience, and a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of other people, which commonly manifests in criminal behavior.
Narcissistic Personality disorder is associated with a lack of empathy, and a pervasive pattern of conflictual relationships, grandiosity, and an excessive need for attention, and admiration.
There are many similarities between narcissists and sociopaths; however, their underlying motivation for their behavior is what distinguishes them from each other.
Narcissists need to be regularly validated by others, and sociopaths do not. For this reason, sociopaths are more likely to fly under our radar completely undetected.
Let’s start off with the similarities.
1. Both are very charming and charismatic.
2. Both tend to be very intuitive, and skilled at observing and reading people.
3. Both are egocentric and self-interested. Me, Me, Me, and Mine!
4. Both do not take accountability or blame for their actions, but will gladly accept the credit for anything positive.
5. Both have an inflated view of themselves. They both have a sense of entitlement and believe they are more important than they really are.
6. Both believe they are never wrong.
7. Both lack empathy, guilt, and remorse.
8. Both lack insight into their emotions and are incapable of self-reflection.
9. Both can convincingly mimic the emotions and behaviors of others but do not actually feel or think the same way as emotionally healthy people.
10. Both exhibit a high need for power and control.
11. Both will use social media to intentionally cyber-abuse, and emotionally fluster a former spouse or lover.
1. Sociopaths will deliver an insincere, but convincing apology, if it benefits their agenda. A narcissist will not.
2. Sociopaths will appear more humble, and less of a braggart. Narcissists are more oblivious to how they seem to others, and will often boast about their achievements, ad nauseum.
3. Sociopaths, upon meeting you, will try to pick your brain and ask you a lot of questions. Narcissists will focus the conversation on themselves and their interests.
4. Sociopaths are manipulative and calculating and will exploit others to further their agenda. Narcissists use others who they feel are hindering their agenda.
5. Sociopaths ignore social norms and boundaries, not only out of a sense of entitlement but to manipulate situations to further their interests. Narcissists also feel a sense of entitlement but will ignore rules, and social norms more from a place of self-importance.
6. Sociopaths are more interested in winning, and in being right at all costs. Narcissists are interested in winning, but more from a need to feel admired, and unique.
7. Sociopaths are more prone to boredom, and more likely to be adrenaline junkies. Narcissists may or may not need excess stimulation.
8. Sociopaths will set a trap months in advance if they perceive you are obstructing their plans, and patiently wait to take you down. Narcissists are less calculating but will lie, intimidate, or destroy you if they perceive you as hampering their plans.
9. Sociopaths will manipulate others, so they can gain financially, by doing as little work as possible with the least amount of effort. Narcissists don’t mind putting in the effort and working hard if it leads to admiration and accolades.
10. Sociopaths are more likely to abruptly abandon you if their cover is blown, and their manipulation tactics are no longer effective. Narcissists will have a pattern of overlapping relationships that end very poorly.
Remember, human behavior isn’t black or white. It is as varied as the number of people on the planet. Some people may exhibit traits from both categories, but the majority of their features will fall into one category more than the other.
For this reason, it’s useful to think in terms along the lines of a continuum of behavior, and traits, or a spectrum, instead of trying to pigeon-hole an individual’s behavior neatly into one of the two categories.
The mild or subtle narcissist is pretty easy to spot by just taking a quick glance at their Facebook page. They are the validation, attention seeking, look at me, at least one selfie per day, aren’t I wonderful, my children are the best, my life is better than yours, my dentist is the best, like, like, like my posts. They view social media as their own reality show that they, of course, are starring in, and truly believe in their own importance.
But as you move along the continuum to the right, a cursory Facebook check will not yield such obvious and observable signs and clues. Individuals who are very high on narcissistic traits moving into sociopathic terrain are much less oblivious about how others perceive their behavior. They require less need for admiration and are less apt to take to social media to seek approval and significance. Since they are more cunning, they are more likely to use social media as a vehicle to scout out new potential targets by studying their target’s pages and posts.
Both narcissists and sociopaths cause damage and do a lot of harm to their partners, family, and friends. Having an unofficial diagnosis doesn’t really matter much in the scheme of things. But having a term to describe the irrational, crazy-making, unpredictable, malicious, and exhausting behavior you experienced, can provide some answers, and free you up to move forward.
Nevertheless, both narcissists and sociopaths, will seek to exploit, control, and dominate you without the burdensome feelings of remorse or guilt. Domination and control do not allow for genuine connection, healthy bonding, or lead to emotional reciprocity.
Ultimately, your mental well-being and happiness are what counts, and the longer you remain in a relationship with a narcissist or sociopath, the more at risk you become of being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD or C-PTSD.
Bree Bonchay, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working in the field of mental health and trauma recovery. She specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships and shares her insights about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and psychopathy in her blog FreeFromToxic. Her articles have been featured in major online magazines and she has appeared on radio as a guest expert. She is also a dedicated advocate, educator, and facilitates survivor support groups and workshops.
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