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Differentiating narcissists and psychopaths

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T, who has a private psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and clinical consulting practice in New Jersey, USA. For more information, visit his website, powercommunicating.com.

We can begin by noting something that both narcissists and psychopaths share: a tendency to regard others as objects more than persons. Immediately this raises concerns: you don’t have to empathize with objects; objects don’t have feelings worth recognizing. You can toy with objects; manipulate and exploit them for your own gratification, with a paucity of guilt.

Welcome to the world of the narcissist and psychopath. Theirs is a mindset of immediate, demanded gratification, with a view of others as expected—indeed existing—to serve their agendas. Frustrate their agendas, and you can expect repercussions, ranging from the disruptive to ruinous.

Distinct explanations for their actions

The behaviors of narcissists and psychopaths can look very similar in their staggering disregard and abuse of others. Distinctions arise, however, in the explanation of their actions. The narcissist will crave recognition and validation. He will demand that others notice and appreciate his special qualities; his special qualities make his needs special, which leaves him feeling entitled to their satisfaction. He demands all this as if his inner self is at stake, and it is. Disappointment leaves him feeling unappreciated, neglected. Anger and rage then surface in aggressive and passive-aggressive displays, often in proportion to the hurt and vulnerability he can’t own.

The psychopath is less obsessed than the narcissist with validation. Indeed, his inner world seems to lack much of anything to validate: it is barren, with nothing in it that would even be responsive to validation. An emotional cipher, the psychopath’s exploitation of others is more predatory than the narcissist’s. For the psychopath, who may be paranoid, the world is something like a gigantic hunt, populated by personified-objects to be mined to his advantage.

Example: narcissists and psychopaths as cheaters

As an example, let’s take a hypothetical narcissist and psychopath: Both males (females can be narcissists and psychopaths), both married, with families; and both compulsively conducting extra-marital affairs. Both have managed to avoid exposure principally due to the ease and remarkable skill with which they routinely lie and dissemble. They are equally persuasive in declaiming their fidelity to their wives as they are at contriving their unmarried status to their mistresses. Nevertheless, from time to time, their wives may approach them with uneasy suspicions, to which they’ll respond not with accountability, but as with outrage to have to deign to address their wives’ anxieties. They will impugn their wives for raising doubts about them, leaving the latter feeling defensive, guilty, and perhaps ashamed.

Narcissist is insecure

To this point, there is little on the surface to distinguish them. But going deeper, we discover that our narcissist is actually terribly insecure and needy. For him, having affairs validates his masculinity. His seductive abilities reassure him of his manhood. If he can no longer seduce and sleep with women, he is nothing; he has “lost it.” Feeling his nothingness/worthlessness, he grows depressed, despairing. He might even feel like killing himself. To salvage his collapsing self-image, he needs an infusion of reassurance, sought in a new affair. In the narcissist’s world, the more his psychic welfare is threatened, the more hers is disposable.

The narcissist will rationalize his actions with his greatest defenses—blame and contempt: My wife has been nasty to me for a long time, and doesn’t remotely appreciate me anymore. She’s lucky all I do is cheat; I could leave her instead, with nothing. The fact that I’ve stayed is almost charitable. And these women I cheat with…sure, they all think I’m unmarried, and you know what, I basically am.

Our narcissist, as you see, has a dim notion of ethics; but his ethics are corrupted by alarming rationalizations. He is expert at furnishing these rationalizations seamlessly, leaving him as if with the untroubled conscience of the psychopath.

Psychopath plays a game

Our psychopath, meanwhile, has no ethics, and thus no need for rationalizations. He has affairs because he wants to. Life, for him, is a game. The game is about figuring out how to get what he wants now, by whatever stratagems necessary. And it’s a game without rules. Without rules, there is no violation, no exploitation; and even if there is, it’s part of the game. So our psychopath makes up the rules as he goes along, duping this individual and that, lying like a shameless child as he improvises his way in and out of his schemes, sometimes smoothly, sometimes not—but always heedless of, and absolutely indifferent to, the damage he causes.

The psychopath will sit back, reflecting on his infidelities, and laughing, think, “I’ve still got it.” He will mean, “I’ve still got the ability to maneuver these women like a puppeteer.” This will amuse him. The narcissist will sit back, and likewise think, “I’ve still got it.” But he will mean, “I’m still attractive. Women still find me irresistible. I’m okay, for now.”

Commonly, the psychopath is upheld as the incarnation of the murderous bogeyman. While it’s true that many cold-blooded killers are psychopaths, most psychopaths are not killers. The majority of psychopaths would find a messy murder too inconvenient and personally unpleasant a task to assume. This—the personal inconvenience and unpleasantness, not empathy for the slaughtered victim—explains why a great many more psychopaths than not, with chilling non-compunction, are more likely to target your life’s savings than butcher you, and dispose of your remains in several industrial-strength Hefty bags.

This doesn’t make the non-murderous psychopath “less psychopathic,” or “more sensitive” than the murderous psychopath; it merely reflects the calculus psychopaths apply in their decision-making: how can I get, or take what I want, for maximum instant gain, at minimum personal inconvenience?



87 Comments on "Differentiating narcissists and psychopaths"

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  1. OxDrover says:

    Dear Perky,

    You have more compassion and faith in human nature than I do about drunks and addicts. Drinking or taking drugs and getting behind the wheel is a CHOICE. That choice has consequences, not only for you but for others. Driving down the highway with 4,000 of steel DRUNK is to me the same as getting in a crowd and shooting a shot gun at random. You may or may not hit someone, but you are sure not doing a safe thing.

    between 25,000 and 50,000 people DIE each year as a result of drunk drivers. Hundreds of thousands are injured or maimed. I worked for 5years with head and spinal cord inuries, people who would not wipe their own noses, or who could never speak or be independent again because of an auto accident, many of them alochol related. I have NO compassion for the person who CHOSES (for whatever reason) to drink and drive. Unfortunately, people who drink and drive SELDOM “learn from their mistakes.” To me it isn’t a “mistake” it is a BAD CHOICE.

    On any give night in my state 10% of the drivers between 7 pm. and midnight are DRUNK. It goes to 20% on Friday and Saturday nights. Many of these drunk drivers see NOTHING WRONG with their driving drunk. “I can handle it, I’m a manly man” PUKE. There are court cases here where a guy drives drunk 6 times loses his license and STILL DRIVES DRUNK, and those are NOT rare cases.

    “Most people learn from their mistakes”—-maybe, but drunk drivers seldom do. After working with the head inuries, spinal cord injuries and the amputation injuries of young healthy people who were injured by a DRUNK driver—Hanging is TOO good for them I think. Crucifiction might be more appropriate in MY OPINION. My friend that we buried on Christmas Eve 1979, was 21 years old, the man who was drunk and killed her (we had a closed coffin funeral because she was so torn up) got out with a broken leg. A year later, her father was side swiped by a drunk driver as he stood by his diabled car and we got to bury him too. Neither driver spent a day in jail, or even lost their licenses. The man who was drunk, ran a stop sign and killed my grandfather also did not lose his license or go to jail. Since he was drunk, his insurance was no good, and he couldn’t even be held liable for monetary damages, or the replacement of my grandfather’s totaled vehicle.

    If all the TERRIBLE things that have happened to LF readers and bloggers happened and we don’t become drunk drivers, what excuses anyone for becoming a drunk driver? I chose NOT to become a drunk, or to drive drunk. I made a conscious choice not to EVER drive drunk. (or even drinking at all) I think you will agree I’ve had some pretty nasty things happen in my life, if I had chose to be a drunk, would that ecuse it? I don’t think so. Any more than the P-son of mine is a P because his dad and I were divorced. He is a murderer because he chose to be. He knows RIGHT from WRONG, he just doesn’t care, and is so arrogant that he thinks he will get by with it. Same with the drunk drivers. They all know it is wrong, against the law, etc. but they are arrogant and don’t care about right or wrong. BAD CHOICE for their victims. Bad choice for themselves too. Just MHO. (or is it my NOT so humble opinion? LOL) [can you tell I am passionate about this? Not meaning to offend anyone at all, but it is just my personal soap box]



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  2. rperk6069 says:

    You are correct in everything you said. I made 2 very very bad choices. I paid, I am paying, for the rest of my life I will pay. I wish I could turn my choices around. i cant. no matter how much i want to i just cant. so maybe i should have been one of the ones who is hung.



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  3. OxDrover says:

    Dear Perky, driving while drunk is a choice, in my opinion, not a “mistake”–but anything that we do our lives that is wrong, we can STOP doing it, repent that we ever did it, and never do it again.

    I am NOT a “sin free” individual, I have made many many wrong, horrible choices, and I have done things that I KNEW WERE WRONG and did them anyway. The difference is that I repented, and made myself a promise that I would never do that again. Made up for it if I could. (amends). But I don’t excuse my bad acts by saying “well I had a tough life” and that’s why I did it. I knew it was wrong to do some of the things I have done in my life. I think almost every human in the world has done things they knew were wrong and chose to do them.

    The difference between us is that WE STOPPED doing things we knew were unlawful, and dangerous and just plain wrong. We DO FEEL GUILT, and that guilt makes us feel bad about what we did. NOT EVERYONE FEELS GUILT….that’s the difference. The Ps don’t feel any guilt. They don’t therefore repent or change their ways. They do not feel remorse or sorrow. Even if they kill or hurt someone, it is “just too bad, they shouldn’t have been crossing the street at 2.a.m. (when I drove by drunk)”

    My X BF-P thought it was “just fine” to drive drunk. He had no sorrow, no remorse and no guilt. It was his “right” to drive drunk as far as he was concerned. He didn’t thik it hurt his driving at all, after all He was a “manly man and I can hold my liquor.” NO GUILT, NO REMORSE—and the fact he hasn’t killed someone, even himself, is just pure luck.

    I DIDN’T MEAN TO PUT YOU ON A GUILT TRIP, because I know you are NOT A P. Hon, we all do things that we know are wrong. I have, you have, so has everyone else in the world that I know of, but remorse and guilt stop us from doing these things as a life style. WE STOP DOING them. I just get so darned frustrated when I know that there are hundreds, thousands of people out on the highways day and night driving DRUNK and DRUGGED as a way of life. Without remorse or care. I’m not pointing a finger at you darling! (((perky))))



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  4. takingmeback says:

    I think there are quite a few things the that the N and P share. Besides the ease at which they lie, I believe there’s a fine line between the two. Both are capable of violence and both have no regard for others. I think Ns are better able to project a public image and mask things differently. But both are capable of homicide and that’s the most important thing to note, in my book. Both damaging and dangerous. Being the target of two Ns, each told me they wanted to kill me at one point. Nice, eh? One was outwardly violent, the other covert and plotting. Given enough narcissistic injury, they climb up that continuum towards more sever psychopathy. Seeing it as a continuum can help one understand the depths they can go to.



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  5. OxDrover says:

    Dear Takiingmeback,

    I visualize the Ns and Ps as plotted points on a LINE, a continuum, from “one to 10”–with the self-centered but not really “dangerous” N as number 1, and Ted Bundy (for an example) as #10.

    Ted Bundy was a monster of course, but he was also SO CUNNING and so bright. He could “keep up the mask” of normalcy so well, be so charming.

    Of course not all Ps of a Level-10 are that charming, some of them are much less than charming and more openly violent. I think maybe the difference between the Level-10 who lives a “criminal lifestyle” in robbing banks and liquor stores and/or spends most of his life in prison, and the Crooked Politician who robs with a pen and likely never spends a day in prison is the place that “environment” comes into play, along with IQ, education, etc.

    The P who grows up on the inner city streets and becomes a “gang lord” and the P who grows up in a moneyed family and is blessed with a high IQ and educational opportunity are only different in the way they behave outwardly and the “masks” they choose to wear. One is socially acceptable in mainstream ways and the other is a “social outcast” from mainstream society, but they are BOTH dangerous.

    Of course there are “shades” in between level-1 and level-10, and in the “social acceptability” of their “lifestyle”—drug dealer or ENRON CEO—which is “worse”? Which does more damage? To me they are equal, but in some ways the “criminal” P is more likely to spend time behind bars and probably do less damage to innocent victims than the Level-10 who steals from corporations, tax payers, and mentally and physically abuses only his limited “nearest and dearest”—while keeping up his “mask”—

    It’s also very sad that growing up in a family populated by abusive Ns and/or Ps accept victimhood as “normal” and “our due.” Breaking free of that double whammy is difficult, but I am seeing that here on LF every day, and also in my own mirror.



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