What do you call someone you’ve been describing alternately as a narcissist and sociopath? Someone for whom neither diagnosis alone quite suffices as a complete description of the individual, but rather in whom both disorders seem as if wrapped up in one menacing individual?
Pardoning my grandiosity for daring to expand the already crowded psychiatric nomeclature, I propose to call these hybrid personalities“narcissiopaths.”
While I don’t expect the DSM folks to take me very seriously (or anyone else for that matter), I’m thinking (unfacetiously) that there’s a case to be made here.
The narcissiopath, as I envision him (using “him” for convenience’s sake) will meet many of the essential criteria for both narcissistic and sociopathic personality. The closest extant clinical description of this disordered individual that comes to mind is the confusing term “maligant narcissist.”
Now personally, I find the term “malignant narcissist” wanting: for instance, precisely at what point does a narcissist turn “malignant?” And doesn’t this imply the concept of non-malignant narcissists who, by definition, must be “benign?” (I’m not so sure their partners would attest to their harmlessness?)
My concept, the narcissiopath, suggests very directly the personality fusion of narcissism and sociopathy in this particular personality. The narcissiopath is the individual who effectively conflates narcissism and sociopathy.
Let me briefly review these separate personalities—the narcissist and sociopath—in their more classical presentations. The narcissist is fundamentally a recognition-craver, a reassurance-craver, a convenience-craver, and an inordinate craver and demander of attention, catering and special status. He is in many respects insatiably needy emotionally.
At root, the narcissist is an overly entitled personality. He feels entitled to be accomodated on a pretty much continual basis. This begs the question, on what basis does he accord himself this right—to expect, that is, the continual accomodation of his needs and desires? The answer is, on the basis of his sense of himself as “special,” and his expectation that others—indeed, the world—will also recognize him as special.
Psychologically, a compensatory process often occurs with the narcissist. His “sensed” and “imposed” specialness is often a compensation for underlying and threatening self-vulnerability; and compensation for doubts about his power, worth and attractiveness—doubts that he is too immature to face squarely and maturely.
Although exploitation is not typically the narcissist’s primary motive, we recognize his capacity to be manipulative, cruel, deceptive and abusive; yet his darker machinations are usually secondary to his demanding, and sometimes desperate, pursuit of others’ attention and cooperation.
The narcissist is imfamously inept at managing his disappointment. He feels that he should never be disappointed, that others owe him protection from disappointment. When disappointed, he will find someone to blame, and will quickly de-idealize and devalue his disappointer.
Devaluing his disappointer now enables him to abuse her or him with more righteous indignation and less guilt.
For the sociopath, this is all much easier. Unlike the narcissist, he doesn’t have to perform mental gymnastics to subdue his guilt in order to exploit others with an unburdened conscience. The sociopath has no guilt to manage.
But the sociopath’s dead conscience isn’t per se what makes him sociopathic. Many people have weak consciences who aren’t sociopaths. It is his dead conscience in conjunction with his orientation to exploit that gets to the heart (really, heartlessness) of the sociopath.
The sociopath is variously a manipulator, liar, deceiver and violator of others; and he is these things less to regulate his unstable self-esteem than, more often than not, to enjoy himself, amuse himself, entertain himself, and take what he feels like taking in a way he finds optimally satisfying.
The sociopath, as I have discussed previously, is an audacious exploiter. His lack of shame supports his imperturbability, which enhances the experience of his audacity. The sociopath leaves one shaking one’s head at his nerve, his gall. One imagines that to venture the deception and outrages the sociopath pursues with his famous, blithe composure, he must possess a chilling callousness and coldness beneath what may otherwise be his veneer of “normality.” One imagines correctly.
Now sometimes we find ourselves dealing, as I’ve suggested, with individuals who seem, at once, to be both narcissist and sociopath, as if straddling, or embodying both disorders.
These are the individuals I’m proposing to call narcissiopaths.
For a good celebrity example of this, consider O.J. Simpson. Simpson, as his story evolved, was someone you found yourself confusingly calling a narcissistic personality disorder (probably correctly) in one conversation, and in the very next, a sociopath (probably correctly).
You found yourself vacillating between the two diagnoses because he seemed to fulfill important criteria of both. There was O.J. the narcissist: publicly charming, charismatic, disarmingly engaging and seductively likeable while privately, behind closed doors, he was tyrannizing Nicole Brown whenever he felt his “omnipotent control” threatened.
Simpson came to epitomize the indulged athlete: catered to all his life for his special athletic gifts, somewhere along the line he came to believe, with ultimately violent conviction, in his right to control and be heeded, not defied.
Simpson was all about “looking good,” about public show; in Nicole Brown he’d found a woman—a “trophy wife”—who could “reflect well” on him publicly, and on his “greatness.” She was also, tragically, the “perfect” choice to engage his narcissistic compulsion to alternately idealize, and then devalue, her; that is, to idealize the perfect, and then devalue the perfectly dirty, sex object.
In other words, in choosing her, Simpson chose well for his narcissism.
In the end, Simpson was as charming, ingratiating, and as shallow and superficial as so many narcissists (and all sociopaths) are.
But he was more than that. He was also callous, and brutally violent. He descended upon Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman like the knife-wielding devil he was, nearly carving Brown’s head off and massacring Goldman.
And then…he lied.
He maintained his innocence with outrageous brazenness, determined to win the next stage of yet another game. And where was the remorse? There was none; just his arrogant, insulting contempt.
Simpson had executed a miraculous performance. He had escaped from double-murder and the incontrovertible evidence of his guilt as improbably, as impossibly, as he’d so often escaped (brilliantly) opposing defenses and game-plans geared to stop him.
Finally, although I’d say that Simpson probably tilts, on balance, more to a narcissistic personality structure than not, he also possesses many of the most dangerous and essential diagnostic features of the sociopath. He seems, in other words, to be not entirely one or the other, but both narcissist and sociopath all in one.
I intend to flesh out the concept of the narcissiopath in future posts. And I look forward, as always, to your feedback.
(This article is copyrighted © 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)