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Differentiating the sociopath from the borderline from the narcissist

Man, it’s not easy out there. Your partner clearly has a major personality disturbance, but sometimes separating borderline, narcissistic and sociopathic behavior can be hard. Real tough. Especially when there are spill-over behaviors, cross-contaminating behaviors and attitudes (as there often are) that further muddy the diagnostic waters.

Let’s look at rage, for instance. Rage is a major marker of the borderline and narcissistic personality. Sociopaths, being essentially malignant, high-end narcissists, like any full-blown narcissist, are also capable of frightful, bullying, abusive rages.

The borderline’s rage, much like the narcissist’s, tends to be elicted by disappoinment. And it’s not always “abandonment”-related. When the borderline, much like the narcissist, feels uncatered to, neglected or invalidated, WATCH OUT!!!!

The “tsunami” will be coming in a gigantic, overwhelming, RATIONALIZED WAVE. That wave will crash on you with shocking, destructive force, threatening to take your legs out from under you.

The sociopath’s rage is also elicited, commonly, by the frustration of his needs, demands, expectations. When that’s not the case, he may be salivating for some excitement, perhaps to escape the accumulating tension of his boredom; and so he may want a good dust-up to entertain himself: Unleashing his rage in a bullying assault may do the trick.

Remorse for the impact and damage of their rages is often missing in all three cases. Incredible, really INCREDIBLE rationalization, plus the astounding absence of self-reflection and accountability, is commonly missing as well.

The borderline feels as justified in his raging as the narcissist. His raging is pure narcissism being acted-out in the moment. The borderline, it is true, may later plead for forgiveness, but this is not always the case. Some borderlines will not pursue you at all after they’ve degraded you in a rage.

And not to confuse matters, but some narcissists and sociopaths will lobby for your forgiveness and amnesty after abusive displays in sometimes florid gestures of contrition.

The borderline and narcissist are both notorious vacillators along the idealizing-devaluing continuum. They are both “splitters” in the sense of perceiving others in rigidly black and white ways. When in their good graces, you are fantastic; their greatest luck and good fortune was to have met you; but disappoint them, and you are likely, suddenly, abruptly, to qualify as the worst, most despicable person they ever had the misfortune to cross paths with.

Sociopaths, in this sense, may be so disconnected, so pathologically disengaged from, and indifferent to, the emotional lives of others that, paradoxically, they may bring less of this particular kind of “splitting” drama to the table than borderlines and the typical narcissist.

This isn’t to suggest that sociopaths don’t “act out” in an outrageous variety of destructive ways. They can, and do.

And devaluation and contempt of others deeply, definingly characterizes the sociopath’s perspective; it’s just that the sociopath may actually exercise, and experience, his twisted emotional disconnection from others with sometimes (but not always!) less volatility than your typical borderline or narcissist. He may sometimes be more predictably, continuously indifferent, contemptuous and emotionally uninvested in others than his borderline or narcissistic counterpart.

The borderline can be callous and cruel, as can the narcissist and sociopath. Hmmm. When we are dealing with a callous, cruel individual whose aim is to BE DESTRUCTIVE (at least in the moment), with no compunction or remorse, but only contempt and hate for the object of his rage, then at least, for the moment, it may be somewhat immaterial which personality disorder we’re dealing with.

We may know later, but at the time, what difference does it really make? The individual’s present intent is clear—to hurt, destroy, inflict pain (in the borderline’s case, perhaps to discharge his pain by inflicting pain). But the experience on the other end, on your end, may be largely the same. You will feel variously abused, humiliated, threatened, degraded.

As noted, all three personality types may (or may not) later show contrition, thus contrition doesn’t accurately distinguish them. Plus, gauging the sincerity of an apology, its depth, is tough business. So again, this isn’t easy. Who are we dealing with? And does it even, always, matter?

I might add this rather vague, but possibly valid, observation: When borderlines aren’t “borderlining,” they are often really good and good-hearted individuals. They are often generous, authentic, sensitive and giving individuals. This is obviously a generalization. There are “borderlines” who, even when they aren’t raging, may be self-centered, jerky individuals, unpleasant and messed up in a million other ways. Still, many borderlines when they’re functioning above their “rage modes” are genuinely engaged, empathic, loving individuals.

You can not say this about the sociopath. This doesn’t mean the sociopath can’t “put this on.” But the sociopath, even when he isn’t obviously “sociopathing,” is always who he is at bottom: a cold, empty, empathically deficient, transgressive-minded individual who, at best, covers up his core contempt of others’ dignity and boundaries.

Not so with borderline personalities.

And narcissists who aren’t full-blown, those who retain a capacity to reflect on their narcissism (as some do) and its impact on those around them–which is tantamount to saying they retain a capacity (in less self-centered states of mind) to reflect on their impact on others with some degree of empathy–these narcissists, too, may be capable of authentic generosity, engagement and compassion, which makes them less incorrigible (and perhaps thus even more confusing) than the sociopath who, if he may sometimes present as the more stable, consistent personality, is clearly the most pathological  of them all.

This article is intended to introduce the complicated challenge of differientating these volatile, destructive personalities; it is the first of several I intend to write.

(This article was copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of the male gender pronoun was strictly for convenience’s sake and not to imply that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)



116 Comments on "Differentiating the sociopath from the borderline from the narcissist"

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  1. Stargazer says:

    And yes, there’s a difference between blame and responsibility. It is NEVER the victim’s fault that someone abuses them. No one has the right to abuse another. But the choices we make in our lives are ultimately our responsibility. We need to own these choices no matter how hard it is to do. We all make mistakes – some of enormous magnitude. But the sign of character is whether we can learn from it and move on. And even turn it into something positive. When we say, “Yes, I chose to do that,” it can help greatly reduce the anger and feeling like a victim.

    • Imara says:

      Well said Stargazer!!! the ownership of what made us vulnerable and then the healing from those issues is the one defense we have from getting targeted again.
      WE have traits that are in many ways as common with each other that allow easy victimization. Sandra Brown talks at length about some of those. Recovery for us always seems to involve finding our own individual voice and personhood….We as a bunch seem to be fairly kind nice good people!!! Our best defense is to keep far from the wickedness we encountered and find and keep our innate goodness.

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