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.)

135 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.

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    • 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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    • lagorgeousmujer says:

      I am bpd and I have a hard time knowing what i am. At times i think this article is correct and that im a good person with attachment problems. Other times i think im some type of COVERT sociopath that manipulates SUBCONSCIOUSLY. Whenever i behave well (usually with escorting clients ) i can be very charming, kind and affectionate. In the moment it feels real, but maybe im like an actress that really throws herself into the role and fool myself that im being genuine in the moment. I am intelligent, interesting, beautiful ofcourse. I can win over wealthy men,doctors, psychologists etc. But deep down i hate them and i hate people, especially men. I know that men are untrustworthy whores and most “friends ” are fair weather at best. A selfish evil humanity. This becomes even more evident in countries where humans have scarce resources. It becomes an animalistic Darwinian hellhole. Alas,i have a contempt for humans. Whenever my clients tell me that im so sweet and wonderful i think to myself ” idiot! You believe anything an escort tells you and im laughing all the way to the bank! ” yet when im nice i convince even myself that its genuine. Im still not sure what it is. I will continue to use men to support my lifestyle. I see no reason to go work or get a permanent man pet. I see nothing wrong with what im doing, men have always been whores anyway. I think deep down i do lean towards sociopathy but its covert rather than full blown.

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      • terredee says:

        Lamujer, some questions for you:

        – What is ‘bpd’?

        – Are you kind to animals?

        – Are you cruel to animals?

        – How about children, or elderly people? Do you hate them as well?

        – Do you have a specific reason to think men are whores, such as a father who had affairs or took advantage of you, or of women in general?

        – How do you feel about your mother?

        Your answers will be enlightening to yourself as well as others. Thank you.

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        • lagorgeousmujer says:

          Borderline personality disorder. i am kind to animals for short spurts. After that i am irritated by their noise and constant need for attention. I don’t see why people get attached to pets. They bore me. I tried to have a pet once and the dog was too yappy and peeing all over my carpet. I couldn’t wait for the next day so i dropped it off in a forested area where i wouldn’t be seen. Children and elderly same thing. I can tolerate them but i don’t want one.they annoy me. I did have children when i was young who were autistic. I ended up with a mental breakdown from the stress and had to give them up. Since then i decided that having children isn’t worth the trouble. To me its very obvious how men are. Theyll say anything to get sex. They are walking dildos for the most part. My mother was weak and submissive to a father that abused me.

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          • Dave says:

            Is there a particular reason you lump all men in this category?

            Do you believe that women can be users and abusers also?

            I can understand the pets and children thing, for some people its just not their thing.

            I went through 10 years of abuse from a sociopathic woman, however i dont lump all women into her categories, if i did i would be saying all women are lying cheating goldiggers that play games. My ex was the one that used sex against me, as everytime she did something wrong and i got upset she would just hop in the shower with me to make me forget all about what she did. I know there are decent women out there, and there are decent men too.

      • Redwald says:

        Beware the Borderline, my son!
        The tongue that bites, the spiteful wrath!
        Beware the Narcissist, and shun
        The frumious Psychopath!

        And as in uffish thought he stood
        He soon was driven to conclude
        That labels can be just a game:
        The Borderline, siren of ill fame
        Is oft a Psychopathic dame
        Disguised with altered name.

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  2. Stargazer says:

    Lagorgeousmujer, BPD is like feeling abandoned but magnified a thousand times. If someone looks at their watch while you are with them, you will feel abandoned and have the strong desire to act out. I was diagnosed with this in my twenties, many years ago, and have been through a lot to overcome the tendency to act out. At the same time, for those of us with abusive and neglectful parents, Post Traumatic Stress symptoms closely mirror those of BPD, so I’m not really sure what I had.

    I, too, worked in the sex industry for a time, as a stripper, though I never turned tricks – it was just a decision I made beforehand (and I have no judgment about anyone who does). Like you, I was gorgeous, sexy, and very good at my job, able to convince men to give me money just for taking off my clothes and sometimes just to have a conversation with clothing on! At the time, I was astounded at how stupid men could be. But in the wee hours, when I was driving to or from a call, I sometimes would feel this intense emptiness and loneliness, like I had gone so far down a path that would lead to the opposite of love. I wasn’t quite sure what love was, but I knew that wasn’t it. I know how men are, lagorgeous. I had a client who paid me $1000 a night just to hang out and watch movies or cook dinner – he never laid a hand on me. Problem is, I could never let my guard down. I was always acting so much to where I became the roles I was acting. I would dress very seductively even on my off days and got a lot of ego satisfaction from all the attention I would get from men. I could go on and on, but I think you know what I’m talking about. I actually wrote a story about my days as a stripper – as I’m sure you could probably write a best seller about some of your experiences.

    In retrospect, the money and power from working in the sex industry was my best substitute for love and comfort. The job became my mother and father, supporting me financially as I left a bad relationship and developed my own financial security for the first time in my life. But something felt soul-less. Something was missing. Something felt wrong. I had shut down spiritually and emotionally. I hadn’t had much love in my life, but I’d felt fleeting moments of it, and I knew that it didn’t involve dressing up in high heels and fishnets and teasing men. Eventually, it became toxic for me because I am a very sensitive person and some of the psychological abuse I got from the men did affect me. One day I walked out and never looked back. I am 55 now, and I joke that now men pay me to put my clothes back on!

    I have a bf now who truly loves me though he is by no means perfect, and probably would love to have way more sex than what he gets. Sometimes I DO also think of men as walking dildos, believe me. But there is a deeper wave to life (as Sting says in his song….). There is a wave of life where love and innocence of heart is there just for the asking and believing in it. I hope you don’t become too cynical to open yourself up to something different some day besides being used by men. It’s scary and difficult, but worth it IMO.

    And BTW, I love animals but I find dogs annoying too. Maybe you are just a cat (or snake) person. 🙂

    My best to you,


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    • lagorgeousmujer says:

      Snakes sound nice and yes men are evil and stupid. I don’t think i could ever be as gullible as what youve become. I find your story rather sad than inspiring. I also don’t think im as sensitive as you were. I don’t care if someone looks at their watch. I do get upset abd angry if i don’t hear back from text. But im also developing a thicker skin as to i wont care for anyones approval. After seeing what men are, i don’t want a dumb pretty woman story. I want to strengthen my sociopathic traits and destroy the weak approval seeking traits. I want to look like kris jenner when im older as well as amass wealth. I don’t trust romantic notions and most friends in this world are flaky fair weathers. Hardly worth an investment. I can better myself without some porn addicted slutbag saying “i love you”. Yuck.

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    • lagorgeousmujer says:

      I dont allow any psychological abuse from clients. I have a dominant personality so it rarely ever happens and when it does i cut them off. That simple. i also don’t think im being “used”. Im being paid for a service. In my opinion, you’re being “used” because you receive no money and only fake love that can end at any time. Im 32 so i think my thinking will be alot more liberal because of it. Romantic love was created to trap women with men. Its not authentic. Men really are just idiot dildos.

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  3. Ava says:


    As someone who may have bpd, in my opinion, your description of yourself is leaning heavily towards sociopathic traits. It appears that is your dominant personality trait, rather than a bpd. Since stronger sociopathic traits is what you are seeking, it seems that you have been successful.

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  4. Stargazer says:

    I’m at a loss for words. This doesn’t happen too often.

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  5. terredee says:

    Lamujer, I’m wondering about those you do consider friends.

    Are they friends because they entertain you, don’t ask things of you, share things with you, have been there for you…?

    Maybe it’s just the pleasure of hanging out with someone who doesn’t want anything from you beyond companionship? Maybe shared history? Shared profession? Someone who understands you – a ‘borderline bpd/covert sociopath as you put it? You know what I mean – those things that make so-called friendships.

    Do you feel love for those you consider genuine friend/s? Do you trust them?

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  6. lagorgeousmujer says:

    I don’t keep “friends “. They’re useless. Bunch of fair weather fairies that when ish hits the fan they scatter like cockroaches. Male and female alike. what exists now is not friendship. There is no loyalty. I am friendly with my clients. They pay my bills. I still don’t know what i am but if in fact im sociopathic then that could be why im good at reading people and you should believe me when i tell you that most friendships are overly casual and false and that most men are unscrupulous. But ofcourse you wont believe me because your need for validation and acceptance clouds judgement.

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    • terredee says:

      I believe you. Though you did say earlier that ‘most’ friends are fair-weather, so I thought that meant you had some or even one genuine friend.

      And I happen to agree with you on the friendship point. That’s been my experience as well, though – despite my disappointment – I remain ethical, generous and kind. I actually practice the Golden Rule, meaning I work at it.

      My need for validation is fulfilled by my sure knowledge that I’m a good person doing good in the world, as well as fulfilling work; my need for acceptance has been damped down by circumstances so that being alone doesn’t bother me like it might others. Vastly different responses to a traumatic childhood and disappointing personal relationships.

      And in this case, I’m genuinely interested in what you think, not in making you think like me.

      Curious if you have you heard that a sociopath’s brain often has differences in the sizes of the prefrontal lobes and amygdala? Have you ever had an MRI to see if this might apply to you, lamujer?

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      • lagorgeousmujer says:

        I never have. At this point im convinced that im bpd with socio traits. Just yesterday i saw video of the Venezuelan crisis and i was floored with emotional pain. I couldn’t get the images out of my mind and i felt terrible and helpless for those people. At times i have this sort of huge empathy. Sometimes i have none. Especially not towards men. So there you have it. Bpds have empathy, but it malfunctions. Going in extremes and being unstable. That’s why many bpds believe they are good people. Because they know the empathy is there even though its NOT consistent. They then blame that inconsistency on you. I do think it can be triggered.

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  7. terredee says:

    I wondered about that – the spectrum of bpd/sociopathy.

    I have a niece who’s clearly sociopathic, and has been from early childhood, but she apparently loves animals. She claims to love animals, she acts like she loves them, but she abandons them when they become inconvenient. And she may have caused the death of her sister’s cat when she was a pre-teen. To me, that behavior coupled with all the other things she has done in pursuit of money and power, informs my evaluation of her as a sociopath.

    It would be interesting to see the shape of your brain, don’t you think? Scary, maybe. If you find that it’s normal, not deformed as it often is with sociopaths, you’d have to consider that the instability and extremes of passion you mention may be due more to the psychological fallout from your father’s abuse, your mother’s weakness, your interaction with men that is all about sex. You had to get tough to survive and to thrive, and that means ‘strengthening your sociopathic traits and destroying your approval seeking traits.’

    Anyway, thank you for your candid responses, lagorgeousmujer. It’s been eye-opening.

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  8. terredee says:

    Prickliness is a form of defense, lamujer. You employ it more often than a porcupine, who is careful about how often she looses her barbs because of the cost of growing new ones.

    I’m a lesbian, so societal norms are not a primary driver. I know a number of men I consider to be decent and good guys, not all of them handsome, so Disney doesn’t figure in.

    I’ve judged my niece in order to understand how she could hurt me, as she’s tried to kill me and my mother, who raised her. I haven’t judged you. You are your own judge.

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