Differentiating Narcissists and Psychopaths

(Steve Becker, LCSW, CHT) 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?

Recommended Books:

The Psychopath Code: Cracking the Predators that Stalk Us

Boundaries After a Pathological Relationship

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