What’s the Difference Between a Narcissist and a Sociopath?

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When dealing with a person who displays traits that border on self-centeredness, it isn’t uncommon to hear words like ‘narcissist’ or ‘sociopath’ thrown about. However, each condition is a distinct personality disorder with recognizable differences that set them apart from each other.

A person living with a narcissistic personality may also share certain similarities with a sociopath. Because of this, narcissism and sociopathy are often mistaken for one another.

People with either personality type can become dangerous to themselves and those around them. If you suspect that you live, work, or share a romantic/other relationship with a narcissist or sociopath, it’s important to be able to identify either personality for your own safety.

We’ll be looking at each personality type, their features, and what makes them different from one another. We’ll also take a look at possible similarities between each disorder, and common management techniques.

Narcissism

Like Narcissus in Greek mythology, a man who fell in love with his reflection, the narcissist is utterly in love with himself.

A narcissistic personality causes a person to have an excessively heightened sense of importance, a strong need to be admired, or an entitlement to special treatment. Other times, a person with this disorder may nurse dreams of wielding far-reaching power.

Having a heightened sense of self may be understood, excused even—except with a narcissist, pursuing the life they believe is owed to them may come at the expense of others.

A narcissist doesn’t care if they have to lie and scheme their way to a desired position, they are typically unconcerned about the needs of their partners in romantic relationships, and may feel slighted when praise or admiration isn’t showered on them for their achievements.

Away from the view of others; however, when a narcissist is looking within, they may experience heightened feelings of shame, helplessness, and anger when difficulties crop up that interfere with a projected vision of themself. This disorder may lead to an increased risk of attempting or carrying out suicide.

While it’s difficult to give an exact statistic, narcissism is believed to be found within 1% to 15% of the U.S. population.

Narcissism is typically noticeable in two forms: the grandiose narcissist who believes they are excessively important and the vulnerable narcissist who feels hurt and offended when they aren't showered with admiration. Both forms of narcissism show a lack of empathy for others.

Narcissism Symptoms

Narcissism may be caused by a number of factors such as a difficult childhood where rejection was prominent, or cases where the individual involved had a fragile ego.

Likewise, praising a child excessively during their formative years can lead to a heightened belief in oneself, encouraging narcissism. There are also suspicions that a genetic link may be to blame for this disorder.

Whatever the cause, a person displaying the following traits may be said to have a narcissistic personality:

  • An arrogant attitude
  • A strong lack of empathy
  • A constant need for admiration
  • A heightened sense of self-importance 
  • Envy towards others doing supposedly better
  • Baseless assumptions that others are envious of their accomplishments
  • An obsession with success, power, looks, and exorbitant wealth
  • An exploitative personality, regardless of who gets trampled on

Sociopathy

One of the first things to know about a sociopath is that they feel very little remorse for their actions, no matter how they affect others. A sociopath will manipulate their way into a friendship or relationship purely for their own gain or amusement. These bonds may be painstakingly formed and then promptly neglected, whether or not they may cause harm to the other person.

Some sociopaths may have an antisocial personality disorder and make up approximately 1% to 4% of the population.

Sociopaths are easily identified by frequent run-ins with the law. They also have very few hang-ups about exploiting people purely for their own gain and have been known to have dramatic or volatile interactions when dealing with people.

A sociopath is more likely to have difficulty holding a job and may be unable to form stable relationships.

Sociopathy Symptoms

A sociopath typically begins to symptoms of the disorder before the age of 18. This includes behaviors like:

  • Having a disregard for the law and engaging in acts that can lead to arrest
  • Using deceit to forge relationships, or to swindle others of their time or money
  • Having a persistent inability to plan ahead
  • Showing a poor, non-committal attitude towards work
  • Disregarding financial obligations like paying back debts
  • Having no remorse after physically or emotionally hurting another person

Like narcissism, this personality disorder may be the product of genes. It has also been linked to poor childhood experiences where sexual or physical abuse was present.

It may also be the result of early neglect. Environmental conditions like family relations and how well associations with peers are handled may also be responsible.

Narcissism vs. Sociopathy

In distinguishing between a narcissist and a sociopath, the motive behind their actions is usually an important place to look.

For the narcissist—scheming, showering compliments, forging friendships, and otherwise manipulating others, are ultimately geared towards the ego and the expansion of self-importance.

The narcissist is self-centered and carries out actions using tunnel vision focused solely on their own importance. People harmed by a narcissist’s actions are merely casualties in their journey to reaching their own goals.

On the other hand, a sociopath will manipulate, harm, rob, and otherwise violate another person merely for the fun of it. A sociopath is not concerned with propping up their image, and will engage in games if it suits a larger objective being pursued. A sociopath feels no remorse or empathy for anyone wronged by their actions and might even derive pleasure from doing so. This differs from the narcissist whose aim isn't directly to cause harm, but to appear as a grand personality.

Because of the nature of their personality, a sociopath will find it difficult to maintain a job and will likely get in trouble with the authorities. This is in contrast to a narcissist who always wants to appear on top of their game, and will maintain a role that keeps them looking successful. 

Though sociopaths may be narcissistic, not all narcissistic people can qualify as sociopaths.

Both personalities may be calculating, but a sociopath may rank higher. They will act without regard to how anyone may view them, while narcissists ultimately need admiration and are very interested in the impression they leave on others.

Similarities Between Narcissists and Sociopaths

In some cases, the lines may be blurred when attempting to distinguish between a narcissist and a sociopath.

Both personalities have a noticeable lack of empathy when dealing with others. They are severely lacking in morality, and have no qualms about scheming against and controlling others to suit their agendas. To achieve their objectives, a sociopath or a narcissist can turn on the charm.

In addition, exhibiting sociopathic or narcissistic traits usually increases the risk of developing a mood disorder, substance abuse, as well as holding suicidal thoughts, or committing suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Treatment

Neither a narcissist nor a sociopath is likely to seek treatment for their personality. This may change where they exhibit traits of a mental illness like depression, anxiety etc.

Usually, this condition is diagnosed using detailed interviews and/or psychological testing by a mental health professional.

There is some research which has examined the use of medication and/or psychotherapy to manage narcissistic personality, but no specific treatment method for antisocial personality. However, psychotherapy techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy can help in managing symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

When a person exhibits traits of a narcissist or a sociopath, this usually means they are calculating, empathy-deficient, and put their own interests above those of others.

However, despite sharing similarities, these conditions are not the same. sociopaths are more calculating, and have no regard for the welfare or pain of others. They are most likely to derive pleasure from their acts. Narcissists differ because their actions are usually targeted towards self-inflation, and any harm done to others is usually as a result of them pursuing some kind of goal.

With serious cases leading to self-harm and harm to others, it's important to note that both personalities may be improved through consistent therapy over a period of time.

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4 Sources
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