How to Spot a Narcissistic Sociopath

Most people assume that others have the same moral code as themselves. We assume that others agree it is wrong to lie, steal, and manipulate others for our own gain. It can come as a shock, then, when you eventually cross paths in your life with someone who shatters that perception. In some cases, this person may be a narcissistic sociopath—a person with a unique combination of traits that causes them to leave behind a trail of destruction in their personal and professional lives.

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How to Identify a Malignant Narcissist

While there is no official diagnosis of "narcissistic sociopath," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes two disorders that may be present to form this constellation of traits: narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and antisocial personality disorder (APD). People who have aspects of both of these personality disorders could be considered narcissistic sociopaths. Most people assume that they would know a narcissist or sociopath if they met one, but these people are not always easy to identify.

Some people may show traits of a narcissistic sociopath—however, it's important to note that only when the patterns of behavior are severe and interfere in his/her life and the lives of those around this person would he/she potentially be considered to have a personality disorder.

Narcissitic Sociopath
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

Diagnosing the Narcissistic Sociopath

In order to arrive at the conclusion that a person is a narcissistic sociopath, it would be necessary for them to be diagnosed with aspects of both narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These two personality disorders are both a part of the Cluster B group in the DSM-5.

In general terms, a personality disorder refers to unhealthy and rigid patterns of thinking and behaving that impair social, work, and school functioning. Most people with personality disorders do not realize that they have a problem and blame others for the issues that they create themselves.

DSM-5 Criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder is "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts," according to the DSM-5.

In addition, five or more from the following list of DSM-5 criteria need to be present for an official diagnosis.

  • has a grandiose sense of self-importance (exaggerates achievements and abilities)
  • preoccupied with dreams of unlimited power, success, physical attractiveness, and love
  • holds the belief that he is of special or high status and can only be understood by similar people or should only associate with those people (or institutions)
  • has a need for excessive admiration
  • possesses a sense of entitlement and expects favorable treatment or compliance
  • exploits other people to achieve personal goals
  • lacks empathy regarding the needs and feelings of other people
  • is envious of other people or think other people envy him
  • has arrogant behaviors and attitudes

People with this disorder may monopolize conversations and look down on people whom they feel are "inferior" to them. 

They will take advantage of you to get what they want, no matter who gets hurt along the way.

Individuals with NPD live with many negative outcomes of their personality disorder. Some examples of the problems that they face include the following:

  • trouble handling criticism
  • easily become impatient or angry if they don't think they are being treated correctly
  • feel easily slighted and may have relationship problems
  • try to belittle others or react with rage to make themselves seem superior
  • have trouble regulating their behavior and emotions
  • trouble adapting to change and dealing with stress
  • can become depressed if they fall short of what they feel is ideal
  • secretly feel insecure, vulnerable, and humiliated and have fragile self-esteem

DSM-5 Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder

Antisocial personality disorder is "a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years," according to the DSM-5.

In addition, an individual must show at least three of the following:

  • the repeated failure to follow social norms resulting in grounds for arrest
  • engaging in deceitfulness (lying, using aliases, not paying off debts)
  • impulsivity and not planning ahead; moving around constantly
  • irritability and aggressiveness (resulting in physical fights/assaults)
  • reckless disregard or concern for the safety of other people
  • chronic irresponsibility reflected by a continued failure to maintain a job, finish school, or stay on top of financial commitments
  • lack of remorse about hurting others (indifferent or rationalizes)

The individual must be at least 18 years old and have had evidence of a conduct disorder by age 15.

The Narcissistic Sociopath

Now that we have a picture of narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, we can start to construct an understanding of what it means to be a narcissistic sociopath. In order for someone to fall into this category, they would need to be diagnosed with both features of NPD and APD.

A picture starts to emerge of a person who lacks empathy as they go about their daily lives. Narcissism intensifies with qualities of APD (or sociopathy) to worsen outcomes. A sociopathic narcissist will be cold and callous but will also be seeking the admiration of others (and will believe that he deserves it). He will have a disdain for people and think it's okay to exploit and dispose of others in whatever way it helps him to get ahead.

While a sociopath doesn't think about other people unless they can benefit her in some way, a narcissist only thinks of others in terms of how they reflect back on her.

When you put these two qualities together, a picture emerges of a person on a quest for power and control, who uses the love and admiration of others as a tool to dominate and manipulate, and who goes about all of this thinking that it is his right and that he is justified. There will be no guilt, no apologies, and no remorse coming from the narcissistic sociopath.

Even if these behaviors land this person in trouble, or worse, in prison—he won't stop. After all, it's all just a game and the people are pawns. When he gets tired of those people or they aren't serving a useful role in his life (his game) anymore, then he will cast them aside.

A narcissist without APD might have some ability to feel guilt or remorse and may be able to be helped with appropriate psychotherapy. A narcissistic sociopath, however, is unlikely to feel those emotions or be helped in a genuine way through psychotherapy. Therapy is a game to be manipulated and the therapist is a pawn.

The Prototypical Narcissistic Sociopath

What would a prototypical narcissistic sociopath look like? While there are variations in the severity of symptoms, we can start to assemble a picture that will help you to identify these people in real life.

Most likely, you've encountered these types of people in news reports. You may see them associated with serial killings or financial scandals. The prison population is composed of a large percentage of these individuals (70 percent in prison versus .2 to 3.3 percent in the general population for APD). At the less severe end of the spectrum, you might find these individuals climbing the corporate ladder (but stepping on people to get there) or holding positions of power in local and national government, as frightening as that might be.

The scariest part is that people with this disorder will be hard to spot. They may be polished, well-dressed, successful, and charming. They may take part in charitable causes or charitable activities, not because they care, but because it makes them look good. To the outside observer, it might be hard to tell the difference.

In particular, people with money and privilege with these disorders may be particularly hard to spot. A narcissistic sociopathic business owner might default on debts or misrepresent what the company is selling.

Some will be physically aggressive while others may be harmful on an emotional level. Regardless of the harm that they do, these people believe they are exempt from the moral code that everyone else follows, which is what makes them so dangerous and so difficult to spot.

Causes

While we don't know the exact causes of NPD or APD, it is believed that environment, genetics, and neurobiology play a role. These disorders are more common in males than females and begin in the teenage/early adult years. This makes it likely that some aspect of their upbringing or early environment, or even later stressors, combined with a genetic predisposition or biology, leads to a disorder.

Traits Shared by Narcissists and Sociopaths

What are the traits shared by narcissists and sociopaths? They may both be charismatic and charming, unreliable, controlling, selfish, and dishonest. They both have a sense of entitlement and deny responsibility for their actions. They usually lack insight into their personality disorder, lack empathy, and lack emotional responsiveness.

Narcissists vs. Sociopaths

What are the differences between narcissists and sociopaths? While in this article we are considering the case of a person diagnosed with a combination of these, it can also be useful to consider where they diverge rather than simply where they overlap.

In general, we consider that the driving force behind the two disorders differs. In the case of the narcissist, the person's ego is always at stake, and this drives many of their behaviors. On the other hand, sociopaths are always driven by their self-interest, may be cunning, and take on whatever persona gets them ahead in the moment. Sociopaths are more like classic "con artists," while narcissists are more like hurt children lashing out and faking superiority to hide inner pain.

Classic sociopaths are not trying to impress you to build up their own ego; rather, they will only try to impress you if it serves a purpose in their greater plan. They are less likely to brag than narcissists. Instead, the sociopath is more likely to bestow compliments on you and center the conversation around you to get you to like them (and get you to do what they want).

Sociopaths are more calculating while narcissists are more reactive. Sociopaths might even apologize or put themselves down if it serves some greater purpose in the game they are playing.

Narcissists work to achieve success while exploiting others, while sociopaths will steal and exploit others, taking any risks necessary to fit their agenda.

Treatment for Narcissistic Sociopaths

Is there treatment for narcissistic sociopaths? Unfortunately, the effectiveness of treatment depends on the level of insight a person has. While talk therapy can be used for narcissistic personality disorder, a person who also is a sociopath isn't likely to benefit from therapy, as their goal will be to manipulate the therapist. However, if the person falls closer to NPD than APD, talk therapy may be of help.

Narcissists generally don't seek treatment on their own unless they are experiencing extreme stress or depression, substance abuse problems, or their partner insists. People with APD (sociopaths) may be put in court-ordered therapy but aren't likely to seek treatment on their own as they don't believe they have a problem.

Therapy for NPD often focuses on techniques to facilitate a more resilient sense of self-esteem. However, it can be hard for them to follow through on treatment because it is common for them to perceive the whole process as insulting to their self-esteem.

At the same time, people with NPD are dependent on others and are less likely to leave relationships than those with APD. They often have families and children and may be amenable to change if the right balance can be struck with the therapist.

Coping

How do you know you've met a narcissistic sociopath or if there is one in your life? The following list of characteristics might be helpful. Does the person:

  • constantly make you feel like you are the problem, not them?
  • punish you with criticism or silence?
  • seem to get you to take responsibility for their errors or insults?
  • make you feel special and shower you with attention but then withdraw it for no reason?
  • obsess about their physical appearance and need compliments?

Unfortunately, narcissistic sociopaths are good at finding the right people to manipulate. They know that you are trusting. They know you will make excuses for their bad behavior because you don't want to see it for what it really is.

However, if your gut is sending you signals and you're brushing off feelings of anger, distrust, and fear, there is probably a good reason. This is known as "cognitive dissonance." You want to believe that this person you know is as good as they appear, even though you know it all seems too good to be true.

The first step to dealing with this person is to stop reinterpreting the facts. Don't give someone with a narcissistic sociopathic personality the "benefit of the doubt."

You're a good, trusting person who wants to see the good in others—that's understandable. This may make it hard for you to see clearly. You might also be in a disadvantaged social or financial position that impairs your ability to fight back.

Most importantly, however, if the relationship is abusive, you must find a way to leave. If there is no abuse, you can set boundaries, build your assertiveness, and set limits, but you can't change the other person. It's not an easy decision whether to stay or go. Gain awareness and help from others and confront the situation with as much logic and rational thought as you can muster. Fighting or arguing with the narcissistic sociopath won't help and will only make things worse.

A Word From Verywell

If you know someone who fits the criteria for a narcissistic sociopath, it is important to recognize that it's unlikely that person will change or seek help. Your best option is to arm yourself with knowledge, set strong boundaries, and distance yourself from the person as much as possible. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship with someone displaying these qualities, it is important to find a safe way to leave.

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