Many of us have come across at least one self-absorbed, manipulative assh*le. Maybe you've dated one or know someone who's currently with one — either way, you've probably referred to him or her as a sociopath or a narcissist, two terms that are commonly misused as synonyms. While both personality disorders do share a few traits, it's actually inaccurate to use them interchangeably. To help us differentiate one from the other, we spoke with psychotherapist Avery Neal, who specializes in women's therapy.
According to Neal, the biggest difference between the two is that when a sociopath feels wronged or angry, they will go out of their way to harm you — even if it means hurting themselves in the process. "Whereas, a narcissist, things are really more all about them," Neal told POPSUGAR. "They really are just sort of more focused on themselves and how things are going to serve them." A narcissist will typically only go to that extreme if something is in their best interest.
Though difficult, it is possible to have a relationship with a narcissist with less severe symptoms because they can be capable of feeling guilt and even love. A sociopath, however, lacks remorse in any case and feels justified in their actions. Interestingly, "while sociopaths qualify as narcissists, not all narcissists are sociopaths," according to Psychology Today.
Characteristics of a Narcissist
- Has an inflated ego or sense of self-importance.
- Lacks empathy for others.
- Is in constant need of admiration.
- Believes he or she is superior to others, and therefore expects special treatment.
- Exploits others for personal gain.
- Is easily jealous of others or thinks others are jealous of him or her.
Characteristics of a Sociopath
- Demonstrates unlawful behaviour.
- Is impulsive.
- Repeatedly lies and cons.
- Has a history of fights or assaults.
- Disregards personal safety or safety of others.
- Feel justified when hurting or mistreating others.
- Fails to maintain good behaviour at work or school.
- Is incapable of long-term monogamy.
Narcissists and sociopaths share traits such as being controlling, selfish, unreliable, dishonest, and entitled. But they can also be difficult to spot early on in a relationship because they're often charismatic, charming, and intelligent. One of the main reasons people don't recognize their abusive situation until much later is for this very reason. According to Neal, abusive partners are typically on their best behaviour in the beginning and gradually exhibit signs of abuse as their partner becomes more attached. Sociopaths in particular may be easier to fall for because they're more likely to focus their attention on you rather than themselves, unlike narcissists. But keep in mind that it's only a means to reaching their end goal. A sociopath is calculating and manipulative, whereas a narcissist often uses intimidation and exploitation to get their way.
While those with sociopathic or narcissistic traits are more likely to be abusive partners, according to Neal, "Not all abusers match the criteria for or qualify for the criteria for a full-blown personality disorder." Neal also shared how it's nearly impossible to make a relationship with either person work because they're not designed to take responsibility for their actions, and if they do appear apologetic, it's rarely genuine.