Narcissist or Psychopath? What You Need To Know

Gustave Dore Dante and Virgil in Helll
Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell by Gustave Dore

Narcissist or psychopath?

It’s hard to tell the difference. Both are self-absorbed, arrogant, manipulative and insensitive. They share similar characteristics and behaviors, and both are incredibly destructive to those unfortunate enough to become involved with them. But underneath these similarities, they are distinctly dissimilar. Their thought processes, motivations, and intentions are as different as night and day.

Narcissists and psychopaths are egocentric and focus on their own needs and desires. Both demand and feel entitled to gratification, and see others as existing to fulfill their needs. Both devalue and abuse others. But that’s where the similarity ends and each takes a different path into the neural twilight zone.

Narcissists

Although it’s commonly believed that narcissists are in love with themselves, the truth is they have deep feelings of inadequacy. Acknowledging that would be too painful, so they cultivate the delusion that they’re perfect and wonderful and try to get others to reflect this back to them. Narcissists can only see themselves as they are reflected by others, so projecting a ‘perfect’ image becomes everything. They create a grandiose pseudo-persona — a parody of themselves —  and cling to it for dear life. The reactions of others determine the value of this persona, and therefore their level of self-worth.

They seek attention, validation, adoration, and envy because they desperately NEED them in order to feel loved, adequate, and important. If the narcissist doesn’t get these things, his ego is punctured and his self-esteem deflates like a leaky hot-air balloon.

Narcissists are very concerned with what others think of them because they need admiration like others need oxygen. It is their ‘supply,’ the substance that feeds them.

Because of this, they are very vulnerable to being rejected, humiliated, upstaged, ignored, and going unrecognized for how special they are. When any of these things happen, they are deeply wounded and rage results. This rage — resulting from the ‘narcissistic injury’ — is expressed as passive-aggression or outright aggression.

Psychopaths

In contrast, psychopaths think very highly of themselves. In fact, they believe they are far superior to everyone else. They’re supremely confident and have a grandiose sense of self-worth. They do not need attention or acceptance, except as a means to an end. When a psychopath is ignored or rejected, they don’t care — their self-esteem has nothing to do with what others think of them. What they will experience is frustration, because psychopaths need to gain the attention and admiration of others in order to lure them as potential victims so they can satisfy their needs.

Psychopaths have no identity and they create pseudo-personas (masks) as needed, each tailor-made for an intended target of manipulation. Unlike the narcissist, the psychopath has no attachment to these personas. They’re merely disguises that enable them to get what they want.

Psychopaths are predators on a perpetual hunt for superficial self-gratification. They have no emotional dependence on being noticed or admired like the narcissist does. Capturing the attention of another is simply the first step to gaining power and control.

“Both the psychopath and the narcissist disregard society, its conventions, social cues and social treaties.

But the psychopath carries this disdain to the extreme and is likely to be scheming, calculated, ruthless, and callous… Psychopaths are deliberately and gleefully evil while narcissists are absent-mindedly and incidentally evil.”

(Sam Vaknin, psychopath)
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1024px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_Project
Echo And Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

To compare and contrast the narcissist and psychopath, let’s use the example of compulsive sexual infidelity (which is very common for both).

Both narcissists and psychopaths lie easily and are persuasive. When their partner approaches them with suspicions, both will act outraged that they could ever have such doubts about them. The partner will feel guilty and shamed.

So far, the narcissist and psychopath seem very similar. But when you look beneath the surface of their behavior, there are profound differences.

396px-Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)
Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissists cheat because they are deeply insecure and need validation to reassure them that they’re still sexually attractive. If they aren’t repeatedly reassured in this manner their self-esteem crumbles, they feel worthless, and they fall into despair.

Narcissists have a conscience, so they must rationalize their bad behavior in order to be able to continue to seek the validation they need. They do this by blaming their partners for not appreciating them enough, or not meeting their needs, therefore making the infidelity their partner’s fault. After cheating, the narcissist feels reassured that he’s still attractive, and his ego has been re-inflated. When it begins to deflate once again, he’ll repeat the process in order to pump himself back up.

Psychopaths, in contrast, cheat because they are driven by the need for intense stimulation. Without it they become bored, and a “new” lover is intensely stimulating. And since they consider life as a game that has no rules (at least none that apply to them, due to their lack of a morals or a conscience) they don’t hesitate to cheat.

To sum it up:

Narcissists seek attention from others for its own sake, and they’re emotionally wounded if they’re rejected.

Psychopaths seek attention from others in order to get something from them. They do not feel any emotional pain if they’re rejected (although they will feel frustration at not getting what they wanted).

Psychopath or narcissist?

In the end, how much does it matter?  Even though the motivation for their behavior is quite different, narcissists and psychopaths are similar in these important ways:

They see others as objects that exist to gratify their needs and desires, and their quest for gratification causes serious harm.

One important difference: narcissists are far more likely to “hoover” (continue contacting you), stalk and even murder their ex-partners (because of the narcissistic injury involved, which psychopaths don’t experience). Psychopaths are more likely to be “done” with it. *It depends on the individual, though, and their specific traits.

Never Get Involved with a Psychopath, Narcissist, Sociopath—Or Any Abuser—Ever Again

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LOTUS DIVIDER

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23 thoughts on “Narcissist or Psychopath? What You Need To Know”

  1. Sandra

    This is a really helpful explanation of the differences. I have read it summed up this way: Not all narcissists are psychopaths, but all psychopaths are narcissists. It is also true that each one of us can possess narcissistic traits. It does not mean we are disordered. In the same way, many of us will have experienced “schadenfreude” but this does not make us psychopaths.Those who are disordered, rather than just displaying traits from time to time, don’t recognise their wrongdoing and are able to justify it often in quite plausible and sophisticated ways which often incorporate projection. (I have personally found it important to make this distinction in the aftermath of the last discard where I was accused by my ex of being disordered especially with how I parent my children). Thanks for another excellent article.

    1. Admin

      “Thanks for another excellent article.”

      You’re welcome :)

      Indeed, displaying a trait from time to time isn’t the same as a personality disorder like narcissism or psychopathy, thank goodness. “Personality disorders form a class of mental disorders that are characterized by long-lasting rigid patterns of thought and behavior.”

      It’s funny how the biggest mystery is right between our own ears a lot of the time.

    2. Cat

      I didn’t find this helpful in determining which my tormentor friend is but I am sure he is!!

      1. Adelyn Birch

        It explains the internal differences between the two, which is helpful in understanding them but not in identifying them. I’ll have to write a post on how to tell them apart. Thanks, Cat.

    3. trish

      I was married to a psychopath for 4 years and then when i finally got over the psychopath i ended up living with a narcissist which for awhile i thought was a psychopath. Like it says all psychopaths are narcissists but not all narcissists are psychopaths. I ended up leaving the narcissists who claims he loves me and can’t live without me but the fact that he can’t be on the same page as me when he is wrong got on my nerves and i flashed back to my husband who blamed me for everything and so did this narcissist. I left him cause i realized it was just to much drama and a narcissist demands a lot of attention and pretends he’s all that when in reality he is all about image and material stuff and most of all its all about him. I told him i believe he loves me for as much as he is capable but its not enough for me cause of the “so much into himself” he cannot feel my pain ever but yet i am suppose to feel his. After awhile i stopped giving him the attention and was acting as a narcissist and he started telling me i was one . I was just not giving a crap as much as i did in the beginning because he was not capable of feeling for anyone but himself and i been through enough with my husband that i numbed myself and told myself that as much fun as we were having its still a waste of time if u can’t get the person to love and i mean really love the way its surpose to be. and the verbal abuse is something i will not be bothered with cause it turns me into a person i don’t like. I have to argue with everything cause i refuse to let this guy always be right and as much as he forth me every single time all day and nite i was getting exhausted and left him. He is having a hard time without me and thats to bad cause i have enough knowledge now that i won’t let anyone abuse me again and i can that u guys and psychopath awareness for the knowledge i received and with this knowledge i helped a lot of friends i know who went through the devasting D&D. That i thought was going to kill me. To one day i thought my life was wonderful to him vanishing without a trace and never see him again. After a wonderful nite and making love and him telling me he loves me and that he was leaving for a surprise for me and the surprise was he leaving me forever. I saw that he left most of his stuff behind even his wallet and ID i thought he died but later found out he was a fake the whole time and even the name i married him under was a fake. It takes such a long time to get over a psychopath cause its a hell of a rollacoaster ride. At first they are a 12 in bed and then when they finally get u and start pulling away is when we begin to suffer well i am not going through that crap again. I was like not living just existing because of that jerk that i was in love with and i even tell my parents i did love him and they don’t understand how i could say i did well i loved the person i thought he was and it lasted 4 years i never would of left him so the D&D worked out real good cause i never saw or heard from him again. I still flash once in awhile it has only been almost 3 years and i am not the same person i was before i am a lot stronger and i am not getting conned into anything and all the flattery when a man gives me to much and starts the crap he’s my soul mate is when i get away fast. Thats all it is is bullshit and i have no time for that and its painful and exhausting and all an illusion . I hope all of u understand that psychopaths are not capable of love and they don’t love u and this power and control is stupid cause they can’t control there own lives thats why they want to control you. Its all a waste of time. When u start feeling crappy about yourself the person he thought was his soul mate and treated so perfect begins to treat u like crap so gross and such a waste . None of us are different then the rest of the women they came across and did the same thing to. there brains are not formed like ours and they are empty and i think of them as a person with out a soul without empathy, guilt remorse and no conscience is no where we have any business being with a person without a soul. they are evil 100% They are born this way and never not ever will they change. When u feel something about this person like i felt is not quite right go with the feeling. the reason i went with it cause i thought he makes me feel on top of the world even though something wasn’t quite right i thought one day i will know what it is and i do he is 100% psychopath and he can go to hell for all i care and so can the narcissist who only feels his pain and nothing for anyone else. another one that can’t love u the way you are suppose to be loved. games people play time waisters
      trish

      1. Adelyn Birch

        Trish, it’s excellent that you were able to spot the narcissist and able to walk away! Empathy is the key, yes. Whatever the reason for a person’s lack of empathy—and the resulting narcissism—we will suffer emotional deprivation and abuse. You sound strong and wise, Trish, and I wish you all the best. May the next man who comes into your life be a “real man”—one who has empathy! That is the barometer that separates men from time-wasting creeps xo

  2. Sandra

    PS. I love the illustrations you use. Coincidentally, “Dante’s Inferno” was one of the texts I taught this year in one of my senior Literature classes. It is a perfect description of what a relationship with a psychopath can feel like. Was interesting teaching that whilst having/trying to have a relationship with my ex. More trivia: Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play called “L’enfer” in which he said “Hell is other people”. Well, not ALL other people! Just a few ..

    1. Admin

      I must confess, I have not read Dante’s Inferno! But your description has sparked my interest…

      I love Sartre and have quoted him here from time to time.

      1. Admin

        Oh, about the illustrations. I got these from Wikimedia, but I get most of the others on this site from Pixabay. Huge collection of great images, and all are in the public domain.

  3. DKG

    Thank you SO much for this. I’m a 50 y/o only child of a NM. Her narcissism didn’t fully develop until after suffering an ICH stroke in July. Her mother was a NM in the true description of the word and throughout my life, I’ve seen small similarities. 3 1/2 months before her stroke [two weeks after we buried my step-dad of 40 years] she started seeing a psychopath boyfriend who took over complete control. He was at her side 8-12 hours every day and HE determined I didn’t take care of my mother like HE expected me to. This was the same man who, while his own child was being treated for cancer, couldn’t be bothered to leave an out-of-state girlfriend’s side to be there. I was POA for my mom and did a darn good job. But I was ignored when I was there, she wouldn’t call, wouldn’t answer my calls, hid her meds [after I had the gall to tell her how important they were when I discovered she’d skipped a dose], hid her bills and demanded I “respect and speak to him”. She had another stroke 3 weeks ago — changed her POA to him and other friend and I wasn’t even put on the designated family list. I truly believed since July I was losing my mind as I was always the scapegoat. Now after researching, I’ve discovered what both are [she lives in constant fear he’ll dump her because of his past dealings with women], it’s been a constant “ah-HA!” moment. Keep it coming, please. Keep letting us know it’s NOT us, it’s them. As a newbie to this whole thing, you have NO idea how much it helps. Thank you.

    1. Admin

      You’re welcome, glad it’s helpful to you! My stomach tied in a knot just reading about your situation. I’m sorry to hear it. I’ve heard from others who have also had their family taken over by some creep who dupes a widowed parent. It’s horribly frustrating to be able to do nothing but sit back and watch. Best wishes to you, DKG.

  4. Gayle

    Your words “after cheating, the psychopath feels amused because he manipulated another into having sex with him” caused me to recognize my own experience: I was groomed, lured, brought in, and discarded by a psychopathic therapist. He convinced me to come ‘one more time’ after I quit him. It was then that he ‘gifted me’ with having sex in his work space. Afterward, he kissed my hands in an insincere gallantry, and said, “Goodbye, my love. This must be the last time. We each have lives outside this relationship and kissed my hands.” Then, he cooly announced that I had to leave, because another client was coming. Before ushering me out the door he disappeared into the kitchen and then reappeared. His eyes were grinning, but it was not love or warmth there.. it was triumph. He also gave me a chilling message. He had trained his thick eyebrows up into peaks, twirled them into horns. ..and the look in his eyes was almost demonic.

    1. Admin

      “His eyes were grinning, but it was not love or warmth there.. it was triumph.” I saw this a couple of times, too. There’s no mistaking it — it’s called “Duping Delight.” It’s the psychopath’s thrill at having put one over on someone.

      About his eyebrows…that is very strange indeed!

  5. Nearlybel

    Oh, that comment by Gayle reminded me of psycho and his bushy mono brow and how sometimes he shaved it and sometimes I would notice it would have 2 tufts, of course that’s not what they were at all, it was horns!!
    And thank you for the differences between the 2, most interesting. And as you say, the affects on us the victim is the same, but maybe a different antidote can be used if we know which class of evil they belong to, knowing of course that no contact is the only thing that works. But certain times and circumstances not always possible.

    1. Admin

      Very true, Nearlybel, different ‘antidotes’ may apply to each.
      My heart goes out to those who have to maintain a connection after it’s over.

      Maybe I should add the eyebrow thing to the list, as sign #20…

      1. susanne

        The eyebrows is dominant and the change in appearence significant. During initual stages I made a point to cut them short. I hoped he will be friendlier without the two daunting bushes covering his eyes.

  6. Asheley

    I needed to reread this, so glad I did! Am I wrong to feel like narcissists are slightly less evil because they have a conscience? My ex sounds like he could be either at times but I’m leaning toward him being a narcissist. He just seemed a little fragile and was constantly worried about me lying or cheating, yet did both to me frequently. It would have been a problem for me to do that, but not for him. He put love bites all over me which seemed so odd to me. He was marking his territory I suppose. He did care about his appearance very much and wanted to be admired by all. Whichever it is I know both are unhealthy and evil is their own ways. Insomnia has driven me to your blog this week, glad it’s here.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Ns may be “a little less evil,” but they’re still poison to those who get close, as you know. I’m glad this is here for you to read during insomnia, but I hope you’ll be sleeping better soon!

  7. Cowell

    Recently I suffered my two year run-in with a 10 scale narcissist (I had never used or known the term in my life until I had to figure out what the hell had just happened in our relationship, the split and the aftermath) and have since began dating a very kind woman trying to unravel from a 10 scale psychopath that is unfortunately her young daughter’s father. From all the discussions and readings I’ve explored nothing has more clearly identified the two conditions and explained their differences than your article. It’s important stuff for me moving forward and I thank you sincerely.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      You’re welcome, Cowell. I’m so glad I could help. Best wishes to you.

  8. Lynn

    Your article is great and remarkably informative for me. I do believe my youngest brother is a narcissist, but I’m not sure about the psychopathology. What is the difference between a person with psychopathic tendencies and sociopathic tendencies?

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Hi, Lynn. Sorry to hear your brother is narcissistic! It’s difficult to grow up with a sibling like that. There are important and clear differences between psychopaths and sociopaths, and the best explanation I’ve found is in this article: Sociopathy vs Psychopathy, by K. McAleer, Psy.D. I hope that helps, and I wish you the best of luck.

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