Is a narcissist the same thing as a sociopath? A lot of people mistakenly think so, which is understandable considering that they share many of the same characteristics and that they’re both on the cluster B spectrum. (See video here)
What qualities do narcissists and sociopaths share?
Both narcissists and sociopaths can be very charming and charismatic. Each is known for being self-serving and manipulative, and they each tend to have no empathy. Both have personality disorders and value themselves above all others. Both are known to harm others and to negatively affect their own lives with their behaviors. Neither can step outside of their own heads enough to recognize or concern themselves with the needs of others, but each is fully focused on their own needs. It is also true that all sociopaths are narcissists. But not all narcissists are sociopaths.
How are narcissists and sociopaths different?
In most cases, sociopaths, who might be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, are a lot more dangerous than those who are purely narcissistic. That is unless you’re talking about a malignant narcissist, who might present very much like a sociopath, but their motivations are different.
Let’s talk about five ways this manifests differently between the two personality disorders.
1. A Narcissist is Motivated by Ego and a Sociopath is Motivated by Self-Interest
The narcissist’s destructive and manipulative behaviors are all about feeling important and superior and being the center of attention, and this is driven by their overinflated ego that needs constant stroking – aka, narcissistic supply. But a sociopath’s self-interest doesn’t require stroking in the same way – so the sociopath will be whomever they need to be in order to get their needs met.
So, what’s the difference?
Since sociopaths really don’t need to have their ego stroked, they can be more sneaky and strategic with their manipulation. They don’t need you to be impressed with them and will only seek out your approval if you have something they want. They have no actual personality.
A narcissist, on the other hand, needs your approval and your attention. And since they are ego-driven, they will be less calculated in their reactions and behavior. So the narcissist is more likely to demonstrate narcissistic rage and to react emotionally than a sociopath.
2. A Narcissist Wants to Be Adored and a Sociopath Could Care Less.
Narcissists need to be adored. They are very concerned with their own image and how other people perceive them. They are known to want power, success, and plenty of admiration and adoration from the people around them and while they’re often willing to work hard to get it, they’ll also exploit and torture people along the way without a second thought. Their motivation and focus are all about themselves and their own agenda (getting the praise and attention they need). Again, they’re driven by their ego, so that makes sense.
But a sociopath doesn’t care what anyone thinks of them, which makes them more dangerous. They will spend months or years planning and scheming against you if it serves them to do so. They are much more calculating and far less emotional overall.
3. A Narcissist Talks About Themselves And A Sociopath Talks About You
As you know, narcissists only want to talk about themselves and their interests. At least after the initial love-bombing or idealization phase of the relationship, where they’ll ask you all about yourself in order to store up ammunition to use against you later. But as the relationship goes on, they make it painfully clear that they have no interest in what you care about and will always turn the topic back to themselves. In fact, many survivors of relationships with narcissists literally almost forget how to talk about themselves because they grow so accustomed to being shut down this way.
But sociopaths are very interested in knowing about your interests and everything else about you. They will ask you about what you like and what strikes your fancy. They often masquerade as empaths – as in, they appear to really care about you. They know exactly what to say and how to hold themselves so it’s almost impossible to tell that they don’t genuinely care about you. But remember that they have no empathy. They have their own reasons for caring. If they want something from you later on, they will use anything to do with your interests as a manipulation tactic to get what they want. Sociopaths are often so smooth that you miss the fact that they’re manipulating you – at least at first.
For example, a sociopath asks you what your favorite band happens to be. If you say Fleetwood Mac, they will surprise you with a Fleetwood Mac CD. It is not from the goodness of their heart. They want something from you and are using this as a jumping-off point to get it from you.
4. Neither Care About The Rules, But For Different Reasons
You already know that a narcissist is not concerned about the rules due to the fact they are so self-absorbed that they are not even aware of the rules. Or, in many cases, they literally feel that they’re above the rules or deserve special exceptions to every rule.
But a sociopath does not care about the rules for the sake of manipulating situations for their purpose. If they can get away with breaking the rules (or even the laws), they’ll do so without remorse if it serves them.
5. Narcissists Are Mean But Sociopaths Have Plans To Take You Down
This is where you see how dangerous a sociopath is as opposed to a narcissist who is mostly dangerous for your mental health. Narcissists are bullies and braggarts. They can also mess with your head, especially if they see you as a threat to their ego or fear abandonment. And, of course, that’s when they’ll throw your most painful experiences and insecurities back in your face in order to hurt you if and when they feel the need to drag you down.
So, for example, if you tell a narcissist that you are insecure about your weight, they might later try to make you feel bad about yourself by suddenly beginning to point out people who are thinner than you and telling you how attractive those people are. And then, once you’re good and insecure, you might tell them it bothers you that they’re doing this. Instantly, the narcissist will freak out and attack you, swearing that you’re excessively jealous and controlling. They’ll say something like, “What, do you want me to close my eyes and not look at people? There are other people in the world. I’m not blind!”
In this case, the narcissist is out to take your self-esteem down a couple of notches so that you’ll feel like you can’t do any better than them. The idea is that you’re more likely to stick around and be their source of narcissistic supply if you don’t feel good enough about yourself.
So once again, the narcissist is driven by ego and the need for ongoing, reliable narcissistic supply.
Sociopaths, on the other hand, will do what they can to take you down (or out completely) if they see you are trying to get in the way of what they want, even if that means you just won’t give them your time and attention. And, regardless of who you are and what your relationship happens to be, you aren’t exempt from a sociopath’s manipulation and abuse.
In fact, even if you aren’t purposely causing them trouble, but they perceive you as a threat to them or their end goals in any way, they will strategically destroy you in any way they can, and without remorse. Sociopaths want to win and will do it at the expense of anyone.
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Angela Atkinson is a Certified Life Coach and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic relationships since 2006, Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed coaching and has certifications in life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. In her life coaching practice, Atkinson’s clients enjoy her personalized approach that allows and encourages them to become the best possible versions of themselves and to succeed in doing what they love most. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online and NarcissismSupportCoach.com.