Narcissism and sociopathy are separate psychological and behavioral characteristics, but sometimes they occur together.
If you have someone in your life who has traits of narcissism and sociopathy, they may be difficult to deal with.
They might appear to consider themselves more important than you, and they may not seem to understand or care about your feelings.
Their behavior may not be a choice they’re making. Instead, they may have a type of personality disorder that affects how they interact with other people.
There is no formal diagnosis of “narcissistic sociopath” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). This is the reference that clinicians use when they identify mental health conditions.
Instead, the words “narcissistic” and “sociopath” are associated with two personality disorders:
- “narcissistic” = narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
- “sociopath” = antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)
Personality disorders are conditions that feature unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors. They’re named as such because they are the extremes of traits that most people have to some degree. These traits may be diagnosed as a disorder if they affect relationships or other people in a harmful way or to a greater degree than one would expect.
There are 10 personality disorders in total, grouped into 3 clusters. NPD and ASPD are in cluster B, or the “erratic and dramatic group.”
A person with sociopathic and narcissistic traits may not have any mental health diagnosis, or they may have NPD or ASPD, or both.
Narcissism is excessive self-interest and self-admiration. A person can have narcissistic traits without having NPD.
It’s when narcissism impacts many areas of life that it becomes diagnosable. The DSM-5 states that for an NPD diagnosis a person must exhibit at least five of nine symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder:
- exaggerated self-importance
- obsession with success and power
- belief in their own special status
- need for excessive admiration
- sense of entitlement
- exploitation of others to achieve success
- lack of empathy
- preoccupation with envy
Not all people with NPD act the same way. There are several types of narcissism, the primary two being:
- overt (obvious)
- covert (hidden)
Overt NPD is what you might expect to find connected with narcissism. People with this subtype tend to be attention-seeking, charming, and arrogant. Meanwhile, people with covert NPD tend to be fragile, hypersensitive, and chronically envious of others.
A mental health professional makes personality disorder diagnoses. It’s more than just checking items off a list. It’s a thorough process that examines a person’s functioning over a long period of time and not just their present-day state.
Sociopathy refers to the characteristics of people with ASPD. In addition to one trait being over 18 years of age, an ASPD diagnosis requires at least three of the following:
- breaking the law
- being deceitful for fun or personal gain
- behaving impulsively
- acting aggressively
- disregarding safety
- ignoring responsibility
- having little or no remorse for hurting another person
There should also be a history of conduct disorder before 15 years of age, and antisocial behavior isn’t the result of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
“Sociopath” is a term some people use to describe those with ASPD. Many people confuse sociopathy with psychopathy, but they’re not quite the same.
‘Sociopath’ vs. ‘psychopath’
The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” have different meanings, although people often use them interchangeably. While the word “sociopath” describes a person with ASPD, “psychopath” describes a person with particular characteristics rather than a specific diagnosis.
Both terms have traits in common as well as differences. For example, they can lead to law-breaking behavior, but in different ways. Sociopathy problematic behaviors are impulsive, whereas psychopathy misconduct is more calculated.
Some people with ASPD have characteristics of psychopathy, but not all. Researchers estimate that only
NPD and ASPD are distinctly different conditions, but there are some similarities in shared characteristics.
For example, both feature a lack of empathy. Also, a disregard for the feelings or needs of other people is a trait that’s both “narcissistic” and “sociopathic.”
A narcissistic ex may move on quickly and act cruelly to you right after a breakup, for instance.
People with either condition tend to be suspicious and find it hard to forgive. They may be shallow, inclined to exploit other people for their gain.
However, if the person has a criminal record, is physically aggressive, and has a history of getting in trouble in their youth, they’re more likely to have ASPD since these aren’t symptoms of NPD. Other “sociopathic” traits not usually shared by NPD include impulsive behavior and deceit.
People with NPD seek admiration much more than those with ASPD. Preoccupation with envy is another way to tell the two apart. This is a narcissistic trait but not one that is sociopathic.
Dealing with narcissistic and sociopathic traits can be difficult, and sometimes people with NPD and ASPD are unlikely to engage in treatment.
More often, those affected by someone with NPD or ASPD are the ones seeking treatment for themselves. For example, they may experience anxiety or depression that results from being treated poorly.
Also, they may seek treatment to learn more about why they may be more likely to engage in relationships with people with narcissistic or sociopathic traits.
If you’re dealing with someone with narcissistic and sociopathic traits, these tips may help.
Empathy and insight
Understanding a little bit about the causes of NPD and ASPD can make it easier for you to cope if there’s someone in your life living with these issues.
It’s essential to remember that NPD and ASPD behaviors are not choices an individual makes. They’re not purposefully trying to hurt you.
Researchers believe that both genetics and environment contribute to personality disorders. For example, research from 2021 suggests that genetic factors may play a role in developing ASPD. Also, research from 2019 and
NPD and ASPD can stem from early childhood adverse events such as trauma caused by dysfunctional family relationships. Therefore, the narcissistic or sociopathic behaviors you see are not because of you. They were present long before you met.
To learn more
If you’d like to learn more about the possible causes of NPD and ASPD, consider reading our in-depth articles:
Prioritizing self-care is vital. A person with narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies probably isn’t capable of nurturing your emotional health.
But you can take care of this by making yourself a priority. Some ways in which you can support yourself could include:
- stress reduction activities
- healthy lifestyle practices
- connecting with friends and family
It’s necessary to stand up for yourself and your needs, but in a way that won’t cause more conflict. A calm response and rational detachment can help you prevent a situation from escalating while you’re setting boundaries for yourself.
It may be wise to pick your battles in particular scenarios. Sometimes walking away from conflict is the best form of self-advocacy. If a situation is dysfunctional, you don’t have to participate.
You may feel alone in your situation, but you’re not. Even if none of your friends share your experience, there are people you haven’t met yet who do.
Support groups, in-person and online, can connect you with other people in your situation.
A therapist may also help you handle any stress or anxiety you may be feeling. Taking care of your mental health is as important as managing your physical well-being.
People with narcissistic and sociopathic behaviors can be challenging to deal with. This is especially true if the person in your life is a spouse, family member, or someone in your household.
It helps to remember that the things they say and do are because their brains are wired differently than most people. It’s not because you’ve done or said anything wrong. Their behaviors are not your fault.
Though the person in your life may never support your emotional or mental health, you can practice self-care and self-advocacy to have the better life you deserve.