These days, it’s not unusual to hear people loosely throw around terms like “sociopath” or “narcissist.” They typically are used to describe someone who displays extreme, self-serving, and egocentric behaviors. However, even though the names are sometimes used interchangeably, they’re actually distinct personality disorders with clear, identifiable differences.
When you compare sociopathy vs narcissism, you’ll find that they share traits, which might be part of why so many people confuse the conditions.
Learning more about the similarities and differences between sociopathy and narcissism can help you differentiate the conditions. We’re discussing both in depth and treatment options for each.
“The main difference between sociopathy and narcissism is the degree to which someone disregards others. People with sociopathy have no regard for the rights of others or the law, whereas someone with narcissism doesn’t have empathy for others, but isn’t always dangerous. Another key difference is motivation. People with narcissism can be motivated by ego and a need to put themselves above all others. They’ll usually stop before going too far (meaning they’re aware of the consequences when they may suffer a personal cost). Someone with sociopathy, on the other hand, might have no clear motivation and no regard for the consequences of their actions. Both types of personality disorders can be addressed in therapy.”Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW
“What Is a Sociopath?”
Sociopath isn’t actually an official mental health diagnosis. Instead, it’s a label that’s frequently applied to people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) who display specific traits. Those with ASPD typically struggle with social norms and disregard the feelings and rights of others. They also can hold little to no regard for the law and may not hesitate to engage in criminal behavior. They also usually have deep insecurities about their true self, which is why they have a false self they project in front of others.
Despite this, sociopaths are often perceived as charming and likable. People with sociopathic traits can have a superficial understanding of emotions, which they can use to manipulate others. Sociopath behavior often includes being willing to exploit others for personal gain. They’re generally quick to abandon people when they no longer need them.
While not everyone who’s a sociopath is violent, impulsive and violent behavior is strongly associated with antisocial personality disorder. Many people have volatile interactions with others, making it difficult for them to maintain personal relationships or steady employment.
Signs of sociopathy
- Lying to and manipulating others for personal gain
- Little to no remorse for harmful behaviors
- Lack empathy for others
- Struggling with social norms
- Engaging in harmful — or even illegal — behaviors without considering the consequences
- Verbal or physical violence
- Impulsive or reckless behavior
- Disregard for the safety of others
“What is a Narcissist?”
Narcissism is a personality trait that anyone can exhibit from time to time, but the term narcissist is a label used that often describes someone who is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). However, it is often loosely used for someone who shows narcissistic behaviors. People with NPD have an inflated view of themselves and constantly crave admiration from others.
While narcissism can cause an intense need to be validated by others, people with NPD have low levels of empathy and are quick to use others for their own benefit. However, even though someone with narcissism can be egotistical, they’re often very insecure at heart and respond poorly to criticism, even if it’s mild. In some cases, people with NPD may actively avoid situations where they fear they could be criticized.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a spectrum, and there are many types of narcissism that fall along it. For example, overt narcissists tend to be extroverted and seek out attention, while covert narcissists are introverted and withdrawn. Although the way it presents itself can vary, people with any type of narcissistic personality disorder can share some of the following specific traits.
The following describe symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder:
- An inflated sense of self
- Feeling angry or jealous of others’ success
- Thinking people are envious of them
- An inability to connect or empathize with others
- Perceiving themselves as unique and special
- Believing they can only relate to others like them (who are also unique and special)
- Difficulty handling criticism
- Poor mood regulation
- Craving validation or admiration from others
- Constant fantasizing about becoming more successful and powerful
- A pervasive feeling of entitlement
Sociopathy vs Narcissism
There are clear similarities when you compare narcissism vs sociopathy, but the conditions are still distinct. Even when people with NPD and ASPD behave similarly, the reasoning behind their behaviors varies.
Similar Personality Traits
The following symptoms overlap across both mental health conditions:
- Lack empathy: Limited empathy is a major problem for those with sociopathy and narcissism. This can cause people with both conditions to manipulate or harm others for their own gain.
- Charming and charismatic: People with NPD and ASPD can appear charming, especially when trying to get something they want.
- Difficulty with self-awareness: In looking at sociopathy vs narcissism, we can see that people with either condition tend to have poor insight into their own thought processes and behaviors. They rarely see an issue with their behavior, even when it hurts the people around them. It can be difficult for them to acknowledge their actions.
- Mood disorders, substance abuse, and self-harm: According to research, people who suffer from sociopathy or narcissism are more likely to have mood disorders or struggle with substance abuse. People with these conditions often cause harm to others, but they may also hurt themselves, engaging in behaviors like self-harm or even suicide.
“Both people with narcissism and sociopathy believe they’re unique and can only relate to people who are like them. They both lack the ability to connect with other people’s feelings and needs. They both can feel envious of others while believing other people are envious of them. They both seek a sense of control and power. And finally, they both can be charming and manipulative to get what they want. Therapy can help them work on their interpersonal relationships and feel more connected to others.”Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW
While there are many similarities across these conditions, there are also several stark differences.
- Reasons for behaviors: The biggest differences between narcissistic personality disorder vs sociopathy are the reasons behind behaviors. People with NPD desperately want others to see them as successful and are typically motivated by a desire for praise or admiration. In contrast, people with sociopathic behavior don’t need to be admired and simply act based on their own interests.
- Intentional harm: Someone with sociopathy can be more calculating than someone with narcissism, and they may even feel happy when they cause pain to others. Narcissism rarely results in feelings of guilt when they cause hurt, but the actions they take are typically in hopes of achieving their goals. Someone with sociopathy, though, may hurt others while working towards a goal, but they also may also intentionally harm someone purely for pleasure.
- Risky behavior: Since narcissism makes people strongly desire success, they’re less likely to engage in the risk-taking type of behavior that’s associated with sociopathy.
- Legal trouble: Both narcissism and sociopathy can make it hard for someone to maintain employment, but sociopathy is more likely to cause legal troubles.
- How they appear to others: Someone with NPD may avoid certain behaviors out of fear over how they would be perceived, but sociopaths don’t care what others think of them.
Treatment Options for Sociopathy and Narcissism
Since narcissism and sociopathy don’t allow for someone to see anything wrong with their behavior, it’s rare that they’ll seek out treatment on their own. In fact, many people only receive a diagnosis because they’re getting help for another mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.
During the diagnostic process, a mental health professional can distinguish between narcissistic personality disorder vs sociopathy, along with other mental health conditions.
People might be prescribed medications to treat specific symptoms, but the most common form of treatment for both conditions is psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy). Studies show that it’s possible to develop empathy over time. Although it can take time to see results, treatment can significantly reduce the severity of symptoms in both NPD and ASPD.
Get a Professional Diagnosis with Talkspace
If you or a loved one has shown signs of either narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial behavior, it’s essential that you receive a mental health assessment and diagnosis. A professional can distinguish between sociopathy vs narcissism and recommend the most suitable form of treatment.
NPD and ASPD can cause people to inflict serious harm on those around them. Research examining narcissism vs sociopathy shows that these conditions can cause serious difficulties with personal relationships. Seeking out treatment may not be easy, but it’s the best way to treat symptoms and get help.
If you’re looking for a therapist so you can learn more about NPD or ASPD, Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes getting help easy. Our approach to therapy removes some of the major barriers that prevent people from getting therapeutic help. When therapy sessions are convenient, affordable, and accessible, it can be easier to commit to the process.
Learn more about how Talkspace is changing how people think and feel about therapy. You can get the help you need to treat NPD or ASPD. Reach out to Talkspace today to get started.