by: John M. Duffey, MA, NCC
According to a major study reported in 2008, 6.2% of the U.S. adult population has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) (Stinson, F., et al, 2008). An earlier wave of the same study reported that 3.6% have the condition of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), an equivalent the common term and definition for sociopath (Grant, B., et al, 2004). Nearly 20% of those with ASPD also have NPD (Stinson, F., et al, 2008), a powerful combination.
These statistics indicate that a very large number, some 32,000 people with either NPD or ASPD and about 2,400 people with both NPD and ASPD. This is a high number of potentially dangerous people within American society at-large. This makes being able to identify the warning signs very important for everyone in order to avoid becoming the next victim to manipulation, deception, and abuse. It is equally important to know the differences and similarities fo the two conditions and in understanding the damage each can do and how much more exacerbated the danger is when encountering a person with both conditions.
During my time of working with women and men survivors of narcissistic partners I have noticed a pattern of the survivor not recognizing, or being able to recognize, the warning signs of NPD and completely miss the warning signs of ASPD. First to know is that these mental illnesses exist on a spectrum of severity and tend to present in slightly variable but quite similar ways. None of use want to be roped into a business or romantic relationship that ends in our being used, manipulated, abused, and abandoned. So, let’s start with the Narcissist.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (The Narcissist)
Most people know that narcissists can be initially charming and exciting. They pay intense attention during the seduction process, lavishing praise and gifts, and making grandiose promises. This is so in all settings, too - dating, hiring, and electing leaders. They exaggerate their abilities, their friends, their histories, and their plans. They boost your self-esteem by telling you how wonderful you are - over and over again.
In dating, they want fast intimacy. In the workplace, they want the spotlight and lots of credit for minor (if any) accomplishments. In business and political leadership, they have the best grandiose plans for changing the world, with no basis for accomplishing them. Yet their belief in themselves can be blinding and contagious. That is what makes them dangerous.
However, reality is far from what the narcissist presents. Narcissists are self-absorbed and see themselves as superior to others - including those around them whom they may have initially seduced with their charm. At first, this seems irritating but tolerable. BUT, these are also warning signs of potential danger ahead.
Antisocial Personality Disorder (The Sociopath)
Sociopaths can also be extremely charming and seductive until they get what they want (money, sex, connections, sense of power over someone). Then, they may disappear, or stick around and become extremely cruel or manipulative. Those with ASPD may be extremely aggressive and reckless, or skilled con artists, or engage in criminal behavior. Above all they lack remorse for what they do to others. In fact, some enjoy humiliating and hurting other people.
It is important to remember that ASPD is also on a spectrum of severity and manifests in a number of variable behavioral characteristics. Many sociopaths are not involved in the criminal justice system and instead are active in business, politics, or even community leadership. When they are in romantic relationships, they can be very deceptive about where they’re going and what they’re doing when they are away from their partners. This can also be true in the workplace with endless excuses to to supervisors and co-workers. They are constantly conning and lying, so that very little of what they say may be true. Words are just a tool to them and they use them well to get what they want. Their theme is dominance.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual for Mental Disorders version 5 (DSM-5) NPD does not include characteristics of impulsivity, aggression, and deceit. These characteristics are actually part of ASPD. So, if someone is highly aggressive, and lies all the time they are more likely to be ASPD than NPD. These are predictive characteristics of more severe trouble ahead.
Narcissists on the other hand are more likely to exaggerate, although they occasionally lie. Narcissists also care about what other people think of them. Their image is of prime import to them - especially in regard to admiration. This is not so much the case with a sociopath. Narcissists are more likely to stick around in relationships longer than sociopaths who tend to take off when things get inconvenient or difficult for them. The Sociopath seems to enjoy the fighting and violence while the narcissist would prefer the fruits of superiority without having to fight for it.
Both narcissists and sociopaths invest a lot of energy in creating a false image of themselves for others—and themselves—to see. Thus, the charm and persuasive skills they have are the best in the world. They both are essentially con artists: narcissists con people about who they are and their incredible abilities, whereas sociopaths con people by playing on their weaknesses and desires (through charm and intimidation) to get what they want. They both have a lot of secrets and their words cannot be trusted.
They both demand loyalty, while not giving it in return. Narcissists, from cases I have worked with, often pursue 2 or 3 romantic relationships at the same time. They have an excessive need for “narcissistic supply,” which often takes more than one partner. This pattern of behavior can be devastating for their primary partner and, despite numerous promises, may never go away.
Sociopaths, on the other hand, seem to have the most promiscuous personality, even more than most narcissists. They may be more sexually abusive and irresponsible. According to the DSM-5: “They may have a history of many sexual partners and may never have sustained a monogamous relationship.” However, occasionally they do have long-term relationships, but mostly for convenience, such as being supported in a comfortable lifestyle.
Those with narcissistic personality disorder can seriously exploit others and lack empathy. This means that they are willing to invest a lot of energy in maintaining their superior image, even if it means repeatedly insulting you and putting you down, even in public.
In the workplace, they may become indifferent to your career or even use you as a Target of Blame to deflect from their inadequacies. Sometimes a narcissistic manager or academic advisor will give you a negative evaluation out of spite or try to harm your career because you didn’t kiss up to them enough or caused them a “narcissistic injury” (when they’re exposed for not being superior at all).
In business and politics, narcissists are notorious for gaining allies through flattery, then abandoning them or walking on them to get to a higher position. Yet many of these allies don’t see it coming, because they think they are special to the narcissist, because of how they were charmed at the beginning. But their personality is based on being superior: they are a “winner” and eventually, everyone else will be a “loser.”
Sociopaths, on the other hand, may be much more likely to seek revenge or use violence or destruction of valued property to settle their perceived betrayals in romantic, business or political relationships. They invest a lot of energy and resources in keeping secret their abusive past behavior and may seriously harm those who try to expose them.
Cases of Co-Morbidity ASPD & NPD
As mentioned above, a percentage of sociopaths (ASPDs) also have narcissistic personality disorder. This is equivalent to about 1% of the U.S. population. This combination and percentage fit the criteria for psychopaths, who have their own checklist of characteristics including pathological lying, criminal versatility and parasitic lifestyle, in addition to some of the traits of ASPD and NPD.
Likewise, this combination was identified over fifty years ago by Erich Fromm, who defined "malignant narcissism" as including this combination in powerful dictators, from the Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Ceasars to Hitler and Stalin. He also said there were traits of increasing paranoia and sadism for malignant narcissists, who became increasingly dangerous the longer they stayed in power—thus, the term malignant meant expanding like a cancer.
In today’s news, we often hear about people who are self-centered, lie a lot and have harmed others, including their own friends, family members and other people who thought they cared about them. Often people are very surprised. With personality awareness about narcissists and sociopaths, we should be more able to predict trouble and protect ourselves. We need to develop a healthy skepticism so that we look past the charming false images and recognize the personality patterns which indicate that serious behavior problems have been covered up and/or lie ahead.