Narcissist, psychopath, sociopath: understanding the toxic person in your life


People who fail to create any deep emotional connection with others even their family or partners, shift the blame for their despicable actions, and show a distinct lack of empathy for others, are often dubbed sociopaths, psychopaths or narcissists. What is the difference between the three types of personality disorders?


The history of the terms psychopath and sociopath

Doctors working with mental patients in the early 1800s began noticing patients who appeared outwardly normal displayed a “moral depravity” or “moral insanity.” These patients seemed to have no sense of the customary societal moral code or of the rights of other people.

The term “psychopath” was first used to describe these people around 1900 but the term was changed to “sociopath” in the 1930s to emphasize the damage that people with this personality disorder do to our society.

These days, some mental health researchers use the term “primary psychopath” to describe a more serious disorder, more likely to be genetic, which results in more dangerous individuals and “secondary psychopaths” (Sociopath ) to refer to a less dangerous individual who’s anti-social behaviour is thought to be a product of their environment or upbringing.


Traits of a psychopath

  • a callous lack of empathy – cold-heartedness
  • 'primary psychopaths' are superficially charming and usually extremely intelligent
  • 'secondary psychopaths' can be anti-social and are less likely to perform well in IQ tests
  • lack of concern for the feelings of others
  • not good at detecting fear in the faces of other people
  • extremely high thresholds for disgust – they can easily tolerate images of mutilated faces or exposure to foul odours
  • don’t feel or show shame, guilt, and embarrassment
  • notorious for a lack of response to potentially fearful or physically painful situations
  • blame others for consequences that are actually their fault
  • if forced into admitting blame, they show no remorse or guilt
  • primary psychopaths have a grandiose sense of self-importance
  • a narrow field of attention and unaffected by outside influence – psychopaths usually perform well in the test where one is asked to say the colour words are printed in, but the word is actually a different colour, ie the word yellow is printed in red. Psychopaths are able to focus with clarity on the colour and are not distracted by the discrepancy of the word
  • impulsive – with no regard for consequence
  • they lie to your face and even when they are found out, they seem to be able to turn the story around such that it seems the misunderstanding was yours
  • they are comfortable with living a parasitic lifestyle draining others or society in general
  • a low tolerance of others with secondary psychopaths more likely to use violence and physical aggression as a release of their frustration or anger whereas primary psychopaths are more likely to become passive aggressive, critical and manipulative.


History of the term narcissist

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome, proud young man, who upon seeing his reflection in the water for the first time became so captivated that he could not stop gazing at himself. As he couldn’t drag himself away from admiring his own beauty, eventually he wasted away and died.

In real-life, however, their own admiration of themselves isn’t enough and narcissists, crave other people’s validation of their own worth.

The topic of narcissism as a personality disorder started to attract interest during the early 1900s. Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank published one of the earliest descriptions of narcissism in 1911. He connected the condition to self-admiration and vanity.

Although Sigmund Freud is widely associated with research into narcissism due the famous paper titled, On Narcissism: An Introduction which he published in 1914, Ernest Jones (1913/1951) appears to be the first to interpret narcissism as a character trait. He called it the “God-complex” and described people with a God-complex as aloof, inaccessible, self-admiring, self-important, overconfident, auto-erotic, and exhibitionistic, with fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience. He also observed that these people had a high need for uniqueness and praise from others. The current notion of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is remarkably close to this description.

Expanding on Jones’ ideas, Freud suggested that narcissism is connected to whether one's libido (energy that lies behind each person's survival instincts) is directed inward toward one's self, or outward toward others.


Traits of a narcissist

Narcissists share similar traits with psychopaths however perhaps they are not as severe. Narcissists are less likely to be as destructive or criminally intent in society. Their traits around ethical behaviour are not as pronounced and they generally go through life (annoyingly so if you are on the receiving end of their conceitedness), feeling pretty good about themselves.

  • Not good at reading the subconscious feedback such as body language and subtle comment to interpret how other’s are reacting to them
  • lack of empathy  and concern for the feelings of others
  • will say they are very happy with their life, even when the people they are in the closest relationships with are suffering
  • extremely charming and usually intelligent, engaging, sociable and complementary to their targets (initially)
  • consistently lie or avoid telling elements of the truth in order to get their own way, over exaggerate their achievements or deflect the blame
  • don’t feel or show shame, guilt, and embarrassment even when they are caught lying
  • blame others for consequences that are actually their fault and actually convince themselves that they are not at fault in the process
  • skip from one relationship to another quickly
  • they look for mates with very high social status (for example, looks or success) to complement their inflated sense of self
  • they tire of relationships once they have captured their prey
  • tend to sabotage romantic relationships with undermining the confidence or their partner and infidelity
  • a deep desire to be at the centre of things and the main focus of attention
  • a grandiose sense of self-importance
  • feel entitled to special treatment and easily offended when they don’t get it
  • impulsive – with no regard for consequence
  • can become critical and manipulative or aggressive when their power is challenged
  • less sensitive to stress and depression, and if they do allow stress to affect them, they usually recover rapidly
  • often very popular—at least in the short term
  • readily harbour grudges
  • concerned about appearance, they're likely to be well-groomed and fashionable
  • willing to step on others in order to succeed personally
  • often successful in high-powered, high-paying jobs
  • more interested in gaining admiration than being liked

How do the two personality disorders differ?

Some experts suspect that narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy are conditions that lie along a continuum or a spectrum.  It would appear from the overlapping similarities in the list of traits above that this could well be true.

Both types of individuals tend to be self-interested and exploitive of others, even those who love them. And, both psychopaths and narcissists have little to no regard for the heartache they cause in their interactions with others.

There are some differences though, and whilst both types may exhibit to a certain degree the traits listed below, they are primarily found, or are significantly more pronounced in psychopaths.

  • lack of regard to what of others think of them or their actions (narcissists, in contrast, seek positive attention)
  • minimally burdened by anxiety or fear
  • fragile ego
  • easily prone to boredom
  • impulsive and reckless risk-taking
  • low levels of conscientiousness
  • high level of tolerance for things that are “disgusting”
  • immorally deceitful (while narcissists lie, psychopaths are often unlawful in their deceit)


The differences are not always easily discernable and it takes skilled clinicians and involved analytical procedures to tease out a diagnosis. Often even then, affected people are found to have a blending of personality disorders.

In order to be diagnosed with a personality disorder, the set of traits displayed must be considered as “marked and enduring”.

The important word here for you to take note of is enduring.

These traits are going to be around for a long time and are unlikely to disappear unless the individual chooses to do the work to change themselves. Most won't ... because of course, they don't think there is anything for them to work on. The problems lie with the rest of us.

Psychopaths and narcissists alike are generally unable to concede any personal fault and as such won't address changing their instinctive character traits. It is extremely unlikely they will suddenly start to treat you any better or miraculously become more loving and understanding.

For your own sanity and protection, sometimes, the best and only option is to remove yourself from the toxic environment these callous individuals create.

And, of equal importance, learn to deflect the blame they have projected onto you, and to accept the apology that you will never, ever receive.


Published by, Christine Weston
Founding Director and Creator of Divorce Resource

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The information in this article is for general information purposes only. The information contained in this article is not clinical in nature and should not be considered as professional advice. Before making any decisions or taking action, you should always seek the advice of a registered professional who can appropriately assess your specific circumstances before offering their expert opinion and guidance.


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