Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What is the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath?

The first question victims of love fraud ask concerns themselves and is generally something like, “Why is this so hard for me mentally?” The second question concerns the perpetrator, “What is wrong with him/her?” Many seek answers to these questions on the internet and in the popular psychology literature. A person looking for answers in these sources is just as likely to read about narcissism as he/she is to read about sociopathy. Thus the confusion between narcissism and sociopathy begins.

When trying to understand the difference (if any) between narcissists and sociopaths, it is important to understand why we have psychiatric diagnoses in the first place. We have diagnostic categories because people go to professionals seeking help for their emotional/psychological issues. The problem is that people who are grandiose, exploit others, lack empathy, and apparently have no conscience are unlikely to seek mental health treatment. Therefore, people with these symptoms are poorly understood. This is also the basic reason why this set of symptoms has been labeled both narcissism and sociopathy.

To further the confusion for victims of love fraud, a psychologist, Millon, has described the amorous narcissist. Such people are charming, articulate, charismatic and emotionally exploitative of their lovers. The amorous narcissist, like Don Juan, seeks conquest in his relationships. A Lovefraud reader commenting on another post has provided the best example of an amorous narcissist I have seen, yet she (correctly) calls him a sociopath:

I was completely taken in by a sociopath over a year ago. I had never met anyone who was so attentive, charming, complimentary, good looking… oh, the list goes on. I felt I had not only met Mr. Right, but Mr. Perfect. This was a very cultured and well educated man. Unlike the stereotypical sociopath, he holds a good job -can even be considered a “captain of industry”. We live in different cities, so it was even easier for him to fool me. He would call me 2-3 times a day - send text messages, write e-mails. I wondered sometimes how he got the time to do all this. But it was almost impossible for ME to get him on the phone. He said he was at a meeting, at a business dinner etc.

He also seemed to not have many good friends. But all the people he mentioned were women - some one who went to the symphony with him - and had for a long time, someone who was a biking partner etc. He said his friendships with these people were built around common interests, which I thought was fair enough.

After 6 months and visits back and forth, his romantic speil was not as effusive, which I thought normal. But I also began noticing a lot of inconsistencies and lies. I caught him out on a lie about where he was - he said he was in one city on work and it turned out that he was in another on vacation - and I knew it had to be with another woman! Anyway, i expressed my distrust and he accused me of being suspicious for no reason. He said I had a mental illness and should have my head examined. I got so blisteringly angry when he said this that I told him that I would prove to him that my suspicions were warranted. I embarked on a detective spree and uncovered 4 women who he was courting the same way. One was the official girlfriend in the city where he lived. The others were mistress-type girlfriends. I spoke with all of them. And then I presented him with the evidence. He did not have much to say other than that he had “done everything for me, shown me a good time, bought me gifts…” and did not know why I was upset. I know now that there are others. It is like he needs to get all the women he meets to fall in love with him.

Generally speaking, the term narcissist is less pejorative than the term sociopath. The reason for this is that some professionals view the behavior of narcissists as stemming from “low self esteem.” Thus, people feel sorry for narcissists, “He/she wouldn’t do that if he/she didn’t have such low self esteem.” Many sociopaths also recognize that narcissists are more highly regarded than are sociopaths, and so state, “I’m not a sociopath, I’m just a narcissist!”

A close friend of mine who has been on a quest for answers about the man who perpetrated love fraud against her came to the legitimate conclusion that the perpetrator is a narcissist. We have had many discussions about her situation. What bothered me about her description of this man as a narcissist was that it seemed to be part of an ongoing effort not to accept his inherently evil nature. If perpetrators are only trying to bolster their low self esteem, they can still be “good.” It may also be that it is easier to accept being victimized if the perpetrator is a narcissist. The reality that we have spent years of our lives loving an evil sociopath is truly difficult to accept.

So what is the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath? Generally speaking narcissists are less impulsive and higher functioning than are sociopaths. Both narcissists and sociopaths have a severe disorder of the Inner Triangle. Both are not capable of love, and have problems with moral reasoning. In fact, many experts say that a condition called “pathological narcissism” is the core problem that results in sociopathy/psychopathy. In conclusion then, the answer to our question is, “To a victim of love fraud, there is no difference between a narcissist and a sociopath.”

Liane J. Leedom. M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of Just Like His Father?, a book about parenting kids who have genetic risk for antisocial behavior, addiction and ADHD. She is also the author of and Dr. Leedom trained at USC, UCLA and Yale. The best training in psychiatry had not prepared her for her encounter with a sociopath who is the father of her son. For three years she pored through masses of scientific literature to gain the tools she needed to care for her son. “Although the government has spent millions uncovering the genetic and environmental factors involved in antisocial behavior, addiction and ADHD,” Dr. Leedom says, “the findings of this work are not available to the public.” She believes all parents have a right to the information that will help them protect and enjoy their at-risk children. Contact: