Caroline Cranshaw: How to tell the difference between Narcissists, Sociopaths and Psychopaths

It's common to call a person you don't like a narcissist, psychopath or sociopath, but do you really know what those terms mean? I believe knowledge is power and if you can recognise these personality types, you are better equipped to deal with them. And know when to run away!

Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths all fall under the cluster B personality disorders:

  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder: a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder: a pervasive disregard for the law and the rights of others. (Psychopaths and Sociopaths)

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Do you know someone who demands constant attention and approval, but doesn't take your needs and feelings into consideration? Someone who believes they're better than everyone else and should be treated accordingly? Who is condescending and insulting, but flies off the handle at the slightest disagreement or hint of criticism? If so, you could be dealing with a narcissist. Here's how to spot the narcissists in your life, protect yourself from their power plays, and establish healthier boundaries.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental disorder with a pattern of behaviour characterised by in which people have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, an extreme need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. People with NPD tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time fantasising about achieving power and success and may be obsessed with their appearance.

However, behind their front of total confidence is an incredibly fragile ego that is easily wounded by criticism. The person with narcissistic personality disorder usually cannot handle any form of criticism and has a tendency to belittle others in order to validate their own superiority. A lot of celebrities are considered narcissists.

The Three Major Types of Narcissists

Classic Narcissists

Also known as a Grandiose Narcissists, this the type that most people think of when they hear the word "narcissist." They are overt with their for need constant attention, therefore they are always bragging about themselves, always fishing for compliments, and believe they are entitled to special treatment. They become noticeably bored when the topic of the conversation turns to anything but themselves, and don't like sharing the spotlight with others. The irony is that while they see themselves as superior to most people, they are desperate to feel important. They are typically the easiest type to deal with as they have the strongest self-worth.

Vulnerable Narcissists

Also known as Fragile or Closet Narcissists, they still feel as if they are superior to most people they meet; however, as introverts, they tend to shun the limelight. They often try to attach themselves to special people instead of seeking special treatment themselves. They may try to get pity or manipulate others by being overly generous to gain the admiration and attention they need to appease their deep-seated insecurity. They have extremely fragile egos and are the more likely to lash out in a passive aggressive way if they are offended by you.

Malignant Narcissists

Also known as Toxic Narcissists, they are highly manipulative and exploitative. These narcissists have much less empathy than the other two major types and may also be a sociopath or psychopath. They have a viciousness that differentiates them from the other two major types. Their main goal is to dominate and control, and they will use deceit and aggression to accomplish it and show a lack of remorse for their actions. They may get off on the suffering of others.

Therapy is usually ineffective, as people with NPD frequently do not consider themselves to have a problem. About one per cent of people are affected. It appears more often in males than females and affects young people more than older people. Statically in New Zealand, around 50,000 people have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder usually develops in childhood or early adulthood. It’s not uncommon for children and teenagers to display traits similar to those of NPD, but they tend to grow out of it. Genuine symptoms of NPD remain consistent over time.

Antisocial Personality Disorder: (Psychopaths and Sociopaths)

While the terms psychopaths and sociopaths are often used in psychology, you won't find them in the Diagnostic Book of Mental Disorders, and doctors don't diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths. Instead, they use the term Antisocial Personality Disorder.

What is a Sociopath?

A sociopath is a person with Antisocial Personality Disorder. While sociopathy can only be diagnosed at the age of 18 or above, the following must be present before the age of 15 for the diagnosis:

  • Repeatedly breaking the law
  • Pervasive lying and deception
  • Physical aggressiveness
  • Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
  • Consistently irresponsible in work and family environments
  • Lack of remorse

Sociopaths have a conscience, although it's not very strong. They know that stealing your money, for example, is wrong, and even might feel some guilt or remorse, but it won't stop their behaviour. Sociopaths make up around 4 per cent of the general population, so there are approximately 200,000 people in New Zealand who are sociopaths.

What is a Psychopath?

Psychopathy is a more serious form of sociopathy with more symptoms. Therefore, all psychopaths are sociopaths, but all sociopaths are not necessarily psychopaths.

Psychopath traits include:

  • Lack of guilt/remorse
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of deep emotional attachments
  • Narcissism
  • Superficial charm
  • Dishonesty
  • Manipulativeness
  • Reckless risk-taking

Psychopaths make up about 1 per cent of the general population (or 50,000 New Zealander’s) and as much as 25 per cent of male offenders in prison. What's disturbing is 21 per cent of corporate executives are also found to have psychopathic traits.

The psychopath is unfeeling, but still can be charismatic and persuasive. They will manipulate and scam others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as "normal" to society. The psychopath is organised in their criminal thinking and behaviour and is able to exercise strong emotional and physical control, displaying little to no fear, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying. A psychopath is very aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.

Psychopaths don't have morals. They can lie, cheat, steal, hurt others, and even kill without feeling any guilt - although they may pretend it bothers them. Psychopaths watch others and try to act the way they do to avoid being found out. Psychopaths brains are not like most people's, and even their physiology seems to be wired differently.

For example, watching a gory, violent scene in a film causes most people to react with elevated heart rates, faster breathing, and maybe even anxiety. However, it's the opposite for psychopaths, they get calmer, and this is the quality that helps psychopaths engage in fearless behaviours. They are not afraid of the consequences of their actions.

Sociopath vs Psychopath

The sociopath is less organised in their demeanour; they might be nervous, easily agitated, quick to display anger spontaneously or act out in inappropriate ways without thinking about the consequences.

Psychopaths and sociopaths both are capable of committing horrible crimes, but a sociopath is less likely to commit them against those they care about. Psychopaths are far more likely to get in trouble with the law while sociopaths are much more likely to blend in. And while sociopaths and psychopaths have some common traits, sociopathy is generally considered less severe than psychopathy.

Both lack empathy, or the ability to put themselves in other people's shoes and understand how they feel. However, a psychopath has less regard for others than a sociopath. Psychopaths see others pawns to use for their own benefit.

While movies and TV shows often depict psychopaths or sociopaths as the evil people who kill and torture others, this isn't necessarily the case in real life. While some sociopaths and psychopaths are violent, they are much more likely to manipulate others to get what they want - particularly in the workplace.

It's much easier to identify a sociopath than a psychopath. Psychopaths can be charming, intelligent, and experts at pretending to care or be interested in you. Deep down, they don't care. They are consummate actors whose goal is to manipulate others for their own personal gain.

On the other hand, sociopaths tend to be upfront about the fact that they only care about themselves. They tend to act without thinking how their actions will affect others, and then they'll create excuses for their behaviour or blame others.

Statistically, over 225,000 people in New Zealand are either a narcissist, psychopath or sociopath, or even scarier - all three. At the moment, there are around 10,000 people in New Zealand that are incarcerated, with at least 25 per cent of them, if not higher, having one of these mental disorders. Therefore there are over 200,000 people in New Zealand alone that you need to very careful with...

My advice is to flatter them - it's their Achilles heel. Stand up to them in a calm way using humour or playing dumb, as aggression will make them worse. Play happy and stupid, as my mother says. Don't take the bait, let their barbs fly by. You should have strong boundaries and don't accept bad behaviour, BUT do not try to take them on in an aggressive way. Leave that to the authorities. Call me crazy, but if someone is violent or abusive towards you, personality disorder or not, STAY AWAY.


Narcissistic personality disorder 

Psychopath VS Sociopath - What’s the Difference?

Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.

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