How often do you hear that psychopaths and narcissists are the same thing? I would imagine, quite often, as it is one of the most repeated things I hear about psychopathy, save that we are all serial killers.
It is a common conflation that even professionals make. The reason why psychopaths are often referred to as narcissistic is because there is a level of confidence that is not easily replicated in neurotypicals, that comes naturally to psychopaths. This post is going to parse out the difference between the natural state of being that a psychopath is in, and the notion of narcissism.
Narcissism is a tricky thing because you have Narcissistic personality disorder, and you have narcissistic traits. NPD is a psychological disorder. It is diagnosable, it is persistent, and it is something that a psychopath can never have. Elinor Greenberg, an expert in NPD describes it this way:
Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be viewed as a combination of unstable self-esteem, the need to depend on other people for validation, hierarchical thinking, and a lack of emotional empathy.
Psychopaths will never have an unstable sense of self esteem, nor do they rely on others for ego validation. This often gets applied to us, because people do not know the difference between NPD and narcissistic traits, and sometimes even by people that do know the difference because they believe for some reason that they can be comorbid, when they fundamentally conflict with one another.
The reason why NPD and psychopathy are tied together is quite simple. Psychopathy is constantly being redefined to meet ridiculous expectations. It is studied, as I have mentioned ad nauseum, in prisons, and the PCL-R is used to assess it. If you read my posts on the PCL-R and it’s limitations, you already understand how poorly constructed it is, and how often it is misused. In this regard however, it is because it is used to formulate studies that we have these problems.
Imagine this, you are constructing a study on psychopathy, and your understanding of psychopathy as a research assistant is that the most heinous actions are committed by psychopaths. Serial killing is an excellent example. You read about Ted Bundy, and how psychopathic he was (he wasn’t… and I realize that I probably ought to do a post about him, Dahmer, and Ramirez to explain this a bit more clearly) so of course that is the type that you will include.
Serial killer=psychopath in your mind, and the PCL-R is slanted heavily towards antisocial traits, I wonder where this is going to go?
So you do the PCL-R on the serial killer, and of course he scores pretty high, so he gets admitted into the study. Now, in reality our not so friendly serial killer is actually someone with NPD, but because he killed a bunch of people, he also has ASPD which the PCL-R is geared to pick up.
If you are well studied on such things, you would know that this makes him a malignant narcissist, but the PCL-R has tagged him as a psychopath, so into the study he goes, and so do all those traits of NPD, that will be inaccurately ascribed to psychopathy. Now this information gets published in badly done studies and repeated until it becomes assumed fact.
That’s how that works unfortunately.
Narcissistic traits on the other hand are something that all humans have to some degree or another. It’s a spectrum, like all human traits are. Everyone is on it, some very high, some very low. Psychopaths are not an exception to this. Some psychopaths are very high in narcissistic traits, and others are quite low. Many fall in the middle, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t matter where that individual falls, because in the minds of many, psychopath=narcissist.
Why is this the case? I believe that this has to do with the lack of the ability to have a disrupted self esteem. My understanding of neurotypicals is that they relate things that they do, or think, or feel, directly to their sense of self. This is completely foreign to me. I am me. I do stuff, I experience stuff, I think stuff, but I am still me at the end of the day. “Me” never changes. “Me” never becomes better or worse because of the daily activities or conversations that I have. I am just me, and I am insulated from those things.
My concept of me is stable and secure. Nothing that I think, feel, or do can change my understanding of who I am. Due to this, if someone asks me what I am good at, there is no need for me to beat around the bush, or have some sense of false modesty about my talents. If someone mentions to me that they find me attractive, I am not flattered by this. I merely shrug, because I know this about myself. I do not need to be told.
Compliments are meaningless to me. They have no effect on me whatsoever. Whatever it is that the person feels the need to compliment, I already know, or I simply make note of the information that they bring to my attention, scan it for “relevant to me information”, and assess their motivation for saying it.
This can come across as quite arrogant I suppose. People don’t prefer that the kindness that they are extending to me is rebuffed with a slight nod of acknowledgement, but nothing more. However, that is my natural response to praise that is directed at me, and it is a response that has to be masked in order to blend in.
Conversely, insults mean nothing to me as well. A person can say all the mean and nasty things that they want to me, and they might as well be speaking to a brick wall. Just as I do about the compliment, I scan it for relevant information, see if there is anything useful to me, and try to assess their motivation. Usually that motivation is to just be an inconsiderate ass. If that’s the case, I immediately dismiss them. However, every once in a while there is useful information in what they say. I pick that out, discard the rest, and get on with my day.
As I mentioned, I know what I am good at. That is a large part of why people assume that psychopaths are narcissistic. Knowing what you are good at bothers a lot of people. They believe that to be a good person, humility is necessary. If you simply say, “Yes, I was very good at dancing,” for instance, they take that to mean that you have a very high opinion of yourself.
That’s where the divide between psychopaths and neurotypicals is made pretty apparent to me. I don’t have a high opinion of myself, but I don’t have a low opinion about myself either. What I am good at, I will simply admit, I am good at it. However, what I am bad at, I will also simply say, I suck at that.
Sucking at something, and there are many things that I do indeed suck at, doesn’t have the slightest effect on how I perceive myself. Failure doesn’t destroy me, and success doesn’t elevate me. Everything stays stationary and stable. That really messes with people that don’t live that way. They genuinely cannot understand it.
Most people have their self esteem tied to external issues. When someone doesn’t, and they are unaffected by people’s opinions of them, it makes for a difficult understanding of how they function. Based on my understanding of how neurotypicals operate, and that their self esteem is both internally and externally regulated, how I see things probably does come across as rather bizarre.
I have had people ask me how to achieve this state, but I would first have to understand the state that they are trying to leave behind, and frankly, I don’t. Everytime I have someone come to me upset about something that someone else said or did, my internal reaction is invariably:
“Why do you care?”
This response is internally colored with annoyance, because I really do not get why they give a damn about someone else’s idiotic opinion. Cognitively I understand it is because they think that the other person might have a point, and they are unaware of some failure or flaw. They feel vulnerable and exposed, they feel angry and hurt, and it is all tied to the gum flapping of someone else.
Psychopaths appear arrogant because there is no external self esteem regulation. Personal failure is not a reason to feel badly, but what is missed is the lack of self congratulations upon success. Having the negative be missing is all that gets focused on, and the other half of the equation is dismissed entirely.
I know that I am awesome at some things.
I know I am dreadful at others.
The knowledge of these two truths does not in any way impact how I view myself. It is something that I would encourage more people to try to be more like, but there is a limitation that I think stands in the way of that being possible.
Knowing all the good and bad about myself, and having neither affect me means that I am comfortable in my light, and I am comfortable in my darkness. It is easy to know the light side of yourself, but knowing the darkness is a lot harder.
I was watching a movie with a friend recently. It was the movie, The Neverending Story, if any of you are familiar. If not, I recommend it. It is a great story, and even being old, it still holds up more or less. Anyway, there is a part where the main protagonist has to face his true self in a mirror, at the magic mirror gate. This is a test to pass through to the Southern Oracle. This is described thusly:
Engywook: Next is the Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu has to face his true self.
Falcor: So what? That won't be too hard for him.
Engywook: Oh, that's what everyone thinks! But kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!
To this my friend asked why anyone would be bothered to find out that they were cruel? Why would it matter that they were different than they assumed themselves to be. As you may have guessed, this friend is also comfortable with their own darkness. I explained to them that the belief one holds about themselves is almost sacrosanct. It is not something easily challenged , as we explored in my Robert Hare posts. When what defines you is disrupted, there is often the death of ego that is unbearable.
If you are not comfortable with the good and the bad, if you don’t have the understanding of who you are outside of actions, thoughts, or beliefs, your self esteem will be indelibly tied to these things. I think in order to exist in the mentality that I do, that would have to completely cease.
Also, I am not certain that a neurotypical would necessarily want to be more like me. While bad things have no effect on my self esteem, good things don’t either, and I would imagine that there is a desire to keep those emotional highs around, even if it means dealing with the lows.
I think that the issue with how psychopathic confidence is considered is that it is seen through a neurotypical experience. If you don’t feel badly about something that someone else thinks you should feel badly about, or if you are fine with stating unequivocally that you are really good about something without a hint of humility, it must mean that you have a very high opinion of yourself.
I think that the reason the other half isn’t ever spoken about, is that it never occurs to researchers to ask a psychopath what they are not good at. I think that they might be surprised by what they find. Perhaps in the future, the ability for more sources to be read and considered, the more there will be a shift as to how psychopaths are thought about, and better information will be more widely available.
Another reason that I think that there might be the idea that psychopathy and narcissism goes hand in hand is actually due to projection. If your opinion of yourself does not shift based on the actions or opinions of others, they have lost a certain degree of power over you. It makes the playing field uneven, which is interesting in and of itself. People like to believe that the tools that they have in their belts will work across the board, but in reality there are limitations. I think that this makes people unconsciously uncomfortable.
There are also a great number of people that seem to think that psychopathic confidence is a myth. They will insist that psychopaths will rage and become violent if you insult them. They clearly have never met a psychopath and been aware of it. In order for a psychopath to have a reaction like this, they would have to first care about the opinion of the person that is insulting them. A psychopath won’t. They will just think the person is being petty, or silly.
For now psychopathy will be confused with narcissism, and people that do not know the difference between traits, and personality disorders will continue to conflate them. The new term, “narcopath”, has been making the internet rounds, and gaining traction. This is the notion that a psychopath, a person with unassailable self esteem, and no need of others, can have the unstable self esteem and requirement of others that people with narcissistic personality disorder have.
Another one that gets a fair amount of play is that a female psychopath is the same as having borderline personality disorder. If you have a stable definition of something, it doesn’t dramatically switch all of it’s traits to be the opposite of what defines it just because it is being considered in the opposite gender. How does that even work as an idea? It has the same fundamental flaws as the NPD claims. Unstable personality with necessitated external ego support, in a person that has neither.
In the next couple of posts, we will go into some of the myths that surround psychopathy. There are many. We will examine both the good, and the bad. There is a great deal of misinformation that colors psychopathy in a very negative light, but also just as many that color it in an overly positive light. Neither or these are helpful to understanding what psychopathy is. A clear definition requires removal of these aspects, as they do nothing but slant things one direction or another.
For psychopathy to be studied as a concept, it has to be replicable in the people that have it. Psychopaths lack empathy for instance. There has been this attempt to try to discredit this aspect of psychopathy with the so-called “empathy switch”, which is of course something that we will get into. In fact, the “empathy switch” might get it’s very own post, as it is one I have had to debunk so many times I am surprised that my brain has not liquified yet.
We will get to all of that in the near future. Let me know down in the comments section if you have any myths that you would like addressed specifically, and also if you have a particular one that rubs you the wrong way, but you still keep hearing it, let me know.