Narcissists and Psychopaths – The Dark Dyad
Do you recognize a narcissist when you encounter one? What if you meet a psychopath, does your antenna go up and start vibrating with alarm? What are their defining characteristics? What are the traits and behaviors that might elicit a warning alarm from a knowledgeable, intuitive and observant individual? Just consider for a moment, the well-dressed co-worker sitting in the next cube, your new standoffish supervisor or that hot sales rep might be a narcissist or a psychopath. Since the proliferation of articles on personality disorders recently, most of us have a general idea about these types and their self-serving characteristics. Let’s delve a little deeper into each type’s signature traits and then compare them.
Psychopath: Soulless Beings?
One writer described Psychopaths as “soulless beings.” This description conjures up images of long white fangs, a deathly pale complexion and a black opera cape. Psychopaths look just like the rest of us; in fact, they are often considered quite attractive by the opposite gender. In 1941, Dr. Hervey Cleckely wrote the classic volume The Mask of Sanity describing psychopaths. Dr. Cleckely uses adjectives and terms such as likeable, charming, intelligent, great success with women; on their dark side, he says they are irresponsible and self-destructive. Please believe me, the late, lamented Dr. Cleckely was a master of the understatement.
Do you know someone who is too good to be true? Psychopaths are often entertaining, witty, charming, and charismatic. Some are extremely intelligent and highly educated. What makes them different from the usual manipulative human? They have no conscience and shallow emotional responses. Where might one find a psychopath (assuming one was silly enough to search them out)? You are apt to find him/her in a boardroom, in a pool hall (winning), teaching a college history class, in the operating room, in prison, in your workplace, or in the pulpit on Sunday morning. Psychopaths adapt well considering their emotional limitations and self-centered life philosophy. Having the adaptive ability of a chameleon can be quite beneficial. They are found at all socioeconomic and educational levels.
Criteria for the Psychopath
Since we have established that psychopaths are everywhere, you may want to learn how to identify them. Here are a few warning signs based on Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, PCL-R (Dr. Hare is a psychopath expert, extraordinaire.):
- Superficial charm
- Self-centered and self-important
- Need for stimulation and prone to boredom
- Deceptive behavior and lying
- Fraudulent and manipulative
- Little remorse or guilt
- Shallow emotional response
- Lives off others or predatory attitude
- Callous with a lack of empathy
- Poor self-control
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
- Early behavioral problems
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Impulsive lifestyle
- Irresponsible behavior
- Blaming others for their actions
- Short-term relationships
- Juvenile delinquency
- Breaking Parole or probation
- Varied criminal Activity
You now have a tenuous outline of psychopathy. Let’s fill in the outline with glittering colors, a peek of pomposity, a superficial awareness in various fields (especially psychology and philosophy), mesmerizing images that merge and diverge like kaleidoscope flakes, and Wizard of Oz-ish dazzle and superficiality. What you see is not what you get, unless you are extraordinarily perceptive. I have met individuals who could penetrate the psychopath’s mask with uncanny effortlessness. A few years ago, a sheriff confided to me, “The hair on the back of my neck stands up whenever I am near a psychopath. “ BTW, that savvy talent saved his life. His experience was atypical; though psychopaths are predators, they are not normally violent.
Case Study of a Psychopath
Lauren, a friend and physician, spoke softly as she told me about her first meeting with Alex. We were sipping our café lattes at Barnes and Noble. “A melancholy, rain-shrouded day foreshadowed our meeting. I sat in my overstuffed chair enjoying a few minutes of quiet reflection while waiting for my next appointment. Precisely at the appointed moment, I looked up to see Alex fill the door and then move noiselessly into the room. His demeanor softly whispered “meek.” Body language spoke of a man of faith humbled and stooped by the enormity of his task—bringing lost souls to salvation.
“I saw a man in his thirties who fell slightly shy of handsome. Probably, strikingwould be a more appropriate word. His sapphire eyes (jewels are beguiling, cold and hard) never wavered; they stayed locked on mine. A shiver scurried down my spine. Thick, blond hair hung unfashionably to his shoulders. When he spoke his voice was as smooth as velvet and reassuring. I was bewildered when the wordswolf in sheep’s vestments crept into my mind. At some intuitive level, I was aware that his cool appraisal and massive size were incongruent with his air of humble benevolence. Incongruent was a word I muttered to myself many times in the next few months. The truth is consistent.
“After we talked for a few minutes about a community charity project, he began to tell me about myself. He confidently assured me that I was beautiful, intelligent, witty, and successful. He said I frightened men. He also told me a heartrending story from his childhood. A primitive part of my mind watched, listened, and hissed, Be alert! He is a womanizer… he has performed this little act before. He is an imposter pretending to be a human being… Beware, beware, beware… I had an overwhelming desire to clap and shout, Bravo! What a performance! Another part of my brain reproached me for being critical and judging without sufficient data.
“I think you can guess which part of my psyche knew who and what Alex was. Hundreds of little red flags flapped briskly, as if caught in hurricane force winds, bells screamed an all-out alarm, and I turned away—blind and deaf.”
There you have the psychopath at his most manipulative. He plays his part well, we must be slightly better at analyzing his behavior than he is at projecting what we desire to see. I could just as well have written this reversing the genders. Psychopaths come in the female gender too–thought, not as many. Jenessa Sprague and colleagues (NIH Public Access, 2012) suggest that “BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) may be the gender differentiated phenotype expressions of similar dispositional vulnerabilities” (pg. 1). Perhaps, gender influences the ways in which their pathological traits are expressed. This is an interesting focus of study and I hope to see more research in this area.
Psychopaths and Narcissists Compared
Psychopaths are quite similar in some ways to narcissists. Putting your new friend or co-worker in the correct category is not important, because both are considered high maintenance and you will receive a low return on your investment.
Nonetheless, as an academic exercise and because you might find it entertaining, I have compared these types below:
Shallow emotions Grandiose
Great actor Unrealistic fantasies
No conscience Personal uniqueness
Arrogant Needs admiration
Prone to boredom Insecure
Predatory Envies others
These individuals have few problems exploiting others if it suits their agenda. In fact, exploiting is one of their favorite games. A successful psychopath or narcissist may be brilliant and educated. A narcissist loves himself and will disregard anyone who is not as unique as he believes himself to be. However, he is probably less likely of the two to bury the opposition in his backyard. In fact, I would be mildly surprised, but only mildly.
Psychopaths and Narcissists are identified primarily by personality traits. Thought, criminal behavior is an item on the PCL-R (Hare), it is not required to reach the threshold. One can also be a Narcissist and a Psychopath. Yes, quite disconcerting …
Let’s take a closer look at the Narcissist.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (DSM V, 2013)
The criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior) need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following.
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement
- Is interpersonally exploitative
- Lacks empathy
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
Now, you have a picture emerging of a person who can be successful and charming. However, that charm is only an inch deep and cracking at the corners. This is the person who is never wrong, looks beautifully put together and expects special treatment and will make your aware of his/her specialness. They may be aloof, and predisposed to surround themselves with “yes” men and women. Attacks to their self-esteem will not be taken with good grace, even if the attacks are only perceived. Normally, they are not concerned about how you feel, though they may feign such concern on occasion if it will help them to achieve their objective. They seek the center of attention– after all, they are special. In the beginning of your relationship they may be terribly interesting, after a while their glitter may wear thin and only the exasperating self-adoration will linger.
Case Study of a Narcissist
I was pleased to see Jake and Ally when they arrived (late) for their first session. Jake was a striking man, tall, well dressed, and smugly attractive. I noticed that Ally had been biting her fingernails and her dress was buttoned wrong. She was obviously focused on something other than her appearance. Her hair looked as if she had just awakened from a troubled night. Under other circumstances, she would have been considered a very pretty woman. I knew from their intakes that Ally was a thirty-year-old marketing executive. Jake, the same age, was a successful banker. I know he was successful because he told me so twice in the first five minutes
They met through business and began dating rather quickly.
I looked at Jake again, not a hair was out of place. I was amazed that he could project such a flawless appearance.
Jake spoke first. He apologized for being late. It was Ally’s fault. He hates to be late, but she cannot seem to get herself together. He said, “You would think since she takes forever dressing that she would look more polished.” Ally glared at him, and then looked back down at her ragged nails. Jake continued, “Can you believe that she used to be beautiful and exciting? Just look at her now! When I chose her, she was the perfect companion and business hostess for me. All of my associates congratulated me on finding such a jewel. Do you think I introduce her to a business associate now? Huh, not likely…”
I was watching to see how they interacted.
Ally finally spoke, “I don’t know what to say or what to do. Nothing is ever good enough for Jake. No matter what I do, Jake gets angry and yells.”
Perhaps, to support the veracity of her statement, Jake yelled, “That is because you can’t think. You silly cow, if you would use a little logic–after all you have a degree—then you would not make stupid mistakes and embarrass me.”
I decided it was time for me to speak. “Jake,” I said, “I appreciate your trusting me enough to show me how you relate to Ally. Do you think that your behavior will enhance your relationship with her? Can you think of behaviors that might work better?”
Jake just stared at me. He grabbed his car keys off the table and stalked out of the office, slamming the door. I believe that may have been my shortest session. Ally began to cry and said, “Do you see what I mean? He blows up for no reason.”
Yes, I saw.
In the beginning, when they met in a business environment, Jake had been Prince Charming. Later he turned into the self-absorbed, demanding Mr. Grinch. She met his mask of perfection and dazzling fascination and did not recognize its short shelf life. Perhaps, you will recognize the mask when you see it.
Psychopath or Narcissist?
You have read the descriptions and case studies for both of these types. You probably have a relatively good idea of the differences and commonalities. I asked three experts in their fields for their professional observations on Narcissists and Psychopaths. Sam Vaknin is the author of “Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited
As opposed to most narcissists, psychopaths are either unable or unwilling to control their impulses or to delay gratification. They use their affected and ostentatious “rage” to control people and manipulate them into submission. Psychopaths are also sadistic: they take pleasure in inflicting pain on their victims or in deceiving them. They even find it funny! Both the psychopath and the narcissist disregard society, its conventions, social cues and social treaties. But the psychopath carries this disdain to the extreme and is likely to be a scheming, calculated, ruthless, and, sometimes, callous career criminal. Psychopaths really do not need other people while narcissists are addicted to narcissistic supply (the admiration, attention and envy of others).
One of the nation’s leading forensic psychiatrists, Dr. Bruce Harry evaluates mentally disordered offenders for the judicial and correctional systems at both the state and federal levels.
From a practical standpoint, Narcissists and Psychopaths are similar but not identically the same, especially in the workplace. Each deeply inside strongly resents submitting to the authority of someone over them, especially when that someone is of a kind particularly despised or resented by them. Each excessively uses others to accomplish their own ends and purposes. Each tends to see themselves as being above co-workers and supervisors. However, psychopaths in particular do not respond to anxiety or fear the way most other people do. Instead, they seek risky excitation, tend to fly by the seat of their pants (or, skirts), tend to commit crimes, and tend towards displays of anger and aggression.
A successful professional in finance offers the following perspectives about narcissists and financial success:
I’ve noted that for narcissists, the success breeds more success in financial areas, but then further creates a wall between developing emotional ties/binds with others. The financial gain or “hit” from winning the financial transaction outweighs any emotional support or build-up which is forgotten compared to the “hit” from the win.
These experts add insight into the differences in these two types and into the mind and motivation of the financially successful Narcissist.
Here you have your roadmaps or GPS for recognizing the narcissists and psychopaths among us. Keep in mind; one need not meet the full criteria for either disorder to be disruptive and/or disastrous in the workplace. One can meet some or many of the criteria and yet not be diagnosable. The percentage of these individuals in the population then increases from the estimated 1% each (for diagnosable narcissists and psychopaths) to a much higher number. One might think since they are “not really” psychopaths or narcissists they are Teddy Bears and can be handled with ease? One might be mistaken.
Though I love Winston Churchill, I must admit that he had narcissistic tendencies. Some of our most successful politicians, actors and CEOs have these tendencies. However, it takes more than that, they must also have brilliance and a true regard for their fellow beings to be a Churchill.
Special Note to Leaders
Yes, quite right, successful narcissists and psychopaths know how to play the game and win at any cost. However, a word of caution is due before you hire him or her—liability.
Bonus: Dr. Cleckely’s Book
Dr. Cleckely’s book is available for download (free) on my website www.themanipulativeman.net
Profiles where taken from, The Manipulative Man (2006)
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© 2016, Dr. Dorothy McCoy. All rights reserved.