They all wear a mask – so how do you tell the difference?
Most people who have an experience like mine will nowadays say they were the victim of a narcissist – meaning someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s the buzzword nowadays, it’s the first diagnosis you will come across if you google symptoms – but some of the most famous and useful blogs you will read are actually describing sociopaths or psychopaths.
I can almost hear the outrage from here: ‘she’s not qualified! How dare she make a diagnosis! Even a psychiatrist or other doctor shouldn’t diagnose at a distance!’ Well, that’s all well and good if we were talking about medical diagnosis (but even in that case, doctors and other medical professionals can and do diagnose online or via telephone). But even a quick google will bring up all the problems with psychiatric diagnosis.
Psychiatric diagnosis for many years has been driven by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) – a manual designed to classify mental illness for the purposes of insurance. This is actually the medicalisation of human distress at best, and a tool of enforcing societal norms at worst – homosexuality was famously listed in the DSM until 1973.
You cannot do any diagnostic tests for mental illness. All the ‘illnesses’ listed in the DSM are determined by fitting symptoms into descriptive categories. Add to that the ubiquitous ‘sliding scales’ between disorders, where many symptoms overlap between diagnostic categories, and unsurprisingly, inter-rater and even intra-rater reliability in psychiatric diagnosis is low – so low in some studies that you might as well toss a coin. And you won’t find the term psychopath or sociopath in the DSM – it is all shoved in with Anti-social Personality Disorder. So when you get people discussing narcs and socios, there is no certainty that they are discussing the same thing.
The received wisdom is that ‘all socios are narcs, but not all narcs are socios’. So, especially given the ‘sliding scale’ of arbitrary psychiatric diagnosis, how do you decide the difference? Where is the sociopath cut-off point?
Even after that cut-off point, you have the recently arisen concept that ‘psychopaths are born, and sociopaths are made’. Erm – we don’t even know for sure that the findings or brain scans (MRI or fMRI) are causation or effect. The ‘best guess’ is that a callous lack of empathy is the result of a perfect storm of genetics, hormones and upbringing, and that a loving upbringing can possibly mediate some of the worst effects. But we don’t know.
However, if you have been around narcs and socios a lot (or even one good example of each), then the distinction becomes more clear. It isn’t the behaviour that defines them (because they often behave exactly the same way), it is the motivation behind it.
The core of the narcissist is shame. They learned at an early age that if you are imperfect, then you are a bad person. Faced with the evidence of their own imperfection, they create a False Self as a defence – they find any glimpse of their true wounded self intolerable, so they must keep it hidden. This False Self must be maintained even to themselves, at all times. They seek validation from others, all others, all the time. The high opinion of the outside world bolsters their False Self, and is the primary way they feel ok about themselves. The narcissist knows that if ‘the outside world’ saw them as they really are, they would be rejected, whereas family and close friends will be more tolerant. When you see a person who cares more about what ‘the world’ thinks of them than what their own family thinks of them, then you are looking at a narcissist.
To the narcissist, people who do wrong things are bad people. If they themselves were to do something wrong, then that would mean they were a bad person to. They therefore cannot ever be in the wrong – if they behave badly, it must be because they were driven to it – it was someone else’s fault, an error anyone would have made, their only option in the circumstances and what anyone would have done. IT WASN’T THEIR FAULT! All their behaviours stem from justifying their actions, however vile those actions are.
A narc has one False Self, and that Self is a single charming face they show the world and all their new acquaintances. A narc has a conscience, and can have empathy, but that empathy will fail at the point where it is in conflict with maintaining the False Self.
A socio, on the other hand, has no conscience and no empathy. They know they are different and revel in it. Their motivation is control and winning ‘the game’ – any game they decide they are playing. They play for status, or for sustenance, or for fun They may choose to maintain a false face to the world if it suits their plans, but many socios are scathing of the world in general and couldn’t care less what other people think. The only people who matter are their targets, and they will choose whatever false face is needed to hook the target. They can literally transform themselves between targets.
Those who choose status as their prize are the ones who maintain a false face to the world, and are commonly known as psychopaths.
There’s actually an easy way to tell a socio from a narc, and that is whether or not you ever get a sincere-sounding apology. A narc cannot apologise – that would imply they are wrong, which would make them ‘bad’, and they cannot be bad. At best, you get a grudging and fake-sounding one, full of justifications. A socio will apologise at the drop of a hat, with tears, with reparations, with whatever is needed to get the target back on side. If you are not the target, you won’t get an apology though, because they aren’t sorry and they don’t care.
To muddy the waters, socios will sometimes play the ‘it’s not my fault’ game, for the entertainment value. They ‘win’ by getting you to believe that everything is your fault. But show signs of stopping playing, and they will apologise profusely. They will also do something that a narc will never do – admit it all. If you somehow have an interaction with the socio after you are of no use to them, they will tell you their whole game, all the ways they had you twisting on a stick, and often all the ways they are going to do the same to their latest target. It’s one last win for them. Of course, if they decide at a later date that you have something they need, they’ll pretend they were drunk, or mentally ill, or whatever at the time they fessed up. They weren’t. A narcissist would NEVER do this.
All are dangerous, and sociopaths especially so because unlike the psychopath, they are impulsive and have little self-control so they become violent easily. Narcissists are less likely to kill you because they have to find a reason that would justify it to themselves. Socios and psychopaths don’t need that reason and will kill you if it helps them win the game – a psychopath will plan it and is less likely to get caught, a socio might do it impulsively as a response to losing control.
They are all capable of destroying your life, leaving you emotionally, financially and spiritually drained, staring at the debris of the things you once loved, and struggling to find the person you were before you became lost under the avalanche of accommodations you had to make for them.
This is why I believe Steve was a sociopath. I survived. I was lucky.