Narcissist or Psychopath?

In recent years I’ve noticed a rise in the number of people talking about narcissists both in and outside of my clinic. Ex-partners, parents and friends are all being labelled narcissists. There are even facebook and instagram pages dedicated to recovering from relationships with narcissists.

At the heart of this is usually someone who has been hurt or treated very badly. When I briefly scanned the narcissist recovery pages, I saw more of the same. From a clinical point of view, I’m more likely to think of the abusive behaviours that are being described (manipulation, pathological lying, desire to dominate others, bullying and ruthlessness) as antisocial/psychopathic behaviours rather than narcissistic behaviours.

So what makes a narcissist?


To have a true narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you must have a distorted sense of being better than others and this is persistent in all areas of your life. Below are some key symptoms.


• Fantasising about power, beauty and success.
• Exaggerating achievements and abilities.
• Superiority, specifically towards people perceived as ‘lower’ in status
• Lack of awareness regarding others.
• Inflated sense of entitlement.
• Obsession with class and status.
• Exploiting others for personal gain.
• Lacking empathy, especially for perceived weaknesses.
• Strong desire for control over relationships.
• Envy for those perceived as being of a higher status.
• Inability to admit wrongdoing.
• Believing that others are envious of them.
• Severe anger if orders or directions are not followed by others.
• Can ‘write friends off’ permanently over small or imagined issues.
• Great pride in the accomplishments of children or family.
• Expecting constant praise and recognition for achievements.
• Unrealistic goal setting.
• Feeling hurt and rejected easily

You may recognise some of these symptoms above in yourself and someone you know. Don’t panic, remember that to have a true NPD, these symptoms have to be present pretty much all of the time. Just because you enjoy success every now and then, does not a narcissist make. To put it in perspective  NPD occurs in only 1% of  population and occurs mostly in men.

Unlike psychopaths, people with NPD may have feelings of deep insecurity beneath an arrogant exterior. People with NPD are difficult to be in relationships with because they either need their partner to be an extension of their narcissism (thereby maintaining the standard of superiority) or the partner must play a substandard role. Being a child of a narcissist can be a very difficult experience, because children are expected to achieve high standards to support the narcissists inflated sense of self, but generally the narcissist will take credit for any success. Failures or difficulties are treated extremely harshly as it is not consistent with maintaining the narcissists need for superiority.

A key sign for me when I work with true NPD, is the person expecting acknowledgement of specialness without the hard work, lack of willingness to do “ordinary” jobs even in the face of financial distress,  and attempts to disregard or devalue my role as a clinical psychologist or my appearance. Essentially the driving force for narcissism and psychopaths are different. Narcissism is more “I must be acknowledged as superior and get special treatment” and psychopathy is more “I will take what I want and I don’t care how I get it.”

Relationships and narcissists

If you see signs of narcissism in a person you are in a new relationship with, my recommendation is to leave the relationship swiftly. Being with a narcissist is very difficult and rarely results in a rewarding and equal relationship. People sometimes ask me about treatment for narcissism. This is an option but it takes many years of treatment to achieve personality change. Also, getting a NPD person to acknowledge a need for treatment is difficult. If you are already in a relationship with a narcissist you may need psychological support to help you manage the behaviours and expectations of your narcissist. Bruce Stevens, an Australian clinical psychologist has written a book which assists people to do this called “Mirror, Mirror, when self love undermines your relationship”.

If you are in a relationship that is abusive or makes you feel worthless, you may indeed be in a relationship with a person with strong psychopathic traits. Do seek assistance, you are worth it. See loveisrespect.org for more.

If you are the child of a narcissist, you may need psychological support to help assist you to come to terms with the impact of your childhood. It can also be helpful to learn how to manage your narcissistic parent’s difficult behaviours as an adult.

If you have narcissistic personality traits that you want to work on, do it! See a clinical psychologist for help or do some self-help reading. Self-compassion techniques can be good to reduce narcissistic traits because it’s not about self-esteem and “bigging yourself up”, rather it’s about connecting with human suffering and sameness including your own. Find ways to connect with others and contribute in ways that are not about personal gain.

Some people speculate narcissism is on the increase due to social media and modern world disconnection. Only time will tell. In the mean time, let’s do our bit by connecting, caring and giving in our communities. Lets model caring as personal success not just the outward trappings of life.

Disclaimer: material provided in this blog is for information purposes only. It is not a substitute for proper diagnosis, treatment or the provision of advice by an appropriate health professional.

About Nadene van der Linden

Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is the author of Tales from the parenting trenches. A clinical psychologist vs motherhood and Live life to the full. Your guide to feeling better sooner.
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