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Thriller Thursday: Narcissist or Psychopath?

Welcome back to our resident psychologist, mystery author Kassandra Lamb. She’s got a great post for us today. Please be sure to leave her some love:)

Five Differences Between Narcissists and Psychopaths

Thanks so much, Stacy, for inviting me to Thriller Thursday.

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Criminal Minds, but every now and then they tick me off. The other night, my husband and I were watching an episode (from Season Five) and the BAU team kept referring to the serial killer as a narcissist. Never once did they point out that he was also a psychopath.

What’s the big difference, you might be wondering. There are some pretty significant differences. In this particular Criminal Minds case, narcissism was the motive, but being a psychopath was what allowed the killer to ruthlessly murder random women to fulfill his narcissistic needs.

And no, this isn’t a semantic hair split.

First let’s clarify what narcissists and psychopaths have in common. They both have personality disorders (narcissistic and antisocial). This means that their unhealthy behaviors and attitudes are very deeply ingrained. They are part of their basic personalities.

Costanzi_narcissus_and_echo pub domain wiki
The term ‘narcissist’ comes from the Greek myth about a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.

Second they are both egocentric. They are very focused on themselves–their feelings, their needs, their desires. It’s all about them. Now to how they are different.

1.  Empathy: Psychopaths have none. They are incapable of experiencing and don’t care about other people’s emotions. Their own feelings, on the other hand, are all important. They view other people’s feelings as something to be manipulated.

Narcissists are so totally focused on their own feelings that they almost always miss the cues regarding others’ emotions, even when the other person tells them what they’re feeling.

“Honey, when you do such-and-such, that really hurts my feelings.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, but…”

Narcissists can be masters at “yeah, butting” their way through a discussion of feelings. However, if you can get them to realize how their behavior is affecting someone else, they are capable of empathy. But you may need to smack them upside the head with a two-by-four a few times to get their attention.

2.  Remorse: Narcissists have a conscience; they feel guilt and remorse. Psychopaths do not.

Are narcissists capable of violence? Most definitely! A fair number of wife-batterers are narcissists. Are they capable of murder? Oh, yeah, especially in a fit of rage. They may even commit cold-blooded murder but they would have to be able to justify it to themselves, because they would feel remorse. They might tell themselves that the person didn’t deserve to live. Or they wouldn’t have gotten hurt if they’d just done what they were told to do, say in an armed robbery situation gone bad.

The psychopathic killer doesn’t have to rationalize to appease their guilt, because they don’t feel any. They may even get off on the power that violence gives them over others.

Narcissists crave being the center of attention. Photo by Thore Siebrands, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

3.  Can they change?  Narcissists, maybe. Psychopaths, extremely unlikely. Because narcissists are capable of empathy and remorse, once you get their attention, they may be motivated to change. But personality disorders, by definition, are very hard to ‘cure’ because they are so deeply ingrained in the person’s basic make-up.

I have ‘cured’ a couple personality disorders in my career as a psychotherapist, one of them a narcissist. And I know firsthand of another case of narcissism where there was considerable change. This latter case was the husband of one of my clients. (Note: I have changed several details in this story to protect confidentiality.) Over the first couple years of their marriage, his behavior became increasingly emotionally abusive. His new wife told him repeatedly that this was not okay. Finally she’d had enough. While he was at work one day, she moved out. He came home to a completely empty apartment–no wife, no furniture, no dog. That was the two-by-four upside his head!

He begged her to come back to him but she stuck to her guns. (I was very proud of her.) He agreed to go into therapy but she still wouldn’t move back. They remained separated for almost a year while he worked with a therapist and they saw a couples counselor together. After she moved back in, he continued in therapy until he had healed from the childhood experiences that had warped his personality development in the first place. Last I heard from them, this couple was still happily married.

I have never heard of an actual case of antisocial personality disorder (i.e, a psychopath) being cured. The best a therapist may accomplish–and this is a long shot–is to get the person to change some of their behavior by convincing them that behavior is not in their own best interests. In other words, it’s still all about them.

While psychopaths may very well be loners.
While psychopaths may very well be loners.

4.  The underlying emotions and motivations: Both narcissists and psychopaths come from bad childhood situations, often with some kind of abuse. The outcomes of these experiences are different however. Narcissists are riddled with self-doubt. They are trying to build themselves up to compensate for this. They are needy little kids in adult bodies who put on a false and often arrogant front.

Psychopaths genetically start out with different wiring (see my previous guest post, The Making of a Psychopath). They have more difficulty feeling remorse and empathy than other children do. Add to that a bad home environment and what little bit of these feelings they were capable of is drummed out of them.

They certainly aren’t confident people but they aren’t blatantly concerned about their self-image either. They usually lack introspection. They really don’t think about it.

5.  Seeking attention/adoration vs. seeking thrills: Narcissists care what others think of them. They may cover this up with false bravado but they really want praise and adulation. They are often braggarts, exaggerating their own accomplishments while envying others’ success.

A psychopath may also be full of themselves and they aren’t going to tolerate anything that strikes them as a putdown, but for the most part they don’t give a flying you-know-what about what others think of them. Their showing off or bragging is more about power. They are getting off on feeling superior to others, and especially if other people are afraid of them.

Another problem with the psychopath’s initial wiring is that his/her (more often his) nervous system is under-responsive to stimulation. It takes a lot to get them excited. Normal everyday life, that makes most of us feel fairly happy, is totally boring and leaves them feeling dead inside.  They’re constantly seeking high levels of stimulation–the adrenaline rush, the thrill that will make them feel alive for a little while.

I’ve had narcissists vs. psychopaths on the mind lately because a key character in my latest novel is a recovered narcissist. He is a former client of psychotherapist Kate Huntington and when she first started working with him years ago she thought he might be a psychopath. (The line between the two is fuzzy sometimes.) After a lot of hard work in therapy, he transformed himself into the person he wanted to be and built the good life he’d always wanted.

And then his past comes back to haunt him. He meets a man at a party whom he used to know years ago, by a different name and under very different circumstances.

I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to check out the book. And then feel free to ask any questions you may have about narcissists vs. psychopaths.



When a former client reaches out to psychotherapist Kate Huntington and reveals a foreign diplomat’s dark secret, then dies of ‘natural causes’ just days later, Kate isn’t sure what to think. Was the man delusional or is she now privy to dangerous information?

Soon she discovers her client was totally sane… and he was murdered. Someone is now trying to eliminate her, and anyone and everyone she might have told. Forced into hiding, she and her husband, Skip, along with the operatives of his private investigating agency, struggle to stay one step ahead of a ruthless killer. Skip and his P.I. partner are good investigators, but this time they may be in over their heads… and they could all end up drowning in a sea of international intrigue.

(This book is part of a series but is designed to work quite well as a stand-alone.)




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27 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Narcissist or Psychopath?”

  1. Thanks. Stacy, for having me over to guest post on Thriller Thursday. It is an honor. And I always enjoy hanging out at your place. Love the decor! 😉

  2. Have you watched the new series Hannibal, Kassandra? I really love how Mads Mikkelsen plays Dr. Lecter – your talk of psychopathy made me think about him.

    One of these days I need to geek out about personality disorders with you (I’ve been long fascinated with reading about them).

    Stacy – thanks for hosting Kassandra!

    • Honestly, I can’t watch Hannibal, Amber. It gives me nightmares, probably because I’ve known a few psychopaths. But I would love to geek out about personality disorders with you some time.

  3. The thing that fascinates me is how many narcissists are out there! I haven’t watched Hannibal yet but The Red Dragon is one of my all time favorite books. Just brilliantly messed up characters.

    • I don’t think I have to point out that Hannibal is a full-blown psychopath, but as you say there are more narcissists out there. And with some of them, it’s hard to tell which side of the line they’re on. But ‘messed up’ is a real good term for either one.

  4. I love these articles, Kass. Thanks so much for writing them.

    And, for anybody who is not sold on COLLATERAL CASUALTIES, it is a great read. Very exciting, and I did not guess the “bad guy” until the very end.

  5. Fascinating, Kass! So psychopaths are incurable…what to do about them, though, if it’s obvious they are a psychopath, but haven’ been caught breaking the law yet? Is being a psychopath an automatic “lock you up” sentence? Oh, and is it always a function of bad genes AND family dysfunction, or can a family end up with a psychopathic child without having done anything wrong?

    Thanks for the cool info.

    • I won’t say it’s impossible to cure a psychopath but I’ve never seen or heard of an actual case where that happened. And no, they can’t be locked up until they break the law, but showing signs of antisocial personality disorder may count against them at parole hearings.

      It’s a complicated interaction between the genes and the environment. A lot depends on the degree of predisposition the child inherits. If there is a strong genetic predisposition, then the child will be very hard to discipline. They will often laugh when you punish them. This can cause parents to either become harsher or to give up and become permissive. Either response will usually aggravate the antisocial tendencies. So the parents blunder along and the kid gets more and more out of control.

      If the parents seek help, or school counselors/social services get involved, they may be able to learn different parenting approaches that can turn things around. Also only about 25% of delinquent kids end up meeting the criteria for antisocial personality disorder as adults. This doesn’t necessarily mean they become model citizens. They may just realize that they’d better behave, because now if they break the law they’re going to the Big House, not Juvie Hall.

      Great questions, Kathy!!

  6. Pingback: The End is Near (and we deserve it) . . . Krispy Kreme Sloppy Joe « Bayard & Holmes

  7. great post Kassndra. very well put. I’m with you, some of the psychopaths on television are too terrifying to watch. LOL

  8. This is all soooooooo interesting. And sad. And scary. Great info, Kassandra!
    Stacy, thanks for having Kassandra as your guest! Really cool post.

  9. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for all the concrete details. Pretty sure I’ve known people of both types, after reading your descriptions.

  10. That is neat! Such great insight 🙂 Thanks for the epic post! I actually suspect someone I know may be a narcissist (eep!). Never easy to deal with, but I liked the tips you shared.

    • Better a narcissist than a psychopath! Glad you found the post so helpful. By tips are you referring to the two-by-four upside the head? 🙂 I did not mean that literally, btw, no matter how tempting it may be. LOL

  11. Pingback: Thriller Thursday: Can Psychopaths Be Cured? | Stacy Green – Get Twisted!

  12. You are the first person I have ever heard say that a narcissist can change. I don’t believe they can and this give people in bad relationships with these crazy people false hope. The only way to deal with a narcacists is to get away from them.

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