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When describing an abusive partner, the terms narcissist, psychopath and sociopath often get thrown around. But what do they really denote?
“A lot of people are using these terms interchangeably,” says Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, in a recent interview on the topic. However, it’s important to clarify, she says, “Every psychopath is narcissist, but not every narcissist is psychopathic.”
Want to classify an abuser correctly? Here’s how you spot each, per Durvsula:
A narcissist lacks empathy, is grandiose, entitled, constantly seeks validation and is arrogant. “When they do a bad thing, they feel a fair amount of guilt and shame,” says Durvasula.
According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissists can also become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment. They belittle others in order to appear superior. They exaggerate their achievements and talents. They monopolize conversations and disparage those they consider inferior.
Narcissists also have major problems adapting to change. They easily feel slighted and have secret feelings of insecurity, shame and humiliation.
Narcissism affects more men than women and signs begin to show in teens to early adulthood. It’s unclear if narcissism is an inherited characteristic or if there’s a neurobiological cause behind it. It’s also suspected it could be caused by one’s environment, either through excessive adoration or excessive criticism.
For a more in-depth list of ways narcissism may show up in domestic violence, read, “20 Ways Manipulative Narcissists Silence You.”
A psychopath has no guilt, no shame and no remorse. “They do bad things and they don’t care. They’re great serial killers or hired assassins,” says Durvasula.
PET scans of the brains of psychopaths show the section that serves empathy “doesn’t light up for them,” says Durvsula. In other words, when they think of people in pain, they are unable to process it, and make decisions related to it.
More concerning, a psychopath’s brain actually shows an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain, reports ScienceDaily.
“They’re cool as can be. They could lie on a lie detector test. That’s how they get away with stuff,” says Durvsula. “They could get pulled over … and have a dead body in the trunk and they wouldn’t care.”
One study showed that children who witness domestic violence may be more likely to turn into psychopaths as adults, though it is not a cause-and-effect situation.
“The results do not prove that witnessing domestic violence in childhood is a cause of psychopathy,” lead study author Monika Dargis, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told LiveScience. The exact reasons behind the potential link are unclear, say researchers, but it’s thought that children who witness manipulative and coercive behaviors from abusers may eventually develop these behaviors as adults.
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A sociopath shares all the same traits as a psychopath, but the difference between them and psychopaths, says Durvsula, is that a psychopath is born—their disorder may be genetic—and a sociopath is made. Something bad has happened to this person to make them this way, explains Durvsula, “like the kid who grows up in a really rough neighborhood who learns to be a bully to get by.”
Bill Eddy, licensed clinical social worker, tells Psychology Today that a sociopath’s driving force is to dominate others. They like the feeling of power and control (hello, abusive partners). They also tend to be extremely fast talkers, will switch back and forth quickly between charm and threats, and will elicit gut feelings of fear in those around them.
“Sociopaths can be predators, so you may naturally feel uncomfortable being alone with them,” writes Eddy. “You may suddenly get the feeling that you want to get out of a situation. Go, and ask questions later.”
Proceed With Caution
According to Durvsula, dating one of the above types of people who begins to show abusive tendencies could mean serious trouble.
“It could be a very dangerous thing. Hurting someone gives them power. They [may] dispose of you if you get in their way.”
Learn more about setting boundaries and recognizing nonviolent individuals in “How Do You Find Safe People?”
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