Sunday, May 18, 2014

Narcissist or Antisocial?

Following-up on my last post, "Mirror, Mirror," a reader wrote and asked if I might address Antisocial Personality Disorder in contrast to pathological narcissism. There was a time when I thought doing so was pretty straightforward since antisocial personality disorder was usually associated with a criminal history. I've since realized that's too simple because narcissists who become violent can end up with criminal records and antisocial types can be attractive and charismatic in the same way we usually think of narcissists. 

The picture becomes even more complicated when you think about other features they may have in common. For instance, both are well-known for being manipulative, self-centered, and resistant to feelings of guilt and remorse or responsibility for the damage they cause. "Lack of empathy" is how we describe this professionally, but in simpler terms, it means they can't imagine how it feels to be on the receiving end of their behavior. If a person's ability to empathize is impaired, they tend to act without considering the impact of their actions on others. The way this is expressed gives us an idea about how the narcissist and antisocial type differ.

Despite their belief that they are independent and need no one, narcissists really are very dependent upon others. The arrogant type needs admirers and the covert type, someone to use as a resource for self-esteem. As a consequence, in the initial stages of forming relationships, these individuals are seductive, conveying the image of the perfect friend,  colleague, or significant other. What they want is something else. Like the vampire's victim who willingly exposes her neck again and again, they want your trust, availability, and eager compliance. Only when you've been finally worn out, do they toss you aside like a wrinkled, faded newspaper.

Antisocial types can be seductive, too, but their goal is to obtain something specific and move on. Once they have it -- your money, property, virginity -- the relationship is over. You could say the narcissist invests for the long-term and the antisocial for short-term, immediate gains. A classic example is the retirement scheme that drains seniors of their financial resources, operated by the "pleasant young man who was so eager to help" and has skipped town with the money. Antisocial types consider people too much trouble to spend a great deal of time on them -- it's what you have that they find interesting. Narcissists want you and that's why they are so appealing.

Notice how both types can use people freely without the inconvenient interference of Freud's Super-Ego or conscience. Covert narcissists may be vaguely aware that others consider their behavior wrong or hurtful, but ultimately, how others feel doesn't matter to them. Arrogant narcissists and antisocial types simply don't take morality or conscience into account; they are ruled by pure self-interest. 

All three types are inclined to excuse their behavior on various grounds and criticize their victims for any negative consequences. Instead of internalizing blame and feeling guilty or ashamed, like most of us, they externalize these feelings and try to make it sound as though you're the one with the problem.  Techniques like "gaslighting," making up information in order to prompt a victim to doubt their perceptions or sanity, are commonly used to cover their true intentions. The antisocial type doesn't care whether their behavior violates the law; the idea may even be exciting to them. Arrogant narcissists can't imagine being held responsible for their actions since their natural superiority places them above culpability. Covert narcissists are convinced no one would even consider thinking of them as blameworthy in the first place. 

The reason covert narcissists feel immune to blame is due to their adeptness at creating a facade of innocence and using it to conceal their ulterior motives. Many find it hard to believe such a sweet, caring and ethical person could be deliberately deceptive. And, of course, this is precisely what the covert type is counting on. Their carefully-crafted, false persona enables them to operate surreptitiously, sometimes going undetected for years. Publicly, they don't wish to appear bothersome; privately, they are extremely high maintenance, intentionally draining others of their energy and well-being. 

In a sense, antisocial and narcissist exist on a continuum with the antisocial type lying more towards the asocial extreme and arrogant narcissists on the extroverted, social end. More introverted, yet also socially-oriented, the covert narcissist lies somewhere toward the middle. All of them exhibit an absence of regard for the thoughts, feelings, and values of others. All of them find it easy to lie and all of them are predatory to some degree. 

Predatory is a strong word but it gets to the heart of the matter. The individuals we've been describing are serial users. Whether they appear innocently grandiose or intentionally deceptive, they view others as resources, as means to an end. Adulation is just as important to an arrogant narcissist as ill-gotten gain to a criminal antisocial type. A covert narcissist plans his emotional ambush as carefully as a master thief. To them, the rest of us are sheep waiting to be sheared or resources waiting to be tapped. That we might be anything else never crosses their minds.   

(Creative Commons Image of Narcissus by Tiago Costa Nepomuceno via Flickr)

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