This is an interesting question that is sometimes asked by people who’ve become interested in researching toxic personality types. Having two psychopaths or two narcissists butting heads with each other is one thing (we’ve covered the former in a separate article), but what about when a psychopath and a narcissist interact with each other? What happens then?
This is interesting because you have two fundamentally toxic and manipulative personality types that both fall into the Cluster B category, but there are actually fundamental differences between the two that can make interactions between them very interesting.
Here is a summary answer:
In any interactions between a psychopath and narcissist, the psychopath will usually have the upper hand, since the narcissistic personality is far more fragile and broken than the psychopathic personality. Their constant need for attention, adoration and other forms of “supply” leave them very open to manipulation and control by the psychopath, who usually becomes aware of this fact very quickly.
Put simply, the narcissist has too many weaknesses that the psychopath can exploit, which means that if it ever comes to ego battles and power trips, the psychopath is usually going to win. In terms of predatory mindset and ruthlessness, they are both bad, but the psychopath has that little bit extra over the narcissist that puts them in control.
Let’s look in each personality type in more detail, including crucial differences, so we can see why this is the case.
They May Stroke Each Other’s Egos
When a psychopath and narcissist come into contact with each other, either in a work or social setting, the interaction can sometimes appear perfectly friendly, especially if it’s only fleeting contact. The classical narcissist would probably start talking about themselves and how great they are, and the psychopath might be happy to play along with this for a short term interaction, as long as they get their ego stroked a little in return.
There can be a back and forth arrangement here that can seem to work for short term interactions, some mutual “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” dynamics.
However, regardless of the outer appearance of their interactions with each other, you can be sure that both of them have scanned and clocked each other as having a predatory, exploitative mindset. There’s a certain dance that goes on between fellow psychopaths and sociopaths, and it’s much the same with psychopaths and narcissist, because they all fall into the same Cluster B category of exploitative and manipulative personality disorders.
The psychopath might be happy to let the narcissist prattle on about themselves for a bit, perhaps even slightly amused at how easily they reveal their weak spots – a desperate need for attention and adoration.
The narcissist in return might scan the psychopath for weaknesses, but it’s much harder to find them, plus they have a lot of blind spots of their own that are too easy for the psychopath to exploit down the line. We’ll cover both these topics in the rest of this post.
Whether they realize it or not, the narcissist is usually on the back foot already as soon as they meet a psychopath, especially if the relationship is not fleeting and there are power dynamics involved which will play out over time.
The Psychopath Will Usually Win in a Power Struggle
The bottom line on this is that if there is any kind of confrontation or ego battle between a psychopath and a narcissist, the psychopath will win, since their personality is built solely for gaining power and control over others.
The narcissistic personality is also a power fixated one, but is also fundamentally far more fragile and broken than the psychopath. The narcissist is also essentially an attention and “supply” addict, which leaves them very open and vulnerable to being manipulated by anyone who can see this is what the narcissist craves, and feed it to them (and withdraw it) on demand.
The psychopath doesn’t have this same need for adoration and supply, and moreover will very quickly latch onto the fact that someone else does have this weakness. Within the first 15-30 minutes of meeting someone, a psychopath will have scanned this person for weaknesses, vanities, aspirations, insecurities and so on. With the narcissist, these will not be very hard to find.
It will become quickly apparent that the narcissist:
- Needs adoration and attention
- Needs to feel special and unique
- Needs to feel superior to others.
The psychopath will store all this away comfortable in the knowledge that, should the narcissist even try to confront the psychopath, they can exploit these weaknesses and starve the narcissist of supply, puncturing their fragile self image.
The narcissist on the other hand, may also scan the psychopath for weaknesses, but it’ll be far harder to find any. The psychopath doesn’t have the same need for attention and adoration as them, so this can’t be played on. Their self image, while also toxic and shame based at the core, is covered by a much thicker and harder to penetrate shell, fine tuned to quickly gain power and control in every interaction.
You can’t get a psychopath in the palm of your hand by telling them how great they are and stroking their ego like you can with a narcissist. They may play along, but they’ll be well aware that this is what you are doing. They’re watching and observing others constantly, and view the world with a cool, calculating detachment.
Psychopaths and sociopaths, while toxic and manipulative, actually have a very confident, grounded sense of self, and cannot be so easily destabilized like the narcissist can. See the section further below where we flesh out some of the crucial differences between the two personalities in more detail, to see how the psychopath usually has the upper hand.
The Narcissistic Personality Explained
Let’s quickly run though the main characteristics of each personality disorder. Both fall into the Cluster B category, and there is overlap, but also some crucial differences.
Here’s an overview of the narcissistic personality:
- Is often thought to arise from excessive spoiling in childhood, or an alternating pattern of abuse and spoiling. Over time, this objectification destroys the real self of the child, and a false, grandiose shell self comes up in it’s place.
- This shell self is very fragile and needs feeding constant “supply” – the psychopath does not have this vulnerability.
- Characterized by an excessive need for attention and adoration
- Often features a false, grandiose sense of self, a feeling of being special and superior to others. Their relationship with reality is broken, which puts them at a disadvantage to the psychopath.
- Punctuated by a constant need for “supply” – attention, adoration, affection, praise, entertainment etc.
- They may also be a need to attack and disparage others to bolster their feeling of superiority.
- If this supply is ever withdrawn, the narcissist can fall into depletion and appear deflated. This is when they often start attacking others to make themselves feel “full” again.
See here and here for more on the 9 official traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – if someone ticks off 5 or more of the 9 traits, they are classified as full blown NPD. These people cannot be cured or changed.
“The NPD is a uniquely broken type of disorder….There isn’t another personality disorder quite like the narcissistic personality disorder. Some people would even argue that because of the differences with other major personality disorders, it doesn’t even qualify properly as a personality disorder, because it’s actually more like a machine like series of defense mechanisms that plays out in a very, very predictable way.
Which is why all narcissists sound the same. Which is why when you have someone who either has NPD, or is very familiar with NPD, they can predict with a high degree of accuracy, what your NPD will do next, or what they’re saying to you actually means, because they all think the same way”
Richard Grannon – Spartan Life Coach
The predicable and machine- like nature of a narcissist’s personality that this block-quote alludes to is one of the key factors that puts them at a disadvantage when engaged with any power dynamics with a psychopath. We’ll cover this more below.
The narcissist is malignantly in love with their own false self image, and the psychopath can easily play on this weakness
The Psychopathic Personality Explained
Let’s contrast this with the psychopathic personality, which also currently under the Cluster B spectrum of personality disorders, but is instead often called Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD).
This disorder is characterized by:
- Glib, superficial charm
- A fundamentally manipulative, deceitful and exploitative personality style
- A callous lack of empathy or regard for others
- A sense of entitlement and superiority over others.
- A fixation with power and control over others.
- A lack of impulse control (an important difference with narcissists).
- A complete lack of ability to feel remorse or guilt for wrongdoing.
- See our article on the Psychopathy Traits Checklist (PCL-R) for more traits.
- Crossover trait – all psychopaths will have some narcissistic traits, but not all narcissists are psychopaths. Psychopathy is distinct from narcissism, even though some traits cross over.
The origins of psychopathy remains hotly debated. Some experts argue that biological and genetic factors play a part; others argue that environment is the crucial deciding factor. For now, let’s compromise with the general conclusion that when a possible genetic predisposition is combined with a toxic, invalidating and abusive childhood, the results are not good. Like narcissism, psychopathy has proven completely incurable, with attempts to treat them often making them worse.
Crucial Differences Between the Psychopathic & Narcissistic Personalities
Here are some more crucial distinguishing criteria between the psychopathic and narcissistic personalities, which explain why in any interaction which becomes confrontational and power based, the psychopath will almost always win:
1. Inner Restraint/Morality – Whilst both the psychopathic and narcissistic personalities are fundamentally toxic at the core, it is true that some narcissists can sometimes have the slightest (temporary) glimmerings of conscience and guilt/shame, especially when they do something very bad. They also do have an interest in maintaining their precious self image, and so will sometimes avoid doing things which will expose them as a bad person to large groups of people all at once.
The psychopathic personality has neither of these constraints. They don’t suffer from any pangs of conscience or guilt, even temporarily in the short term. They don’t lie awake at night thinking of what they’ve done to others. And they don’t care what others think of them. So they’ll go to lengths that even the narcissist would not go to to win any battle of wills. They literally don’t care.
The psychopath and narcissist are both immoral personalities, but the psychopath is the one with literally no boundaries, zero conscience, no filter and no limits. Even the narcissist can’t compete with that sometimes.
2. Personality Weaknesses – A huge factor. Despite the fact that both the narcissistic and psychopathic personalities fall under the Cluster B definition of disorders (provocative, dramatic and reaction seeking), the narcissistic personality has far more weaknesses and “chinks in the armor” than the psychopathic one. Full blown NPD is a peculiarly broken type of personality, fundamentally very weak at the core, whereas the psychopathic personality is more ruthless in it’s foundation and has far less weaknesses to exploit.
With a narcissist, you can just find out their vanities and main source(s) of supply, and feed them this supply to easily manipulate and control them. The psychopath is far less easy to manipulate, and has a personality style that is fundamentally fixated not primarily on getting supply, but on gaining power over others before others gain power over them. If you try to scan the psychopath for weaknesses, you can be guaranteed that they have already scanned you for weaknesses first; they will always be ahead of a narcissist or anyone else on that.
3. Emotional Reactions – Related to the above point, both psychopaths and narcissists are in the business of provoking emotional reactions in others to make themselves feel good (provocative and reaction seeking disorders). However, when seeking to turn the tables, it’s much easier to provoke an emotional reaction in a narcissist, by pushing their buttons, than it is for a psychopath.
With a narcissist, there are some well known and well worn tactics you can use to pretty easily provoke and infuriate them by poking at their fragile ego, like suggesting or implying they are boring, dull, uninteresting and unexceptional (see our article on these and other ways to irritate and narcissist). It’s actually quite easy once you understand the broken and fragile nature of NPD; despite the image they project, they are aren’t at all powerful and are quite vulnerable.
With a psychopath, it’s much harder to provoke an emotional reaction, as they don’t have the same weaknesses. It’s like their whole personality, from a very early age, has been fine tuned and fixated on finding the weaknesses of others as quickly as possible and storing them away for later use, and on minimizing or eliminating their own weaknesses. Psychopaths are power addicts, not supply addicts.
Some psychologists who deal with psychopath serial killers say that their relationship with their mother is one potential weak spot in their personality you can use to “pry them open”, but it’s less clear whether this works with non-violent psychopaths you’ll meet in everyday life.
Bottom line – it’s much harder to find and push a psychopath’s buttons than it is for a narcissist. They just don’t have the same vanities and desperate need for supply that the narc does, and instead are power fixated personalities who are in the business of dominating others before they can be dominated themselves.
“There is no doubt that if (the psychopath) had come from cold, indifferent, unloving parents, who kept on using the will to power to destroy and humiliate him, then he’s very likely to be forced into submission, and then become a disciple of the will to power.
He may become a disciple of the master-slave dynamic, because he’s trying to find the power that he was denied. He’s trying to exercise it on other people. He’s trying to be the master before he can be mastered. You’ll read this in numerous books on the subject….these specialists are always telling you that these guys want to kill before they’re killed. They do see the world as a very frightening place…..
….these are people who really want revenge on the world, because they think the world has hurt them. And in many cases maybe they’re right”
Psychopaths Interacting With Narcissists in the Workplace
There are some potential slight variants on this dynamic when you have a psychopath and a narcissist meeting in the workplace. How this scenario plays out often depends on who’s above who in the hierarchy – the current power dynamics.
If the psychopath is the boss anyway, and has power over the narcissist (which is common anyway because psychopaths are always seeking to move up the ladder and gain power and quickly as possible in a work setting), then it’s more clear cut. The power fixated personality has the power, and the narcissist knows it.
Depending on the culture of the workplace, the psychopath may or may not abuse this power over the narc, but in any event, in this scenario, they have both the psychological and hierarchical advantage, so there isn’t much the narcissist can do, except stroke the psychopath’s ego and get their supply off the people below them.
In cases where it’s the narcissist technically in charge of the psychopath, it’s more cunning and sneaky. I’ve seen this dynamic myself, and it can also be very toxic. The psychopath wants to get power over the narcissist, but it’s less easy to do this as they don’t have organizational power over them. They have to be more sneaky and psychologically manipulate the narcissist manager.
In this case, there might be an initial back and forth ego battle between them, with the narcissist attacking the psychopath, and the psychopath will not like this at all and bad-mouth the narcissist to others (onlookers need to document this to protect themselves from the psychopath’s scheming down the line).
Eventually though, I’ve seen a couple of times where after some back and forth, there’s kind of a stalemate, and then the psychopath actually starts manipulating the narcissist manager, playing on his ego, playing to his vanities, feeding him supply, talking his language. He still hates his narcissist superior every bit as much, but now he’s being more cunning in setting up situations where the narcissist and/or others get set up and screwed over.
Eventually, once he’s got the egotistical, easy-to-manipulate narcissist manager into his good books, he’ll start manipulating their perception of others. Over time, he’ll use this influence to start launching smear campaigns against others he sees as a threat, which may or may not lead to blow ups down the line where good workers are unfairly blamed for any problems which arise and end up leaving, or may be set up and fired.
Psychopaths Ruining Companies from Within (Often Manipulating Narcissists Along The Way):
To add insult to injury, once the blowup has happened and good people have been fired or left, word may get out about the unfairness, and the manipulative psychopath will often bad mouth the narcissist manager to others, seemingly agreeing with others about the unfairness of the smear campaign he covertly created himself!
So he gets the best of both worlds, screwing over both a rival employee he didn’t like or saw as a threat, as well as damaging the image of the narcissist manager to fellow workers. See our article on this and other manipulative tactics psychopaths will use to cause trouble in workplaces (they get off on screwing over others and making good people suffer).
So how workplace politics between Cluster B’s plays out all depends on who’s technically in charge, but one thing is for sure – when you’ve got a workplace with either a psychopath or a narcissist in control of others, and butting heads with other toxic personalities, it’s not going to be a good environment. See our guide on psychopathic workplaces for more on this.