Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) have some similarities that can make them difficult to distinguish. But they are fundamentally different and it’s important to recognize the differences in order to understand yourself or others.
Typically, and greatly simplifying, while those with NPD typically need to feel special, those with OCPD need to escape accusations from themselves or others of moral failure.
Certainly there can be overlap between the two. Theoretically, someone could meet the diagnostic criteria for both, or just have traits of both.
But one or the other is usually primary, and confusing the two can lead to failures in clinical treatment and misunderstandings in relationships. In fact, one criticism of early Freudian treatment had been that narcissistic individuals were treated as if they were obsessive-compulsive–with very unsatisfying results. OCPD may also be mistaken for NPD.
On a less clinical level, if you mistakenly think your partner has one of these personality disorders when they really have the other, you may misunderstand their motivations and arrive at misleading conclusions about how (or whether) to try to work things out.
Caveat: Diagnosis Tells Us Which State We’re In–Not the Neighborhood
Before I go on though, let’s acknowledge that these diagnostic categories are based on generalizations, and within each one there is great variation. Likened to maps, they tell us which state people are in, but not the neighborhood. And I assure you, go to Louisiana and you’ll find the French Quarter in New Orleans much different from Carriage Quarters in Shreveport. For instance, narcissists can be overt or covert, and compulsives can be leaders or helpers.
Still, it’s good to know whether you’re in Louisiana or Montana.
Similarities Between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
Here are some ways that narcissists and obsessive-compulsives can seem alike. (Again, there is great variation within each personality style):
- Both appear to aspire to ideals of perfection.
- Both can become rigid and controlling.
- Both can be unempathic and lack generosity.
- Both can be angry and judgmental.
- Both need affirmation from outside.
- Both compensate for insecurity because they have difficulty regulating self-esteem.
Differences Between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
But look more closely and the differences become clearer:
- Narcissists feel entitled to admiration and special treatment without effort.
- Compulsives work tirelessly, even hurting themselves and their loved ones, to earn respect.
- Narcissists override rules and convention for self-interest.
- Compulsives are overly conscientious and sees rules as important. This may lead them to act against their own self-interest. Because guilt prevents them from being directly self-serving, they may rationalize and unconsciously shape rules to serve their own interests.
- Narcissists may change their ideals to suit the occasion and get the most for themselves.
- Compulsives hold deep and even rigid belief systems. They can be inflexible.
- Narcissists try to compensate low self-esteem and emptiness with brilliance and beauty.
- Compulsives defend against internal accusations about falling short with virtue and productivity.
- Narcissists assume that they have achieved perfection.
- Compulsives rarely feel that they achieve perfection.
- Narcissists are frugal toward others but indulge themselves.
- Compulsives are frugal toward others and themselves.
- Narcissists condescend to everyone in order to raise themselves up.
- Compulsives condescend specifically, based on their rules and standards of conscientiousness.
Origins of Personality Disorders
Theories abound regarding the origins of both narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive personalities.
Environmental factors such as deficit or demanding parenting are considered formative in both cases. No-one knows with exact certainty what those factors are, and each case has different emphases.
Genes, our inborn temperament, are also certainly a factor. Because there are potentially adaptive benefits to both narcissism and compulsivity, these characteristics are still passed down genetically.
Self-love can be a good thing, and wanting to be admired is just part of how we evolved. Some people are born with the narcissistic tendency to perform. That’s a good thing because we need people who are willing to be the center of attention as leaders and artists. Listen to scientists talk among themselves and you’ll hear narcissism there as well: “Who got the award? Who got credit?” Narcissism may help motivate advances that we all benefit from.
And there are benefits if you can use your obsessive-compulsive traits in a healthy way. As I explain in my book, The Healthy Compulsive, traits such as productivity and conscientiousness can be used to the benefit of all–if used consciously.
But if their environment doesn’t welcome an individual and their traits, and if their emotional needs are not met, they may have difficulty using those traits adaptively.
So, in both cases, whether someone has a healthy or unhealthy personality is determined partly by how the environment shapes them. If it leaves them feeling insecure they will need to find a way to deal with their anxiety.
How they cope with that insecurity also becomes an important factor in the development of a personality disorder.
So, what are the different strategies for getting along that their history has led them to?
- Narcissists cope by seeing and presenting themselves as special. Their sense of emptiness and anxiety leads them to feel that they need to raise themselves above everyone else by proving their superiority.
- Compulsives cope by trying to dispel fears of falling short by being virtuous. They’ll go to great extremes to get “up to par” through perfection and work so that they don’t get in trouble. Being above others does not feel necessary, but being below expectations makes them very anxious. Being “beyond reproach” is a central goal.
There is overlap, and some individuals have characteristics of both, but most individuals use one adaptive strategy more than the other.
Overlap: The Compulsive Narcissist and the Narcissistic Compulsive
One reason that these two personality disorders can be confused is that some individuals incorporate coping strategies usually used by the other disorder.
Those with primary narcissism may forgo some of their typical tendencies and enlist OCPD strategies to buoy their grandiosity. The difference is motivation. Narcissists may:
- Work hard to achieve not because they feel it’s the right thing to do or because it relieves their anxiety, but because they want to prove that they’re better than others.
- Take control and not delegate, not because they feel anxious about getting a task done perfectly, but so that they get credit for the accomplishment.
- Feign conscientiousness not to avoid doing something bad or getting in trouble, but to prove their moral superiority.
- Become rigid not because they feel they need to ensure success for a cause, project or ideal, but in the belief that they are better than others and have the answer.
- Insist on order not because it relieves their anxiety about chaos, but because they believe it will convince others that they are superior.
Those with primary OCPD may engage in behavior which seems narcissistic. They may:
- Compare themselves to others, not because they believe they are better, but to reassure themselves that they’re not below par. They feel a need to quiet an overactive conscience and sometimes compare themselves with others in order to do so.
- Propose grandiose ideas, not because they feel they are geniuses, but because they feel they have the higher moral ground and a responsibility to fix situations.
- Justify ignoring the feelings of others, not because they believe they’re entitled to special treatment for themselves, but because they see it as the efficient way to get things done “properly.”
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If you’re trying to understand whether your partner is narcissistic or compulsive in order to see if the relationship is workable, recognizing their motivation may help you decide. But note that while empathy can be helpful, neglecting your own self-care probably isn’t sustainable. For more on this, see my post, How to Get Along With A Partner Who Has OCPD.
If you’re trying to understand yourself, taking an honest but empathic look at your motivation may be a first step in shifting personality traits to make them adaptive rather than maladaptive.
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