Malignant narcissism, while described somewhat differently by various authors, can be succinctly defined as “an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder that is manifested in a person who is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation, and with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism“.With the exceptions of ‘healthy narcissism’, narcissism in adults is generally looked upon as a negative personality flaw. However, malignant narcissism is worth differentiating as it is cause for serious alarm when it is part of someone’s personality make- up.
Wikipedia defines malignant narcissism as “a psychological syndrome comprised as an extreme mix of narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, and aggression and sadism. Often grandiose, and always ready to raise hostility levels, the malignant narcissist undermines organizations they are involved in, as well as dehumanizing the people they associate with”.Narcissism is “malignant” (i.e. dangerous or injurious) when it takes the already negative characteristics of narcissism to even greater excess. A malignant narcissist views himself (75% are male) as genuinely superior to other people and believes that others are insignificant, disposable, and that he is justified when he manipulates and exploits them. This belief system is a result of the malignant narcissist’s complete lack of empathy. It is also a defining characteristic of psychopaths and sociopaths; in much of the literature the terms malignant narcissist, psychopath or sociopath are used interchangeably. All three lack empathy and therefore cannot truly care about others and are unable to form a conscience with humane qualities. Many authors and researchers in the field consider psychopaths/sociopaths/malignant narcissists as individuals without any conscience. They are considered to be in a category called Antisocial Personality Disorder although malignant narcissism has not been an official diagnosis; it has been more of a theoretical category.
Interestingly, when first meeting someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ADP), most people would say that the ADP individual seemed charming, intelligent, and fun to be around. The ADP individual is a skillful “shape shifter” who is able to portray many diverse social faces or ‘personas’. The term persona “meant the mask once worn by actors to indicate the role played… It is, as its name implies, only a mask… that feigns individuality, making others believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role” (Carl Jung). The ADP individual uses this skill to deceive and manipulate others in order to attain his own personal goals, often at the expense of others.
In 1964, Erich Fromm, a widely known social psychologist first coined the term “malignant narcissism”. He described it as a “severe mental sickness” which embodied “the quintessence of evil”. Fromm further described it as “the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity”. In 1971, Herbert Rosenfeld characterized malignant narcissism as “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized“.
Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst and author, described how the ‘antisocial personality’ was basically narcissistic and without morality (or conscience); in other words, a psychopath. Malignant narcissism also has a sadistic component resulting in a sadistic psychopath. Kernberg went on to write that malignant narcissism was a syndrome characterized by the combination of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), features of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ADP), paranoia, and aggression.
How Is Malignant Narcissism Different from NPD?
Narcissism is a disorder of the personality (Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD). The narcissist has a marked sense of entitlement, has a pronounced lack of empathy, and is exploitative of others. Many narcissists claim to have skills or possessions that others do not have, or to have the ‘right connections’ in high places. It does not matter that these statements are not true. According to the DSM-IV, “narcissists expect to be catered to and are puzzled or furious when this does not happen… they expect to be given whatever they want or feel they need, no matter what it might mean to others… and they may react with distain, rage or defiant counterattack” if questioned or refused.
Malignant narcissism goes above and beyond Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It has been likened to NPD on pathological s******s. Not only does it manifest all the typical narcissistic traits mentioned in the first paragraph but in addition it also manifests antisocial features, paranoid traits, and aggression. Otto Kernberg believed that malignant narcissism was in the middle of a spectrum of serious narcissistic behavior. He believed that the spectrum ranged from NPD at the low end, to malignant narcissism, to psychopathy at the high end of narcissistic severity.
How is a Malignant Narcissist Different from a Psychopath?
Psychopaths experience a very limited range of emotions; they do not experience the feelings of anguish, euphoria, remorse, or love that are a normal part of living a life. They have learned the difference between what their society considers “right” and “wrong” but do not have any remorse, or any second thoughts, even when they perform egregious acts upon others. Furthermore, psychopaths are unable to emotionally identify with others whereas narcissists have the capacity to identify with, and even admire, powerful people. However, all three levels of narcissistic behavior share the extreme self-absorption and insensitivity that often result in a trail of victims–emotional wreckage left in the narcissist’s wake (Kernberg 2004).
The malignant narcissist is like a mix of narcissism and psychopathy. However, narcissists need attention and compliments, which psychopaths do not need. Psychopaths are irresponsible and blatant about it; they are highly impulsive, and usually have a history of conduct disorder or a criminal record, both of which are not typical of narcissism. They do not care if they are caught (as long as there are no consequences) and they don’t care what others think of them. Narcissists are more manipulative and deceitful and will lie and deny if caught.
The malignant narcissist, similar to the psychopath, is willing to literally sacrifice others to achieve his goals. Psychopaths and malignant narcissists are dangerous to others; they are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals… they destroy lives without so much as a second thought. They truly are the personification of evil.