Table of Contents
- What Is a Malignant Narcissist?
- 6 Traits of Malignant Narcissism
- Malignant Narcissists vs. Other Types of Narcissists
- Examples of Malignant Narcissism Behaviors
- Dangers Associated With Malignant Narcissism
- How People Become Narcissists: What Research Says About Risk Factors
- Treatment Options for Pathological Narcissism
- Protecting Yourself Against Narcissistic Abuse
Not only do most narcissists seek admiration and power, but malignant narcissists also tend to enjoy harming people or watching them suffer. “I consider malignant narcissism to be the last stop on the train before things turn to the direction of psychopathy,” says Dr. Ramami Durvasula, a narcissistic expert.
Like other types of narcissists, malignant ones are manipulative, deceitful, vindictive, and prone to lying and manipulation. However, they have an added element of coldness. In other words, just like Machiavellians, malignant narcissists will do just about whatever it takes to boost their egos and protect their image, no matter the harm they inflict on those around them.
Narcissists are notoriously difficult to change or treat, given that they’re closed off to feedback, extremely self-centered, and unaffected by how much they hurt others. That said, some types of interventions can be helpful in managing their relationships.
In this article, learn about warning signs and key traits associated with malignant narcissism, how to protect yourself against their damaging effects, and potential treatment options that can help correct this disorder.
What Is a Malignant Narcissist?
Malignant narcissism is an extreme form of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) with some features of antisocial behavior, paranoia, and aggression.
While malignant narcissism is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it’s used as a descriptor for a particular type of narcissism that’s aggressive, hostile, and sometimes dangerous. The term has been used in psychoanalytic theory since the 1960s and differentiates aggressive narcissists from more covert or vulnerable ones.
Overlaps Between Malignant Narcissism and Other Personality Disorders
Malignant narcissism can be conceptualized as a blend of some of the worst aspects of other personality disorders, including borderline, histrionic, and antisocial personality disorders. This results in a particularly challenging and potentially dangerous constellation of traits. Here’s how malignant narcissism and other disorders overlap:
- Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD): Malignant narcissists and people with APD often act impulsively, lie regularly, and have problems with the law. They might show callousness, cynicism, and a lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating others.
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): BPD involves impulsivity, unstable interpersonal relationships, and intense mood swings.
- Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD): Some malignant narcissists might display attention-seeking behaviors consistent with HPD, such as being uncomfortable when they’re not the center of attention, using appearance to draw attention, or being easily influenced by others.
6 Traits of Malignant Narcissism
“Malignant narcissists often experience severe dysfunctions in their personal relationships, work, and ability to function in other areas of life. Their reckless behavior, disregard for others, and inability to form healthy relationships can make them easier to spot than people with mild or ‘covert’ forms of narcissism.”Hailey Shafir, LCMHC
No two narcissists are exactly alike; however, malignant narcissists typically share the following destructive traits:
1. Lack of Empathy
Unlike typical narcissists, malignant narcissists may not have any qualms about hurting others to get what they want. They have what’s referred to as “absence of conscience,” meaning difficulty or unwillingness to recognize and identify with the feelings and needs of others.
Malignant narcissists have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and believe they are superior to others. They may be attention-seeking and appear to be “larger than life.” In fact, many are charismatic and good at fooling people to get what they want. Dr. Paul Mcleod explains, “While malignant narcissists have calculating, aloof, and cold personalities, they can be extremely charming when pursuing a narcissistic goal.”
3. Manipulative Behaviors
They often use others as instruments to get what they want, with little regard for their feelings or needs. They may be chronic liars, as it helps them maintain their self-image, or they might frequently exaggerate or distort the truth to make others feel insecure and to get ahead.
Some malignant narcissists easily become angered and may react violently. They’re most likely to become hostile and intimidating when they feel looked down upon or are criticized, which can lead to “narcissistic rage.”
A distinguishing feature of malignant narcissism is that it involves the enjoyment of hurting others emotionally or physically. Some take pleasure in other people’s suffering, so they display a chronic pattern of cruel, demeaning, humiliating, and aggressive behaviors. While not all malignant narcissists are sadistic, the more severe ones actually feel a boost in confidence when they inflict pain and negativity onto others.
Malignant narcissists are often suspicious of others without sufficient reason. They may believe others are out to get them and that the world is a competitive, cold place.
Malignant Narcissists vs. Other Types of Narcissists
“Malignant narcissists are higher on the spectrum of narcissism and possess antisocial traits, paranoia, and sadism in addition to their narcissism. They may not all be physically violent, but many of them are psychologically violent and aggressive towards those they target.”Shahida Arabi, MA, Psych Central
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (or NPD) involves core traits, including grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Researchers and clinicians have observed different patterns or subtypes of narcissism. Malignant narcissism is one such subtype, and it stands out as one of the most severe and toxic forms, as malignant narcissists possess NPD traits but to a more extreme and damaging extent.
Here’s how malignant narcissism differs from other forms of narcissism:
Grandiose (Overt) Narcissism
- This is what many people think of when they hear the term “narcissist.” These individuals are grandiose, seeking constant admiration, and believe they are superior to others.
- They may be arrogant, have fantasies of unlimited success or power, and can be exploitative.
- They often crave attention and are devastated by criticism. They might be overtly boastful or arrogant.
Covert Narcissism (or Vulnerable Narcissism)
- Unlike their grandiose counterparts, vulnerable narcissists are sensitive, introverted, and insecure. However, they still feel entitled and superior, even if it’s less obvious.
- They may fish for compliments and feel deeply wounded by even minor criticisms.
- They often harbor fantasies of being recognized for their “hidden genius” or lament that they’re misunderstood or unappreciated.
- Communal narcissists see themselves as superior in areas of caregiving, community building, or altruistic endeavors.
- This is a unique twist on narcissistic personality disorder where the individual garners narcissistic supply from being seen as the “ultimate giver” or helper.
- They believe they are the “best” partners, parents, or helpers.
- They might continuously highlight their sacrifices for others or their contributions to the community, seeking admiration for their altruistic acts.
Even though narcissists can be described as having one predominant type of narcissism, most display a blend of traits from different types.
For example, recent research summarized in Scientific America suggests that many narcissists fluctuate between feeling grandiose and powerful and feeling vulnerable and having low self-worth. Mood swings seem to be common among all types of narcissists, causing them to display a range of behaviors that can be hard to categorize. According to many clinicians, “vulnerability indeed seems to be the hidden underside of grandiosity.”
Examples of Malignant Narcissism Behaviors
“Those who interact with malignant narcissists often consider them to be jealous, petty, thin-skinned, punitive, hateful, cunning, and angry.”Rhonda Freeman, PhD
Below are some examples of how malignant narcissists may act in various situations:
- Exploiting Others: This could be in personal relationships, work situations, or other scenarios where they see an opportunity to put others down in order to gain something. For example, a narcissist in the workplace may gossip about people or sabotage their work to ruin their reputation and gain more power.
- Gaslighting: They might deny facts, make someone doubt their own memories or perceptions, or insist that their version of events is the only correct one. This is a manipulation tactic that makes people “feel crazy” and diminishes their self-esteem.
- Playing the Victim: Even when they are clearly the aggressor, they might twist narratives to paint themselves as the victim. They find ways to blame others in every situation so they don’t have to take responsibility.
- Punishment and Retaliation: If they feel slighted or challenged, they may seek revenge, sometimes in cruel or extreme ways. In relationships, they might punish others by using silent treatment, abuse, humiliation, or taking things away such as social support, money, and access to resources.
- Sabotaging Success to Appear Superior: If a partner or close associate appears to be succeeding or receiving recognition, the malignant narcissist might act to sabotage their success due to jealousy or the fear of being overshadowed. That’s because ultimately, “People with NPD often feel as though they deserve special treatment, constant admiration, or recognition for their accomplishments. In fact, this is true even if they don’t have any accomplishments,” explains Promises Behavioral Health Clinic.
Dangers Associated With Malignant Narcissism
“Malignant narcissists often pose the greatest challenge for therapists—and they may be particularly dangerous in leadership positions. They can have deficient moral functioning while exerting an enormous amount of influence on followers.”Diana Diamond, Clinical Psychologist
Malignant narcissists can cause significant harm in relationships due to their extreme narcissistic traits coupled with aggressive, antisocial behaviors. Their actions and attitudes often result in pain, confusion, and distress for those around them, especially the people closest to them, such as family members, spouses, children, friends, and coworkers.
Here’s an in-depth look at how malignant narcissists damage relationships and hurt others:
- Constant Need for Admiration: Their need for constant attention and validation can be exhausting for others. Anyone who doesn’t provide the required admiration or disagrees with them can become a target for their anger or disdain.
- Lack of Empathy: This fundamental inability to understand or care about others’ feelings means they often act without considering the emotional impact on those around them. This can lead to deep emotional wounds in partners, friends, and family members.
- Using People: Malignant narcissists see people as tools or a means to an end. They may use others for personal gain, whether it’s for money, status, or other benefits, often at the expense of the other person’s well-being.
- Isolation: They might attempt to isolate their partners or friends from outside influences, cutting them off from family, friends, or activities they enjoy. This makes it easier to control and manipulate them.
- Pitting People Against Each Other: They can create drama in relationships to prevent people from forging close connections.
- Jealousy and Paranoia: They may become jealous of others’ achievements or relationships and can be overly suspicious of partners or friends, accusing them of betrayal or dishonesty without cause.
- Dishonesty: Chronic lying or distorting the truth is common, creating a reality where the other person feels lost, unsure of what’s real and what isn’t.
- Devaluation: After an initial phase where they might idolize someone (known as “love bombing”), malignant narcissists often shift to devaluing that person, criticizing them, belittling their achievements, focusing on their flaws, and comparing them unfavorably to others.
- Controlling Behaviors: They often seek to control every aspect of their partner’s life, from who they see and where they go to how they think. This control can extend to emotional, financial, or even physical aspects of the relationship.
- Reactive Aggression: If they feel slighted or criticized, malignant narcissists may react with disproportionate anger, seeking revenge for perceived insults.
- Inflicting Physical Harm: Due to their aggressiveness, they might harm others physically. For example, they may hit their children or spouse or physically fight with peers.
The tricky thing about narcissists is that they can be hard to spot, especially at first. This is true even of malignant ones. “Their intensity is one of the reasons that malignant narcissists can be very successful. Our culture promotes intensity and superficial charm. They come across as confident and have swagger, which is attractive to a lot of people,” says therapist Jim Brillon.
How People Become Narcissists: What Research Says About Risk Factors
“Although the cause of narcissistic personality disorder isn’t known, some researchers think that overprotective or neglectful parenting may have an impact on children who are born with a tendency to develop the disorder. Genetics and other factors also may play a role.”Mayo Clinic
The development of narcissism disorders is complex and often rooted in childhood experiences. Contributing factors are thought to include:
- Childhood Abuse or Neglect: Early life trauma, such as abuse or neglect, can contribute to the development of narcissistic behaviors.
- Excessive Pampering or Spoiling: Children who are excessively praised or given everything they want can develop an inflated sense of self-importance. According to Dr. Jean Kim, “Being born with an oversensitive temperament, learning manipulative behaviors from parents or peers, or being excessively praised for good behaviors” are also risk factors for narcissism.
- Unpredictable Caregiving: Inconsistent attention or unpredictable parental behaviors can lead to a need for control in later life.
- Genetics and Neurobiology: Some studies suggest that there could be genetic and neurobiological factors that make individuals more susceptible to narcissism. According to Dr. Elinor Greenberg, having a narcissistic parent also makes children susceptible to becoming narcissists, often because the child grows up craving validation, attention, and admiration.
Treatment Options for Pathological Narcissism
The path to self-improvement for a malignant narcissist is challenging and requires a genuine desire to change. With commitment and the right support, however, progress is possible. Here are some ways narcissists can work on self-improvement:
1. Receive Psychotherapy/Counseling
- Engage in therapy: Psychotherapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be beneficial for individuals with narcissistic tendencies to recognize and change their behavior. Changing deeply ingrained behavioral patterns takes time. It’s essential to remain committed to the therapeutic process, even when confronted with uncomfortable truths.
- Consider group therapy: Engaging with others in a group setting can offer a reality check and provide insights into one’s behavior from multiple perspectives. For family, family therapy can help the narcissist see how their behaviors affect others.
- Medication: While there’s no drug to treat NPD directly, some symptoms (like mood swings or depression) might be treated with medications.
2. Cultivate Empathy
- Practice active listening: Instead of dominating conversations or turning the focus on oneself, take the time to genuinely listen to others and validate their feelings.
- Seek feedback: Actively ask close friends or family for feedback on specific situations, aiming to understand others’ perspectives without getting defensive.
- Engage in role reversal: Imagine oneself in another person’s position to understand their feelings and reactions better.
3. Accept Responsibility
- Practice introspection: Dedicate time to reflect on personal actions, intentions, and feelings regularly. Recognize situations or comments that trigger narcissistic behaviors and work on healthier responses. Activities like meditation can help in staying present, understanding oneself better, and curbing impulsive reactions.
- Acknowledge past wrongs: Recognizing and accepting responsibility for past behaviors without making excuses is the first step toward genuine change. When one recognizes they’ve done wrong, offer a genuine apology without expecting anything in return.
- Avoid blaming others: Instead of deflecting blame or projecting faults onto others, work on accepting and learning from mistakes.
Protecting Yourself Against Narcissistic Abuse
Dealing with a malignant narcissist can be draining and challenging. Sometimes, there’s no real way to “win” with someone like this. Instead, you have to know when to walk away. Here are tips for limiting the amount of damage a narcissist in your life can do:
1. Establish and Maintain Boundaries
- Prioritize self-care: This involves recognizing your own needs and ensuring they are met, even if the narcissist tries to make you feel guilty or selfish for doing so.
- Consistent enforcement: Once you establish a boundary, it’s vital to stick to it. Malignant narcissists often push boundaries to see if they can exert control, so stand your ground and find support.
- Avoid JADE: Do not “Justify, Argue, Defend, or Explain” your boundaries. They are your rights and do not need validation.
2. Disengage and Detach Emotionally
- Limit emotional investment: Recognize that the narcissist may try to manipulate your feelings. By maintaining a degree of emotional detachment, you can protect yourself.
- Avoid unnecessary interactions: If you don’t have to interact with the narcissist, it might be best to limit contact. Every engagement can be an opportunity for manipulation. In extreme situations, it might be best to cut ties completely, especially if your emotional or physical well-being is at risk.
- Avoid power struggles: Engaging in conflicts or trying to “win” an argument usually gives the narcissist more opportunities to manipulate and control the situation.
3. Educate Yourself and Seek Support
- Understand the disorder: The more you know about narcissistic personality disorder, the better equipped you’ll be to handle interactions.
- Join a support group: Connecting with others who have experienced similar relationships can be therapeutic and informative.
- Seek therapy: Professionals can provide coping strategies, validation, and a safe space to discuss feelings and challenges.
Want to learn more about assertive communication and how to avoid people-pleasing behaviors that can make you susceptible to use? Check out these articles:
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