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What is a Malignant Narcissist?

Here’s the first and most important thing you need to know about malignant narcissism – it is not an official diagnosis. You cannot go to a psychiatrist and be diagnosed. So then what is a malignant narcissist, and do they even really exist?

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What is a malignant narcissist?

Malignant narcissism is among the  darkest proposed types of personality, combining both traits of narcissism and antisocial behaviour with possible sadism.

The closest official diagnosis these days would be ‘narcissistic personality disorder’, or ‘antisocial personality disorder’.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) involves lacking empathy and doing everything for personal gain with little to no guilt. Grandiose, narcissists think themselves above  others. They tend to ruthlessly manipulate others, but maintain a capacity to charm.

Antisocial personality disorder is anything but charming. It consists of no respect for others, the law, or personal property. It involves hostile, aggressive and reckless behaviour. Illegal acts and violence are common. Those with this disorder struggle to maintain relationships with others.

Malignant narcissism is like these two personality disorders combined. Again, as well as having grandiose narcissism and an aggressive interpersonal style, a malignant narcissist can be sadistic. They would be able to ruthlessly damage and harm another and take pleasure from it.  At an extreme level they might even kill other people. They also tend to crave power, and suffer from paranoia. 

Malignant narcissism vs psychopathy

Remember, malignant narcissism is not an ‘official’ diagnosis, so it’s open to interpretation. Some people place it beneath outright psychopathy, others equal with.

It’s important to keep in mind that all these terms – narcissist, psychopath, sociopath — are terms made up by mental health professionals to describe groups of people. They are not illnesses you can see under a microscope. (Although brain scans did show that those with narcissistic personality disorder seem to have lower brain activity in areas related to empathy).

And people on the ‘dark spectrum‘ are not the sort to show up to therapy of their own accord. They end up with psychologists if they commit a crime and end up within the system, so clinical evidence is limited.

But the main diagnostic tool here, the Hare Psychopathy checklist, would indeed place psychopaths and malignant narcissists in the same tier of results.

Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst who first discussed malignant narcissism in depth way back in the 1960s, felt a malignant narcissist was more conscious of their evildoing than a psychopath.

He stated that psychopaths didn’t identify themselves as the aggressive, evil person others saw them as. But malignant narcissists admired evil and could even lead groups of other violent aggressors. An example here is a serial killer working in secrecy and convinced he is cleansing the earth versus the known leader of a mafia gang, or, say, a tyrant political leader ordering the death of many citizens.

A brief history of malignant narcissism

The term ‘malignant narcissist’ has never been accepted and used by the diagnostic manuals for psychological disorders like the DSM-V or the ICD-10.

The term was coined by psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm in the 1960s, and then explored further by psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg. Note that this was a few decades on from the second world war, when enough time had passed to begin to process its horrors.

Both Fromm and Kernberg were from Jewish families that had to leave Germany to escape the Nazis. This might have influenced their take on human evil, even as terrorism influences perspectives today.

Why is malignant narcissism not an official diagnosis?

It would not be considered a diagnosis as it does not actually describe many people. Yes, despite the many articles on the internet that seem to insinuate many people you know are malignant narcissists.

Is my boss a malignant narcissist?

Probably not, unless he or she they happen to be a murderer, serial killer, torturer, or attempted murderer.

This is not to say that very damaged people do not exist. But it’s estimated at most 1% of the population actually has narcissistic personality disorder, let alone malignant narcissism. 

So even taking into account that those with narcissistic personality disorder or sociopathy don’t tend to seek out therapy, and clinical evidence is low? You could double that percentage and it’s still a tiny part of the population. Given that all malignant narcissists would exhibit NPD, that becomes a much smaller percentage still.

Is my ex a malignant narcissist?

The better question here is, what are you going to do to ensure your wellbeing and safety? If it’s a romantic relationship that went wrong, what are you going to do to ensure you don’t continue to make destructive relationship choices? You can never control or change a narcissist, but you can control and change your own choices.

Are you struggling with a relationship that is putting your wellbeing in danger? Need someone to talk to? Harley Therapy puts you in touch with London’s best therapists. Need an affordable therapist and want to talk via Skype from anywhere in the world? Use our booking site now.

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    Dr. Sheri Jacobson


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