by Andrea M. Darcy
What is a malignant narcissist? And how are they different than an everyday narcissist that we hear about in seemingly every corner of the internet these days?
What is a malignant narcissist?
Malignant narcissism is among the darkest proposed types of personality. It combines both traits of narcissism and antisocial behaviour with possible sadism.
What it is NOT, though, is an official psychiatric diagnosis. The term ‘malignant narcissist’ has never been accepted and used by the diagnostic manuals for psychological disorders like the DSM or the ICD.
The closest official diagnosis these days would be ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ (NPD), or ‘antisocial personality disorder’.
You might hear talk of ‘malignant narcissistic personality disorder’ (malignant NPD), or ‘malignant antisocial personality disorder’. But these are not a proper clinical diagnosis.
Narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is far less common than the online industry around narcissism would have you believe. It doesn’t mean someone just has the personality trait of narcissism, and can sometimes be full of themselves or emotionally cold.
NPD means that since early adulthood someone consistently sees the world and themselves in a way that is very different. They have a sense of entitlement, lack empathy, and are egocentric. Some people with narcissistic personality are grandiose, and others are insecure and defensive. Both types satisfy their needs at the expense of others.
Antisocial personality disorder means someone has 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 narcissist traits
Again, a definition of malignant narcissism is these two personality disorders combined together, with the addition of sadism.
So as well as having traits of narcissism like entitlement, egocentricity, and lack of empathy, and either grandiosity or aggressive insecurity? They would have antisocial traits. So they would not respect other people or their property, and would be reckless, aggressive, and violent. Then they would be sadistic, enjoying hurting others. And they are also likely to be paranoid.
A narcissist vs a malignant narcissist
So then how does all this measure up to a regular narcissist? A regular narcissist is not likely to be violent, or antisocial, both of which would lower them in the eyes of others when they crave approval and respect. And a narcissist’s aim is not to make others suffer, but rather to avoid suffering themselves. Deep down they don’t want to feel insecure and unworthy. They are not likely to be reckless, rather they would be calculated.
Malignant narcissism vs psychopathy
The infamous ‘Hare Psychopathy checklist’ places psychopaths and malignant narcissists in the same tier of results.
But Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst who first discussed malignant narcissism in depth way back in the 1960s, suggested differently. He 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 (psychopath), versus the known leader of a mafia gang who gets off on ordering people be tortured (malignant narcissist).
Why is the difference not more exact?
All these terms being discussed — narcissist, psychopath, sociopath — are simply terms made up by mental health professionals to describe groups of people with similar symptoms. They aren’t a science, and they have definitions that can change with each new version of mental health manuals like the DSM and ICD.
They are also not illnesses you can see under a microscope. Brain scans did show that those with narcissistic personality disorder seem to have lower brain activity in areas related to empathy, but it’s impossible to say if this is because of or as a result of NPD.
And there is an argument that these disorders are partly cultural. A study looking at NPD around the world found that societies that glorify the individual like the USA had higher rates of narcissism than countries that still had collective structures at their base.
Finally, clinical evidence is also limited, given that those on the ‘dark spectrum‘ are not the sort to show up to therapy of their own accord, or agree to be studied. They end up with psychologists if they commit a crime and end up within the system.
A brief history of malignant narcissism
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 our perspectives today.
Why is malignant NPD not a diagnosis?
It would not be considered a clinical diagnosis as it does not actually describe many people, and again, there isn’t enough evidence.
This is not to say that very damaged people do not exist. But the closest official statistic taken from an overview of all American research on NPD placed only 1.6% of the population as diagnosable. And only a small part of that already small statistic would then qualify as having the traits of malignant narcissism.
Is my boss or ex a malignant narcissist?
Sure your boss is a sociopath? Or your ex is a malignant narcissist? The better question here is, what are you going to do to ensure your own 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 in the future?
If it’s a boss who is mistreating you, how are you going to set boundaries and get the workplace support you need?
You can never control or change someone with a personality disorder, but you can control and 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.
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor, trained in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy