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How to Recognize and Cope with a Malignant Narcissist

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Narcissism is a term that often gets thrown about casually, but many people don’t understand the depths of narcissistic personality disorder and related mental health conditions.

Personality disorders can take many forms. Malignant narcissism is one presentation of narcissistic personality disorder. A person living with malignant narcissism may exhibit many of the behaviors and attitudes commonly associated with a general understanding of narcissism, but there are some key differences.

As with every mental health condition, each person is unique, and how they react to situations and experience the world around them can differ widely. However, people who exhibit these traits can have a serious impact on the people around them.

In this article, we’ll discuss common causes of malignant narcissism, how to recognize the signs, and how to cope with a malignant narcissist in your life.

What Is a Malignant Narcissist?

If you’re dealing with narcissistic behaviors from a loved one or acquaintance, you might find yourself wondering, “What is a sociopathic malignant narcissist?”

Making sense of these terms can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Malignant narcissism is present when an individual shows personality traits characteristic of both narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

Malignant narcissism is composed of behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that can often negatively impact the individual living with malignant narcissism and on family members, friends, co-workers, and others in their community.

Living with a malignant narcissist often leaves family and friends feeling like they must walk on eggshells, lest their words or actions lead to angry outbursts, emotional upset, or even violent or aggressive behavior.

The first step to navigating interactions with a malignant narcissist is to better understand this mental health condition. Let’s discuss the difference between two personality disorders that are often confused with one another.

Malignant Narcissist vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Understanding a malignant narcissist requires taking a step back and considering where this condition sits on the spectrum of personality disorders, particularly the malignant narcissist vs. narcissist distinction.

Cluster B personality disorders are usually characterized by unpredictability and heightened emotional reactions. Personalities that fall under this umbrella of personality disorders include:

  • Narcissistic personality
  • Antisocial personality
  • Borderline personality
  • Histrionic personality

A narcissistic personality is generally identified by traits that include an unusually high sense of self-esteem, unwarranted confidence in one’s abilities, and an inflated sense of self-importance. These positive views of the self are often undercut by a need for external validation and extreme difficulty handling real or perceived criticism.

Narcissism also typically involves a minimal or nonexistent ability to experience empathy or consider the feelings and views of others.

Personalities characterized by narcissism are further broken down into types depending on predominant traits and behaviors. Types of narcissistic personality disorder include:

  • Overt narcissism
  • Covert narcissism
  • Antagonistic narcissism
  • Communal narcissism
  • Malignant narcissism

Within these categories, there may be some overlap. For example, a covert malignant narcissist may engage in many of the beliefs and practices of a malignant narcissist but is less prone to obvious symptoms like emotional outbursts or overt cruelty.

Simply put, the malignant narcissist definition is when narcissistic personality traits appear in conjunction with those of antisocial personality.

Malignant Narcissist: Traits & Characteristics

A malignant narcissist typically exhibits a specific collection of reactions, views, attitudes, and behaviors. However, one person may not display all of the usual malignant narcissist traits. It’s common for some of the traits of a malignant narcissist to occur with a greater frequency or intensity than others.

A person may outwardly behave in a way that seems to indicate a lack of regard for the opinions of others, but feeling judged, criticized, or unappreciated may serve as a trigger for demeaning or aggressive behaviors. Let’s look at some examples of malignant narcissist behavior.

Excessive Self-Centeredness and Grandiosity

A malignant narcissist typically carries an inflated sense of self-importance. They often view themselves as special, unique, talented, gifted, intelligent, attractive, more competent, or more knowledgeable than others, regardless of whether there is any practical justification for such beliefs.

As a result of this orientation, malignant narcissists often take things personally. They may perceive slights where they were not intended or interpret someone’s comments or jokes as a personal attack.

Lack of Empathy and Exploitation of Others

A key trait of malignant narcissism is a lack of empathy for the feelings of others. Malignant narcissists typically don’t feel sorrow or remorse for how their words or actions have impacted another.

A malignant narcissist may also see another person’s emotional responses as a tool for manipulation and may intentionally cause upset to exert power or control over another.

Manipulative and Deceitful Behaviors

Manipulation, deceit, and lies are common tactics of a malignant narcissist. Some malignant narcissists lie and manipulate because it makes them feel powerful to know they are controlling another’s actions or beliefs.

In other situations, manipulation and deceit may be related to a lack of empathy coupled with the view that other people can be manipulated to achieve a specific goal.

Tendency to Belittle and Demean Others

Malignant narcissist behavior often involves intentionally belittling or demeaning others. Sometimes, their treatment of other people may reach the point of cruelty.

Common examples include insults, mockery, cruel jokes, demeaning comments, leveraging personal knowledge, targeting insecurities, or intentionally creating humiliating situations.

A malignant narcissist may experience a sense of enjoyment or satisfaction when watching others suffer as a result of their words or actions.

Need for Admiration and Constant Validation

A key reason for the often unpredictable behavior of a malignant narcissist is the inner conflict that arises in relation to the reactions and behaviors of other people. On the one hand, malignant narcissism involves viewing the self as better than others. On the other hand, malignant narcissists typically experience a deep sense of vulnerability and need to confirm that their views of the self as superior are accurate.

As a result, malignant narcissists tend to seek and highly value external validation, approval, and admiration. When they perceive these sentiments are absent, behaviors like cruelty and deceit are often triggered.

What Causes Malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

The exact causes of personality disorders like malignant narcissistic personality disorder develop are still not well understood. However, the most common factors believed to contribute to the development of malignant narcissism are genetic and biological factors, childhood experiences, and developmental and environmental influences.

Genetic and Biological Factors

Genetic and biological factors may be linked to the development of personality disorders like malignant narcissism. Certain personality traits may be influenced by genetics, and when those personality traits coincide with the traits characteristic of malignant narcissism, an individual can be said to have a genetic predisposition to certain ways of behaving, responding, and interacting with others.

Other biological factors may also influence the likelihood of a person developing malignant narcissistic personality disorder. Brain structure and function directly impact how a person perceives reality and responds to it. An individual’s neurobiology may play a significant role in how a personality disorder develops.

Childhood Experiences and Developmental Influences

Childhood experiences may increase the risk factors for developing a malignant narcissistic personality disorder, particularly when genetic or neurobiological risk factors are also present.

There’s no one specific reason why childhood experiences might cause a personality disorder. Theories that consider upbringing do so from the perspective that childhood is when individuals learn how to interact with others, have their needs met, and learn how they relate to the world around them.

Early childhood experiences that may play a role in making an individual more predisposed to malignant narcissism include:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Mental health concerns among caregivers
  • Parental beliefs that a child was special (parental overvaluation)

It’s important to note that parents should not blame themselves if an adult child has become a malignant narcissist.

Recognizing Malignant Narcissist Symptoms

Knowing the most common symptoms of malignant narcissism is the first step in identifying whether a loved one might be living with this personality disorder.

Patterns of Entitlement and Superiority

Malignant narcissists typically demonstrate a behavioral pattern of beliefs in their own superiority. This typically goes hand-in-hand with a sense of entitlement, as there is often no observable justification behind beliefs that they are superior to others.

Lack of Accountability and Blaming Others

Malignant narcissists rarely take responsibility or accountability. They often exhibit a victim mentality, believing that when things go wrong in their life, someone else is always to blame. It’s unusual for a malignant narcissist to apologize for their actions or admit fault. When they do engage in such actions, it’s rarely sincere. Instead, it’s often a calculated action taken to manipulate another.

Emotional Manipulation and Gaslighting

Malignant narcissists may intentionally lie, manipulate, and deceive. They may also engage in narcissistic gaslighting, the practice of systematically denying the reality of events until the victim questions their own experience.

Obsession with Power and Control

Malignant narcissists often show an excessive concern with power. They may experience human relationships within a hierarchical context, with power being the predominant factor that determines social hierarchy. Common behaviors like manipulation, exploitation, cruelty, and humiliation are often sought specifically because they increase a malignant narcissist’s feelings of power. This desire for power is often an attempt at countering a deep-seated sense of vulnerability or low self-esteem.

Creation of Toxic Environments

The behaviors of a malignant narcissist are often toxic and easily harm the mental health, emotional well-being, and quality of life of those with whom they live and work. Lies, manipulation, belittling, angry outbursts, and gaslighting are common behaviors exhibited by malignant narcissists, and friends, co-workers, and loved ones may have difficulty dealing with these behaviors on a regular basis.

Strategies for Coping with a Malignant Narcissist

If you believe a loved one or acquaintance is living with malignant narcissism, chances are you’re feeling the effects of their behavior. To help you protect your mental and emotional well-being, here are some effective methods for coping with malignant narcissist behavior.

Setting Boundaries and Protecting Oneself

The most important step in coping with a malignant narcissist is to set and maintain firm boundaries. However, this may also be the most difficult step, as an individual with malignant narcissism will likely push back against these boundaries to try to reclaim a sense of control. It’s important to clearly define your boundaries and stick to them.

Seeking Professional Help and Support

The impact of a malignant narcissist’s behavior on the mental and emotional health of loved ones can’t be overstated. It’s recommended that friends, family members, and current and former partners of a malignant narcissist seek the professional help of a therapist or counselor. Therapy can help those affected develop a deeper understanding of how they have been impacted and how they can continue to set or maintain healthy boundaries. It’s also recommended to join online support groups for narcissist abuse.

Exiting Toxic Relationships or Environments

Once you identify that an acquaintance or loved one is a malignant narcissist, you’ll need to choose the path forward that best supports your well-being. If you’re dealing with a co-worker or acquaintance, you might seek workplace support or distance yourself from the relationship.

When a family member is a malignant narcissist, exiting the relationship or environment is much more difficult — both emotionally and practically. Seeking professional help is the best way to find support as you choose how to move forward.

How to Treat Malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder

There’s no “cure” for malignant narcissistic personality disorder, but there are therapies that can help. Some of the most common therapies include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Mental health support networks
  • Medication

With a combination of therapy, medication, and support, malignant narcissists can gain increased insight into how their actions cause harm to their loved ones and detract from their own and others’ quality of life.

Improving the symptoms of malignant narcissism is possible, but loved ones should recognize that the nature of this mental health condition often makes it very challenging for a malignant narcissist to acknowledge problematic behavior and form a desire to seek help.

Find Support with The Mighty

When it comes to successfully navigating life with a malignant narcissist, the best policy is to educate yourself and prioritize setting boundaries that protect your mental and emotional health. Connect with people who understand your experience with The Mighty’s online support groups. From narcissist abuse survivors to support groups for those living with a personality disorder, you’ll find your people here. Join thousands of Mighty members today!

Getty image by George Peters

Originally published: June 8, 2023
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