Malignant narcissism

Malignant narcissism
For the Rush instrumental, see Malignant Narcissism (instrumental).

Malignant narcissism has been described as "an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder that is manifest in a person who is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation, and with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism".[1]

Malignant narcissism is a theoretical or 'experimental' diagnostic category; although narcissistic personality disorder is found in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), malignant narcissism is not. Individuals with malignant narcissism would be diagnosed under narcissistic personality disorder. Malignant narcissism can be partially treated with medications and therapy, helping to reduce aggravating symptoms. As a syndrome, it may include aspects of schizoid and narcissistic personality disorder, as well as paranoia — recent[when?] "contributions have confirmed the importance of malignant narcissism and the defense of projection" in the latter syndrome, as well as "the patient's vulnerability to malignant narcissistic regression".[2]

Malignant narcissism can be comorbid with other psychological disorders not mentioned above.



Social psychologist Erich Fromm first coined the term malignant narcissism in 1964, describing it as a "severe mental sickness" representing "the quintessence of evil". He characterized the condition as "the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity".[3] Edith Weigert (1967) saw malignant narcissism as a "regressive escape from frustration by distortion and denial of reality"; while Herbert Rosenfeld (1971) described it as "a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized".[4]

Developing their ideas further, the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg pointed out that the antisocial personality was fundamentally narcissistic and without morality.[5] Malignant narcissism includes a sadistic element, creating, in essence, a sadistic psychopath. In this essay, "malignant narcissism" and psychopathy are employed interchangeably. Kernberg first proposed malignant narcissism as a psychiatric diagnosis in 1984.

Kernberg described malignant narcissism as a syndrome characterized by a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial features, paranoid traits, and egosyntonic aggression. Other symptoms may include an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance (grandiosity). Pollock wrote: "The malignant narcissist is presented as pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism".[6]

The writer and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck thought that the primary root of most human evil is 'malignant narcissism' and further characterized it as 'militant ignorance'.

Spectrum of pathological narcissism and psychopathy

Kernberg believed that malignant narcissism should be considered part of a spectrum of pathological narcissism, which he saw as ranging from the Cleckley's antisocial character (today's psychopath or antisocial personality) at the high end of severity, through malignant narcissism, and then to narcissistic personality disorder at the low end.[7] The malignant narcissist thus represents a less extreme form of pathological narcissism than psychopathy. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, malignant narcissism, and psychopathy all display similar traits which are outlined in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. (The traits in the checklist are common amongst individuals with psychological disorders. The psychopath/malignant narcissist must display a strong tendency towards these characteristics.)

Malignant narcissism can be distinguished from psychopathy, according to Kernberg, because of the malignant narcissist's capacity to internalize "both aggressive and idealized superego precursors, leading to the idealization of the aggressive, sadistic features of the pathological grandiose self of these patients". According to Kernberg, the psychopath's paranoid stance against external influences makes him or her unwilling to internalize even the values of the "aggressor", while malignant narcissists "have the capacity to admire powerful people, and can depend on sadistic and powerful but reliable parental images". Malignant narcissists, in contrast to psychopaths, are also said to be capable of developing "some identification with other powerful idealized figures as part of a cohesive 'gang'...which permits at least some loyalty and good object relations to be internalized". "Some of them may present rationalized antisocial behavior - for example, as leaders of sadistic gangs or terrorist groups...with the capacity for loyalty to their own comrades".[8]

Malignant narcissism is highlighted as a key area in the study of mass murder, sexual, and serial murder.[9][10]


Typically in the analysis of the malignant narcissist, "the patient attempts to triumph over the analyst by destroying the analysis and himself or herself"[11] — an extreme version of what Lacan described as "that resistance of the amour-propre...which is often expressed thus: 'I can't bear the thought of being freed by anyone other than myself'".[12]

Cultural examples

In Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein, the protagonist's "ruthlessness in dealing with others, his lasting feeling of being singled out, and his blind belief in his own greatness can be interpreted easily as syndromes of the "malignant narcissism" that seems to be characteristic of the infamous dictators of history".[13]

See also


  1. ^ Richard N. Kocsis, Criminal Profiling (2006) p. 75
  2. ^ Harold P. Blum, "Paranoia"
  3. ^ Fromm, Erich, The Heart of Man, 1964
  4. ^ Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London 2009) p. 163
  5. ^ Kernberg O. Factors in the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personalities J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 18:51-85 1970
  6. ^ Pollock, G. H. (1978), Process and affect, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59, 255–276.
  7. ^ Kernberg, O. F. (1994), The Psychotherapeutic Management of Psychopathic, Narcissistic, and Paranoid Transferences.
  8. ^ Otto Kernberg, in Elsa Ronningstam, Disorders of Narcissism (1997) p. 45
  9. ^ Gerberth, V., & Turco, R. (1997) Antisocial personality disorder, sexual sadism, malignant narcissism, and serial murder. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 42, 49-60.
  10. ^ Turco, R. (2001) Child serial murder-psychodynamics: closely watched shadows, Journal of The American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 29(2), 331–338.
  11. ^ Ronningstam, p. 185
  12. ^ Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 13
  13. ^ Walter Hindered, "Introduction", Friedrich Schiller, Wallenstein (1991) p. xi

Further reading

  • Vaknin S "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited", Narcissus Publications, Prague, 1999 (self-published work)

External links

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