ith all the information available about narcissism and narcissistic personalities, chances are you’ve heard the term “malignant narcissism.” But exactly what the term means and why a certain kind of narcissism warrants such a special descriptor is not very clear to many. And while it’s hard to imagine any kind of narcissism that’s completely “benign,” it’s worth understanding why the particular brand of narcissism professionals call “malignant” is cause for grave concern whenever it’s present to any significant degree in someone’s personality structure.
The term narcissism has been around for a long time and is derived from the mythical character Narcissus, who, as the ancient Greek story goes, was a strikingly handsome and gifted young man (and who obviously knew it!) who was not at all phased by the relentless amorous advances of a nymph but instead fell head over heels in love with his own reflection as he gazed upon it in a pool of water. Narcissus, it seemed, found all he’d ever dreamed of in perfect complement to himself in himself. Narcissism is, therefore, not the healthy love of self that leads to adaptive self-protection and care but rather the abnormal and unhealthily haughty perception of oneself as such an idol that one has no real need for anyone else.
Classical psychological paradigms conceptualized narcissistic individuals as necessarily insecure individuals who unconsciously compensated for their underlying low self-esteem with their braggadocio. Today we know that although there are indeed some “neurotic” narcissists, there are also many more vain and self-centered folks who really believe in their superiority through and through. Such individuals are far more character-disordered than they are neurotic and their inflated views of themselves are not an anxious compensation but rather a sincere belief. And they can be a monumental challenge to deal with, work with, and live with.
Narcissism is common during our early stages of growth. But most of us eventually grow to develop a healthier balance of perspective with respect to our regard for ourselves versus our regard for and need of others. When a person enters adulthood retaining the narcissistic tendencies they had as a child, there’s bound to be lots of trouble in their relationships.
Narcissism becomes particularly “malignant” (i.e. malevolent, dangerous, harmful, incurable) when it goes beyond mere vanity and excessive self-focus. Malignant narcissists not only see themselves as superior to others but believe in their superiority to the degree that they view others as relatively worthless, expendable, and justifiably exploitable. This type of narcissism is a defining characteristic of psychopathy/sociopathy and is rooted in an individual’s deficient capacity for empathy. It’s almost impossible for a person with such shallow feelings and such haughtiness to really care about others or to form a conscience with any of the qualities we typically associate with a humane attitude, which is why most researchers and thinkers on the topic of psychopathy think of psychopaths as individuals without a conscience altogether.
I’ve posted several times before on the issues of narcissism and malignant narcissism (see, for example: Psychopathy and Sociopathy, and Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy). And of course, I explore the topics in all my books, In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome. But in the upcoming brief series of articles, I’m going to examine narcissism from some new angles and in some unusual depth, using examples from case histories to illustrate not only how detrimental to one’s personality formation this trait can be but also how much damage it’s capable of inflicting in relationships when it reaches malignant proportions.
Heartless Characters can be largely born the way they are. That is, the most disturbed among us have an innately impaired capacity to care. But folks lacking in empathy also tend to think in certain ways. And those ways of thinking lead them to form problematic attitudes and patterns of behavior. Moreover, engaging in those patterns both engenders and reinforces heartlessness.