What Is The Difference Between Narcissism and Malignant Narcissism?

a boa constrictor on a branch

MOST PEOPLE ENCOUNTER the word narcissism in the context of exploitation and betrayal in interpersonal relationships. However, a subtype of this personality trait is usually the driving force of these behaviors. Because of the prevalence of extreme narcissism in human aggression, people often confuse the meaning of narcissism with its more malevolent expressions. And so it’s not strange that many people wonder, “What is the difference between narcissism and malignant narcissism?”

What is narcissism?

Narcissism is self-idealization. It is a personality trait all human beings have that exists on a continuum, meaning that it is more pronounced in some people than in others.

According to Dr. Michael Kinsey, some signs of it manifest as our ability to:

  • Admire others and accept admiration.
  • Believe in the importance of our contributions.
  • Experience gratitude and appreciation.
  • Empathize with others, yet prioritize self.
  • Embody self-efficacy, persistence and resilience.
  • Respect self in health habits and boundaries.
  • Feel confident about being seen.
  • Tolerate others disapproval.
  • Set goals and pursue them with desire.
  • Be attentive to the external world.
  • Be aware of emotions.

The trait has countless health benefits, which is one of the main ways it differs from its corrupt subtype. It is not harmful in any way. In fact, it makes it possible to love self and others. Moreover, sub-clinical narcissism can fluctuate over time.

What is malignant narcissism?

Malignant narcissism is a term coined by social psychologist Erich Fromm to describe the most extreme form of narcissism. It exists at the intersection of narcissistic personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder. Fromm defines it as “the quintessence of evil” and “the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity.”

Malignant narcissism is:

  • Harmful to self and others
  • Loves self to the exclusion of others
  • Rigid, and
  • Compromises mental health of self and others.

Final thoughts

Malignant narcissism is an aberration from the normal narcissism that is necessary for human health. It is a grave mistake to conflate the two, as this poses the risk of pathologizing people who may have acted overly narcissistic in the heat of the moment or for a length of time.

Only a licensed mental health professional can accurately diagnose narcissistic personality disorder and understand the dynamics at play in cases of sub-clinical narcissism with precision.


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Manya Wakefield is an educator and recovery coach specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy and trauma. She is also the author of 'Are You In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship?' and host of the Narcissistic Abuse Rehab Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.