What Is The Difference Between Narcissism and Malignant Narcissism?

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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, author of ‘Transcendent Parenting: A Workbook For Parents Sharing Children With Narcissists,’ 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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What is a Narcissistic Injury?

The Narcissist's Hidden Depression

IMAGINE LIFE WITHOUT the ability to experience genuine feelings of joy, love, or compassion.  It’s hardly a stretch to suggest that one’s internal ecosystem would be a bleak and desolate landscape. However, if you were to open up the mind of a pathological narcissist and look inside, what you would find is a psychological wasteland riddled with persecutory objects.

The ambiguity of malignant narcissism is that its outward manifestations are often the opposite of the internal reality, which is a gaping void. The gnawing emptiness within is a catalyst for grandiose pretensions that serve to preserve their idealized false self. Chest thumping boasts of supremacy are a safeguard against the toxic shame that has engulfed their true self.

Where others have a conscience, the pathological narcissist has a vacuum. For this reason, they are on a constant hunt to consume anything that might fill the void. Alcohol, narcotics, pornography, sex, gambling, people – you name it, the narcissist ravenously devours it. But it doesn’t fill them up because they are bottomless pits.

When narcissists encounter people who are able to manifest constructive emotions the narcissist cannot, it wounds their pride, stirs their jealousy, and causes a narcissistic injury. 

What is a narcissistic injury?

A narcissistic injury is a threat to the narcissist’s false self. The threat may be real or imagined. What matters is that the narcissist’s steely psychological armor is penetrated and they experience a painful reminder that their false self is an illusion.

Sensing danger, their ego sends all hands on deck to rescue the false self from annihilation. For this reason, narcissistic injuries go hand in hand with narcissistic rage.

The narcissist’s first line of defense is a disavowal of reality. They devalue the threat, stripping the individual of their humanity and reducing them to the status of object. The narcissist’s ego then fractures the object as it resorts to primary defense mechanisms, such as splitting and projection.

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Someone who was once all good is now all bad. A person once hailed as the light of the narcissist’s life becomes the very heart of darkness. The threatening object is made wrong so that the false self can be right. Thus, the narcissist vindicates themselves from any criticism, wrongdoing, and – most importantly – shame.

The more the narcissist uses splitting as an ego defense, the more anything resembling a cohesive identity unravels. Whenever the ego splits an object, an identical split takes place in the ego itself, causing it to become fragmented. The more a narcissist splits off from the abuse they inflict, the more it escalates.

To escape accountability, the narcissist uses a sleight of hand and projects their sadistic acts on to the people they target. This enables them to shape-shift into a new persona – which they do with the ease of a serpent shedding its skin. 

What are the causes of narcissistic injury

The narcissist is a paper tiger. Their psychological structure is too feeble to grasp a self-concept with any complexity. They are satisfied to worship an illusion of their perfect false self. This disposition is common in toddlers, but it’s crippling in adults.

The construction of a false self may have shielded them from adverse childhood experiences in their early years, but it is maladaptive in adulthood as it prevents them from living authentic emotional lives.

The need for emotional bonds disgusts them. Yet, paradoxically it is also something they covet.

While the false self mimics edifying emotions, it does not experience them. A kind of emotional rigor mortis defines the narcissist’s existence.

How do narcissists cope with narcissistic injuries?

Their fragility sends them on predatory crusades to boost their ego. They may sustain their insatiable false self with adulation or attention or with cruel power trips utilizing coercive control, and psycho-emotional abuse.

Narcissists believe that by destroying a person or thing, they obtain power over it.  They accomplish this through deception, seduction, and psychological cannibalism. To the narcissist, this affirms their imaginary superiority.

It is their way of making the false self appear real. 

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Narcissistic Injury FAQ

A narcissistic injury is any threat to the narcissist’s false self. The threat may be real or imagined. What matters is that the narcissist’s psychological defenses are penetrated and they experience a painful reminder that their false self is an illusion.

Narcissists are shame-based and have fragile ego structures. They can suffer from low self-esteem, depression, rage, and paranoia.

Narcissists want power and control.


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