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Narcissistic Traits or Malignant Narcissism?

No one deserves to be mistreated by another. No one! To be insulated from mistreatment, however, we must always be on the alert for those who would mistreat us.

First, let me be clear: any form of narcissism is destructive. Yet, it is one thing to experience abuse at the hands of someone with narcissistic traits and something altogether more debilitating if the abuse has been perpetrated by a malignant narcissist.

So, what is the difference? How do we know if we are struggling with someone with narcissistic traits or the more pathological traits of malignant narcissism? Knowing the difference could be the difference between emotional life or emotional death.

Malignant Narcissism

The term ‘malignant narcissism’ was first coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. He correctly determined that a malignant narcissist was characterized by antisocial behavior, aggression, and even sadism—the desire to do harm to another. Fromm calls malignant narcissism “the quintessence of evil.” He determined that the malignant narcissist purposefully sought to be destructive and hurtful to humanity.

Malignant narcissism goes beyond vanity and excessive self-focus. One of the key components is the complete absence of morality and, therefore, a lack of conscience, guilt, or sorrow over wrongful behavior. The malignant narcissist is so self-centered as to render him or her incapable of really caring for another. They believe they are not only superior to others but that others are worthless.

Anyone with sociopathic inclinations, where they are able and willing to hurt others for their own gain, is of great concern. Anyone willing to exploit others to advance their own agenda is to be avoided at all costs. It may not be a simple process because they may still possess charm and be cunning, and subsequently great caution must be taken.

Covert Narcissism or Narcissistic Traits

Let’s counter this with the individual with narcissistic traits. Contrary to the person with sociopathic, malignant narcissism, the man or woman with narcissistic traits is likely to have some sense of morality. Their abuse is more likely to be covert and, albeit destructive, not as debilitating as malignant narcissism. Their abuse is subtle, covert, with little idea of how their actions impact their victim.

Narcissistic traits are likely to take the following form:

  • Constant criticism
  • Refusing to communicate/stonewalling
  • Holding power over
  • Withholding affection
  • Sarcasm
  • Use of control
  • Emotional neglect
  • Lack of empathy

The difference between the covert narcissist and malignant narcissist is one of intensiveness and extensiveness. Both will prove to be dangerous to your well-being, while the malignant narcissist will cause harm without a second thought.

What can you do to protect yourself from people with malignant narcissism?

  1. Be informed. Know about narcissism and the impact it can have on you. Be fully informed about the difference between the covert narcissist and malignant narcissist.
  2. Measure the extent to which a person is able to empathize with you. To what extent do they care about your well-being? Do they take time to know about you? Are they open to feedback and willing, at least to some extent, to change? This is a key differentiator between the two forms of narcissism.
  3. Insist upon being treated with respect and dignity. A little narcissism goes a long way in harming our worth. Don’t allow anyone to rob that from you. Will the person respond favorably to your firm boundaries? This is another key marker to be understood.
  4. Protect yourself from narcissistic people in the future. You cannot fully heal until you are free from narcissistic abuse. You are a child of God and worthy of being loved well. Don’t allow anyone to mistreat you. Period.

If you have already been harmed by any type of narcissistic abuser, get help now. The Marriage Recovery Center specializes in working with narcissists and narcissist abuse victims, so please contact us for information on how to get started with healing and recovery.


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