I first learned about the malignant form of narcissistic personality disorder from reading Grimm’s’ fairy tales. If you know the story of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” you already have a classic example of a malignant narcissist in action. Snow White had to go hide deep in the forest at the dwarves’ home because her very beautiful and highly competitive stepmother, the evil Queen, could not stand the idea that Snow White was more beautiful than she. She demanded that her huntsman kill Snow White and bring her back the girl’s heart in a box. This example may be a little bit extreme, as most malignant narcissists are not murderers, but it conveys the essence of the malice that is often present in their interactions with other people.
What Is Malignant Narcissism?
The main qualities that define malignant narcissism and differentiate it from the more common exhibitionist and closet varieties are that malignant narcissists get most of their narcissistic supplies by destroying other people’s self-esteem and happiness. Instead of exhibiting themselves to an admiring audience or basking in the glow of someone else’s approval, malignant narcissists get sadistic pleasure from dominating other people and causing them harm.
Note: I am using the terms “narcissist” or “narcissistic” as a shorthand way of referring to people who exhibit the pattern of thinking and behavior that is commonly diagnosed as narcissistic personality disorder.
Some malignant narcissists are subtly destructive.
Example: Sweet Aunt Sally
Jenna’s elderly aunt Sally looked like a sweet harmless old lady. But somehow every time Jenna visited her, she came away feeling depressed and bad about herself. It wasn’t until she brought her friend Mary with her to visit her aunt, that she finally figured out how subtly malicious her aunt could be. “Mary,” her aunt said, “a girl as big as you should never wear horizontal stripes. If you ever want to get married, you need to lose some weight. More cookies, dear?”
Example: Jack’s Helpful Boss
Every Monday morning Jack’s boss held a meeting. He went around the room and asked each person to talk about some mistake they had made in the prior week and what they should have done instead. He said the purpose of the meeting was for them to improve their work by learning from each other’s failures. Instead everyone felt humiliated and insecure and grew to hate Monday mornings. Jack noticed that as everyone else in the meeting started to look more depressed, his boss looked happier and happier.
Some malignant narcissists are more overt.
Example: James and his Blanket
My client James was speaking in therapy about an old blanket that he had been very attached to as a child. When I asked if he still had it, he said that it was sitting unused in a closet in his father’s house. I asked why he didn’t go get it, if he liked it so much. I will never forget his answer.
If I let my father know I value it, he will throw it out. I have to find another way to get it.
As I learned more about James’ early life, the blanket story became symbolic of their whole relationship. Whenever James had showed that he cared about something, his father would find a way to destroy it. He gave away James’ dog while he was at camp, refused to allow James to go with the rest of his class on their trip to Washington, D.C., and on James’ birthday, made sure when he cut the cake that he never gave any of the pieces with the buttercream flowers to James.
What Type of Person Attracts Malignant Narcissists?
Most of the malignant narcissists I have met seem to enjoy tormenting insecure people. They are basically bullies. If you are not insecure to begin with, they will try to make you insecure.
What do I mean?
They are often quite good at identifying people’s weak spots and exploiting them—and even the strongest of us has vulnerabilities.
Here are some examples of two very manipulative malignant narcissists and their attempts to make their therapists as insecure and uncomfortable as possible. The first example is of an overt malignant narcissist and the other is of a covert malignant narcissist.
Example 1—The Humiliator
This client came for his first session. His presenting problem was that he could not sustain romantic relationships with women because he lost all interest in the person immediately after he had sex with her. He said that he realized that this would get in the way of his ever getting married and having a family.
I invited him to take a seat and told him where I would be sitting—a big chair with an ottoman. I said, “Feel free to sit wherever you want.” He said, “Really? Wherever I want?” Then he pulled up a chair right opposite me, moved it extremely close to mine, and put his feet up on my ottoman next to mine, and smiled.
It was obvious that he wanted to make me uncomfortable and this was a test of some sort. The fact was, he had succeeded in surprising and flustering me—which was exactly what he had intended.
I asked him to move his chair back and tell me about his last couple of relationships. This is an abbreviated version of what he said:
I like to sexually humiliate women. I especially enjoy doing it to the type of girl who rejected me in high school as not good enough to date. I am a fashion photographer and young models come to audition for me in hopes I will use them in a photo shoot.
I like to get them to strip for me and I make them pose in ways that I hope will embarrass them—like on their hands and knees with their ass in the air. Then I make them have sex with me. They rarely say “no” because I lead them think that will get them the job.
I like to hurt them during sex and get them to do weird stuff they don’t like. As soon as we finish, I tell them they are ugly and useless and not good enough. They are usually crying at this point, which I really enjoy! Then I kick them out!
Then he looked at me and smiled and said: What do you think? Any chance you can help me?
It was clear to both of us that he wanted to see how uncomfortable he could make me by telling me this. We did do a few therapy sessions after that, but he left and never came back after I confronted him too bluntly about how his attempts to dominate our sessions by making me uncomfortable were sabotaging his therapy.
Example 2—The Victim
A very skilled and experienced colleague of mine came to me for supervision because he said:
I am losing my confidence. I have an elderly female client and she is getting under my skin. I feel incredibly insecure during her sessions and I don’t know what is going on.
I asked him to tell me about when this had started. He said:
Well…I had a few sessions with her. She presented herself as a victim. She was always complaining about how mean people were to her, especially her grown children. Initially I was sympathetic.
Then she came in for her session and told me that I had been mean to her in her last session. I was very surprised. I pride myself on bring a nice guy and I would never be intentionally mean to a client.
I asked her to give me an example of how I was mean, and she told me that it was my tone of voice. She said that I had been very harsh and disapproving. I really didn’t think that I had been and told her that. She suggested that she tape our sessions going forward and then she would play back the sections where I was being mean.
I agreed because I was pretty sure she was just imagining it. But she started playing back sections and pointing out tiny mistakes on my part. She kept playing one section over and over again in which I did sound mildly exasperated, but nothing most clients would even notice.
I started to hesitate in her sessions and eventually became very ineffective. I know I am in some kind of trap, but I honestly have no idea how to get out of it.
Luckily, I had seen this sort of thing before and had a simple solution. The client had shifted the focus of the session from her presenting problems to his minor flaws. I told him that he needed to refocus the therapy back on her. In essence, I suggested he say something like the following:
I know you came to therapy to work on your problems, but I realize that we have gotten off track and now your sessions are focused solely on my flaws as a person and therapist. I think we need to go back to focusing on you. You didn’t come to therapy to improve me, but because you were unhappy with your relationships outside of therapy.
As it turned out, she actually was not interested in focusing on herself or her role in creating her relationship issues. Once this therapist stopped letting her put him under the microscope, she quit therapy.
Punchline: Malignant narcissists enjoy devaluing people and pointing out everyone else’s flaws. Their main goal is to destroy people’s self-confidence and dominate them. Their favorite victims are insecure people who they can make even more insecure, but they will try to do this with all sorts of people—even their therapists. And sometimes they are quite successful!
Adapted from two Quora.com posts “What kind of personality attracts malignant narcissists” (October 4, 20018) and “What are the behaviors of Malignant Narcissists?” (July 7, 2018).