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Malignant Narcissism

Posted Apr 06 2010 6:11pm
Narcissism, malignant A form of narcissistic personality disorder characterized by suspiciousness to the point of paranoia, feelings of grandiosity, and sadistic cruelty accompanied by a complete lack of remorse.  
While this is a good starting point for the meaning of malignant narcissism, this definition is just too broad and too shallow to really explore the topic of malignant narcissism.   To give a well known example, the story of Echo and Narcissus serves as a good template for describing both narcissism and malignant narcissism.  The story goes as follows; the nymph Echo sees a very handsome man, a hunter, in the woods.  She watches as he captures a stag, and becomes enamoured of him.  She wishes to tell him how she feels, so she approaches him, but she can only speak part of what others say.  He becomes aware of her presence, and demands that she come out where he can see her.  She tries to speak to the man, named Narcissus, and tries to tell him of her love.  He does not care about her proclamation of love.  Instead, he brutally mocks and shames her.  Heartbroken at his rejection, Echo leaves and fades away- leaving only a voice.  Narcissus’ cruelty angers the gods, who punish him by causing him to fall in love with his own reflection. Narcissus eventually dies, pining away for his own image.

Breaking down the myth, the malignancy of Narcissus becomes startlingly apparent.  It starts with Echo, a beautiful nymph.  She sees a handsome man in the forest, a hunter in the middle of the pursuit of his goal; the stag.  She is fascinated by him- not only is he good-looking, he is also fierce and passionate in the pursuit of his goal.  She is quite attracted to him.  He seems to be the most stunning, attractive and intelligent man she has ever seen.  What she does not know is that the image that Narcissus portrayed was not at all like the person he was on the inside.

Most people, on initially meeting someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), would say that the person is charming, intelligent, and fun to be around.  Like Narcissus, the Antisocial person- sometimes called a sociopath- seems to be ideal.  However, this is just a ploy.  The sociopath is an adept shape shifter, able to take on many different social faces.  These faces are known in Jungian psychology as personas.  As Jung himself stated, the term persona “meant the mask once worn by actors to indicate the role played… It is, as its name implies, only a mask… that feigns individuality, making others believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role” (Jung vol. 7 157-158).

In Latin, the word “persona” means “actor’s mask.”  This is especially fitting; the sociopath is an adept actor who uses this skill to manipulate others to his or her own ends.  Sometimes, achieving the sociopath’s ends may end in disaster for those who are involved.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) writes that the sociopath is “frequently deceitful and manipulative in order to gain personal profit or pleasure (e.g. to obtain money, sex, or power)… They may repeatedly lie, use an alias, con others, or maligner” (DSM-IV 702).  It goes on to say that the sociopath shows “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood” (ibid 701).

When Echo decided to approach him, Narcissus demanded for her to show herself.  Instead of going to see for himself, Narcissus felt he deserved subservience from whatever was hiding from him.  Echo proclaimed her love, but that was of no use to Narcissus.  Narcissus knew he was beautiful, and he not only felt he was superior to Echo, he deemed that she was of no use to him.  After all, his desire was to kill the stag; Echo could not help him capture or kill it.  Plus, she had the gall to assume she was worth his love.

Narcissism is not simply arrogance.  It is a personality disorder, also known as NPD or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  The term “Narcissism” is actually derived from Narcissus’s name.  Narcissus felt that he deserved to be obeyed when he issued a command.  Like him, the narcissist “has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations” (ibid 717) Both Narcissus and the narcissist “lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others” (ibid) and like the sociopath, is “interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends” (ibid).  Narcissus did not care about Echo; she meant nothing to him because she could not give him anything he wanted, so he had no problem telling her that she was worthless.  Even if she had something that Narcissus wanted, he would have expected her to give it to him without getting anything in return.

Narcissists are a lot like children.  The narcissist may claim to have skills or possessions that others do not have, or to have connections in high places.  It does not matter that these statements are not true; the DSM-IV writes “they [narcissists] expect to be catered to and are puzzled or furious when this does not happen… they expect to be given whatever they want or feel they need, no matter what it might mean to others… and they may react with distain, rage or defiant counterattack” (ibid 715) if questioned or refused.  This is what one might call a tantrum.  The narcissist creates the image of the persona, a new but false self who is infinitely better, to the narcissist, than the actual or true Self.  Jung explains the Self as “the unity of the personality as a whole… In other words, it encompasses both the experienceable [sic] and the inexperienceable [sic] (or the not yet experienced)… consisting of both conscious and unconscious contents” (Jung vol. 6 460). The false self, however, is full of holes, and needs constant inflation.  Any questioning or prodding of it would cause the whole image to unravel, which is something that the narcissist is desperate to prevent.

The malignant narcissist is like a mix of narcissism and sociopathy. However, narcissists need attention and compliments, which sociopaths do not need.  Sociopaths are blatantly irresponsible, deceitful, impulsive, and usually have a history of conduct disorder or a criminal record, which are things that are not characteristic of narcissism.  Both NPD and APD are both what is called “Cluster B” personality disorders, which means that psychologists recognize that they are similar enough to share a category, but separate enough to be considered different disorders.  The two share much in common, but are not the same, and malignant narcissism is a separate disorder from either one. 

Much like the sociopath, the malignant narcissist is willing to sacrifice others to achieve his or her own ends.  To give a metaphor for how the malignant narcissist operates, it is helpful to image the narcissist’s world as a game similar to chess.   The malignant narcissist is both a piece in the game-- the King piece-- as well as the Player-- the mover of the pieces.  In this way, the malignant narcissist takes the position of the king-god in the universe he or she has created.  All of the pieces, that is, all the people around the narcissist, are positioned around the King piece- the persona of the narcissist in relation to society- and are moved in relation to the King.  All the pieces are manipulated by the Player - the narcissist’s desires.

The other pieces are all pawns- trivial and to be used and sacrificed as necessary to achieve the desires of the King.  The pawns are also used to protect and defend the King; the Player sets it so that if one of the pieces tries to assert its own desires, the other pawns will rise up against the one and crush the “threat” to the King.  In this way, the malignant narcissist is in control of the game, part of the game, and playing against the game all at the same time.

However, the game is the narcissist’s game.  The Player is still essentially a narcissist; that is, the Player still has the child-like delusion of grand importance.  The malignant narcissist sees themselves as both the King and the god, the Player.  If the pieces try to move of their own will, the malignant narcissist will not only put the pieces back into their place, but with the fury of a disobeyed god.  This is the image which Narcissus saw and fell in love with.  He could not see himself as a cruel, sadistic manipulator but as the kingly image of his persona.

This is how malignant narcissism is; the malignant narcissist will sacrifice everything and everyone to maintain the idol of the persona, the glorified image of the false self that has been created.  Everyone is a potential threat to the narcissist’s image, and threats must be eliminated.  This almost paranoid fear of the destruction of the persona “can be the result of persona identification, when one has come to believe that one’s social self is really all there is to one’s personality” (Hopcke 30).  Also, and perhaps more as a more threatening result of the destruction of the persona, the shadow would be revealed.  The shadow is the part of the mind where all the darkness is; Jung writes, “the shadow personifies everything the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself [or herself] and yet is always thrusting itself upon him” (Jung Vol. 9i 284-285) For the malignant narcissist, this means the truth of his or her true nature is being thrust upon him or her.  Should this happen, it would mean that the glorious image Narcissus saw in the pool would become the merciless and sadistic person that he was.

The malignant narcissist cannot allow the destruction of the persona or the emergence of the shadow, and will lie and slander viciously to destroy the threat.  However, a person does not need to be a threat for the malignant narcissist to ruin their reputation.  It does not take much to trash someone else’s hard-earned credibility, and doing this will be a quick and easy way for the malignant narcissist to look good in comparison. 
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