Malignant Narcissist: How to Spot Them and How to Cope

The concept of malignant narcissism was introduced by psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg in 1964, describing a psychological syndrome comprising an extreme mix of narcissistic traits and a malevolent or malicious nature, including antisocial personality disorder, aggression, sadism, and paranoia.

Malignant Narcissim
Malignant narcissists possess the characteristic self-centeredness and grandiosity associated with narcissism but also demonstrate an exploitative, sadistic, and manipulative nature.

They engage in antisocial behavior, idealize their sadistic nature, enjoy causing other people suffering, have an excessive need for admiration, lack empathy for others, and have a deeply paranoid attitude.

The term “malignant narcissist” is not an official psychiatric diagnosis as it is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, this psychological concept is considered a severe form of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), used to characterize individuals who exhibit extreme narcissistic traits with particularly harmful or malicious intentions.

Erich Fromm called malignant narcissism “the quintessence of evil.”

Malignant narcissists are aggressive, arrogant, and cold individuals with an excessive desire for power and high social status. They may exhibit a sense of entitlement, believing that they are superior to others and deserve special treatment or privileges.

They tend to exploit and manipulate others for their own gain, showing no remorse for their villainous behavior.

While malignant narcissists have calculating, aloof, and cold personalities, they can be extremely charming when pursuing a narcissistic goal. They are loyal to certain associates but generally paranoid about other people’s intentions.

Researchers and psychologists have recognized malignant narcissism in Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. They also described the evil stepmothers in Snow White and Cinderella as examples of “classical malignant narcissists.”

Malignant Narcissist Traits

Malignant narcissism is considered a combination of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

It is conceptually and clinically very similar to what is commonly called “psychopathy” (clinically known as ASPD), a condition characterized by callousness, aggression, and a lack of empathy and remorse.

Malignant narcissism is characterized by a combination of narcissistic personality traits and more malevolent or harmful behaviors.

While the specific traits can vary from person to person, here are some common traits associated with malignant narcissism in more detail:

Grandiosity, Superiority, and Entitlement

In line with the DSM-5 criteria of NPD, malignant narcissists have a grandiose sense of self. They are preoccupied with fantasies of their superiority, intelligence, success, power, and attractiveness.

They feel entitled to whatever they want because they believe they are special, unique, and above all other people. They may exaggerate their achievements, talents, or qualities to bolster their self-esteem.

To ensure they are always the center of attention, they can be loud and dramatic. They expect others to admire and submit to them and will demand and extort special treatment and obedience even if the other is reluctant.

Interpersonal Exploitativeness and Lack of Empathy

Malignant narcissists have a limited ability to understand or empathize with the feelings and needs of others – unless they see some kind of self-serving value in the other. In their eyes, other people serve a function but do not hold any intrinsic worth.

Malignant narcissists have low emotional/ affective empathy (i.e. they do not feel other people’s emotions).

However, they can intellectually understand other people’s perspectives and emotions (termed cognitive empathy), just without feeling them. What makes malignant narcissists so dangerous is their ability to understand people’s needs, hopes, and fears coupled with their willingness to exploit others as tools for their own gain.

When they want something or are pursuing a narcissistic goal, they can be extremely charming and seductive. They may use this charm, deceit, or coercion to gain power, control, or resources.

Machiavellian Goal-Pursuit

To a malignant narcissist, it is a dog-eat-dog world in which there are only winners (predators) and losers (prey) with nothing in between. In their eyes, the end justifies the means, so they will manipulate, exploit, and deceive to accomplish their goals.

They are often pathological liars, telling fanciful stories of their achievements and ruthlessly lying about their true intentions.

Malignant narcissists are often successful because of their ability to adapt, work hard, and deceive. But even if they appear to be acting virtuously, their true aim is to gain admiration, attention, and power – by any means possible.

Shallow Relationships and Intellect

Although they may successfully love bomb and seduce others to fall for them, they are incapable of having deep and intimate relationships. They will only love and care for someone else if that person can fulfill their narcissistic needs. But once they have fulfilled a purpose, they are devalued and discarded.

According to psychologists, malignant narcissists harbor deep feelings of inferiority, boredom, alienation, and emptiness beneath their grandiose façade.

They might portray themselves as extraordinary and impressive, but in reality, they are shallow and worthless.

To gain recognition and admiration, they will transform their values, interests, and personality to manipulate situations in their favor.

Antisocial Traits

Although malignant narcissists do not necessarily meet the DSM criteria to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, they possess many of its same features.

These include

  1. Failure to conform to social norms
  2. Repeatedly engaging in criminal behavior
  3. Deceitfulness (e.g., lying, using aliases, conning others for personal profit or pleasure)
  4. Impulsivity/ inability to plan ahead
  5. Irritability and aggressiveness (often physical violence)
  6. Recklessness and disregard for others’ and their own safety
  7. Failure to sustain consistent work and responsibilities
  8. Lack of remorse
  9. Rationalizing their malicious behavior

Malignant narcissists may have some (or many) of these traits in combination with a highly narcissistic personality.

However, as opposed to a person with ASPD, narcissists can have concern and loyalty for others – but only for their faithful followers, allies, or those they idealize.

Malignant narcissists are proud of their aggressive and sadistic traits, believing they are superior traits that allow them to dominate and succeed. Individuals with ASPD, on the other hand, do not idealize their aggression or sadism.

Aggression and Sadism

A key feature of malignant narcissism is sadism – the disposition to derive pleasure from inflicting pain or suffering onto others.

They may engage in emotional, verbal, or physical abuse, relishing in the control they exert over their victims. They might fantasize about hurting other people or causing others psychological pain. Some may engage in consensual or nonconsensual sadistic sexual activities.

Malignant narcissists view their sadistic tendencies positively and believe they have the right to hurt people.

Additionally, malignant narcissism, like all forms of narcissism, is associated with high levels of aggression.  Malignant narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism, so if they perceive a threat or challenge to their dominance, superiority, or grandiosity, they will become enraged.

Their entitled and sadistic nature means they aim to psychologically and/ or physically punish the person who “betrayed” them.

They might not always show their rage outwardly, but instead may plan their revenge deviously to cause the greatest amount of suffering.


According to Otto Kernberg, the malignant narcissist’s paranoia is the cause of their inflated sense of self. Because they believe that others cannot be trusted and the world is a hostile place, they must protect themselves by exploiting in their own grandiosity and superiority.

Kernberg also suggests that they project the unresolved hatred they feel for themselves onto others, consequently mistreating and/ or dismissing them.

They either idealize or devalue others, believing anyone who does not admire and submit to them is an enemy and must be destroyed.

How Malignant Narcissism Affects Relationships

Malignant narcissism can have profoundly negative effects on relationships. Due to their exploitative and manipulative nature, individuals with malignant narcissism often struggle to maintain loving, healthy, and supportive connections with others. They have an exploitative and cruel nature, which can take a heavy toll on their partners and the relationship.

The consequences of being in a narcissistic relationship are described below:

Idealization and Devaluation

Narcissists see the world as black and white – things and people are either good or bad. This trait is particularly pronounced in malignant narcissists.

Initially (especially when they are trying to win you over), malignant narcissists can be charming, loving, and seductive. They will idealize you, putting you on a pedestal and making you feel special and wanted.

But once they notice any flaws (because we all have them) or you challenge their authority or grandiose fantasies in any way, you become “bad” in their eyes.

Because of their black-and-white thinking, they can no longer see any good in you; they now see you as a threat or enemy and feel entitled to devalue and abuse you.

This behavior is confusing and highly distressing because someone who made you feel so good about yourself now acts as though they despise you.

This abusive behavior can lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and a diminished sense of self-worth.

Emotional Abuse and Manipulation

Malignant narcissists are skilled at manipulating others to meet their own needs. They will make you believe their façade is real, that their stories of success and power are true, and that they really are the partner of your dreams.

The gaslighting, hot-and-cold behavior, stonewalling, blame-shifting, and victim-playing start to creep into the relationship without you even realizing.

They skillfully manipulate you into believing you are the problem – telling you “you are jealous/ broken/ crazy/ a bad person” – until over time you start to believe it. They will never take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, blaming their problems and wrongdoings on you. 

You feel shame and guilt, trying everything to get back to how things used to be –to get them to love you again. When they show you a hint of affection and love, you feel euphoric and forget the abuse. But you are constantly walking on eggshells because you never know what might set them off.

Eventually, you start to lose your confidence, sense of self, and grasp on reality. You no longer know who you are and feel entirely dependent on the narcissist.

Physical Abuse

Malignant narcissists are often physically violent and sexually abusive towards their partners.

They may push, slap, strangle, or punch you while blaming their anger on you and something you have done.

Afterward, they might apologize and promise they will never do it again, but if you do not (or cannot) leave, the abuse will escalate. They will slowly eradicate your boundaries, dehumanize you, and treat you like their property.


Malignant narcissists are often promiscuous and enjoy pursuing new “conquests” to boost their egos. They are not committed (even if they claim to be) to their relationships and enjoy having affairs to make their partners jealous.

They believe they have the right to act in any way that suits their needs.

Naturally, this behavior is toxic, traumatic, and unsafe. It erodes trust and undermines the emotional well-being of the individuals involved.

The Long-Term Impact

Individuals who have been in a relationship with malignant narcissists often suffer from symptoms of poor mental health, such as:

  • Depression (e.g. very low mood, loss of pleasure in life, changes in sleep and eating, and excessive guilt)
  • Anxiety (e.g. racing thoughts, hyper-vigilance, and other physiological symptoms, such as increased heart rate, sweating, stomach-churning, etc.)
  • Post-traumatic stress (e.g. flashbacks, nightmares, panic, and irritability/ aggression)
  • Suicidal thoughts or intent
  • Low confidence and self-esteem

They may feel unable to trust people or their own perception and blame themselves for what has happened. Many deal with the trauma and overwhelming anxiety by abusing drugs or alcohol, which can exacerbate already-existing mental and physical health problems.

Malignant narcissism can have a detrimental impact on the victims and the relationship as a whole. A narcissistic nature is incompatible with a healthy, stable relationship. And unfortunately, most narcissists are not motivated to change, even if they promise they will.

Case Examples

The following are two case examples of malignant narcissists from Goldner-Vukov & Moore (2010):


“Karen was raised by a passive, anxious insecure mother who loved her but did not protect her from her father. Her father was a man who came from a low socio-economic background and was preoccupied with success. He changed his family name when he was young because he didn’t think his name sounded powerful enough.

He worked as a manager in a small company and exaggerated his professional abilities and successes. He was obsessed with being famous and respected. He was paranoid, always competitive, and had difficulty in interpersonal relationships.

He lied and misrepresented himself when it was convenient and he was involved in minor criminal activities. He presented himself as charming when he needed something but he had poor boundaries, and this made him intrusive and demanding.

He “blossomed” when he discovered that his daughter was gifted for athletic activities. At that time, Karen was 7 or 8 years old. Her father admired her for her gift, but he completely denied every other aspect of her existence.

She was required to practice athletic activities every minute of her life, go for competitions and, of course, win, earn money and become famous. He used to compete with Karen and told her that he could have been a better athlete than she was if he had wanted that. He spoke about his daughter’s success as if it were his own.

When Karen became famous, he went from being no one to being “Mr. Someone.” When he was dissatisfied with Karen’s practice or achievements, he sadistically humiliated her in public. He physically abused her between competitions. She often played with bruises on her back and tears in her eyes.

The coaches, teachers, and even the public thought that her father was ‘mad,’ but no one did anything to help her. Her doctor even had to conceal the psychiatric assessment from her father.

Karen refused further treatment. She grew up, disappeared from the sports scene, and led a life burdened with hardship and suffering.


Karen’s father was a malignant narcissist. He had a core narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). He had a grandiose sense of his importance and was preoccupied with fame.

He needed a continued source of social admiration and exploited his daughter’s life to satisfy his own needs. He was envious of his daughter’s gift but lacked any sense of true empathy for her needs.

He had antisocial behaviors and was physically abusive towards Karen. Even to the public, it was obvious that he was cruel and sadistic and persecuted his daughter.


John’s father never loved him because John was physically frail and psychologically unstable. Despite this, his father had high expectations of him; he wanted a son who would bring him glory.

John’s father was cruel and humiliating; he physically abused John and went into foul moods where he would stop communicating with him for long periods of time. When John developed a serious mental illness, his father rejected him. He never visited John in the hospital and refused to pay for his medication.

His father was involved in real estate deals of questionable integrity. John’s mother was a detached, frightened woman, emotionally abused by her husband. She did everything possible to keep the family secrets to protect her husband’s fame.

After a course of treatment that did not significantly improve John’s mental health, he overdosed and ended his life. His father never bothered to contact the mental health service.


John’s father was a malignant narcissist. He had a core NPD and treated John like a narcissistic extension of himself.

When John could not fulfill the expectation of gaining glory for his father, his father devalued and rejected him. John’s father showed antisocial behavior in his business negotiations.

He physically abused John and abandoned him when he needed his father’s love the most. His father was sadistic and projected his unresolved hatred and aggression onto John, torturing him to the point where he felt his life no longer had meaning.

Red Flags to Watch For in a Partner

Identifying whether your partner is a malignant narcissist will involve paying attention to their behavior and how they treat you and others. 

If there are signs of narcissism (e.g., vulnerable, malignant, or grandiose narcissism), seeking support from trusted friends, family, or mental health professionals can be crucial in navigating the challenges and potentially exiting the relationship.

Fortunately, malignant narcissism is rare, so the likelihood of your partner having this condition is relatively low. 

The following characteristics and behaviors are signs of malignant narcissism that you should not ignore:

Narcissistic Features

Malignant narcissists meet at least 5 of the DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, including:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, sex, brilliance, beauty, etc.
  • The belief that they are special and unique and can only associate with other high-status people or institutions
  • Excessive need for admiration, praise, compliments, and attention
  • Sense of entitlement (e.g. unreasonable expectation of special treatment and immediate compliance with their expectation)
  • Interpersonally exploitative (e.g. take advantage of others for their own benefit)
  • Lack of empathy
  • Inability to take responsibility for their actions
  • Rationalizing their poor behavior
  • Envious of others and believes others are envious of them
  • Arrogant and grandiose behaviors and attitudes

Cruel Behavior and Sadism

While not all narcissists are inherently sadistic, malignant narcissists are highly sadistic individuals who enjoy inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.

When someone with narcissistic personality traits also exhibits a propensity for deriving pleasure or satisfaction from causing harm or suffering to others, they are likely a malignant narcissist.


To the malignant narcissist, the world is a hostile place. Malignant narcissists are paranoid individuals, constantly interpreting other people’s intentions as malevolent or suspicious.

They believe everyone around them is either an idiot or an enemy, and they persecute them relentlessly. They will idealize a few people — usually those who satisfy their narcissistic needs — and despise everyone else.

This behavior in combination with the above features is a sign of malignant narcissism.


Malignant narcissism is associated with mercilessness, callousness, and remorselessness.

Malignant narcissists can understand other people’s perspectives and emotions on an intellectual level (“cognitive empathy”), but on an emotional level, they have very low empathy.

To them, others are more like objects than human beings, enabling them to mistreat and disregard people and their feelings. As such, they can be abusive, dishonest, and manipulative without feeling guilty.

If you tell them something upsetting, they will not show any emotion or express remorse.

How to Protect Yourself

If you are in a relationship with a malignant narcissist, it is almost inevitably an abusive one that you should consider leaving for your own well-being and safety.

Managing a relationship with a malignant narcissist can be incredibly challenging as they do not see any reason to change.

From the case examples above, it is clear that being in close contact with malignant narcissists can be harmful to your well-being, leaving you extremely anxious, submissive, and even suicidal.

The following is advice for managing a relationship with a malignant narcissist:

Boundaries and Self-Care

While setting clear boundaries for yourself and communicating them assertively can be beneficial, it is likely that a malignant narcissist will break down these boundaries completely. Unfortunately, most individuals in a relationship with a malignant narcissist will eventually submit to their partner’s demands, tolerating any abusive behavior because they feel scared and defeated.

Establishing boundaries with a malignant narcissist is particularly difficult because they will view your attempts at implementing limits as a challenge to their authority.

This will likely escalate their abusive and manipulative behavior. To protect yourself as much as possible, you should approach this with caution.

You may want to instead focus on yourself rather than on trying to change them or the relationship. Malignant narcissists are not motivated to change, so your energy will be better spent thinking about how you can look after your own health and well-being.

This can include exercise, therapy, spending time with supportive friends and family, and engaging in hobbies that bring you joy and fulfillment.

Do some reflection and consider the impact the relationship is having on you. Think about who you are, what you want from life, and where your boundaries should be (e.g., not tolerating abusive behavior), and then make a plan to take action.

Professional Help

Consulting a therapist or counselor who has experience in dealing with narcissistic abuse can be instrumental when recovering from an abusive relationship.

A professional can provide guidance, validate your experiences, and offer strategies for coping with the challenges of the relationship.

Leaving the Relationship

Whether or not you should stay in a relationship with a malignant narcissist is entirely your decision. However, if you do decide to leave, ensure you are safe because they will likely have a strong negative reaction. Here is some advice:

  • Do not tell them you are leaving or where you are going
  • Make sure you are in contact with trusted friends and family
  • Contact local authorities if necessary
  • Stay somewhere you know you will be safe
  • Have enough cash in case they access your bank account
  • Check for trackers on your devices
  • Log out of your accounts on all devices
  • Have your important documents (e.g., passport) and valuable possessions with you when you leave

Recovery and Healing

Recovering from a narcissistic relationship takes time, patience, and hard work. It can help to connect with trusted friends, family, or support groups who can provide emotional support and validation. Sharing your experiences with others who understand can help you gain perspective and feel less isolated.


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Goldner-Vukov, M. & Moore, L.J. (2010). Malignant Narcissism: From Fairy Tales To Harsh Reality. Psychiatria Danubina, 22 (3), 392–405.

Kernberg, O. F. (1974). Further contributions to the treatment of narcissistic personalities. The International journal of psycho-analysis55, 215.

Kernberg, O.F. (1984). Severe Personality Disorders. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Srivastava, A.A. & Opler, D.J. (2020). Malignant Narcissism in Tsugumi Ohba’s Death Note: Should we Empathize with the Criminally Un-Empathic? Academic Psychiatry, 44, 358–361.

Vaknin, S. (2007). Malignant self love: Narcissism revisited. Narcissus Publishing.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Julia Simkus

BA (Hons) Psychology, Princeton University

Editor at Simply Psychology

Julia Simkus is a graduate of Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is currently studying for a Master's Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness in September 2023. Julia's research has been published in peer reviewed journals.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.