Malignant narcissism has been described as an “intermediate” between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder, two disorders which, despite some differences like the level of grandiosity and tendency for criminal behavior involved, have many overlapping symptoms as well (Kernberg, 1989; Gunderson & Ronningstam, 2001). Malignant narcissists are higher on the spectrum of narcissism and possess these antisocial traits, paranoia, and sadism in addition to their narcissism. They may not all be physically violent, but many of them are psychologically violent and aggressive towards those they target.
I find that there are a few myths that hold us back from holding abusive malignant narcissists as well as more colloquially termed “psychopaths” accountable for their actions. I list them below, along with some much-needed reality checks.
MYTH #1: Anyone is capable of change.
REALITY CHECK: People are capable of change when they are willing to do what it takes to change – malignant narcissists often aren’t, due to the nature of their disorder.
What people forget is that certain disorders have hardwired behavioral patterns which originated in childhood, or in some cases, were preexisting even at birth. When readers ask me, “Can narcissists ever change?” they’re often not asking about narcissists on the lower end of the spectrum. These survivors have experienced horrific and heinous acts of emotional, verbal, sometimes even sexual or physical abuse by their narcissistic partners, co-workers, friends, or other family members. Just take a look at some of the terrifying ordeals they shared with me here.
As therapist Andrea Schneider, LCSW writes, “For individuals who are further on the spectrum of narcissism, change is very limited and so is insight. A malignant narcissist or psychopath will not change; they are sadly welded to their ways and hardwired to be who they are.”
Abusive people are rewarded by their behavior and malignant narcissists do not believe anything is wrong with them. Their inherent sense of superiority and callous lack of empathy and remorse, propensity towards exploiting others, as well as a lack of willingness to change their behavior, are intrinsic to their disorder.
These types do not go to therapy voluntarily unless they have an agenda in mind – usually, one of manipulating the therapist, or attending couples therapy to paint their victims as the abusers. That is why The National Domestic Violence Hotline does not recommend getting couples therapy with your abuser. Abuse is not a communication problem – it is a problem stemming from the dysfunction of the abuser. In many cases, couples therapy can cause the abuser to retaliate against the victim and further gaslight them in the therapy space. These types can be highly charming and charismatic, fooling even the most skilled of mental health professionals.
Most malignant narcissists and psychopaths go to therapy because they are court-ordered, not because they are motivated to change in any authentic way.
MYTH # 2: Their trauma made them do it, so we have to be sympathetic to them.
REALITY CHECK: There is still no final clinical verdict on what causes these disorders, although there are theories. The myth that all abusers have a traumatic upbringing is just that – a myth. Some abusers come from traumatic backgrounds, while others do not. There are also millions of survivors of malignant narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have suffered horrific traumas in childhood and they choose not to abuse. Abuse is, and will always be a choice.
As with any disorder, it is usually a mixture of nature and nurture at the root. Environment and upbringing usually interact with a biological predisposition to produce these disorders, so trauma can certainly be one possible cause. Clinicians are still not certain of what causes NPD, but they do have theories. Research also suggests that those with narcissistic traits grow up in households where they are overvalued, spoiled, and raised with an excessive sense of entitlement (Brummelman, et al., 2015). These narcissistic traits in childhood can later become full-fledged Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in adulthood.
While overvaluing a child can be a form of mistreatment as well, it’s important to realize that not every narcissist grows up in a household with the type of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse we would assume. In addition, because malignant narcissists and psychopaths have a limited emotional range and experience shallow emotions, they do not feel that much distress as one would assume they do in adulthood – if anything, they suffer from perpetual boredom and high levels of rage (Hare, 2011).
Many of the victims of malignant narcissists, however, do suffer, and did suffer in childhood too. In fact, I have spoken with hundreds of survivors who have been raised by narcissistic parents and were later abused by malignant narcissists in relationships. Some were abused by malignant narcissists who came from loving families. We have to remember that those who are full-fledged psychopaths may have been born that way, and if so, it may not be due to childhood trauma at all.
If anything, we need to remember to have empathy for the traumas that survivors, not their perpetrators, have endured. These same survivors chose not to abuse others, and instead, their traumas caused them to be very careful about the way they treat others. The effects of this type of abuse on the victims can result in PTSD or Complex PTSD, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.
MYTH # 3: They are mentally ill, so obviously they can’t control it!
REALITY CHECK: Many of us have empathy for those who suffer from a wide variety of mental illnesses. Malignant narcissism and psychopathy are very different from other mental illnesses. As Dr. George Simon notes, these disorders are “character disorders.” These individuals are not in a state of psychosis nor do they experience the same type of despair that other mentally ill people struggle with (at least, certainly not despair at causing others pain). While most mentally ill people struggle with their sense of self-worth, malignant narcissists deem themselves to be superior. They know exactly what they’re doing, and many of them enjoy doing it.
Research tells us that malignant narcissists have cognitive empathy and the intellectual ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and even show a sadistic pleasure at seeing sad faces; they know how to discern the fact that their victims are experiencing pain, but unlike empathic human beings, their motivation is not to alleviate that pain, but to provoke it even more (Wai and Tiliopoulos, 2012).
We also know that malignant narcissists don disguises and are adept at impression management. They can be wolves in sheep’s clothing in order to meet their agendas – whether it is to ensnare a victim into a fake relationship, create a harem of adoring fans, present themselves as a charitable public figure in the community, or climb the corporate ladder.
This type of mask-wearing takes energy and skill. They can put on the mask and change their behavior temporarily to get what they want – which means they are fully in control of their actions. They could choose to use that same energy and skill to modify their behavior accordingly to inflict less harm – but given the nature of their disordered ways of thinking and behaving, they simply do not wish to.
Many manipulative abusers will temporarily morph into the “nice” people they presented themselves to be at the beginning of relationships to get you ensnared back into the toxic cycle just to abuse you again. Don’t fall for it. They always revert back to their true, abusive selves.
THE BIG PICTURE
These myths contribute to enabling the abuser at the expense of victims and give people false hope. This false hope feeds into the idea of being the exception, not the rule, which causes survivors of malignant narcissists to remain entrenched in the abuse cycle for decades in the hopes that they will change. Recovery from this form of manipulation and violence can take a lifetime to unravel and heal, which is why it is so important that victims of abuse get out sooner rather than later.
I’ve corresponded with thousands of survivors over the course of this work and not once have I heard of a success story of their partner changing long-term, even when given hundreds of chances. Nor have I heard any success stories from the fellow therapists, life coaches, and advocates who write about and specialize in this form of abuse. What I have heard are horror stories of the abuse which escalates once the victims let the abuser into their lives again.
If an abuser wants to change (and usually they profess this as another manipulation tactic to get you to stay), they’ll have to do that on their own. Don’t put yourself in the middle of their chaos and destruction. It’s not your responsibility to change an abuser, regardless of their background or their disorder.
Do not buy into the myths that people who have not experienced this type of abuse tend to spread, even if they seem to have credentials when doing so. I’ve heard from countless survivors who have experienced secondary gaslighting from mental health professionals or academics who do not understand this form of covert violence.
Listen to the experts who have been there and those who have clients who have been terrorized by these predatory types. They are the ones who truly know what it is like. They understand that empathy for predators, when used to justify or excuse abusive behavior, is ultimately damaging not only to victims of abuse but society as a whole.
Remember, just because someone is a mental health professional or has a doctoral degree does not automatically mean they understand the depth of these specific personality disorders and the impact they can have in relationships. Make sure the person you are consulting is trauma-informed, validating, and has a solid understanding of how destructive disordered ways of thinking and behaving are. There are some great professionals and advocates out there, but there are also ones who do not get it. That’s why we need to continue to spread awareness and compassion for the victims, not their perpetrators.
When it comes to cutting ties when toxic people, it doesn’t matter if their malignant narcissism came out of trauma or if they were born that way. There are no excuses for abuse, and understanding the origins of their disorder does not change its impact on your wellbeing, nor should you use it as a reason to engage with these individuals out of obligation or guilt. As I’ve reiterated many times throughout this article, there are many trauma survivors who have gone through unfathomable horrors at the hands of narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopath – and they choose not to abuse.
Trauma or no trauma, do not rationalize or minimize the harm they do to you personally just because you’ve learned how their pathological behavior was birthed. It doesn’t change the fact that these are hardwired behaviors that are unlikely to change in the long-term. You can practice any compassion and empathy you have for them at a distance. Your self-care and safety always come first.
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Castro, B. O., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,201420870. doi:10.1073/pnas.1420870112
Gunderson, J. G., & Ronningstam, E. (2001). Differentiating Narcissistic and Antisocial Personality Disorders. Journal of Personality Disorders,15(2), 103-109. doi:10.1521/pedi.188.8.131.5213
Kernberg, O. F. (1989). The Narcissistic Personality Disorder and The Differential Diagnosis of Antisocial Behavior. Psychiatric Clinics of North America,12(3), 553-570. doi:10.1016/s0193-953x(18)30414-3
Schneider, A. (2018, December 12). Don’t Get Scrooged!: 10 Tips to Deal (or Not!) with Family Drama During the Holidays. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2018/12/dont-get-scrooged-10-tips-to-deal-or-not-with-family-drama-during-the-holidays/
Simon, G. K. (2016). In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Marion, MI: Parkhurst Brothers.