I used to believe malignant narcissism was at the top of the narcissistic spectrum, but after learning and reading more, I’ve changed my opinion somewhat. I think malignant narcissism is actually a hybrid of NPD + ASPD (antisocial personality disorder) or NPD with sociopathic traits. So it’s not really “higher” on the spectrum than “normal” NPD, it’s NPD that crosses over into the psychopathy or sociopathy spectrum. They are narcissists that possess all three of the “Dark Triad” traits–narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. I wrote about the Dark Triad in this post.
For some stupid reason, the web is filled with declarations of covert narcissism being the “most malignant” form of NPD. I call BS on that! Covert narcs are the most likely to be self aware and their NPD is less ego syntonic than the overt type. They are far more likely than overt narcs to feel guilt and shame and want to change their behaviors and even present for therapy. I used to frequent a forum where a number of diagnosed and self-avowed narcissists posted about their disorder, and the vast majority were the covert, fragile type and were definitely not happy being narcissists (if that’s what they were at all). Covert narcissists, being non-aggressive, are (much like borderlines, who they resemble in many ways) likely to become codependent to an overt or malignant narcissist. They are often victimized themselves (a malignant narcissist would never become a victim!). I’m not defending covert narcissists. They are still narcs and are still dangerous. They should be avoided whenever possible. But it’s time to set the record straight. The only reason covert narcissism might be more “malignant” is because their disorder is harder to see. Covert narcissists don’t wear a neon sign announcing they are narcissists.
Due to their sociopathic/psychopathic traits, malignant narcissism is ego-syntonic and the afflicted person will almost never think they are the ones with a problem. Even if they become self aware, they will still be “happy” with their disorder and tend to blame everyone else when things go wrong–and enjoy doing so.
Because of this, malignant narcissists will never present for therapy (unless they are forced to) and if they do, they can never get better, because the willingness to isn’t there. Non-malignant NPD, while difficult to treat, may be curable IF the patient is self-aware and willing and their disorder is ego-dystonic (which it often is in the covert subtype) .
There is a cruelty and sadism to malignant narcissists that’s missing in garden variety narcissists. Most narcissists don’t set out to deliberately hurt others, but malignant narcissists do. While they’re getting their supply, they also get a thrill from making others suffer. Like vultures, they feed off your pain. In contrast, some “benign” narcissists might even feel guilt when it’s called to their attention they hurt someone, even though they still keep doing it because they can’t help themselves and like a drug addict, getting their fix of supply is more important than the feelings of their victims. But malignant narcissists actually want to see their victims suffer, or at the very least, don’t care. Malignant narcissists are almost always the overt, grandiose type. It’s virtually impossible for a covert narcissist to become malignant, because they are generally not happy with themselves, even if they aren’t aware of their own narcissism.
There’s another difference too. The malignant narcs I have known have a cold deadness to their eyes that’s not as evident in people with garden variety NPD. Their eyes can also be very predatory, seeming to bore right through to your soul. That’s their one saving grace: their eyes warn you of how dangerous they are.