Is Malignant Narcissism the Same Thing as Sociopathy?

Updated on July 13, 2016

Narcissism - Many Shades of Gray

Let me start by saying that I'm not a licensed mental health professional. I write about malignant narcissism from the perspective of a survivor.

I've had some unpleasant run-ins with morally disordered people. These experiences were painful, and one was excruciating. But I'm grateful they happened. That's because I've learned to really appreciate the many wonderful people who don't behave this way.

In my own humble opinion, I believe that malignant narcissism and sociopathy (or psychopathy) are one and the same. I'll try to explain why, and I'll include information from some of the experts.

However, there are many vagaries when it comes to these labels. That's because of the gray area. One factor is that people do not fit into neat little diagnostic packages. Another reason for the confusion is that our understanding of anti-social behavior is continuing to evolve, as more research is added. Understandably, even the experts do not agree on who fits the criteria for what.

My Experience With Narcissism

Until about 2003, I didn't know what narcissism was. I first learned about it from a relative, a practicing marriage and family therapist. She was attempting to explain some bizarre and inappropriate behavior we were witnessing, causing multiple people a great deal of grief.

Without saying terrible things about a certain person, she told me it was pointless to debate him because he'd never listen. Nor does he have the capacity to consider anyone else's point of view.

"He's a narcissist," she explained. "He thinks he's always right, and that we're always wrong. He thinks he's smarter than everyone else."

"Everything's in his head," she added, explaining that his emotions were not in his heart, as they are with most people.

Malignant narcissists display anti-social behavior.
Malignant narcissists display anti-social behavior. | Source

Personality Disorders Under Pressure

The two of us, my sister and I, were witnessing extremely horrible behavior. The individual in question was under a lot of stress. Personality disorders, I know now, typically become intensified when pressure is added.

The group of people the narcissist was lashing out at were also experiencing similar stress, but reacting much differently.

Interestingly, as narcissists invariably do, this one managed to recruit a few flying monkeys to support him. Each of them, I now realize, had issues of their own.

This narcissist was very high functioning. He headed a department, where he gave orders. However, this authoritarian role wasn't working now, in a setting where he didn't have absolute control.

In case you're wondering, this person was not my father, or a member of my immediate family. Until this experience, I had assumed my family of origin was as dysfunctional as anyone else's. Now I know that isn't the case, even with all of our quirks.

A Moment of Awakening

Learning about these intractable personality disorders was a moment of awakening. This narcissist had been in my life for a long time, and I was under the impression his behavior was somewhere on the spectrum of normal.

However, it was anything but. In reality, we were dealing with condition that could probably be diagnosed, on the spot, if we had summoned a psychologist to the scene.

Because of what we were probably looking at (only a professional can say for sure if someone fits the criteria for NPD) there would be no reasoning with this narcissist. Attempting to negotiate a solution, to the crisis at hand, would be futile.

It's impossible to reason with a narcissist.
It's impossible to reason with a narcissist. | Source

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic website, people with NPD have an "inflated sense of their own importance, coupled with an extreme need for "admiration." Also, they truly believe they are smarter and better than the rest of us. To make matters worse, they don't care if they hurt other people.

Not surprisingly, people with this condition have great trouble maintaining relationships. Their work situation may be spotty, as they can't get along with people. Or, they may hold high-powered jobs, but their family life is an absolute mess, because at home is when the mask comes off.

The Mayo website also lists a number of symptoms of NPD, which, by the way, can only be formally diagnosed by a professional. A few of them include:

  • Being exploitative
  • Being envious of others, and also believing others envy you.
  • Expecting others to agree to your plans.
  • Exaggerating your accomplishments

So, What is Malignant Narcissism?

We frequently hear the term "malignant narcissism. It's a phrase I often use myself, in my online writing. (Many professionals also use this term to refer to sadistic narcissistic behavior.) However, technically, there is no diagnostic category for malignant narcissism. Instead, these behaviors could be lumped in with "anti-social personality disorder."

Malignant narcissism was first described in the 1960s by a psychologist from Germany named Erich Fromm. While studying this condition, he called the behavior he witnessed as "evil" and "the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity."

Other researchers who expanded upon Dr. Fromm's findings seemed to believe that malignant narcissism and psychopathy are very similar.

If there is a distinction, it might be in the level of how someone functions. For instance, an executive who commits a white collar crime, and gets away with it, morally, has much in common with a bank robber who gets caught.

Malignant narcissism was first described by Dr. Erich Fromm.
Malignant narcissism was first described by Dr. Erich Fromm. | Source

The Difference Between Sociopathy and Psychopathy?

In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Scott Bonn, PhD., writes that he believes there is a difference between a sociopath and a psychopath. Someone who fits into the first category has poor impulse controls and functions at a lower level.

However, a psychopath, according to Dr. Bonn, is the consummate plotter. They may have good jobs and tend to be very organized. They are also extremely dangerous, he warns.

As I mentioned before, not all researchers are in agreement with Dr. Bonn, and some use the terms "sociopath" and "psychopath" to mean different things.

In his article, Dr. Bonn noted that these terms are typically used "interchangeably."

Malignant Narcissism Takes Various Forms?

Despite the fact I now knew about narcissism, I wasn't prepared when someone else entered my life. This was a woman I met at church, and I assumed that since she was there, I could trust her. I know now that she is probably a "covert narcissist."

These people initially come across as meek, unassuming and even frumpy. This is in stark contrast to the grandiose, over-the-top behavior many narcissists display.

For several years, where ever I went, this woman traveled with me. Mysteriously, a lot of things in my life started to go wrong. Then, something happened to wake me up to the painful reality that I couldn't trust her. I was horrified to discover that the person I was confiding in, about my troubles, was likely the same one causing them.

My problems stopped immediately after I realized what was going on, and I took steps to cut off all contact with her.

Covert narcissists are highly dangerous.
Covert narcissists are highly dangerous. | Source

Covert Narcissists Do a Lot of Damage

One thing I've learned about malignant narcissists is that they "feed" off of your pain. They will also zero in on the thing that's most precious to you, with the goal of taking it away.

Although high-functioning malignant narcissists may marry, hold jobs and be held in high esteem, by those who don't know them well, they are immensely destructive, once they zero in on a target.

That's why it's my personal belief that high-functioning sadistic narcissistics are little different from the stereotypical sociopath/psychopaths, whom we see in the movies. However, they have more resources and cunning, which enables them to evade detection.

Oftentimes they are meek and unassuming, which makes them even more dangerous. They specialize in getting us to let our guards down, and trust them with our secrets.

Chances are You've Met a Sociopath

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Malignant Narcissists are Everywhere

Because of a narcissist's immense capacity for destruction, it's a good idea to learn the warnings signs of this very prevalent disorder. According to Dr. Martha Stout, PhD., author of The Sociopath Next Door, approximately 1 out of every 25 people fits the criteria for the condition that she describes.

The whole premise of her book is to awaken us to the fact that sociopaths exist, and that they blend in pretty seamlessly with the rest of us. Oftentimes, they are the pillars of society, the people we look up to. They may be the last people in the world that we'd ever suspect of having a dark nature.

If you go by Dr. Stout's criteria, you'll come to see that higher functioning narcissists, who like to inflict pain, in very many ways do resemble the stereotypical sociopath. Both are ruthless, reckless and a menace to every one they meet.


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  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 21 months ago from USA

    Hi Veronica, I'm so sorry to hear about this. When faced with such an impossible situation, prayer is probably your best recourse. I'll pray for you too.

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

    Hi savvydating, I totally agree. I loved that book, and he knew evil when he saw it. He's opened a lot of people's eyes. Thanks for commenting.

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

    Hi Shelly, I'm so sorry to hear about this. I wish you the best.

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

    Hi Sparkster, you are absolutely correct, and there is a lot of overlap. It's difficult to put people into neat little categories. Thank you so much for reading.

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

    DDE, It's not fun to remember, but I don't want to totally forget. Every trial in life has lessons, and that's why I want to hang on to what I've learned.

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

    Hi teaches12345, thanks so much for reading. It is my fervent hope that as word gets around about malignant narcissists and/or high-functioning sociopaths, that people will start to heed the warning signs.

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

    Hi MsDora, I'm so sorry you have experienced this. It's a horrible feeling to be betrayed b a "friend." It will get better. :)

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

    Alicia, thanks so much for reading.

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

    Hi Eric, thanks again for reading. It's good that you only know them. Flourish, you must see them absolutely everywhere, especially running things. They seem to flock to volunteer groups, where, as you so aptly noticed, run "largely unchecked."