The Malignant Narcissist Cycles Between Being a Victim and Being a Bully
The malignant narcissist has both the thin and thick skin attributes of other narcissists. If a malignant narcissist is not treated as valued and special, then they take on the victim position. The lack of adulation risks their very existence because of their shaky sense of self. In this precarious place the malignant narcissist feels unjustly treated and therefore constantly under threat. Blame for their shortcomings is placed squarely on others – the malignant narcissist feels powerless, a victim to those in authority. The victim counters with rage typical of the thin skinned narcissist and becomes a bully. The malignant narcissist filled with rage attempts to snatch power and slough off the cloak of victim hood. Like the thick skinned narcissist they grab ideas and knowledge from everyone and anyone, taking credit for it, and as bullies do, threatens, and badmouths others if they don’t agree and or obey. Knowledge, values and rules constantly change to suit their purpose, making the malignant narcissistic behavior look and feel unstable and unreal.
Otto Kernberg, a renowned Psychoanalyst who specializes in personality disorders, describes malignant narcissism as having the following components:
- Narcissistic personality (envious, childlike values of being special and an attractive object)
- Ego-syntonic aggression (aggression feel normal and comfortable)
- Paranoid tendencies (blaming others, attributing bad things only to others)
- Anti-social behavior (no ethical structure – where the aggression can be passive – parasitic and exploitive; or the aggression can be active such as hostile and abusive.
The Malignant Narcissist Lives in a World of Paranoia
As a thirty-three year old women’s’ magazine editor, Sheila had risen up the corporate ladder fast. She had successfully pushed herself to the top by using the loyalty and friendship of her colleagues to elevate her career path. She stole every idea and made it her own without any mention of the source because she had no vision of her own. After robbing their ideas she became paranoid that they would hate her, and attack her to reclaim their mental possessions. Sheila was on high alert, unable to trust any staff or colleagues. Everyone became a potential enemy and were demoted, transferred out or fired for little cause. She micromanaged all her underlings to quell her lack of trust. The paranoia of her malignant narcissism made her world feel hostile and unsafe – making her alone and lonely. The more alone she was, the less she could trust, and more the paranoia increased.
Sheila’s paranoia in seeing threat all around her meant she was out of touch with reality. She was the one who stole ideas from others, but she experiences them as attempting to rob her! This is the malignancy of her narcissism. The paranoia and detachment from reality spreads across all aspects of her life – inviting her to create theories of conspiracy against her. She was a victim and that made her angry and more paranoid.
The Malignant Narcissist Boasts and Sadistically Destroys Competition
One of Sheila’s junior-editors on the magazine was all over the media being interviewed when her cookbook hit the shelves. Sheila was existentially threatened. In order to ensure her survival she began a smear campaign against the junior editor and now in vogue author. Any light that shone on her enemy/competitor took the breath out of her lungs and was intolerable. Eventually the media focused on Sheila’s smears, putting her back in the limelight. She stole the success of her junior-editor, eliminated the threat and felt filled up again. Sheila boasted about being the ‘best’ having decimated the reputation of her junior-editor accusing her of being the one to plagiarize and steal ideas and recipes from Sheila’s personal scrapbooks that she had brought into the office. She also bragged about having written a book on interior decorating well before her junior-editor. Now Sheila was the bully, the antidote of the victim, hurting others like they hurt her ego, giving them a big taste of what it felt like to her.
The Malignant Narcissist’s Ego Thrives on Competition for his/her Favor
At the weekly meeting Sheila chaired to select the pitches her staff presented for the next issue of the on-line version of the magazine, there was an atmosphere of tension and chaos. No one knew how Sheila would run the meeting; who she would call on and who she would belittle. The malignant narcissistic feature of Sheila’s personality loved it. She was thrilled to see this group of people who depended on her approval fight dirty to get her attention and approval. They all wanted to be the chosen one, even though there was no guarantee how long it would last. She allowed office disputes to fester, and set sub-editors against their compatriots and when everything was about to crash, she would swoop in as a hero, saving the day, rescuing one or other of the sub-editors, fueling her sense of omnipotence.
There was a time when she saw a rising star among the junior staff – a bright young man who had raw natural talent. At first she reflected off him, taking his energy and freshness and making it her own. He became her shadow. But as time passed, when the shadow turned into darkness, Sheila’s fear of being exposed rose up to shield her. She began a systematic low key defamation against him. She brought other people into it, making him the enemy, and eventually found a willing henchman among her staff to cut the man loose.
Every editor faces pressure to get the best designers and illustrators for their covers and feature articles. But it’s a fierce market for the best of the best. Sheila couldn’t take the chance of not landing the prizes, so she dismantled the rules of bidding and and negotiating. When the game looked like it was going to be lost, she changed the rules at whim to gain the advantage. It was just survival from her point of view and therefore legitimate, just like her lies – in her paranoid world, they were real – expressing her world of fear that she was under threat. Sheila’s malignant narcissistic needs were satiated by the signs that she was ultimately desirable, important and powerful.
The Malignant Narcissist was Raised by Cold, Punitive and Self-Absorbed Parents
Sheila was the second of four children, with an elder brother, a younger brother and a much younger sister who was the darling of their father. Her mother adored the elder brother and used him for physical affection, making Sheila feel as if she had nothing of value to offer her mother. She had some connection to her dad before the sister arrived. Sheila was ousted by a new baby that stole her father’s attention. The sister became the first one whom Sheila felt took something precious away from her, leaving her empty and very threatened regarding her place in the family. An older brother took all of her mom, and a younger sister took all of her father. Sheila was in competition to get her parents attention, and her parents encouraged it.
The children grew up always vying for parents approval, attention, validation, affection, and selected for the position of the ‘best.’ Her father laughed with sadistic pleasure at his children desperate for his time, praise, and favor. Chaos was the vehicle through which the competition flourished, with father promising things for the one who met his unreasonable expectations. Sheila grew up in an unreal world of back stabbing, stealing ideas and paranoia about being destroyed so that only one sibling would ‘win.’ Everyone tried to please their dad and mom in different ways at any cost, to get those few moments of acceptance, love, warmth and approval. The children were either cold shouldered or slammed if they didn’t perform as expected, like when Sheila failed by 1 point to be the top gymnast in her class. Her father made fun of her when she tried to emulate or surpass her older brother, twisting and turning the knife until she writhed in humiliation. Sheila’s mother teased her with visions of them cooking together, or going on bus trips to historical sites but the promises were relegated to just ‘talk’ and not to be taken seriously.
As a boss in her magazine, Sheila brought her family life to work. Her juniors were the kids who had to strive to please her, while she got to be as sadistic as her parents. This is the evidence of malignancy – it spreads and takes over the narcissist’s life, creating chaos and destruction in order to be the chosen one. She has to be a bully to feel in charge, full of good stuff and omnipotent – only to feel empty, paranoid and a victim again when another person around her succeeded or got in the limelight. Her promises to her staff were as empty as the ones made to her.
Individual counseling is a pathway towards feeling safer in the world, reducing the paranoia and making healthy relationships. But until the malignant narcissist loses all power and most personal connections the motivation is sorely lacking.
copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2017
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