In 1964, well-known psychoanalyst Erich Fromm first coined the term “malignant narcissism”. He described it as a “severe mental sickness” which embodied “the quintessence of evil”. Other clinicians agreed. Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg defined malignant narcissism as “an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder that is manifested in a person who is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioural regulation, and with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.”
These clinicians agree that while narcissistic personality disorders are quite common, malignant narcissists are an unusual variant. What differentiates a malignant narcissist from a benign one is the pattern of sadism, their gratuitous enjoyment of the pain of others. Their lack of empathy is a defining feature. While garden-variety narcissists may purposefully damage other people in pursuit of their own selfish desires (but may regret doing so), a malignant narcissist will harm others while having little or no regret for the damage they may have caused.
Their behaviour has a vindictive, demeaning quality. They have little or no conscience. And while they may acknowledge the difference between what society considers “right” and “wrong”, the real meaning of these distinctions is lost to them. They don’t possess the socialising emotions like love, anguish, joy, disgust, shame and guilt to guide their relationships with others. Whatever their transgressions, they experience no remorse and are unable to feel pity or compassion for others.