Malignant Narcissists: Charming White Sharks on Legs

What are the traits involved when a narcissist becomes abusive?

Narcissism is widely used as if it ”means” something. Which it does, and doesn’t. It is an unclear cluster of traits that sometimes are valuable and sometimes ruin lives, corporations and even nations. We may wonder if ”these” traits are hereditary, genetical, evolutionary, biological or a result of culture, can we spot them, avoid them and create a counter culture at the dinner table and in the locker room talk.

We can look at the what before the why:

Narcissus was misunderstood

Narcissism in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. It comes from the myth of Narcissus, a young lad so beautiful, he was lusted for by many but loved no one. When he saw his own reflection he became so infatuated with himself that he forgot to eat and starved until he was transformed into a flower by a thwarted admirer. Not much harm done to others but, it holds two of the traits I believe can become dangerous - not being able to love others, and an extreme focus on the needs and wants of the self over the needs of anybody else.

If you add to this great talent and beauty, you will find a person that is capable and willing to live their life in the limelight and attention of others. And with a kind heart they have the potential to become great leaders, parents, artists and sometimes lovingly intolerable divas.

If you add to this a lack of impulse control, empathetic abilities and level of cognition, which can also stem from childhood traumas which halted development,: a predator may evolve. Have them grow in a culture of entitlement and it becomes systemic, sometimes applauded.

Impulse control

Lacking impulse control will cause difficulty in regulating emotions or lead to actions without consequential thinking. On the scale containing varying degrees of impulse control, you will find the brutal sociopaths who act out, get into fights and end up in jail because there are no brakes on their sometimes fearlessly powerful car. These traits are rewarded in the lower end of the food chain of criminal careers and warfare, as well as in places and contexts that embrace and allow quick gratification. This includes drugs, prostitution, gambling and, for example, stock market exchange; all of which have a quick success focus.

Depending on the narcissist‘s empathetic traits and cognitive capacity, with increased impulse control you get Machiavellic schemers that end up fearlessly leading corporations and nations. And not always badly.

Empathetic traits

There are many types of empathy and most of it is learned as you grow up by older people telling you to be nice, to not hurt others, to consider their emotions, to sometimes be generous at your own cost for the benefit of somebody else. That it in now way is “ok” to bully or tease certain people, or cheat to win.

Your experiences of “others” as you grow up will affect your ability to empathize with “others” because we usually empathize with those similar to us. If you grow up isolated in a safe place where everybody is the similar to you and follows the same social codes and speaks the same language, you may perceive anybody much different to be strange, possibly dangerous. And being so different from you, ”they” may not have the same feelings as you, you may assume.

When certain emotions are underdeveloped, so are more complex social interactions and mechanisms. If you aren't able to feel love you won’t be able to feel sorrow. If you have no sense of shame there will be no pride; success may seem “empty” because you never get to feel that joy that others display. This can affect self esteem and make you feel like a loser, something you need to hide. This may explain a lot of the narcissistic rage that can erupt without warning and great violence when these buttons are pressed.

Not feeling love makes it something a narcissist cannot have since they won’t be able to feel the love of somebody else if they cannot feel their own love for somebody. This can be another source of anger and potential sadism. Like a child stomping on the prettier sandcastle because admiration for it goes to somebody else. ”If I can’t have it, you won’t either.”

They will look to others to find strategies that allow them to get what they want. Masks. Strategies. And they may switch shamelessly from being a “victim” to an “aggressor” or “helper” even with blatant and incredulous lies. Whatever works.

Not being able to ”read” others emotions in combination with low self esteem and the suspicion that others may be as ruthless as they are can also lead to paranoia often with time: something observed in many tyrants and dictators ruling with violence, spiraling out of control as they lose their grip.

Cognitive capacity

A simpler mind will have simpler survival schemes, a more educated mind will have more complexity. A narcissist does not need to bother with morals and shame, since their lack of empathy render these concepts irrelevant. Blatant, incredulous lies are as useful for different reasons, such as boosting the ego, and since the narcissist‘s ego is impervious to genuine love, the supply of admiration and care is never enough. ”I am probably the best in the world at this” is not an uncommon sentiment.

Their toolbox will vary from blatant lies to cunning Machiavellic manipulation with techniques like ”love bombing” people into feeling safe and dependent on them, often sharing the most inner secrets and vulnerabilities for them to use in the next step. These are often the relationships that in the rear mirror are describe as “I was swept off my feet, it felt incredible, like I had met my soul mate”. This is an art they have developed since childhood. In the next steps they will use various ways to make their victims doubt their own sanity, something called gaslighting. They will pull in other people to weaken and isolate their victims, something called triangulation. They will make their victims economically dependent, even to the extent of having children just for control. You can tell that a narcissistic abuser isn’t genuinely interested in the well of somebody else by how they never take full accountability for a mistake or having hurt somebody. Instead they will shift the blame back to their victim, shame them, explain or defend their actions with a sob story about their own troubled background. In addition to blame shifting, shaming they will when necessary resort to threats and violence.

A predator has evolved

When a person is not bothered by shame or guilt, they will not develop morals. Depending on the varying degrees of empathetic capacity, cognition and impulse control a person who's main objective and focus are their own needs, they will seek out energy, love, compassion, social standing, beauty and dedication from others and do what is necessary to take it from them. This can include transgressing others properties, their bodies, lying and using force. For this predator burning bridges are not a problem, they are convinced they can find new bridges around the next corner. There is always a fool somewhere. Even jail does not daunt them, they will seem without emotion in a trial, rather enjoying the attention. Aggression is often a means to an end. There have been cases with prominent and high standing narcissistic abusers stopping in the middle of a violent rage against their spouse to take a calm business call.

I sometimes compare a non-empath to a predator with little emotional depth including fear. Imagine a white shark. It is not scared. It considers itself at the top of the food chain. It does not play by yours or anybody else‘s rules. Your pain is of no concern. There is no guilt, remorse or shame. It will not change. You cannot win, only stay out of its way. Learn this and adapt and you may be safe.

You may now think that they are easy to spot, and mostly found in prisons but nothing can be more wrong. They can be your best friend, the spouse of your relatives. They are not uncommon in successful positions, and there are many prominent people that have shown their colors when faced with somebody who stands up and refuses to be abused, raped, groped or economically ruined. The celebrity press is full of them. I believe in exposing their actions every time they are spotted, in talking about them around the dinner table and in the locker rooms, in creating a culture that clearly shows them and their victims that gaining access to somebody else's body, economy or success is, simply, wrong, and will be publicly exposed – for besides their own comfort, their reputation is their most vulnerable spot.

Note that I have the highest respect for white sharks and am aware that I am borrowing a stereotype of their metaphor, no disrespect intended.

If you are dealing with a white shark on legs in your workplace, I may be able to help. Look me up for a session, workshop or training.

Further Reading