Vindictive Narcissism: A Primer in Malicious Acts of Cruelty

Contemplating revenge or retaliating against those who have wronged us is bound to seep into consciousness at some point in life. After all, managing hurt and conflict by imagining avenging scenarios is a natural, albeit primitive aggressive impulse. The more disregulated and enraged one is, the more likely these spiteful fantasies will take on an obsessive tenacity and morph into a calculated act of vengeance.

Founder of analytic psychology Carl Jung reminds us,

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

Hence, given that none of us are exempt from having a shadow, meaning raw conflictual traits that are repressed or rejected, we are all susceptible to vindictiveness. Furthermore, as Jung imparts the more psychologically oblivious we are to our darker dimension, the more we are prone to act out vindictive impulses.

On the other hand, if responsibly and consciously managed fantasies of revenge can assist an injured party with coping and sublimating instinctual aggression. Repeatedly attending to fictitious scenarios in which abusers are put in their place, brought to justice, or beg for forgiveness offers a temporary escape from the excruciating pain of outrage and humiliation. So although it’s clear that none of us are immune to the desire for retribution, how we engage with malicious inclinations determines if our responses are constructive or disordered and threatening.

For those who act on the urge to get back at someone through inflicting damage, mental instability is a likely concern. They may lack the adequate skills to handle perceived conflicts and disagreements, be plagued by a lack of impulse control, or afflicted with delusional paranoia. Another possibility is the prevalence of pathological narcissism, inclusive of deriving sadistic pleasure from exacting harm.

Narcissism exists on a spectrum that spans from deficient to healthy to malignant. How benign or destructive one’s character is largely depends on where one lands on the spectrum.

Like many clinicians my idealism had me convinced that all narcissistic injuries incurred through systemic child abuse and were reparable for all people. Even when examining the unhealthy, destructive side of the spectrum (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), the form of narcissism characterized by deep-rooted and intractable rigid personality traits and exploitive entitled ways of operating, I scoffed at notions of human evil.

Rather, I used to believe we all entered the world with an intrinsic foundation for morality, such as altruism and empathy. In other words, I assumed that character pathology was simply the result of the absence of love and trust in a child’s formative years. The reality is, evidence suggests that malignant narcissism and psychopathy is an interaction between genetics and the environment.

Furthermore, our genetic make-up influences brain structure. This is particularly relevant because the pinnacle of malignant narcissists, commonly referred to as psychopaths, apparently have different brains than the rest of us. In fact, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered through the application of brain imaging that psychopaths have reduced connections between the part of the brain responsible for sentiments such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala which mediates fear and anxiety.

Now that I am equipped with a more realistic and comprehensive understanding of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I understand that one’s genetic imprint and constitution are critical determinants of who develops the psychological condition of Narcissistic Personality disorder (NPD).

Characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a constant need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others, the personality disordered narcissist harbors extreme expectations, reinforced by a deluded sense of entitlement and ‘specialness’. They evidence a persistent lack of compassion and insight, yet have the ability to impersonate feelings so as to manipulate others and achieve desired outcomes. Their need to be admired and in control infiltrates their relational maneuvering. In the most extreme form malignant narcissists are psychopaths, driven towards criminality and the urge to destroy others.

When a personality disordered narcissist has a strong desire for revenge or retaliation against those they perceive as having wronged them, they are referred to as a vindictive narcissist.

When a narcissist is vindictive any perceived slight or threat to their grandiose self-image fuels feelings of humiliation and a dire need to exact revenge. Criticism, rejection, or perceived betrayal, particularly from one’s primary source of supply can ignite a dysphoric state of unbearable emptiness, numbness and hopelessness. This collapse compels the vindictive narcissist to inflict suffering on the one believed to be deserving of punishment.

A relentless cycle of retaliation can be set in motion by the supply’s failure to align with the narcs projection of idealized perfection. This is perceived as the ultimate insult, catalyzing reactive feelings of rage and vindictiveness, which obstruct logic. Feeling victimized, and unable to self-sooth or take any sort of accountability, the narcissist is convinced they are entitled and justified with ‘getting even’. This irrational commitment to revenge feeds the narcissist’s need for dominance and control.

If a sadistic predilection for cruelty is in the mix the narcissist will derive gratification from hurting their prey. As professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, Jean Decety, gleaned from her brain scan study which addressed the neural mechanisms occurring in sadists when inflicting pain, sadists experience greater activation in the amygdala and insula, the areas of the brain responsible for emotional response and awareness, compared to other offenders.

Decety’s study confirms the most important qualifier that differentiates the sadist from other dark triad personalities such as narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, albeit researchers have suggested that the Dark Triad be accompanied by the related trait, sadism. (Međedović and Petrović (2015), Erin Buckels, Jones, and Paulhus (2013)) as the element of sadism is a strong indicator of malignancy on the narcissism spectrum.

Coupled with insecurities, the need for control, extreme entitlement, the absence of empathy and co-morbidity such as complex trauma and addictive disorders, the malignant narcissist who is also a sadist, is bound to act out vindictive agendas. Under these circumstances, accompanying the usual smear campaigns and character assassination, one might expect threats, stalking, dead animals in the mail, vandalism, blackmailing, financial ruin and even false allegations of criminal activity. In the worst cases threats of death are leveled.

Although we all have dark inclinations and even sadistic impulses, as the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung imparted, it is the denial of our shadow nature that leads to perilous consequences. This fundamental truth is evidenced on both individual and societal levels.

When a kill or be killed mentality becomes the collective mindset, when it’s seditious to question anything, when our lower impulses govern and moral edicts and even truth and critical thinking become obsolete, maintaining principled actions and integrity clash with the allure of rampant elitism and rapacious ambitions.

Moreover, in a world rife with institutional narcissism, where us versus them dichotomies promulgate unbridled outrage and negates the possibility of a realistic, respectful appraisal of differences, it’s clear that we are contending with ingrained pathological ways of operating.

Straight out of the malignant narcissist’s playbook, we collectively abide by an ethos of moral hypocrisy in which ethical contradictions are obscured by grandstanding, virtue signaling and perception management tactics that divert attention onto chosen facts so that more incriminating details remain hidden.

Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck warns us, “The major threats to our survival no longer stem from nature without but from our own human nature within. It is our carelessness, our hostilities, our selfishness and pride and willful ignorance that endanger the world.”

Indeed, we have become a culture of narcissists. The quest for power and profit taking precedence over unselfishly ministering to our shared humanity has promulgated vindictiveness and lawlessness.

As author Pat McDonald conveys in her article Narcissism in the Modern World,

Ever increasing levels of greed, self-obsession, superficial relationships, arrogance and vanity are everywhere apparent and not making us any happier, with common mental health problems on the increase, especially among the young. Seemingly irreversible alterations to family life, technological development — including social media, attitudes to death and dying and celebrity worship, all feature in the rise of our narcissistic society and are interconnected trends. Group greed and grandiosity, as in the world of banking, have led to wide-scale corruption and cover-ups leaving us vulnerable and unable to place our trust in many organizations. Perhaps most sinister of all is our attitude to the planet that supports us, as we play a part in the destruction of much of the environment and many of the species that share the earth with us.

For us to collectively heal we must be willing to acknowledge that there is a malignant psychological and spiritual sickness pervading society. While psychopathy can’t be cured, curtailing narcissistic tendencies and vindictive behavior can be ameliorated, depending on where one lands on the spectrum. It’s critical to keep in mind that not every person with narcissistic traits has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and unlike NPD, lower levels of narcissism can respond to treatment and change for the better.

In the final analysis, we are individually and collectively tasked with raising human evil to a level of consciousness, to be recognized and assimilated so that destructive elements within our nature can morph into transformative potentials. Doing so offers us a possible trajectory to derailing power-driven motives and inclinations to oppress and dominate. This is a vital path towards dismantling the impulse to enable and collude in malignant agendas. Most important, it is a means towards replacing tactical strategies which wreak havoc with a baseline of unshakeable moral principles and altruistic behavior.


Another great article from Sheri! Thank you, Sheri!


Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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