Narcissism is a broad term used to refer to a common personality trait and also to the clinical disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a severe and pervasive personality style that underlies an individual’s entire approach to others and the world around him or her. This disorder is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
A narcissistic personality is difficult for people who aren’t narcissistic to understand because what’s on the outside looks completely different from what’s on the inside. Analysis of the narcissistic personality is made even more complex due to the many differences among narcissistic individuals. Theodore Millon suggests that there are four different types of narcissists (Millon, 1996). This is not widely accepted in the literature but to be fair, there's not much about narcissism that is widely accepted beyond the obvious signs of the clinical disorder (e.g., little empathy for others, outward appearance of superiority).
Perhaps research on narcissism is severely limited due to some of the challenges to studying it. Think about it: How many narcissists will voluntarily participate in a psychological study? And among those who would, how honest would they be in reporting how they really feel about themselves when their primary defense is upholding an image of power and superiority?
One area of research I wish were easier to explore is the connection between narcissism and sadism. If a person is sadistic, it means that he or she derives gratification from punishing, harming, or abusing others. I'm particularly interested in the narcissism-sadism connection because a client of mine has a boss who is extremely sadistic toward her. Based on her description, my client’s boss likely meets the criteria for narcissism, but with the additional component of a sadistic streak, which causes him to regularly punish employees in ways that make no sense. While there is often an overlap between narcissistic personality and sadistic behavior, not all narcissists receive gratification from hurting or upsetting others.
To expand further, we must discuss the term “gratification,” which isn’t the same as enjoyment or deriving actual pleasure. The gratification I’m referring to—the type narcissists seek—is called “narcissistic supply." This refers to attention and admiration from others which make the narcissist feel noticed and special. In some ways, narcissists aren't so different from young children whose emotional needs are not met and who desperately seek appreciation from others. Those who find themselves in close relationships with narcissists see the inconsistencies that others don't: How the narcissists appear on the surface day to day is in direct opposition to how they really feel inside. This is the paradox of narcissism. How can narcissists feel so bad about themselves but act like entitled kings and queens? To those around the individual, it doesn’t make any sense.
This distortion—acting superior but feeling inferior—is a central component of the disordered, narcissistic personality. A narcissist has two different selfs: their real self, and the self they wish they were. The narcissist’s real, true self is best conceptualized as a wounded child, whose emotional development was arrested due to emotional abuse or neglect by early caregivers.
So why are some narcissists sadistic and others not? In my clinical experience, I have found that sadistic narcissists were more seriously neglected or emotionally abused in childhood than other narcissists. Many narcissists are difficult to get along with, have a grandiose sense of self, and won't take accountability for their actions, but they don't have a driving need to punish others. I have found that the sadistic narcissist has lower self-esteem than the non-sadistic narcissist, even though neither truly has high self-esteem. The most important point to understand is that the drive to punish or upset others on a regular basis typically stems from an individual having been on the receiving end of confusing, mind-twisting behavior from a parent early in life.
My hope is that readers can avoid relationships with narcissists, especially those with a sadistic streak. Those who have encountered a severe narcissist and gotten too close know how confusing and frustrating the experience can be. And I sincerely hope that anyone currently connected to a sadistic narcissist—whether someone at work or in their social life—can continue to educate themselves about narcissism and sadism to better protect themselves, and detach as quickly as possible.
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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th edition). Washington, DC: Author.
Millon, Theodore (1996). Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV-TM and Beyond. New York: John Wiley and Sons. p. 393. ISBN 0-471-01186-X.