Malignant narcissism: HSPs gone bad?

Originally posted on Lucky Otter’s Haven.


The concept of malignant narcissism and HSP traits coexisting in the same person is a matter that has very little research behind it (I could find nothing at all on Google), so this article is based on my own opinions, gleaned through a combination of my readings and personal observations of the narcissists I have known. My opinion may come as a surprise.

In my article A Match Made in Hell: Narcissists and HSPs, I wrote about the tendency for narcissists and HSPs to form trauma-bonds with each other–that’s really just a fancy way of saying these two seemingly opposite types of people are often drawn to each other and become codependent on each other. The narcissist is both attracted to and repelled by the HSP’s vulnerability and high empathy. They both envy and loathe it; part of this loathing is due to the narcissist’s realization that they NEED the high empathy of the HSP because it’s good narcissistic supply and makes them feel validated. It’s also a quality that on some level (perhaps unconscious) they know they jettisoned a long time ago, and that knowledge causes them to envy and hate the HSP at the same time they depend on them. Because they hate their own vulnerability and hide it from the world (and see dependence as vulnerability) that’s another reason why they may abuse the very person who gives them a reason to exist.

The narcissist feeds off the HSP like a vampire feeds on blood. This can be an extremely unhealthy, even deadly, relationship for the HSP, who will eventually either leave the narcissist or be destroyed. But the HSP gets something out of the relationship too–the belief that through their love, they are saving the narcissist from him or herself. They often believe they can “fix” the narcissist through their empathic love and transform them into feeling human beings capable of returning what they have been given. Of course, this belief is almost guaranteed to end in disappointment (if the HSP is lucky), and possibly much worse.

The great irony here is that I think most narcissists are, way deep down, HSPs. No, you didn’t read that wrong.

But how can that be? Narcissists are incapable of empathy, have problems feeling and expressing deep emotions, and are incapable of loving anyone but themselves. Isn’t that the opposite of being an HSP?

Well, yes and no. The explanation is complicated, so I hope you stay with me here.

As I’ve explained before, I think most narcissists began life as highly sensitive people who at an early age suffered psychological trauma due to abuse. This caused them to shut off their too-vulnerable true (authentic) selves from the world and in its place construct an elaborate defense mechanism–the false self–initially meant to protect the vulnerable true self from further harm, which has no defenses at all. Even HSPs who are not narcissists have some protective psychological armor, so they did not need to construct a false self to take the place of the true one. Healthy HSPs are truly authentic people who feel deeply and are emotionally honest with themselves and others. Narcissists were born with no emotional defenses at all; the false self replaces the true one and appears invulnerable. But this is only an illusion, because the mask is only an illusion. When you face a narcissist, you will never know who that person really is because all they will show you is the protective mask they have created. They are so terrified of further hurt that they will attack with vicious ferocity if they think you pose any threat to its flimsy underpinnings. It must be a terrifying way to live.

The high sensitivity of a narcissist is retained in the way they react to personal insults or slights. They are huge babies who overreact when they feel like they are being attacked, ignored, or they perceive their source of narcissistic supply may be in danger. They are paranoid, touchy, and utterly lacking a sense of humor, especially about themselves. They may try to appear as if they don’t care, usually through the “silent treatment” or sneaky attacks such as triangulating against or gaslighting the person they perceive as a threat, but if you know narcissism, it’s usually not too hard to see the emotional fragility behind their acts of false bravado. However, when it comes to other people, they can seem incredibly insensitive. Here’s the rub: for malignant narcissists, this isn’t really the case at all. Stay with me here.

Warm and cold empathy.

In my research about NPD, there has been a lot of discussion about a concept called “cold” empathy. For those of you who don’t know what this is, I will explain. Most of us associate narcissism with a lack of empathy, but this isn’t exactly the case. Most narcissists–especially malignant ones–do have empathy, but it’s not emotional or affective empathy; it’s cognitive or “cold” empathy. What this means is that a narcissist KNOWS what you are feeling very well, and may use what they know you are feeling against you. Cold empathy is “felt” on the cognitive (thinking) level, but not as an emotion, and that is why the narcissist can feel no compunctions about turning your feelings against you in order to hurt you.

An extreme example of this would be the sadistic, psychopathic rapist. The rapist “smells” your fear and uses that against you to become even more sadistic. It *is* empathy, but it’s “cold”–the rapist understands exactly what you are feeling and your fear makes him feel powerful, so he increases the level of torment. He feeds off your fear like a vulture feeds on carrion. You don’t need to tell him you’re afraid; he KNOWS.

Cold empathy is the twisted narcissistic mirror image of warm empathy, which non-pathological people are capable of feeling on an emotional, not just a cognitive level. HSPs have more warm empathy than anyone. Here’s where things get complicated. If a narcissist is also an HSP, their high sensitivity can morph into a quality that seems almost supernatural and is utterly chilling–a cold, sadistic form of “empathy” where they seem to be able to see into your mind. A non-sensitive person would not be able to detect your emotions without you telling them how you feel, and therefore not have that creepy, unsettling way of “seeing into your soul” that the malignant narcissist does. The higher the sensitivity a narcissist has, the more malignant they will be.

Malignant narcissism is high on the HSP spectrum.

This idea was actually illustrated in the humorous-but-true graph I posted the other day (shown above), where initially I wondered why “malignant narcissism” was showing so high in HSP traits. But actually it makes perfect sense. A HSP who adopts narcissism as a way to cope with the world will become malignant or even psychopathic. A non-HSP may still become a narcissist, but they lack enough “cold empathy” to become malignant.

In summary, HSPs can be the most kind and caring people you can ever hope to meet–or the most dangerous. A narcissistic HSP is a malicious, deadly beast who is best avoided.

They are two sides of the same coin. No wonder they are so often drawn to each other. The tragedy is that a malignant narcissist can infect a previously healthy HSP with their evil but it doesn’t work the other way around: a non-narcissistic HSP cannot change a malignant narcissist into a good person.


15 thoughts on “Malignant narcissism: HSPs gone bad?

  1. I really enjoyed this article and can relate to it a lot. The past few years of my life have been a strange learning experience. I’m a HSP but I ended up extremely depressed for a few years and became an extremely volatile person. I couldn’t take criticism, couldn’t trust people, and wanted everything to go away.

    Can you share more of your experiences? I’d like to see more of what you think about this because I don’t know who to talk to about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nicholas, thanks for stopping by. I’d rather answer you privately so if you’d like to email me, you can find my email in “contact me.”

      But yes, I think being an HSP makes people more prone to turn to narcissism in order to cope, because it uses the most protective defense mechanism of them all (replacing the real self with a false one) so leaves no room for any vulnerability. It’s an almost impenetrable shield to protect a true self who is too vulnerable. I found out I don’t actually have NPD but am still on the spectrum and still borderline. PTSD is the prerequisite for all the personality disorders and shades into them.


  2. What if we all come into the world pure human beings with enormous, nay, infinite capacities for love, expression, sensitivity,
    trust AND empathy , but during our formative years are molded, groomed, toxified, corrupted or steered into various , say, levels of detachment from our pure and true original human Beingness? Wouldn’t that make us all, more or less, HSP’s at birth – imbued with pure and true humanness or human nature? Our true nature IS like the universe- ever evolving and infinitely creative and yes- super sensitive!
    To say malignant narcissists, socialized sociopaths and psychopaths started out as HSPs makes me retch inside , as I’m an HSP and lifelong repeat target of the Cluster -B’s. Born and groomed by a malignant narcissist mother and useful idiot/enabler/flying monkey father.
    Let’s just entertain that we all, perhaps, were born pure and whole, AND “HSP” but still with individualized gifts and traits, but at the mercy of our caretakers, our humanity and spirit were chipped away at, corrupted injured and/ or damaged.
    The impact the parental/caretakers abuses of our BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS
    Would be commensurate with the levels of healthy love of self and others, sense of self, empathy, creativity, expression,self respect and respect for others, love of life and understanding if it’s processes … To name but just a few of the great perks of being a healthy happy human being!!! These
    Traits and the happiness they gave me , which I freely shared, would be my undoing – the magnets for an insufferable life of repeat victimization and discard – then chaotic aftermath and subsisting… My resources and life energy and health depleted if not destroyed every time … so when I read the comment that these monsters were HSP’s – of course my first feeling was empathy !!! A warm and fuzzy awwww feeling which started to lull me back into some kind of Stockholmish and dissociative la-la cloudy thinking….then – the nausea from the recollections of the horrors I experienced – including near death .
    I want to mention that just like thieves who progress to burglary then home invasion and murder …. The cluster -b’s also ” grow” having tasted the thrill of bullying, abusing and hurting their targets. I know. My older sister is an MN now. We both were born to MN mother , raised in extreme narc abuse and isolation, mother was of all things A PEDIATRICIAN … my sister was flying monkey and so-so golden child til youngest came along – the true frankensteined mini -me golden child.
    I’ve recognized and identified the pathology of older sister.
    She’s emerged as a full blown socialized sociopath- and I know get well enough to know there’s no HSP there.
    Was she born HSP? Nah, probably not- and why?
    I question my hypothesis that were all born HSP. What defines an HSP , then?
    Is it something that just goes away?
    I don’t believe so. And I don’t believe those monsters were born HSP. I believe an HSP is a true Han being more in touch with themselves and the universe. An HSPis an HSP all their life… The very traits and characteristics which define us – keep us searching for the answers and solutions to understanding the cluster-b phenomenon – as that is a problem – meaning , those people are and have been a constant source of grief in our lives . Let’s not throw the HSP around like that please

    Liked by 1 person

  3. i met this lady on Facebook who was convinced i am actually NPD. she would say things that made me (TRIGGER WARNING: want to self injure again). i would tell her “im actually really sensitive and timid.” she said “no you are not”… she tried to cast a demon out of me online through messages. i was feeling unwell when it happened and started to get my blades out. because was saying i needed to repent or go to Hell. i was dealing with an obsession with Hell and fear of making mistakes to the point of OCD tendencies (which i have been diagnosed with before in my 20s). so was feeling vulnerable. she would tell me “you think your dad did bad things to you- that’s the demon telling you they happened.” (there is coroborrated evidence that my dad verbally emotionally and physically abused me and my sister). so i said “please stop- i have started cutting and i’m on the bathroom floor wanting to cut deep enough to hit a vein….” she said “the Lord told me i can be tough with you because you can take it and He says you haven’t cut for a long long time” i didn’t think 3 weeks was a long time, but maybe to God it is. I told her “im sensitive, please be gentle.” she said “no youre not sensitive. your narcissistic. you surround yourself with weaker people to bully.” in truth i surrounded myself with people thought were strong- i don.t feel ready to help vulnerable people yet. she didn’t believe i could be NPD/BPD and sensitive. she had trained as a psych nurse in the 50s or something and said “i don’t believe you’re really disturbed. just self pitying.” my dad thought the same as her- that i wasn’t sensitive just someone spoiled and fulll of themselves. i remember really hating myself when young and having a lot of phobias and night terrors etc so maybe Narcs like me can be sensitive or maybe it is part of our disease that we think we are sensitive??


    1. It’s part of the disease but you were probably born sensitive before becoming N. You shut off the empathic part of the sensitivity but kept the sensitvity in regards to yourself. So it’s both–you’re sensitive but the part that can make you care about others has been closed off by the defense mechanisms of NPD. To get that part operational again (it’s not dead just sleeping), you need to learn to love yourself. Not the ego kind of love, or the love of a mask, but your real self, your hurt inner child. God can help you do that. Just ask him and keep your mind and heart open and God will help you. I’ll pray. A therapist wouldn’t hurt either. Do you have one already, I forgot if you said.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. thanks so much. i have done DBT therapy and am now having a brief therapy which is 12 sessions. the mental health team i was doing my dbt with fot two years were reluctant to take me on for any more therapy because they say i need to build on what i have learned with them, but i started tailspinning back in January and was put on a waiting list with a local organisation that takes NHS clients for a few sessions. it is quite analytical, like CAT, but much briefer

        Liked by 1 person

      2. i do remember as a young child being painfully anxious about things and in distress at seeing people or animals who had been abandoned or rejected. i would feel these feelings so deeply it was like my body was torn in two…..sadness felt so horrible to me…..later i felt numb to things most of ther time… like an empty vaccuum. but feelings of sadness still take me by surprise,,,,,i love my guinea pigs so much it is almost painful….i would die for them i love them so much…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. in the UK options for therapy are very limited especially for PDs and trauma issues. im glad we have an NHS but i do feel that spending on mental health needs to be prioritised…. i had to wait 2 years for DBT

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, I’m HSP. HSP don’t have anything in common with covert narssisist. HSP is highly selfaware, compassionate ( but not weepy), avoids conflict. Covert narsissist lacks self awareness, yes, the can pretend compassion, it’s easy to be fooled…but narssisists are copy cats, they don’t have imagination, its difficult for them to examine concepts from different perspectives. sooner or later they will also show lack of common sense…
    HSP have great imagination, can easily see things from different perspectives… that’s why HSP cannot be a covert narcissist

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should have clarified — covert narcissists had the potential once to be HSPs but have lost that ability. All their sensitivity is drawn into themselves and protecting their ego, so they cannot care about anyone else.


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