It is quite easy to overlook female narcissists and their even more ruthless cousins, sociopaths. Since female narcissists engage in the same type of relational aggression that teenage girls do, they can easily fly under the radar as the “mean girl” motif coming to life in high definition – something we all assume they will eventually grow out of.
Yet research indicates that adolescent girls who use high levels of relational aggression also demonstrate low levels of empathy and caring towards others (Centifanti, et. al 2015). This suggests that the behaviors of gossiping, exclusion and sabotaging relationships may actually be more common among those with existing narcissistic and antisocial traits.
The problem is, the malignant female narcissist rarely outgrows her excessive sense of entitlement, lack of empathy and thirst for interpersonal exploitation – she merely adjusts these traits to her changing environment. The female malignant narcissist is not just vain and self-absorbed. She is also a covert bully who ensnares fellow female friends, relationship partners and family members into her toxic web.
The female narcissist (or sociopath) is just as dangerous as her male counterpart and yet she is protected by prevailing stereotypes of the “gentle young girl,” the “maternal mother,” the “sweet old grandmother,” or minimized by archetypes like the “catty best friend.” No one suspects the older woman, assumed to be nurturing and sweet, to be vindictive, cruel and ruthless. Nor do they expect mothers to abandon, neglect or abuse their children.
Yet what happens when the demented narcissistic mother drives her adult children to suicide after years of chronic childhood abuse? Or when the catty best friend from middle school becomes the conniving co-worker in the corporate world, employing underhanded tactics to sabotage her colleagues? Or when the malignant narcissistic girlfriend uses her harem of male admirers to terrorize her significant other?
Female narcissists do not “grow out” of their childhood aggression; eerily enough, they evolve into even more effective aggressive behaviors in adulthood, using their manipulative tactics to serve their selfish agendas and to exploit others.
While it has been estimated that 75% of narcissists are male, this may be due to a bias of women being more likely to be labeled as borderline or histrionic; it may also be due to confusion resulting from differing presentations of certain disorders due to gendered socialization (Sansone & Sansone, 2011). It’s becoming clearer from survivor stories, however, that there are a far greater number of female narcissists than one would assume.
Female narcissists, especially if they also possess antisocial traits, can cause just as much psychological harm as male malignant narcissists. Here are the top five traits and behaviors to watch out for if you suspect someone might be a malignant narcissist and some tips on how to cope:
1. A sadistic sense of pleasure at someone else’s pain.
Perhaps one of the most understated qualities of the female malignant narcissist is the pleasure and joy she takes in bringing down others. She enjoys making covert jabs and watching gleefully as the formerly confident victim looks crestfallen, shocked and offended. She displays a lack of empathy when the conversation turns to more serious emotional matters, engaging in shallow responses or cruel reprimands that invalidate her victim’s reality.
She is ruthless in her ability to first idealize, then devalue and discard her victims without a second thought. She cannot engage in healthy, emotionally fulfilling relationships, so she enjoys sabotaging the relationships and friendships of others for her own personal entertainment.
2. An insatiable sense of competitiveness, due to pathological envy and the need to be the center of attention.
Relational aggression is thought to be a more common method of bullying among girls, who are socialized to be less physically expressive in their aggression than their male counterparts. The female malignant narcissist is no different; in fact, perhaps some of her most abusive tactics are deployed in the realm of female friendships.
In her group of female friends, the female malignant narcissist scopes out who is a threat and who is a blind follower. Those who threaten the female narcissist in any way (whether it be through their success, appearance, personality, resources, status, desirability or all of the above) must be extinguished, while those who are obedient will be kept around until their resources have been sufficiently depleted.
Those who present a threat are initially placed on a pedestal to keep up appearances in the social circle, but later set up to fail and promptly thrust off. The malignant female narcissist’s starry-eyed admiration of her target is soon revealed to bear an undercurrent of contempt, envy and rage.
As psychotherapist Christine Louis de Canonville puts it, “When it comes to envy, there is no one more envious than the narcissistic woman.”