Love Gone Wrong: Malignant Self-Love And Narcissism

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Self-love frequently receives positive attention, often conjuring up images of bubble baths, scented candles, and quiet nights to yourself. While taking care of your wants and needs can improve your mental health, there may be a line where self-love crosses from something positive to something more self-centered and damaging. This malignant self-love could damage relationships and even be characterized as a form of narcissism. Only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, and speaking to a therapist through an online therapy platform can be an effective method to determine whether the way you practice self-love is healthy and how you may improve it.

What is malignant self-love?

Malignant self-love is a term coined by Dr. Sam Vaknin and popularized by his book Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. Malignant self-love generally refers to the malevolent form that self-love can take and that is often exhibited by people with narcissistic traits. Dr. Vaknin is reported to have personal experience with narcissistic personality disorder, and the book he wrote is largely based on scientific research paired with his reflection and first-hand account of the disorder. 

What is narcissism?

Unsure when self-love crosses over into narcissism?

People often mistakenly confuse narcissism for vanity or self-centeredness, but it can be much more severe than that. Narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosable mental disorder that can drastically affect the lives of the person with the condition and everyone around them, potentially including romantic partners, children, family, friends, and coworkers.

In psychology, the definition of narcissism can be narrower and more concrete than how people typically use the term. Rather than being used to describe a rude, self-centered, vain, or selfish person, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is generally defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. The term narcissism is believed to have been taken from the Greek legend of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond.

Diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder

Diagnosing NPD can be difficult because people with the disorder are often manipulative. It can be challenging for a mental health specialist to obtain an accurate history. People with NPD can be aggressive when questioned or confronted, and the level of aggression seems to correlate with the severity of the disorder.

According to the DSM-V, for a diagnosis of NPD, an individual must exhibit five of the following characteristics, beginning by early adulthood:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of beauty, brilliance, power, success, or perfect love
  • A belief that they are special and only other special people can understand them
  • A need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement and expectation of favorable treatment
  • A habit of exploiting and taking advantage of others for their purposes
  • A lack of empathy and refusal to meet others' needs
  • Arrogant, haughty attitudes and behaviors

Complications can arise with NPD, including substance use disorders and mood disorders, and it can be common for someone with NPD to have other personality disorders, which can complicate treatment.

Causes of narcissism


The cause of narcissism may currently be unknown, but it likely results from a combination of childhood trauma (including physical, verbal, or sexual abuse*), genetics, personality, temperament, and early relationships with parents, relatives, and friends.

When does self-love become narcissistic?

Self-love can be healthy. It generally means respecting yourself, prioritizing your well-being, and knowing your boundaries and limits. Someone with a healthy level of self-love may eat healthy food, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep each night, and say “no” to commitments they cannot follow through on. Self-love is not always glamorous; it can simply involve treating yourself with respect and kindness.

Malignant self-love can occur when your efforts to set boundaries, create safe spaces, and care for yourself turn into stopping at nothing to get your way. For example, while you might turn down a shift because you are too overworked as an act of self-love, someone exhibiting malignant self-love might turn down a work project in need of his expertise because it does not glorify them enough. In a relationship, an act of self-love could mean letting your partner know when their behavior made you uncomfortable, while an act of malignant self-love might be to demean your partner for not talking you up enough while at dinner with mutual friends.

Self-love can turn to malignant self-love when it becomes less about supporting your health and more about giving yourself glory, pomp, and importance. In a healthy relationship with yourself, you may think well of yourself and others. In a malignant relationship with yourself, you may think highly of yourself to the exclusion of others. It might be challenging to detect malignant self-love in yourself, particularly if it has developed over time.

Malignant self-love and narcissism

Malignant self-love can look like narcissism, and someone who engages in malignant self-love may indeed have NPD. But it can be crucial to distinguish between someone acting selfishly or being self-centered and someone with NPD. As mentioned, diagnosing NPD can be difficult, and the only people qualified to make a diagnosis are licensed mental health professionals.

Unsure when self-love crosses over into narcissism?

Getting help for safeguarding from narcissism

With the help of a therapist, people with NPD can change their thought patterns and behavior, but because people with this condition tend to have low self-esteem and may not handle criticism well, they are not always willing to go to therapy. 

If you have a close relationship with someone with NPD, whether they’re your friend, parent, or romantic partner, therapy can be extremely helpful. These relationships are often turbulent and may include multiple types of abuse. Talking to a licensed therapist can get you the support you need if you're in a relationship with a person who has NPD.

Online therapy often has many benefits for people who exhibit traits of NPD or show signs of malignant self-love. If you’re hesitant to reach out to a therapist or feel uncomfortable talking to someone face-to-face, talking to a licensed therapist online can make it easier to begin addressing your symptoms. 

Many therapists advocate for ongoing treatment for someone with NPD, and finding a qualified therapist in a comfortable environment can make you more likely to continue treatment. With online therapy, you’ll normally be matched with a licensed therapist and attend sessions from the comfort of your home or anywhere with an internet connection.

Research shows that people are normally equally as satisfied with online therapy as with in-person treatment, and it can be especially beneficial for people experiencing challenges with anxiety and depression, which people with NPD can be prone to.

Some research shows that a form of CBT called schema therapy may be particularly helpful for people with narcissistic personality disorder, and CBT is usually as effective online as it is in person.


Malignant self-love is often exhibited by people with narcissistic traits, but the only way to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder is by talking to a qualified mental health professional. If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of NPD, reaching out to an online therapist may be a great way to take the first steps toward healing.
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