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.”
3. She sabotages your friendships and relationships, stirring chaos within social groups.
The female narcissist may use her affiliation with her target to gain access to resources or status, but as soon as the idealization phase is over, the devaluation and discard follows. She then engages in rumor-mongering, smear campaigns and creates ‘triangles’ where she feeds others false or humiliating information about the victim. She may pit her friends against each other by claiming that they are gossiping about one another, when in fact, it is her falsehoods that are actually manufacturing conflict within the group. By subjecting her victims to covert and overt put-downs, she is able to then confirm her own false sense of superiority.
You are probably dealing with a female narcissist or sociopath in your group of female friends if:
- You notice an uncomfortable silence, a covert exchange of looks or odd energy when you enter the room. The friend who is overly friendly in contrast, happens to be the very person who is speaking about you behind your back.
- You are idealized by your female friend, sweet-talked, admired, praised and shown off in the beginning of the friendship. You might have found yourself sharing your most intimate secrets early on, due to her disarmingly sweet and trustworthy demeanor. Later, you find yourself being excluded by them in group conversations, social events or invites. You hear about your deepest secrets being spoken about with derision among the group or rumors based on vulnerabilities and fears you confided in your friend about. You also notice a chilling smugness when your female friend talks down to you or as she devalues your accomplishments.
- You bear witness to the narcissistic female friend frequently speaking ill of your other friends in an excessively contemptuous tone, while appearing friendly and engaging with them in public. This is evidence of her duplicity and ability to deceive. An authentic person might vent about others occasionally in the event of stress or conflict, but would not engage in excessive gossip or indiscriminate character assassination. He or she would be more likely to cut ties with those they thought were toxic or address it to them directly rather than bashing them unnecessarily. Make no mistake, the way they’re speaking about others is the way they’ll eventually speak about you.
4. She has an obsession with her appearance as well as a high level of materialism and superficiality.
This could also translate into a haughty sense of intellectual superiority, if the narcissist in question is more cerebral than somatic (focused more on her mind rather than her body).
As Christine Hammond, LMHC (2015), notes in her article, The Difference Between Male and Female Narcissists, the female narcissist “battles with other females for dominance” and while male narcissists use their charm along with their appearance to achieve their goals, “females use it to gain superiority.”
Female narcissists fit the ‘femme fatale’ stereotype quite well. Many of them are conventionally attractive and, much like the male somatic narcissist, use their sexuality to their advantage. Since females in our society are also socialized to objectify themselves, the female narcissist follows this social norm to use whatever physical assets she has to assert her power.
Hammond (2015) also observes that while males are more likely to obtain money, female narcissists tend to excessively spend it. This may result in a highly materialistic female narcissist who enjoys adorning herself with the best designer clothing, indulging in luxuries at the expense of her loved ones or allowing herself to be excessively catered to by a wealthy significant other. Female narcissists can also accumulate their own wealth and use it as an indication of her superiority as well.
For the more cerebral narcissist, the female in question might use her accumulation of credentials, degrees, and accomplishments to control and terrorize others. For example, a narcissistic female professor may routinely subject her students to hypercriticism, bullying and cruel taunts under the guise of “constructive criticism,” usually targeting her most talented and brilliant female students in the classroom. This is because, despite her own expertise and position of power, she is still threatened by any other female whose intellect might surpass hers.
5. A blatant disregard for the boundaries of intimate relationships, including her own.
In keeping with typical narcissistic behavior regardless of gender, the female narcissist is likely to have a harem of admirers – consisting of exes that never seem to go away, admirers who always seem to lurk in the background and complete strangers she ensnares into her web to evoke jealousy in her romantic partner. She frequently creates love triangles with her significant other and other males (or females, depending on her sexual orientation). She rejoices in male attention and boasts about being the object of desire. She engages in emotional and/or physical infidelity, usually without remorse and with plenty of gaslighting and deception directed at her partner, who usually dotes on her and spoils her, unaware of the extent of her disloyalty.
She also crosses the boundaries of her female friendships by attempting to “make a move” on the partners of her friends. She is disappointed and envious when her “seduction” falls flat or when her friends enjoy more attention from their partners than she does. To a baffled outsider, a female narcissist’s betrayal is incredibly hurtful and traumatizing – but to the observant eye, it is a clear sign of how far the female narcissist’s pathological sense of entitlement goes.
I suspect I am dealing with a female narcissist. Now what?
If you are dealing with a female malignant narcissist in a friendship, relationship or in a formal or professional setting, be on guard. Remember that they can “turn” at any moment, so don’t be fooled into thinking you will ever be the exception to their interpersonal exploitation. If you are dealing with one in a professional context, stick to e-mail or small talk that can be easily documented. Do not reveal personal information in the early stages of a budding relationship that can later be used against you.
If a female narcissist wants to spend all her time with you and is pressuring you to spend time with them constantly, minimize communication and slow things down. According to life coach Wendy Powell (2015), this can be an excellent way to discourage narcissists from dating you as well. In addition, it can reveal her ‘true self’ more quickly, whether in a relationship or friendship.
A female narcissist’s response to your boundaries will tell you all that you need to know. Most narcissists cannot stand to be ignored; they feel entitled to your constant attention, so they will continue to make persistent efforts until they get it or attempt to sabotage you if they fail.
If you notice that a female friend of yours tends to spread rumors or engages in malicious gossip, try to cut the interaction short and excuse yourself – remember that the toxic person will try to convince others that you are the one speaking ill of them, so anything you say in agreement can and will be used against you.
Stay calm whenever a female narcissist tries to provoke you; your indifference and courage in the face of their threats or insults is actually your greatest ‘tool’ against their tactics. It unsettles them when a target is not so easily rattled, because that means there is something more powerful about their victim than they expected.
If you’re being smeared by a female narcissist, calmly state the facts of the situation to your friends and take note as to who stands up for you and who believes in the female narcissist.
Remember that in the presence of a persuasive narcissist or sociopath, there will always be a few people who are fooled. Do not waste your energy on trying to convince them; if they are that easily fooled by someone else’s claims rather than your track record of loyalty and support, they do not deserve your friendship. You’ll find that they will uncover the truth for themselves eventually – and even if they continue to enable the narcissist’s behavior, they still get the short end of the stick because they chose the fake friend who can turn on them at any point.
Detach from the narcissist’s harem and stick with the people who do support and defend you. Do not be swayed by flattery or charm in the early stages of any interaction – if it is genuine, it will be given as positive feedback throughout your friendship or relationship and you will not be blindsided by a sudden personality transplant.
Remember that a narcissist’s greatest fears are exposure and a victim that they cannot control. So long as you are deeply grounded in your own self-validation, any narcissist – whether male or female – cannot truly use the threat of tarnishing your reputation or friendships against you, because they know you will see any loss of such disloyal friends as a gain. They also know that deep down, while they will spend their entire lives trying to protect their false image, your own integrity will continue to speak for itself.