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Narcissist's Shame and Guilt

Uploaded 9/27/2010, approx. 4 minute read

I am Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

The grandiosity gap is the difference between self-image, the way the narcissist perceives himself, and contravening cues from reality. The greater the conflict between grandiosity and reality, the bigger the gap, and the greater the narcissist's feelings of guilt and shame.

Reality is rough, shabby, routine, and boring, and the narcissist prefers to withdraw into his fantasy life.

There are two varieties of shame. Narcissistic shame is the narcissist's experience of the grandiosity gap, and its affective correlate. Subjectively, narcissistic shame is experienced as a pervasive feeling of worthlessness.

The dysfunctional regulation of self-worth is the crux of pathological narcissism, and the absence or deficiency of narcissistic supply generates this overwhelming or overpowering sense of shame of worthlessness.

The narcissist feels invisible, ridiculous. The patient feels pathetic and foolish, deserving of mockery, humiliation.

The narcissist adopts all kinds of defenses to counter this acute narcissistic shame. They develop addictive, reckless, or impulsive behaviors. They deny, withdraw, they rage, they engage in the compulsive pursuit of some kind of unattainable perfection. They display worthiness, exhibitionism, and so on.

All these psychological defense mechanisms are primitive. They involve splitting, projection, projective identification, and intellectualization. We will discuss these psychological defense mechanisms in the future in a series of videos.


The second type of shame is self-related. It is the result of the gap between the narcissist's grandiose ego ideal and his self or ego.

In other words, the gap between how the narcissist views himself ideally and how the narcissist really is.

This is a well-known concept of shame and it has been explored widely in the works of Freud, Reich, Jacobson, Kohut, Kingston, Sparrow, and especially Morrison.

Still, one must draw a clear distinction between guilt or control related shame and conformity related shame.

Guilt is an objectively determinable philosophical entity. Given the relevant knowledge regarding the society and culture in question, we can deduce guilt or even predict the emergence of a feeling of guilt. It is context dependent.

Guilt is the derivative of an underlying assumption by others that a moral agent exerts control over certain aspects of the world. This assumed control by the agent imputes guilt to the agent if it acts in a manner incommensurate with prevailing morals and mores or if it refrains from acting in a manner commensurate with them.

Shame in this case is the outcome of the actual occurrence of avoidable outcomes. These are events which impute guilt to a moral agent who acted wrongly or refrained from acting rightly. This could have been avoided and this ability to have avoided these outcomes is what confers shame.

We must also make a distinction between guilt and guilt feelings.

Guilt follows events. Guilt feelings can precede events. Guilt feelings and the shame attaching to them can be anticipatory. They can anticipate events. Moral agents assume that they control certain aspects of the world. This makes them able to predict the outcomes of their intentions and feel guilt and shame as a result even if nothing had happened.

People feel guilty and ashamed of their intentions. This is a kind of magical thinking, confusing what goes on in one's mind with what really happens outside in reality.

Guilt feelings are composed of a component of fear and a component of anxiety. Fear is related to the external, objective, observable consequences of actions or inactions by the moral agent. Anxiety has to do with inner consequences. Anxiety is egodystonic and threatens the identity of the moral agent because being moral is an important part of this identity.

The internalization of guilt feelings leads to a shame reaction.

Thus, shame has to do with guilty feelings, not with guilt itself.

To reiterate, guilt is determined by the reactions and anticipated reactions of others to external outcomes such as affordable waste or preventable failure. Fear also comes into this equation.

This is guilt. Guilty feelings are the reactions and anticipated reactions of the moral agent himself to internal outcomes. It is associated with helplessness or loss of presumed control, narcissistic injuries.

This is where anxiety comes into play, not fear, anxiety.

There is also conformity related shame as we have mentioned. This kind of shame has to do with the narcissist feeling of otherness. It similarly involves a component of fear, of the reactions of others to one's otherness. Also, it has a component of anxiety, of the reactions of oneself to one's otherness.

In other words, the narcissist realizes that he is a freak and he is ashamed of it and his shame is composed of two elements, fear and anxiety. He is afraid of other people's reactions and he is anxious about his own reactions to his otherness, to his abnormality.

Guilt-related shame is connected to self-related shame, perhaps through a psychic construct akin to the superego.

Conformative-related shame is more akin to narcissistic shame.

As usual, narcissists look to the outside in order to generate internal psychological processes.

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