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Shame, Guilt, Codependents, Narcissists, and Normal Folks

Uploaded 10/25/2015, approx. 8 minute read

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

Lidija Rangelovska advanced the idea that some children who are subjected to abuse in dysfunctional families, children who are objectified, dehumanized, their borders and boundaries bridged, and their growth stunted.

Well, these children develop intense feelings of shame. Some of them turn out to be co-dependents, others turn out to be narcissists, owing to their genetic makeup or innate characteristics and character.

According to Rangelovska, children who turn out to be co-dependents are actually the strong and resilient ones. The fragile ones turn out to be narcissists. They seek to evade shame by concocting and then deploying a false self by distancing themselves from their selves in a way.

As Lidija Rangelovska observes, shame motivates normal people and those suffering from cluster B personality disorders, but it motivates them differently. Shame constitutes a threat to normal people's true self, and it constitutes a threat to the false self of narcissism.

Owing to the disparate functionality and psychodynamics of true and false sense, the way shame affects behavior and manifests in both populations differ markedly.

In other words, shame manifests differently with normal people and with abnormal people, such as narcissists, psychopaths or borderlines.

Additionally, pervasive, constant shame fosters anxiety and even fears or phobias. These can have either an inhibitory effect or, on the contrary, disinhibitory effect.

In other words, shame can paralyze and freeze or it can motivate to action.

The true self involves an accurate reality test with minimal and marginal cognitive deficits, as well as the capacity to empathize on all levels, including and especially the emotional level.

People whose true self is intact, mature and operational are capable of relating to others deeply, for instance, by loving them. Their sense of self-worth is stable. It is grounded in a true and tested assessment of who they are.

Maintaining a distinction between what we really are and what we dream of becoming, knowing our limits, our advantages and disadvantages, our faults and shortcomings, all this self-knowledge, self-awareness creates a realistic sense of our accomplishments and it is of paramount importance in the establishment and maintenance of our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

Shame threatens the true self by challenging the affected person's egosyntony, by forcing her to feel bad about something she had said or done.

The solution is usually facile and at hand, to reverse the situation by, for instance, apologizing or making amends.

No situation, no shame.

In contrast, the false self leads to false assumptions and to a contorted personal narrative, to a fantastic worldview and to a grandiose inflated sense of being. It's a fake existence.

This grandiose inflated sense of being is rarely grounded in real accomplishments or in merit. The narcissist's feeling of entitlement is all pervasive, demanding and aggressive. It easily deteriorates into the open, verbal, psychological and physical abuse of others.

When the patient with a false self feels shame, it is because his grandiosity, the fantastic narrative that underpins his false self, is challenged, usually, but not necessarily publicly.

There is no easy solution to such a predicament. The situation cannot be reversed and the psychological damage is done once and for all.

The patient urgently needs to reassert his grandiosity by devaluing or even destroying the frustrating, threatening object, the source of his misery.

Once challenged, once the grandiosity of the narcissist is breached, undermined, exposed for what it is, fake and fantastic, there's nothing the narcissist can do but devalue the source, devalue the origin and fount of the challenge, of the criticism, of the disagreement.

Another option, perhaps, is to reframe the situation by delusionally ignoring it or by recasting it in new terms, but this is far less common.

So, while shame motivates normal people to conduct themselves pro-social and realistically, if they have done something wrong, to apologize, if they damage someone to make amends, to conform, to go with the flow, to commune, to be a part of society. This is the role of shame.

Well, when we are talking about disordered people, people with personality disorders, shame has absolutely the opposite effect. It pushes the disordered patient in the exact opposite direction to anti-social and delusional reactions.

Shame is founded on empathy. The normal person empathizes with others. The disordered patient, patient with personality disorders, empathizes only with himself or herself.

But empathy and shame have little to do with the person with whom we empathize, the empathee. They may simply be the result of conditioning and socialization and acculturation.

In other words, when we hurt someone, we don't experience his or her pain, we experience our pain. Hurting somebody hurts us. The reaction of pain is provoking us by our own actions. We have been taught a learned response to feel pain when we inflict pain.

So we attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the objects of our actions. It is a psychological defense mechanism known as projection.

Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves, we displace the source. We say it's the others' pain that we are feeling. We keep telling ourselves that it's not our pain, but someone else's pain.

Additionally, we have been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings and to develop guilt and shame when we fail to do so. So we also experience pain whenever another person claims to be anguished. We feel guilty owing to his or her condition. We feel ashamed and guilty that he is in pain or she is in pain. We feel somehow accountable even if we had nothing to do with the whole affair. We feel ashamed that we haven't been able to end the other person's agony.

But with narcissists, borderlines, and a lesser sense, psychopaths, the problem is completely different. It is what I call the grandiosity gap. It's the difference between the grandiose self-image, the way the narcissist perceives himself, and reality, which does not conform to this grandiose fantasy, which contravenes it. The greater the conflict between grandiosity and reality, the bigger the gap and the greater the narcissist's feelings of shame and guilt.

So there are two varieties of shame when we talk about narcissists in effect. There is narcissistic shame, which is the narcissist's experience of the grandiosity gap and its affective correlate. So subjectively, narcissistic shame is experienced as a pervasive feeling of inadequacy, worthlessness. It is the dysfunctional regulation of self-worth. It is actually the crux of pathological narcissism as Masterson observed.

The narcissist feels invisible, ridiculous, down to earth, if you wish, common, average. The narcissist feels pathetic, foolish, deserving of mockery and humiliation because he doesn't measure up to his own inflated perfectionist grandiose yardsticks and benchmarks.

Narcissists adopt all kinds of defenses to counter narcissistic shame. They develop addictive, reckless or impulsive behaviors. They deny, they withdraw, rage or engage in compulsive pursuits of this or that kind, all of them unattainable, of course. They seek perfection. They display haughtiness and exhibitionism and so on. All these defenses are primitive and involve splitting, projection, projective identification and intellectualization.

But there is a second type of shame. I call it self-related. It is a result of the gap between the narcissist's grandiose ego ideal and his actual self or ego. It's a well-known concept of shame. It's been explored widely in the works of Freud, Eich, Jacobson, Kohut, Kingston, Sparrow and Morrison.

One must draw a clear distinction between guilt or control-related shame and conformity-related shame.

Guilt is an objectively determinable philosophical entity given relevant knowledge regarding the society and the culture in which it arose. Guilt is context-dependent, in other words. It is the derivative of an underlying assumption by others that a moral agent exerts control of the certain aspects of the world. This assumed control by the agent imputes guilt to the agent if it acts in a manner incommensurate with the pervasive 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. Shame happens with events which impute guilt to a moral agent who acted wrong or reframed from acting.

And so we must distinguish guilt from guilt feelings.

Guilt follows events. Guilt feelings can actually precede events. Guilt feelings and the attaching shame can be anticipatory.

Moral agents assume that they control certain aspects of the world. This makes them able to predict the outcomes of their intentions. And they feel guilt and shame as a result of their intentions of merely thinking as if and even if nothing happened. It's a kind of magical thing.

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 inaction by the moral agent. Anxiety has to do with inner consequences. It is egodystonic. It makes you feel bad. It threatens the identity of the moral agent because being moral is an important part of it.

The internalization of guilt feelings leads to what we call shame.

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

To reiterate, to explain again, guilt is determined by the reactions and anticipated reactions of others to external outcomes such as avoidable waste or preventable failure.

Guilt is therefore about fear, fear of what others might say. Guilt feelings are the reactions and anticipated reactions of the person himself to internal processes, dynamics and outcomes. It is the consequence of helplessness or loss of presumed control. It is a kind of reaction to narcissistic injury and it has an anxiety component.

There is also conformity related shame. It has to do with the narcissist feeling of otherness. Narcissist feels alien, in a way, dysfunctional. Narcissist rationalize it and they say, you know, we are not dysfunctional, we are actually here. We are at the next stage in the evolutionary ladder.

But they know that they are different. They know that the narcissist are the other. They feel that they don't belong and that they are not accepted.

This conformity related shame, the shame of not being a part of a community or a group, not belonging. This shame involves a component of fear because of the reactions of others to one's otherness. It also involves anxiety because the narcissist is afraid of his own reactions to his otherness.

So there is fear of how others might react to the narcissist alien character. And there's also anxiety how the narcissist might react to his own alienness.

So it's a complex emotional reaction to being different to other people.

So guilt related shame is connected to self-related shame, perhaps through a psychological construct akin to the superego

Conformity related shame is more similar to narcissistic shame.

Guilt and shame, shame and guilt, the twin brothers that drive all the pathologies of cluster B.

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