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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Narcissist's Shame and Guilt

The grandiosity gap is the difference between self-image and reality, causing feelings of guilt and shame in narcissists. Narcissistic shame is the pervasive feeling of worthlessness experienced by the narcissist due to the absence or deficiency of narcissistic supply. The narcissist adopts primitive psychological defense mechanisms to counter this shame, such as addictive or impulsive behaviors. Guilt is an objectively determinable philosophical entity, while shame is the outcome of avoidable outcomes.

Narcissist's Insignificant Other: Typical Spouse or Intimate Partner

Living with a narcissist can be exhilarating, but it is always onerous and often harrowing. Surviving a relationship with a narcissist, maintaining a relationship, preserving it, insisting on remaining with a narcissist, indicates therefore the parameters of the personality of the victim, of the partner, of the spouse. The partner, the spouse, and the mate of a narcissist who insists on remaining in the relationship and preserving it is molded by it into the typical narcissistic mate, spouse, or partner. The two, the narcissist and his spouse, collaborate in this dance macabre.

Money: Narcissist's License to Abuse

Money is a love substitute for the narcissist, allowing them to be their corrupt selves and buy absolution, forgiveness, and acceptance. It is a license to sin and a permit to be unmitigated self. Money liberates the mind of the narcissist, allowing them to concentrate on attaining the desired position on top. The narcissist is addicted to money because it is the freedom not to behave in a way that is unbearable to them in the long run.

Narcissist's False Modesty

False modesty is a defense mechanism used by narcissists to protect their grandiosity from scrutiny and to extract narcissistic supply from others. The narcissist publicly chastises themselves for being unfit, unworthy, lacking, and not formally schooled, but this is only to hedge their bets and secure adoring, admiring, approving, or applauding protestations from the listener. False modesty is a bet, and having received the narcissistic supply, the narcissist feels much better. The narcissist is a pathological liar, and with false modesty, they seek to involve others in their mind games and manipulate them.

Narcissist: Confabulations, Lies

Confabulation is a common human trait, but the distinction between reality and fantasy is never lost. However, the narcissist's very self is a piece of fiction, concocted to fend off hurt and pain and to nurture the narcissist's grandiosity. The narcissist fails in his reality test and is unable to distinguish the actual from the imagined, the real from the fantasized. The narcissist's countenance, no disagreement, no alternative points of view, no criticism. To him, his confabulation is reality.

Narcissist’s Losses Are His Life

Loss is a crucial aspect of the narcissist's life, serving as an organizing principle and a means of transformation. The narcissist's self-destructive behavior and manipulation of external objects are driven by the need to induce change in their internal environment. Losses are both intentional and evoked by the narcissist, who uses them to engender victimhood and manipulate others. The narcissist's fear of losses leads them to preemptively bring them on, ultimately sacrificing reality for the appearance of life.

Victim of Narcissist: Move On!

The narcissist lives in a world of ideal beauty, achievements, wealth, and success, denying his reality. The partner is perceived as a source of narcissistic supply, and the narcissist pathologizes and devalues them to rid themselves of guilt and shame. Moving on from a narcissistic relationship involves acknowledging and accepting painful reality, educating oneself, and gaining emotional sustenance, knowledge, support, and confidence. Forgiving is important, but it should not be a universal behavior, and no one should stay with a narcissist.

Can Narcissist Truly Love?

Narcissists are incapable of true love, but they do experience some emotion which they insist is love. Narcissists love their significant others as long as they continue to provide them with attention, or narcissistic supply. There are two types of narcissistic love: one type loves others as one would get attached to objects, while the other type abhors monotony and constancy, seeking instability, chaos, upheaval, drama, and change. In the narcissist's world, mature love is nowhere to be seen, and their so-called love is fear of losing control and hatred of the very people on whom their personality depends.

Loving My Narcissist HURTS so much!

Loving a narcissist is a painful experience due to their lack of empathy, idealization followed by devaluation, and inability to truly connect with their partner. The narcissist's inaccessibility and indifference can be devastating, as they often discard their partners without any emotional reaction. This experience can leave the partner feeling shattered, questioning their own judgment and ability to trust themselves and others. Ultimately, the pain of loving a narcissist comes from grieving the loss of who they used to be and the potential of what could have been in the relationship.

When Narcissists Become Codependents

Living with a narcissist can be harrowing, and the partner of the narcissist is often molded into the typical narcissist mate, partner, or spouse. The partner must have a deficient or distorted grasp of herself and of reality, and the cognitive distortion of the partner of the narcissist is likely to consist of belittling and demeaning herself while aggrandizing and adoring the narcissist. The narcissist is perceived by the partner to be a person in the position to demand these sacrifices from her. The breakup of the relationship with the narcissist is emotionally charged and is the culmination of a long chain of humiliations and subjugation.

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