Narcissistic Shame – Why & How Do Narcissists Feel Shame?

Narcissistic shame not just an embarrassment. It is a deep-cut into their sense of honor, a reduction of self-worth, and a degradation of their social standing.

It is a narcissist’s moment of mortification (from Latin root mortificare, meaning “producing death”).

To understand narcissistic shame, first understand that narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, and a need for praise.

Narcissists believe they are superior and have the first right to special treatment in any situation, and this is where their problem starts.

How is shame different from guilt?

  • Guilt is a feeling of remorse or regret associated with a specific act that you did or did not do. A guilt-ridden person may say, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
  • Shame, on the other hand, is a more general feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy. A shameful person may say, “I’m good for nothing.”

Narcissists often experience both guilt and shame, but they are more prone to experiencing shame.

Narcissistic-Shame-Is-It-The-Root-of-Unhealthy-Self-Love

What Is Narcissistic Shame?

Narcissistic shame defines a particular type of shame experienced by people with narcissistic tendencies. Narcissists feel deeply embarrassed of their inadequacies, flaws, and averageness. They recognize their low self-worth, and put on a show of power and superiority to hide it from others around them.

In a strange twist, a narcissist will often shame you to hide their shame from you.

Why Do Narcissists Feel Shame?

Narcissistic shame can be triggered by a variety of things, such as:

  • Failure or rejection: A public failure or social rejection can easily hurt a narcissist’s sense of self-worth, and evoke feelings of shame, humiliation, and worthlessness. This potent shame can then lead to several destructive and even self-harming behaviors.
  • Criticism or disapproval: Narcissists are hypersensitive to criticism and disapproval, and often interpret even gentle feedback as personal attacks. This can trigger feelings of humiliation, anger, and defensiveness, further reinforcing their shame.
  • Not made to feel special or unique: Narcissists usually house a grandiose sense of self-importance. If they sense they are not being perceived as special or unique, it may trigger feelings of shame. This, in turn, can lead to a deep sense of inadequacy, inferiority, and worthlessness, fueling their cycle of shame-driven behaviors.

How Do Narcissists Feel Shame?

When a narcissist experiences shame, they may react in a variety of ways.

Some negative consequences of narcissistic shame could be:

  • Social isolation: Narcissists may avoid social situations because they are afraid of being exposed or criticized. They may become withdrawn, avoiding social situations or isolating themselves to protect their fragile self-image. This can lead to social isolation and loneliness.
  • Defensiveness: Some may become defensive, lashing out at others (narcissistic rage) or blaming them for their shame.
  • Depression: Narcissistic shame can contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
  • Self-destructive behavior: Narcissists may engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, or risky sexual behavior, as a way to cope with shame.

Is Narcissistic Shame The Root Cause of Unhealthy Self-Love?

Both non-clinical and pathological narcissists have a high sensitivity to shame, which may be the source of their unhealthy self-centeredness.

Research reveals that the tendency to suffer intense feelings of shame are a key clinical sign of narcissistic vulnerability (Dickinson and Pincus, 2003).

Researchers think that shame is a prominent feature of NPD (Ritter & Vater, 2014), and that narcissism is “the most shame-based of all disorders” (Brené Brown, 2020).

Shame in general can be of two types: explicit and implicit.

  1. Explicit shame is a conscious, deliberate emotional response to negative self-evaluations. Narcissists feel explicit shame when they perceive themselves to have failed or fallen short of their own or others’ expectations.
  2. Implicit shame is an automatic and possibly unconscious emotional reaction, a result of learned behavior. Narcissists feel implicit shame in response to subconscious triggers, resulting from their inherent insecurity about their worth.

Both types of shame can make a narcissist react defensively, such as narcissistic projection, denial, or even aggression, as they try to protect their self-image.

Let me explain now why narcissistic shame lies at the root of narcissism.

A narcissist always carries their shame of being mediocre and average. They are painfully aware of their flaws, failures, and inadequacies, and the resulting low self-worth.

But they hide it well by putting on a mask of power and superiority.

They are also constantly fearful that someone will pull off that superiority mask and reveal their weakness and worthlessness.

The grandiose self-image they passionately cling to is rooted in their fear of being exposed and shamed at any moment. Loving this “heroic” self-image helps them disengage from their “shame-based fear of being ordinary.”

So, narcissistic shame may indeed be the root of the unhealthy self-love in narcissists.

Types of Narcissistic Shame

According to Vaknin, 2021, there are two types of shame that narcissists experience: narcissistic shame and self-related shame.

  • Narcissistic shame: It is the narcissist’s experience of the Grandiosity Gap (and its affective correlate). The Grandiosity Gap is the difference between the narcissist’s grandiose self-image and the reality of who they are. This gap can lead to feelings of worthlessness, invisibility, and ridiculousness. Narcissists often try to defend against these feelings of shame by engaging in addictive, reckless, or impulsive behaviors, denying their flaws, withdrawing from others, or raging at them.
  • Self-related shame: It is a result of the gap between the narcissist’s grandiose Ego Ideal and their Self or Ego. The Ego Ideal is the narcissist’s idealized image of themselves, while the Self is their actual, flawed self. The gap between these two can lead to feelings of shame, inadequacy, and unworthiness. Narcissists often try to defend against these feelings of shame by engaging in the same types of behaviors as they do to defend against narcissistic shame.

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What is Narcissistic Shame Core: Origins of Narcissistic Shame

Narcissistic shame is a deeply rooted feeling of inadequacy and self-loathing that stems from childhood experiences. It is a core feature of narcissistic personality disorder and is often the driving force behind a narcissist’s behavior.

Narcissistic shame is different from regular shame in that it is not a result of violating social norms or moral codes, but rather a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness that is often rooted in childhood experiences.

Many experts believe that childhood experiences play a significant role in the development of narcissistic shame.

Children who grow up in environments where they are constantly criticized or belittled by their parents are more likely to develop feelings of shame and inadequacy.

These experiences can lead to a distorted sense of self and a need for constant validation and attention.

Narcissistic parents can also contribute to the development of narcissistic shame in their children.

Narcissistic parents are often focused on their own needs and desires, and they may use their children as a means of fulfilling their own emotional needs. This can lead to a sense of emotional neglect in the child, which can contribute to feelings of shame and unworthiness.

The environment in which a child grows up can also play a significant role in the development of narcissistic shame.

Children who grow up in environments where there is a lot of pressure to succeed or where there is a focus on external validation may be more prone to developing narcissistic shame.

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Shame

As research shows, shame is a key emotion in Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Grandiose and vulnerable narcissists both struggle with intense shame and self-doubt.

However, they react to shame triggers in different ways. Grandiose ones more likely react with anger and rage, while vulnerable narcissists tend to respond with sadness, anxiety, and withdrawal.

Type of NarcissistReaction to Shame Triggers
GrandioseAnger, rage, defensiveness
VulnerableSadness, anxiety, withdrawal

There are no pure grandiose or vulnerable narcissists.

The official guide for diagnosing mental disorders, the DSM-5, describes narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) mainly as a feeling of being grand.

But studies show people with NPD often display a strange mix of feeling superior and feeling vulnerable (Dickinson and Pincus, 2003, Pincus and Lukowitsky, 2010).

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Narcissistic Behavior and Shame

Shame and inadequacy lie deep at the heart of narcissistic behavior.

Narcissists use an overblown sense of self-importance to hide their insecurity and mediocrity.

Narcissists react strongly when they feel threatened or criticized. They might blame others, show anger, or try to control the situation, driven by an unbearable sense of shame that chips away at their self-worth. While guilt is also a struggle, they often push it onto others rather than accepting blame.

Narcissists put up a strong front of being unshakeable. But when their grandiose self-image breaks or high expectations aren’t met, the shame becomes hard to hide. Feeling others are doing better can spark envy, deepening the shame they feel.

Lack of empathy is a notable trait in narcissists. They have trouble understanding or accepting others’ feelings. This can lead to hurtful behavior, which adds to their shame, as they fail to match up to their ideal self-image.

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Narcissistic Shame in Relationships

Narcissistic shame in relationships can be a significant problem. Here’s how:

  1. Narcissists struggle with empathy, unable to understand others’ feelings. This makes their relationships shallow and conflict-ridden.
  2. They usually feel they’re better than others. This makes them blame or look down on their partners.
  3. They find it hard to accept when they’re wrong. This may make them act out or ignore their partner’s feelings.
  4. Narcissists often feel shame. This makes them feel not good enough or like they’ve failed.
  5. When they feel shame, they might become defensive, get mad, or pull away. This behavior can make their relationships toxic. They might make their partners feel guilty or not good enough.
  6. They might also see their partner as weak. This can hurt communication and closeness in the relationship.
  7. Therapy can help narcissists learn ways to control their shame-based reactions and build better relationships.

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Impact of Narcissistic Shame on Self and Others

Narcissistic shame is a painful emotion that arises when a person feels that their self-worth has been threatened. It can have a significant impact on both the individual and those around them.

Individuals with narcissistic shame often struggle with self-esteem and may feel a constant need for attention and validation from others. They may also avoid taking responsibility for their actions, as they fear being seen as imperfect or flawed. This can lead to a cycle of blame-shifting and defensiveness, making it difficult to resolve conflicts.

Furthermore, narcissistic shame can create a sense of fear and anxiety, as individuals may worry about being exposed as frauds or failures. They may also become obsessed with perfection and status, as they strive to maintain their image of superiority. This can lead to a constant need for external validation and a fear of failure.

The impact of narcissistic shame is not limited to the individual. It can also affect those around them, as individuals with narcissistic shame may lash out at others to protect their fragile self-image. This can lead to conflict in relationships and a lack of trust.

In conclusion, narcissistic shame can have a significant impact on both the individual and those around them. It can lead to a constant need for attention and validation, a fear of failure, and a lack of responsibility. It can also create conflict in relationships and a lack of trust.

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Narcissistic Shame in Different Environments

Narcissistic shame can manifest in various environments, including work, critical situations, compassion, children, fear, perfection, status, and image.

At work, a narcissist may experience shame if they fail to meet their high expectations or if they receive negative feedback. They may feel a sense of inadequacy and may lash out at others to protect their fragile self-esteem.

In critical situations, such as when a narcissist is publicly criticized or rejected, they may experience intense shame. This can result in defensive behaviors, such as blame-shifting or denial.

Compassion is not a trait commonly associated with narcissists, but they may feel shame if they perceive themselves as lacking in empathy or compassion. This can be especially true if they are compared to someone who is more compassionate.

When it comes to children, a narcissist may experience shame if their child does not meet their expectations or if they perceive their child as a reflection of their own inadequacies. This can lead to overly critical or controlling behaviors.

Fear can also trigger narcissistic shame, as it can make them feel vulnerable and exposed. This can result in defensive behaviors, such as aggression or withdrawal.

Perfection is often a key aspect of narcissistic behavior, and failure to achieve perfection can result in intense shame. This can lead to a cycle of striving for perfection and then feeling shame when it is not achieved.

Status and image are also important to narcissists, and any threat to their status or image can result in shame. This can lead to defensive behaviors, such as bragging or putting others down.

Overall, narcissistic shame can manifest in a variety of environments and situations, and can result in defensive and aggressive behaviors. It is important to recognize these behaviors and seek professional help if necessary.

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Coping with Narcissistic Shame

Narcissistic shame can be a difficult emotion to cope with. It can be triggered by a variety of situations, including criticism, failure, or rejection. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies may struggle with shame more than others, as they often have an inflated sense of self and may feel threatened by anything that challenges their self-image.

One way to cope with narcissistic shame is to seek therapy. A therapist can help individuals with narcissistic tendencies explore their feelings of shame and develop strategies for managing them. This may involve learning to identify and challenge negative self-talk, setting boundaries with others to avoid triggers, and practicing self-compassion.

Another important aspect of coping with narcissistic shame is to care about the feelings of others. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies may struggle with empathy, but learning to put themselves in others’ shoes can help them develop a more balanced perspective on their own emotions. This can involve recognizing the impact of their behavior on others and taking steps to repair any harm done.

Values can also play a role in coping with narcissistic shame. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies may benefit from identifying their core values and using them as a guide for behavior. This can help them develop a sense of purpose and meaning beyond their own ego, which can be helpful in managing feelings of shame.

Finally, setting boundaries is an important part of coping with narcissistic shame. This can involve learning to say no to requests that feel overwhelming or triggering, as well as setting limits on the amount of time spent in situations that may be emotionally taxing.

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Treatment for Narcissistic Shame

Treatment for narcissistic shame can be a challenging task for therapists. Narcissistic individuals may be resistant to treatment due to their tendency to avoid vulnerability and their fear of being exposed. However, psychotherapy has been shown to be effective in treating narcissistic shame.

One of the main causes of narcissistic shame is a deep-seated sense of inadequacy and vulnerability. Therapists may work with their patients to identify the root causes of their shame and vulnerability. This may involve exploring early childhood experiences and relationships, as well as current stressors and triggers.

Anxiety and anger are common emotions associated with narcissistic shame. Therapists may use a variety of techniques to help their patients manage these emotions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques. Additionally, therapists may work with their patients to develop healthy coping strategies to manage anxiety and anger.

Research has shown that narcissistic vulnerability is a key factor in the development of shame in individuals with narcissistic personality disorder. Therapists may work with their patients to increase their awareness of their vulnerabilities and to develop a more compassionate and accepting attitude toward themselves.

Psychotherapy can be a long-term process for individuals with narcissistic shame. Therapists may use a variety of techniques, such as psychodynamic therapy, interpersonal therapy, and group therapy, to help their patients work through their shame and develop a more positive self-image.

In conclusion, treatment for narcissistic shame can be a challenging task for therapists, but psychotherapy has been shown to be effective in treating this condition. Therapists may work with their patients to identify the root causes of their shame, manage anxiety and anger, increase their awareness of their vulnerabilities, and develop healthy coping strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does shame play a role in narcissistic abuse?

Shame is a powerful tool that narcissists use to control and manipulate their victims. By making their victims feel ashamed of themselves, narcissists are able to maintain power and control over them. Narcissists will often use shame to make their victims feel small and insignificant, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

What is narcissistic shame rage spiral?

The narcissistic shame rage spiral is a phenomenon that occurs when a narcissist feels shame or humiliation. Instead of processing these feelings in a healthy way, the narcissist will often become enraged and lash out at those around them. This can lead to a vicious cycle of shame, rage, and more shame.

In what way is a narcissist shameless?

Narcissists are often described as “shameless” because they lack the ability to feel shame in the way that most people do. Instead, they are driven by a deep-seated need for admiration and attention, which can lead them to engage in a variety of destructive behaviors without any regard for the consequences.

Do narcissists feel guilt or shame?

While narcissists may experience feelings of guilt or shame, these emotions are typically fleeting and do not have the same impact on their behavior as they do for non-narcissistic individuals. Narcissists are more likely to deflect blame onto others or engage in other forms of self-justification rather than taking responsibility for their actions.

What are the consequences of underachieving for a narcissist?

For a narcissist, underachieving can be a devastating blow to their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. This can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy, which can in turn lead to a variety of destructive behaviors such as lashing out at others or engaging in self-destructive behaviors.

How do you overcome shame from a narcissist?

Overcoming shame from a narcissist can be a difficult and complex process that may require the help of a trained therapist. Some strategies that may be helpful include setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and learning to recognize and challenge negative self-talk.

What are the common ways that narcissists use shame?

Narcissists may use a variety of tactics to shame their victims, including belittling, name-calling, and gaslighting. They may also use subtle forms of manipulation such as withholding affection or attention, or using guilt to control their victims.

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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy — a medical doctor and psychology writer, with a unique focus on mental well-being, positive psychology, narcissism, and Stoicism. His empathic expertise has helped many mental abuse survivors find happiness again. Co-author of ‘Critique of Positive Psychology and Positive Interventions’.


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