The Narcissists “Shame” is a Hard Pill to Swallow

Shame is a “self-conscious” emotion. At the heart of the pathological narcissist’s disorder is a disorder of the self that makes them especially vulnerable to internalised shame. With their over-inflated sense of self, their ambitions are generally unrealistic, they tend to set themselves up to experience shame.

For narcissist’s, failing is not an option as failure creates shame outcomes that are intolerable for the pathological narcissist to handle. Indeed, many of the unconscious defences associated with narcissism are developed with the express outcome of warding off their shame reactions (i.e. features such as grandiosity, the need for excessive admiration, low interpersonal empathy, exploitativeness, entitlement, envy, control, etc.).

Their protected “selfism” guarantees that they evaluate most situations in terms of what they will gain from any exchange, and it is of absolutely no concern to them what others get from the relationship. Splitting is another great defence and is characterised by the narcissists “black and white thinking”. For them, things are either “all good” or “all bad”, there is no in between.

You are either with the narcissist or against them. When they perceive that you are with them, you are likely to be idealised, for a while at least. However, if they perceive that you are against them, this is likely to trigger their shame, and you will then be devalued. Splitting gives the pathological narcissist the ability to switch their emotions in the blink of an eye, depending on what way the narcissist processes what is happening at any given moment.

While you stroke them, the narcissist will reward you, and when you shame them they will punish you. Unfortunately, the narcissist’s constant fluctuating states of “splitting” tends to chip away at the victim’s confidence. This, in turn, affects their level of self-consciousness and self-esteem badly, triggering their own vulnerability to shame.

Narcissists are masters at projecting their shame at their victims, this is one of the ways that the narcissist’s “shame begets shame” in their victims. I would like to take a moment to explain the difference between projection and projective identification.

Projection is when the narcissist (perpetrator) experiences unacceptable thoughts or feelings (the disliked parts of themselves, or their unresolved shameful needs), they either repress these feelings by pushing them into their unconscious mind, or they project them outward onto their victim.

They would then treat the victim as if they are the one with the unacceptable characteristics and treat them as if they were flawed. So, for example, as the narcissist cannot admit to making a personal mistake, they will project their error outward onto their victim. However, the concept of projective identification is an entirely different matter. This is when the narcissist projects their undesired aspect of self onto their victim, and the victim swallows it whole (introjection).

The victim then incorporates the projection, identifies with it in some way, and either reacts or acts accordingly. For example, if the narcissist is feeling excessive anger, they will then project that anger onto the victim without them realising it. The narcissist then goes on to manipulate the projected anger until it is brought alive in the victim for them to act it out.

Although the narcissist has managed to get rid of the anger out of their system, they do not let it go. They stay in touch with it, manipulating the victim into a frenzy. For example, the narcissist may be bad mouthing the neighbour’s cat. They project that anger of the cat out onto the victim, who then identifies with the anger. The anger gets intensified, and the victim finds themselves going next door to complain about the cat. Only five minutes earlier they were not one bit angry at the cat or the neighbour, but now they are so enraged that they must deal with the problem head-on. In effect, the narcissist manipulated the victim into taking action they originally did not feel a need to make.

When doing recovery work with victims, it is useful for the clinician to look at why they received the narcissist’s projections so readily. There could have been several reasons why it happened, and may still be operating to-day, so this is where a little introspection may be needed. For example, it could be that the victim may have a need to build up their healthy narcissism to better levels where they are less shy and can speak up for themselves.

Also, there is a high chance that they did not even realise what was happening to them on a conscious level because they had learned (or were conditioned) to automatically comply. However, it may also be a “red flag” warning that signals that the victim’s boundaries need attention. It is highly likely that their boundaries are too weak or ill-defined, and in some way, this may be contributing to their vulnerability to accept these unwanted projections. Healthy strong ego boundaries help to insulate against such projections, both consciously and unconsciously.

It will be advisable also to look at the acceptance of those projective identifications so that the individual can put in place new strategies to block them. It is also useful to take a deeper look at how the victim’s behaviour changes when around the narcissist and their projections, and consider how it affects their anger, creativity, spontaneity, etc. The damage done can affect the victim quite acutely. However, it is important for them not to get into self-blaming, but

accept one’s limitations, and get some understanding of both projections and projective identification. That way the victim can learn how to take back their power and moderate the impact of these unconscious processes with all ultimate narcissists.

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Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
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