Narcissists, Cluster Bs, Shame and Shamelessness


I’ve discussed in the past the relationship between narcissists and shame. Basically, anyone who suffers from Cluster B personality disorders (which include narcissism, histrionic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and sociopathy) is ruled by shame. Codependents are also ruled by shame as well. In response these observations, I’ve often received variations of a very sensible question from readers: “How can narcissists and other cluster B’s be so full of shame when so much of their behavior is shameless, and their responses to being confronted show a total lack of either shame or guilt?”

This is a very good question, as casual observation seems to show the opposite of what I say: that emotional vampires are characterized by shamelessness, not shamefulness. But there’s actually a logic to this contradiction that shows it’s not actually a contradiction at all.

Remember what I’ve said in the past, based on the teachings of Alfred Adler. There are three faulty coping mechanisms that are behind most dysfunctional behaviors: avoidance, surrender, and overcompensation. Codependents are full of shame, but they tend to surrender to it. For this reason, their behavior is explicitly shameful. Narcissists are full of shame, but they constantly are overcompensating against it. The possibility of feeling shame is such a constant, continual threat to narcissists, and they feel shame in such a deeper, more utterly annihilating way than normal people do, that they can’t allow themselves to emotionally access that feeling even for an instant. This is where that impression of being shameless comes from.

Think of it like two people who have extremely gluttonous tendencies and a dysfunctional relationship to food. One is insanely obese and the other one is thin and obsessive about healthy food and micromanages his diet and exercises like crazy. Both of them have food issues, but the former has surrendered to them, while the latter has overcompensated against them. The latter, thin person feels that they can’t handle fattening foods in moderation any better than the obese person can, so his responses is to not even entertain the very idea of sampling fattening foods. He might even have a full-blown eating disorder. If he allows himself to even taste something fattening, he knows he will fall way off the wagon and go on an eating spree. This is similar to the narcissist’s relationship to shame; he or she can’t allow himself to entertain the idea of accessing that feeling, for fear of being overwhelmed by it, because their relationship to shame is so unhealthy. The healthy form of shame is humility, but since they fear accessing any form of shame for even an instant for fear of total ego-annihilation, they will rebel against both humility and toxic shame whenever either rears its head.

Anyone who has tried to explain to a narcissist the effects of their behavior on others, or has called them out on bad behavior, or corrected them on anything, like getting a fact wrong, has probably encountered that disproportionate response of denial, usually something along the lines of “You can’t tell me what to do,” or “Well that’s YOUR opinion, but I’m entitled to mine and you can’t change it,” or if online, “This is my website or account and I will write what I want and if you don’t like it you can just leave or unfollow me.” If you call them out on a factual mistake, they will refuse to acknowledge any part of that factual mistake no matter how clear your evidence is and will resort to ad hominems, deflection, and fallacies galore or even censorship just to avoid having to admit they’re not perfect (not being perfect is a source of huge shame for narcissists too). Another example is the troll who prides himself on being offensive, and when called on it, tries harder to make a vocal and public display about how proudly unrepentant he or she is.

Whenever you see any sort of this type of excessively shameless behavior from someone, this is the dynamic that’s usually at play. Keep this dynamic in mind also when you encounter someone with an outrageously disproportionate reaction to any constructive criticism, factual corrections, general disagreement, or even an attempt to educate. Chances are these minor incidents often register to them as a narcissistic injury that’s due to set off an oncoming rush of shame.  People like this are very hard to reason with; they only want aggrandizement.