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.

14 Responses to “Narcissists, Cluster Bs, Shame and Shamelessness”

  1. I’ve said several times before that even psychopaths/sociopaths are ruled by shame, which they overcompensate with grandiosity to the point the shame is so repressed it can’t be accessed anymore. Yet many refuse to believe that.

  2. A great example of this is with Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford. One would think that with all the gaffes and lies, the drugs and links to organized crime, that he would have resigned — or at a minimum, keep a low profile for a while. But he just keeps trucking on, with his same old sayings. In effect: everyone makes mistakes, I’m only human, and they’re only going after me because I’m doing such a great job. And the classic: I’m sorry if anyone took offence to what I said. He is in fact aggressively unapologetic.

  3. +1

  4. Recently started digging into ‘Healing the Shame That Binds You’ (about half way through.) The aspect of the narcissist/Cluster B being seemingly immune to shame, because their authentic self has essentially become toxic shame to it’s core to the point that their surface level persona can no longer access healthy shame, as an explanation for their apparent shamelessness, really hits home here.

  5. Great point. It has always frustrated me to hear N’s/P’s/S’s described as “shameless” when really they are guiltless and *ACT* shamelessly as a kind of reaction-formation/ backwards rationalisation-type deal.

  6. Great posts.

    One observation. When I’ve confronted people like this with clear evidence of their lie, they react with an overblown defensiveness and the “well you lied to me before” without being specific. Or they just disappear instead of seeking reconciliation. As a result I’ve been left feeling worse after the confrontation than about learning about the lie.

    It’s no win.

  7. walawala, they leaving is your win.

  8. After reading all your articles on Cluster B, I feel like I’m starting to see these characteristics in lots of people. But I can’t imagine the majority of the population is ever actually diagnosed with these as formal personality disorders. For example, it’s one thing to have some narcisisstic tendencies, but a full blown narcissist is a different thing.

    Is there a relatively sure way to know if a given person you’re dealing with has a high likelihood of being Cluster B? My mom’s an extremely over-the-top drama queen and dresses provocatively everywhere she goes, so I’d be tempted to say she’s got Histrinonic PD, but apparently only 2-3% of the population has it. And my dad is terribly manipulative and insists he’s right about everything, so I’d have to think he falls somewhere on the Cluster B spectrum. But I could also be exaggerrating, since most people are manipulative at some point or another. My dad just seems more-so.

    I guess my question is, is there an obvious difference between people who truly have a personality disorder and could be diagosed as such versus people who only sometimes show these characteristics or display them with less intensity?

    And a side note–it almost seems like only Cluster A folks are very obviously mentally ill, while Cluster B and C are less so. Cluster A seem like the craziest of the 3 groups.

  9. SPS,
    Really, no one knows, but as far as I know there is no clear distinction between “normal” and “cluster B” people. It is more insightful to speak of habits and patterns than of types of people. I also think that the very act of labeling people is an habit that prevents you from investigating deeper.

  10. Thanks again. One I seem to hear a lot at the moment is “you’re not listening to me” when I’ve said nothing and only listened.

  11. Yes, I think all these behaviours are on a spectrum. It isn’t as if PDs have a brain tumour or something.. Just ways of coping.

    I think this is very insightful stuff, and clarifies the whole thing. Human beings do have that potential to go either way when in a difficult position. Example: As kids, we might react to a demanding parent either by trying harder to be what they expect, and become a perfectionist, a ‘perfect child’, or we might realise that it’s hopeless and just give up altogether. The results are opposite. Either an obsessive, perfectionist adult, probably codependent, or a completely antisocial rebellious drop-out, a narcissist. Both from the same origins.

  12. Good article. You have been shared on Narcissistic Notes, Anonymous Satirical Facebook Page about vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings of all those with an over-inflated ego (the narcissists).

  13. Good article! You have been shared by Narcissistic Notes, Anonymous Satirical Facebook Page about vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings of all those with an over-inflated ego (the narcissists).

  14. Joey Giraud on May 1st, 2014 at 6:46 PM

    I’ve been thinking of narcissism as a symptom, not a disorder. The underlying emotional issues can vary wildly, but the “shame hypothesis” is the most insightful thing I’ve read about the matter.

    My very narcissistic mother died recently, and growing up with her taught me skills in dealing with narcissists that have been very useful in my career as a musician. There’s a lot of them in that field.

    But my tolerance for them has been disappearing fast, probably because of mom’s death. Feeling liberated from her has led me to see more clearly the self-serving rationalizations and blame-shifting tactics of the other narcissists in my life, and where I used to accept it and work around it, now I avoid them more and find the whole business unacceptably tedious.

    When you’re younger and trying to make something of yourself, narcissists can seem admirable and worthy of emulation, how wonderful their lives are. But now at 50 I tire of their inability ( or unwillingness ) to say things that show they’ve actually thought about what you said, or actually cared about you beyond what you can do for them or the role you serve in their inner narrative, and that their understanding of you is shallow and self-serving.

    And then when you start to realize just how sad and pathetic they are inside… what a load of emotions that causes. You feel like a chump, at the least.

    There are narcissists who are very good at hiding it. It can take some time to realize you are dealing with one. Hopefully you can find out before you walk down the aisle.

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