Individuals who meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated sense of self-importance. They are preoccupied with power, beauty, and success; they have a strong need for admiration; and they have a tendency toward arrogance and a lack of empathy in interpersonal situations. Narcissistic tendencies, like other personality dimensions, are on a spectrum. While some individuals manifest a pattern of narcissism across relationships and situations, other individuals manifest narcissistic patterns in specific circumstances and relationships. Therefore, it is more helpful to identify the patterns of narcissistic behavior, rather than label individuals as “narcissists.” Although individuals with narcissistic tendencies rarely seek help directly to reduce their behaviors, individuals with narcissistic tendencies do seek psychotherapy to decrease the negative consequences of their narcissistic behaviors (e.g., a partner leaving them) or to manage the difficult emotions that they experience when the grandiosity is temporarily absent. This blog post will help with understanding the connection between shame and grandiose or narcissistic behavior to provide one path for individuals with narcissistic tendencies to find greater intimacy and humanity.
Shame is an emotion that a person is hard-wired to feel when other people reject or abandon that person. Humans evolved within tribes, whereby maintaining relationships within a group or network is necessary for survival. In this way, humans are like ants or bees–we need our colony or hive to survive. Therefore, shame motivates people to “fit in” and to do things that prompt other people to like them. Certainly, shame can be excessive. If a person feels ashamed about something (e.g., a hairstyle), even though other people who are a part of their tribe are not going to reject them, this shame is excessive. At other times, shame is like a false alarm because even though people are rejecting a person, shame is not needed for one’s survival, and actually acting opposite to shame is much more in line with one’s values and goals. For example, if a person gets a tattoo that they love, and a close friend rejects them, the threat is real. The person may decide to lessen the degree of shame to be in accordance with their long-term values of art and individuality after all, they have other friends. With this understanding of shame, shame within individuals with narcissistic tendencies will be explored next.
Most individuals with narcissistic tendencies are highly sensitive and hate shame. From an early age, individuals with narcissistic tendencies learn that receiving admiration from others, being in positions of authority, and having other attributes like status, wealth, and attractiveness are ways to decrease the powerfully unpleasant sensation of shame. If people admire you, they are not rejecting you. Unfortunately, the pervasive desire for money, fame, and status that these individuals manifest does not lead to genuine, intimate relationships. Therefore, the experience, while accompanied by exhilarating boosts of achievement-oriented adrenaline, becomes incredibly lonely. In this state of being, there is a constant need to avoid shame. There are various strategies that individuals with narcissistic tendencies use to decrease their shame. Sometimes, individuals with narcissistic tendencies tell themselves and other people that they are better than everyone else–they are more attractive, more successful, and more powerful. Other times, individuals with narcissistic tendencies criticize or berate other people when they feel threatened. These individuals can feel threatened by another person talking about their own power and status, or they can feel threatened by other people questioning whether they are as powerful, thoughtful, or prestigious as they claim to be.
Understanding the link between shame and narcissistic tendencies may lead to further questions about how an individual with narcissistic tendencies can adapt their personality to have a healthy relationship with other human beings. Like most individuals, people with narcissistic tendencies are motivated to achieve their goals. Therefore, people with narcissistic tendencies can learn about the way that avoiding shame and weakness is leading to problematic effects in their relationships. There are, however, several prerequisites that help a person with narcissistic tendencies to be open to the process. First, the individual with narcissistic tendencies needs to be able to see the concrete consequences of their narcissistic behaviors. If making more money and gaining more status is solely going to lead to more joy and satisfaction, why would anyone slow down that process? Second, the individual with narcissistic tendencies needs to see that the helper genuinely wants to serve them, not shame them, because facing one’s weaknesses is a frightening process. Third, when the narcissistic individual is open to change, the narcissistic individual has to be taught how to have healthy relationships. For some individuals, step one (recognition of the consequences) might take years, with various failed jobs and relationships. Therefore, it is incredibly important that anyone in the helping role set boundaries, detach as necessary, and view the individual’s behavior in the context of their development and long-term problems. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies are similar to the rest of the population–sensitive individuals who are prone to shame–however, their particular way of managing their emotions is specifically problematic to interpersonal relationships. Having this deeper understanding of why individuals with narcissistic tendencies mistreat other people is the first step in helping other people or yourself to transform narcissism into wholeness, intimacy, and common humanity.
Behary, W. T. (2013). Disarming the narcissist: Surviving and thriving with the self-absorbed. New Harbinger Publications.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
Real, T. (1997). I don’t want to talk about it: Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression. Scribner.
About the Author
Samuel Eshleman Latimer (he/his), Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist that specializes in effective conflict management and dialectical behavior therapy. Samuel also works to help individuals, couples, and families decrease interpersonal suffering and manage challenges associated with borderline personality disorder. Samuel believes that people do not need to choose between learning effective techniques that are based on science and developing warm, genuine relationships, as both of these styles complement each other. Click Here to learn more about Samuel’s experience and therapeutic style.