The fragility of a narcissist’s ego manifests in their fears of inadequacy, vulnerability, and other insecurities along the lines of their hypersensitivity to criticism and so on. This level of hypervigilance combined with their crippling levels of shame, creates a very volatile person. Victims of narcissistic abuse learn overtime, that they need to walk on eggshells day in and day out, in order to protect their abuser’s fragile ego and subsequently, avoid their rage. It’s hard to imagine that someone so malicious could feel shame, so this article is going to break down when do narcissists feel shame, and why.
Narcissists have a tremendous amount of shame suppressed within them that gets activated whenever their insecurities and/or vulnerabilities are threatened. This has nothing to do with the people around them, and everything to do with their chaotic inner world and emotional instability. This is most commonly seen in intimate relationships because of how intertwined intimate relationships tend to be.
How Is Coddling a Narcissist’s Shame and Ego Detrimental to Victims?
The further we dive into the complexity of narcissism, the more paths we find leading towards one of the many binding aspects of narcissistic relationships, guilt. Narcissists have a disturbing ability to weaponize guilt in whichever way they see fit. When it comes to coddling a narcissist’s shame and fragile ego, guilt manifests itself within the victim’s everyday routine. They could feel guilty for doing well at their job, spending time with their friends, having a good relationship with their parents and so on.
“One of his biggest insecurities was his inability to pronounce certain words. He would make me feel so guilty about the way I spoke, and for the longest time, I believed that by speaking properly I was crossing a line. Like how dare I embarrass him like that… I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s true. But eventually I completely changed the way I spoke around him, which spread to other parts of my life as well. I didn’t really notice until my sister pointed it out.” Sarah
A common trend we saw among the 67 survivors of narcissistic abuse we’ve had the privilege to work with, is the minimization of one’s own achievements. Some of these men and women had astonishing career and personal achievements yet had their greatness completely ignored. For example, one of our participants named Esika had lost over 200 lbs. of weight over the course of three years, before he met his abusive partner. The consistency and dedication it took him to break almost two decades of bad habits on a daily basis were minimized by his partner and ultimately by himself, when he got into a relationship with his abusive ex.
“She never told me the whole story, so this is what I gathered from friends and family. But apparently her father used to fat-shame her when he was alive. She was never severely overweight; he was just a horrible person. I was repulsive when she was angry, and lucky when she was happy. I eventually began to feel ashamed of myself, ashamed that I still had friends, love, and support regardless of my size. I felt wrong for being proud of myself.” Esika
Why Do Narcissists Have Suppressed Shame?
As we’ve mentioned in many of our articles, narcissists are incapable of looking within themselves and acknowledging their own shortcomings. However, in our article How Are Narcissists Made? we dove into the work of Otto Friedmann Kernberg. Otto Friedmann Kernberg is a psychoanalyst who believes that narcissists are created by narcissistic parents.
We’ve covered this in How to Co-Parent With a Grandiose Narcissist and What Effects Does Having A Narcissistic Parent Have On a Child, but the dynamic between the golden child and a narcissistic parent illuminates one of the reasons a narcissist has suppressed shame.
A golden child is the child that the narcissistic parent likes the most. The golden child will get privileges the other children and/or family members won’t like empathy, validation, and acknowledgement.
What’s the catch?
To be the golden child, you must bring some sort of narcissistic supply, validation, and admiration, to the narcissistic parent. Because a narcissist has an evil ability to maneuver themselves into the limelight of their children’s success, this dynamic comes naturally to them. However, the title of the golden child is very conditional. If their child isn’t a top student, athlete, musician, or whatever else they may excel at, the narcissistic parent will discard them. Just as they do with all of their other transactional relationships.
Otto Friedmann Kernberg believes that a child who is raised in an environment where their achievements are preferred over their emotional stability, creates a child who is incapable of regulating their own emotions. This means that the child develops their outer world, which is the accumulation of materialistic things, instead of their inner world, emotional stability. Therefore, emotions like shame, guilt, disappointment, and even happiness get suppressed.
Why Is It Hard to Predict What Will Make a Narcissist Feel Ashamed?
For victims of narcissistic abuse who don’t have a comprehensive grasp of exactly who they’re dealing with, tiptoeing around the narcissist’s ego causes an immense amount of anxiety. In intimate relationships, victims of narcissistic abuse may ensure they don’t eat too loudly at the dinner table. Make sure they don’t accidentally spray too much perfume. Maybe even go as far as to ensure they don’t talk to their parents for too long on the phone.
In the workplace this could manifest in co-workers ensuring you don’t criticize their narcissistic boss during the meeting. Assistants obsessing over making sure that their boss has everything they need to start the day perfectly. Or even co-workers taking the fall for something along the lines of a lost client even though the narcissist is to blame.
This is a very unhealthy way to live as an adult. So, imagine a child having to do the same.
A perfect example of this can be found within the behavioral patterns of a helper child. A helper child is a narcissistic parent’s personal assistant. A helper child allows a narcissist to neglect their parental responsibilities by forcing them onto the helper.
Some examples of what a helper child does:
- Cook meals
- Clean up after everyone
- Raise their siblings
- Cater to the narcissistic parent
A helper child is often parentified from a very young age and believes that by doing enough things for their narcissistic parent, they’ll be able to keep the peace within the household. Without therapeutic guidance, helper-children are often restricted to their role indefinitely which can lead to them gravitating towards abusive, specifically narcissistic, relationships in adulthood as well.
It’s so hard for victims of narcissistic abuse to successfully tiptoe around their abuser’s ego because there are a numerous number of possibilities that could trigger their underdeveloped inner world.
Is Coddling a Narcissist’s Shame the Same as Enabling?
First and foremost, children are incapable of enabling narcissistic behavior because of their innocence. It would be very difficult for them to wrap their minds around the possibility of their primary caregiver, sibling, or friend being narcissistic. Therefore, as sad as the helper-child is, it’s a natural coping mechanism for some children in the face of narcissistic abuse.
Another aspect of this would be adolescents and adults who come from a childhood of emotional and/or physical abuse. We’ve covered the difficulties that arise from a childhood filled with abuse in these articles below:
and the article we linked to in the beginning of the article:
But growing up in an abusive environment forces children to normalize the abuse, which can cause them to accidentally equate love with abuse. In adolescent hood and adulthood, children who’ve been forced to grow up in these environments have a high probability of gravitating towards abusive relationships because it’s what they’re familiar with.
Therefore, narcissistic dynamics like shame coddling, trauma bonds, and the normalization of abuse is already woven into their cognitive fabric.
Where I would say shame coddling equates with enabling, is when those who should know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behavioral patterns allow a narcissist to behave the way they do. This could be co-workers shame coddling and enabling narcissistic abuse in the office. A close family friend or member seeing narcissistic abuse and remaining silent. Or even an educator clearly seeing a distressed child, along with other signs, and not wanting to get involved.
What Can Victims of Narcissistic Abuse Expect When Their Abuser Feels Ashamed?
To be honest, victims of narcissistic abuse can expect rage when their abuser feels ashamed, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it.
The correlation between shame and rage runs astonishingly deep within a narcissist’s psyche. The grandiosity of a narcissist creates a superficial reality that they live by on a daily basis. The only thing keeping their reality intact is narcissistic supply, which is the validation and admiration of others.
When a narcissist’s reality is questioned, they experience a tremendous amount of shame which quickly morphs into rage. Questioning a narcissist’s reality could be as simple as holding them accountable or handing out constructive criticism. Yet they are incapable of critically looking within themselves and subsequently become volatile when their grandiose reality is questioned.
The feeling of shame embodies everything a narcissist is terrified of. Shame arises when we feel that our shortcomings will be seen and judged by others. Which would lead to being rejected, abandoned, or discarded. Shame is a very uncomfortable feeling and if it goes unprocessed it can cause an abundance of negative emotions.
A very comprehensive approach to a narcissist’s oscillation between shame and rage, would be to classify it as projection. When a narcissist shame is triggered, they’re incapable of processing it because they’re incapable of regulating their own emotions. So, by throwing themselves into a narcissistic rage, they’re able to project the gut-wrenching feeling of shame onto those around them, usually the person who triggered the shame, through rage.
Another very interesting behavioral pattern seen in narcissists when their shame is evoked, is passive-aggressive behavior. While researching for this article, I came across an article, Voicing the Victims of Narcissistic Partners: A Qualitative Analysis of Responses to Narcissistic Injury and Self-Esteem Regulation, where they touched on the work of Sybil V Roark. Roark believes that shame doesn’t only create rage within the narcissist, it also can create passive-aggressive behavior that manifests in an incessant need for revenge, punishment, and domination over the person who evoked the shame in the first place.
Where Did the Term Shame-Rage Spiral Originate and What Does It Mean?
I learned about the ideologies behind the shame-rage spiral in an article by Krizan, Zlatan and Johar, Omesh called Narcissistic Rage Revisited. The reason shame and rage become a cycle is because of how severely rage is frowned upon by society. So, what tends to happen is that shame will be evoked within a narcissist, they will rage, then they will feel ashamed that they raged, which evokes rage again…
If you remember what I mentioned before, about how shame embodies everything a narcissist fears, this ideology is illuminated in many of their manipulative behaviors.
Take flying monkeys for an example. We covered flying monkeys in The Best Way to Disarm Flying Monkeys: 431 Survivors’ Advice, but flying monkeys are people a narcissist will enlist to help manipulate and terrorize their victim. They do this by spreading gossip and lies about the victim in an attempt to cause them to lose their credibility.
Flying monkeys are enlisted when a narcissist is threatened that they will be exposed for their abusive behavior. Being exposed for their abusive behavior would cause an immense amount of shame. Better yet, take scapegoating for an example. In Why Do Narcissists Need a scapegoat?, we dove into the reasoning behind scapegoats. Scapegoats are people narcissists use to regulate their emotions. They do this by projecting attributes they don’t like about themselves, attributes that evoke shame, onto others.
What Should You Take Away from This Article?
Shame is a deeply rooted emotion in the narcissistic realm. More often than not, shame, guilt, and rage were major players in a narcissist’s childhood. Meaning the shame-rage spiral is inevitable.
For those of you who are in any type of narcissistic relationship and resonate with the idea of constantly walking on eggshells around your abuser that I floated earlier in the article. Hopefully this article gives you more insight on exactly what you’re trying to prevent. By focusing on preventing rage, you’re much more likely to evoke shame, spiraling them into narcissistic rage.
For those of who’ve had the privilege of not being subjected to narcissistic abuse, silence is permission. Don’t sit idly by while the tyranny of a narcissistic co-worker or family friend plagues the minds of others. Developing healthy habits in a narcissist takes intense therapeutic work, and unless you’re a highly skilled therapist, it isn’t your job. Our job as human-beings is to be empathetic towards others and hold the abusive accountable.
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Green, Ava, and Kathy Charles. “Voicing the Victims of Narcissistic Partners: A Qualitative Analysis of Responses to Narcissistic Injury and Self-Esteem Regulation.” SAGE Open, Apr. 2019, doi:10.1177/2158244019846693.