There are some horrendously shameless characters among us. Folks that seem not to care at all how they come across to others. Malignant narcissists are among such shameless characters. And they provide living proof of the true nature of both shame and narcissism.
Grandiose narcissists just know how superior they are. So, they don’t need anyone else’s validation. Besides, in their eyes, you only have value if you recognize their greatness. Find fault with them and you have no value at all. In fact, you only reveal your inferiority. At least that’s how they see things! These narcissists don’t care, largely because they can’t care. They’re notoriously devoid of empathy.
Some types of narcissists actually do care how you see them. Vulnerable, compensatory, “neurotic” narcissists are among these types. Such folks want you to see them favorably. And sometimes they’ll even re-invent themselves when they unwittingly curry disfavor.
The Nature of Shame
Shame and guilt are close cousins. Guilt is the feeling conscientious folks have when they feel they have done wrong. It arises when we do something we inwardly know we probably shouldn’t have done. Or, it can arise when we felt we should have done something that we failed to do. But whether it’s about what we’ve done or haven’t done, guilt is always about a behavior.
While guilt is largely about what we’ve done, shame is more about who we are. When we have shame, we don’t feel good about ourselves. We tend to devalue our worth. We think: “What kind of person am I to have done such a thing?!”
A Long-Prevailing View
For years, professionals have had it very wrong about shame. And they’ve had considerable support from the research, too. But the research has been as short-sighted as its interpretations. And that’s why attitudes about shame have been slow to get into proper balance.
Professionals will readily tell you that shame is a bad thing. Guilt is okay, they’ll say, because that’s about what you did or didn’t do. But it’s never a good idea to feel badly about who you are. That’s always toxic to your self-esteem.
Shame and Character
Years of work with character-impaired folks have taught me many lessons. And perhaps the shameless characters I’ve met have taught me the most. Some folks simply have no capacity for shame. Accordingly, they have no incentive to change who they are. They might modify what they do or how they operate. But they don’t change their stripes. They simply don’t care to. On the other hand, those rare disturbed characters who found the motivation to turn their lives around had at least some capacity for shame. And when they made the decision to change they never did so out of a sense of guilt. Rather, they became unconfortable with the kind of person they’d allowed themselves to become. They made me realize how wrong we’ve had it about shame.
Much of what the prevailing wisdom says about shame is correct. Shame can indeed be toxic to one’s sense of self. And shaming is a relatively poor way to shape character. But not all shame is bad. And I expound on the reasons for this in Essentials for the Journey.
Shame, Guilt, and Manipulation
Shameless characters love it when people have the capacity for shame and guilt. Why? Because such folks are easier to manipulate. Overly conscientious folks have big shame and guilt buttons on them, just waiting to be pushed. And the shameless characters among us just can’t wait to push those buttons to advance their nefarious agendas. Knowing that largely inspired me to write In Sheep’s Clothing.
I have more to say on shame and shamelessness on this week’s Character Matters podcast.