The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
A common misconception regarding narcissists is the discrepancy between remorse and shame. We often hear that narcissistic personalities are "sorry" for what they've done, or that they seem to express great remorse for things they've done. Is a narcissist really sorry? If we dig a little deeper, we usually see that they are in fact not actually expressing remorse. They are expressing shame.
Shame vs Remorse
The difference here can get a little convoluted so to keep it really simple, it breaks down to this: you feel remorse for other people. You feel shame for yourself. Remorse also implies that the person has taken responsibility for doing something wrong. Shame does not require that. A person can feel shame but not feel responsibility. Narcissists are champions at this. They can feel shame while still refusing to acknowledge the other person's feelings. This is because their shame is so powerful that it prevents feelings for other people from being experienced.
For a very basic example, let's say Molly really admires her rich friend, Anna. She wishes she could have money like Anna does and when she is around Anna and sees all the beautiful, expensive things her friend has, Molly not only admires them but she feels shame because she is not rich and therefore, does not have the same things. She sees herself as not good enough to be Anna's friend. Molly feels shame even though she has not actually done anything wrong. Because of her shame, she envies Anna deeply. Anna becomes perfect in Molly's mind, living a perfect life with no problems. Because of this idea, whenever Anna tries to confide in Molly about a problem, Molly reacts as if Anna has no right to have problems or to complain. Anna becomes hurt and pulls away from the friendship. Molly's shame and envy has made her unable to see that she has hurt her friend. She feels no remorse at the end of the friendship, only a deeper shame because Anna's withdrawal reiterates the idea that Molly was not good enough for the friendship because she is not rich, too.
This is a very basic explanation of how the pathologically narcissistic person works. Instead of seeing others as individuals and evaluating them on their own merits, other people are simply seen as reflecting attributes or affirming the value of the narcissist. Therefore, the other person's feelings are unimportant or even non-existent to the narcissist. They see everything in their environment as part of themselves. There is no separation.
Narcissists feel shame for themselves because you have called them out. They feel shame because they have failed or they have made a mistake and others have noticed. They are not sorry for what they have done. These are two different things. If you read the article entitled, "Why Narcissists Are Dangerous," you might remember a stolen necklace was used as an example to illustrate the difference between a narcissist's conflict over stealing vs a non-narcissistic person's conflict over stealing. The narcissist's problem is not with being a thief. Their problem is with people knowing they are a thief. They will only feel shame when they are caught - not remorse - and their shame does not lie in being the type of person who would steal. It lies in being caught. This is the difference between morality and egotism, and it is the difference between shame and remorse.
Why Are Narcissists Different?
Non-personality disordered people generally would not feel shame unless they felt guilt. The narcissist does not operate that way. They do not experience shame the way that "normal" people do. The entire crux of the pathologically narcissistic personality is a very deep-rooted core of overwhelming, pathological shame that they feel always. Shame for not being good enough, not being lovable, not being wanted, etc. It goes back to their infancy and has nothing to do with anything they've actually done. Therefore, we are not talking about "normal" shame. We are not talking about the shame that occurs with guilt, or being ashamed of your actions because you feel they were wrong. This is a pathological, delusional form of shame that pervades every thought this person has 24 hours a day about who they are. Their every waking moment is dedicated to hiding, concealing and denying the ugly, awful, despicable, disgusting, hideous, unlovable thing they believe to be their "true self." This is where the shame comes from.
Shame is not guilt, nor is it guilt-reliant. Guilt implies (requires, really) a conscience, or that a person feels bad for what they've done. Remorse is born of guilt. Shame is not.
- When a non-personality disordered person does something mean to somebody, they feel guilt and remorse for hurting the person, as well as shame for being the kind of person who would hurt others. This happens regardless of whether others find out about the mean act or not.
- When a pathologically narcissistic person does something mean to somebody, they will not feel anything until they are required to answer for what they've done.
Once they are forced to acknowledge that others know what they've done, they feel shame because who they believe they really are (bad, unwanted, unlovable) is suddenly visible to other people and they have been trying to hide that since they were a very small child. There is no guilt for their actions and no remorse for others. There is only pathological shame for the self. Non-personality disordered persons can work though the guilt and forgive themselves, which enables them to let go of the remorse and the shame so they can move on, resolving to be a better person or make up for what they've done, etc. Narcissists are unable to do this because firstly, the shame they feel is not appropriate to the situation, nor is it related to anything real and secondly, because their impaired empathic abilities prevent them from recognizing the impact of their actions on anybody but themselves. It is a situation that cannot be resolved with their arrested, immature coping skills. That is why their complex system of defense mechanisms exists. Instead of resolving the situation, the mind attempts to ignore it.
The "pity ploy" we often see with narcissists is a way to deflect having to acknowledge that core of pathological shame because they cannot bear it. If they have to acknowledge what they did wrong, they have to acknowledge that core of shame and to them this means that everything they try to claim about themselves is a lie. All of their defense mechanisms were built to counter exactly that, because a threat to the false self represents a threat to their very life. The shame is the reason behind the false self, it is the reason for the claims of grandiosity, the pseudo-inflated ego, it is the reason for everything they do.
Every single thing they do is designed to protect the false self by gaining narcissistic supply and to keep shame away. The false self is not just a game they play to trick others. It is their entire life. The entirety of their internal and emotional existence depends on perpetuating the false self, and threats against the fragile fiction of the false self are interpreted as life-threatening. That is why narcissists react the way they do to being held accountable. This is why they overreact to things so badly. Their greatest shame is that secret "true" self and their greatest fear is that it will be exposed for others to see. If they feel it will be exposed, that is tantamount to an attempt on their very life.
How Does This Affect How Narcissists React to Others?
Because the goal of everything is to keep shame away, when you attempt to call the narcissist out on their hurtful or cruel behavior they will often say things like, "You are only saying that to hurt me!" or "Don't you think I feel bad enough already without you piling it on me??" This is because they feel such powerful shame over who they are already, you pointing out more things they have done wrong is intolerable. It feels to you like they are not acknowledging your feelings and you're right. They aren't. They can't. The shame is in the way. To acknowledge your feelings of hurt would be to accept that they really are a terrible person, in their mind. They cannot do that, so they deny your feelings instead - therefore denying the behavior and denying the shame. Statements like those above sound like remorse, but they are not. "Don't you think I feel bad enough already" is not a statement of remorse. It is a statement of shame. It does not acknowledge any wrongdoing or the feelings of the person who has been hurt. It asserts the narcissist as the victim in this situation, and adding "without you piling more on me" turns you into the victimizer. You are not the injured party here. The narcissist is. How dare you bring up anything they've done wrong?
If you attempt to make any statements about your feelings at all, it will be perceived as a personal attack and as you not caring how they feel. That is the most important thing here and they will never let go of it for even one second. They can't. It's all they have. Even the most polished and emotionless overt narcissist engages in this behavior. The overt narcissist may not say they feel bad enough already, but they may accuse you of trying to make them feel bad or simply explain in a very reasonable way that you are wrong and/or that you are overreacting. It is simply a different road to the same address: they are trying to avoid shame.
Narcissists of all types may also accomplish this by deflecting the shame onto you through blaming you for their behavior. They may either deny the behavior and project it by saying, "No, this is what YOU did to ME!" or they will claim that you were cruel to them first. The argument then becomes a circular no-I-didn't-yes-you-did situation and their goal has been accomplished: instead of them defending themselves, you are now defending yourself. This is because they simply cannot carry the shame. They are too weak. They need you to do it for them. This is unfair and unreasonable. It is also not remorse.
How Can You Tell if it's Shame or Remorse?
When you are truly remorseful, you don't keep denying or justifying what you did wrong. You accept it, learn from it and move on. When you are truly remorseful, you do not look for ways to blame your behavior on other people. When you are truly remorseful, you don't continue victimizing the person you hurt in order to save yourself. When you are truly remorseful, you stop the hurtful behavior.
So how can you tell the difference between shame and remorse? That's easy. Who is the focus of the feelings, you or the narcissist? Shame comes out as I, I, I, I, me, me, me, me.
- I feel bad.
- I can't sleep.
- I can't live with myself.
- I'm sad because you hate me now.
With remorse, the focus is the other person. It's about THEIR feelings, not yours. It's been said that the best apology is changed behavior and it's true. The best way to gauge if someone is truly remorseful is whether or not they stop hurting you. If they don't, chances are they're not all that sorry