Why and How Narcissists Play the Shame Game

Being fundamentally ashamed of themselves, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are experts at playing the shame game with those around them.

Often confused with its cousin guilt, which is a feeling of distress about something we have done, shame is a feeling of distress about who we are. Simply put, guilt is “I did something bad,” while shame is “I am bad.”

Narcissists rarely if ever feel guilt but are deeply tormented by shame. Because as children they do not develop normative empathy for others, narcissists lack the compassion and sense of responsibility for their behavior that triggers guilt. But their early defining sense of being defective and unlovable causes them lifelong shame that they fight against with a grandiose exterior and contemptuous behavior toward others.

The Shame Game: Why

Shaming is a common and especially insidious form of narcissistic abuse. Narcissists use shame to

  1. project their inadequacies;
  2. externalize their self-loathing;
  3. make others look and feel inferior;
  4. feed their need to feel superior;
  5. control others’ self-perceptions;
  6. manipulate others to take undue responsibility;
  7. manipulate others to blame themselves for their abuser’s behavior;
  8. undermine and weaken others’ self-esteem;
  9. isolate and disarm others; and/or
  10. drive others into self-hating secrecy and self-destruction.

The Shame Game: How

By planting shame in other people, narcissists in essence install a button they can press at any time to manipulate and punish those they seek to control. Those who love, care about, or otherwise look up to or rely on narcissists, such as their children, partners, relatives, friends, employees, students, or others within their sphere of influence, are vulnerable to messages of shame. Because narcissists do not feel remorse for hurting people and abusing their power over others, but in fact believe they are justified in doing so, they shame with abandon.

In particular, children of narcissistic parents are most vulnerable to being shamed because they are unformed beings who naturally love and look to their parents for caregiving, validation of self, and a sense of identity. A shamed child often carries false and deeply damaging self-beliefs for decades, if not a lifetime.

The Shame Game: Consequences

For anyone, intense shame can lead to

  1. pervasive anxiety;
  2. self-hatred;
  3. withdrawal and secrecy;
  4. fear of intimacy and “exposure”;
  5. addictions;
  6. self-harm;
  7. internalized or externalized anger;
  8. dislocation from one’s feelings or authentic self;
  9. perfectionism; and/or
  10. underachievement.

The Shame Game: A Real-Life Example

sad man with words of shame, shame game

Anna’s narcissistic mother regularly shamed her in a variety of ways. Now in her 40s with children of her own, Anna recently unearthed a deep shame she had carried from early childhood. Her mother had often told her she was a “woeful child” because she was born on a Wednesday, based on an old nursery rhyme. Often depicting Anna negatively to friends and relatives, her mother routinely shared the story of Anna’s woeful Wednesday birth. “It was as if the fact that I was born on that day was objective proof that I was just a bad egg,” Anna recalled. “When others heard my mother tell this story, they would respond that they thought it was odd because I seemed rather joyful. This is not what my mother wanted to hear, and she would tell them they did not really know who I was in private. The irony is that although I had a cheery image, I was not happy at all. I was indeed woeful, just as the nursery rhyme states, though it had little to do with when I’d been born,” Anna said. Being a researcher, Anna decided to investigate her mother’s story: “I realized I have carried quite a bit of a burden on my back just because I was born on a Wednesday.” Anna discovered that in fact she had been born on a Tuesday, and her brother, the family golden child and her mother’s “absolute favorite,” had been born on a Wednesday.

Julie L. Hall writes about narcissism for HuffPost andPsychCentral. She is the author of two forthcoming books: a memoir (read excerpts) and a book on narcissistic family dynamics.