One of the most common misconceptions people have about narcissism is the idea that all narcissists struggle with a core sense of shame that drives their malicious behavior toward others. While that may or may not be true for more “vulnerable” narcissists who are more likely to have feelings of personal inadequacy and are hypersensitive to feedback, research suggests that more grandiose narcissists, as well as psychopaths, do not experience the kind of shame and low self-esteem we would assume they do.
According to researchers, grandiose narcissism is characterized by high self–esteem, interpersonal dominance and a tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities, while vulnerable narcissism presents as defensive, avoidant, and hypersensitive (Zajenkowski et al., 2018). As Carrie Barron, M.D., writes, “Current thought challenges the notion that narcissists secretly suffer from low self-esteem or insecurity. Or that they suffer as much as we thought in the ways that we thought. Recent findings indicate they take pleasure in successful manipulations. Putting down unsuspecting, soft-hearted souls in their midst is a sport. They truly believe in their superiority even if objective evidence does not back it up.”
In a study by Poless and fellow researchers (2018), two hundred and sixteen participants were evaluated on their narcissistic personality traits, guilt proneness and shame proneness. The findings indicated that grandiose narcissism was negatively associated with guilt proneness as well as shame proneness, especially related to the subscale “shame negative self-evaluation.” This suggests that those who possess the grandiose type of narcissism are not lashing out in feelings of inferiority nor do they perceive themselves in a shame-based way – in fact, according to researchers, they are more likely to have a “high esteem of self-meaning, extraversion, and social dominance” as well as a “dominating and exploitative social style” (Poless et al., 2018).
Those on the higher level of the narcissistic spectrum, grandiose and malignant narcissists, feel entitled to exploit and manipulate others for their own gain. They believe in their false sense of superiority. They are likely not covering up some sense of secret shame either. As we know from other research, many malignant narcissists and psychopaths are in fact sadistic and enjoy inflicting pain; their brains are also different from non-narcissistic individuals and show deficits in areas related to compassion and empathy for others (Baumeister et al., 1996; Glenn & Raine 2009).
What’s even more surprising is that this same study showed that there was no significant association between vulnerable narcissism and the subscale shame negative self-evaluation. This is in stark contrast to how we expect vulnerable narcissists to feel – to self-evaluate in a shameful, negative way. There was a positive association between vulnerable narcissism and “shame withdraw,” suggesting that “individuals high in vulnerable narcissism may be more prone to conceal behavior which transgresses social norms and moral.” This might indicate that vulnerable narcissists don’t suffer from the kind of shame that actually prevents their exploitative behavior, but that they are more likely to conceal the behavior perceived by others to be manipulative.
In relation to this myth, it is also common to assume that all narcissists had a tumultuous childhood with overt abuse. Yet those who are taught an excessive sense of entitlement at a young age have also been shown by research to develop narcissistic traits in adulthood (Brummelman, et al., 2015). Their narcissistic traits did not stem from “lack of parental warmth” as the researchers noted, but rather, parental overvaluation. Another more recent study by Nguyen and Shaw (2020) found that parental overvaluation, but not adverse childhood experiences, predicted grandiose narcissism.
While more research is needed to confirm whether parental overvaluation leads to full-blown clinically pathological narcissism in adulthood, it may be wise to acknowledge that not all narcissists are raised by what we would traditionally deem “neglectful” parents – grandiose narcissists may be in fact be birthed due to being excessively praised, doted upon and taught that they were special, unique and better than others as children.
Barron, C. (2014, August 24). If You Are the Target of Narcissistic Abuse. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-creativity-cure/201408/if-you-are-the-target-narcissistic-abuse
Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review,103(1), 5-33. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.103.1.5
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(12), 3659–3662. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1420870112
Glenn, A. L., Raine, A., & Schug, R. A. (2009). The neural correlates of moral decision-making in psychopathy. Molecular Psychiatry, 14, 5−6.
Nguyen, K. T., & Shaw, L. (2020). The aetiology of non-clinical narcissism: Clarifying the role of adverse childhood experiences and parental overvaluation. Personality and Individual Differences,154, 109615. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2019.109615
Poless, P. G., Torstveit, L., Lugo, R. G., Andreassen, M., & Sütterlin, S. (2018). Guilt and Proneness to Shame: Unethical Behaviour in Vulnerable and Grandiose Narcissism. Europe’s journal of psychology, 14(1), 28–43. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v14i1.1355
Zajenkowski, M., Maciantowicz, O., Szymaniak, K., & Urban, P. (2018). Vulnerable and Grandiose Narcissism Are Differentially Associated With Ability and Trait Emotional Intelligence. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1606. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01606