I don’t know about you, but narcissists seem to be everywhere these days. From preening pop stars, self-centred celebrities to your Facebook-filtered friends.
Narcissists have an inflated ego and an exaggerated sense of importance. They are arrogant, feel entitled, and will manipulate you until they get want they want. But do narcissists feel guilt for their actions? Or are they so full of their self-importance they just don’t care?
“Narcissists are unwilling to apologize for their transgressions, as they experience little empathy for their victims and lower guilt.” Joost M. Leunissen, Nottingham Trent University, UK; Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut, University of Southampton, UK
There are two factors we have to examine before we know the answer. The first is to differentiate between narcissists and examine what we mean by guilt.
The two types of narcissists
First of all, let’s examine the types of narcissists.
There are two types of narcissists:
Which type of narcissist feels guilt: grandiose or vulnerable?
Both types of narcissists have a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, an overinflated ego, and high self-esteem. However, there are differences between the two.
Grandiose narcissists have an exaggerated sense of their self-worth. They are highly confident, which tends to make them overestimate their abilities. Grandiose narcissists are also socially dominant and are extremely manipulative.
As grandiose narcissists believe they are the best at everything they feel entitled to the best of everything. If they don’t get the praise, recognition, or put on the pedestal they deserve to be on, they get angry.
Grandiose narcissists project this anger outwards, towards their audience. They don’t know how you feel and they don’t care, so long as they are the centre of attention.
Vulnerable narcissists are different. Although they still desire recognition and praise from other people, they feel unworthy and suffer from low self-esteem. Whereas grandiose narcissists are aggressive and arrogant, vulnerable narcissists are defensive and avoid conflict.
Vulnerable narcissists suffer from an inferiority complex and need admiration from others to boost their low confidence. They desperately want people to like and admire them, as such, they are hypersensitive to criticism and worry what people think of them.
As with grandiose narcissists, the vulnerable narcissist feels the same anger and resentment, however, they project these feelings towards themselves.
Now that we know more about the two types of narcissism, how does that help us understand whether narcissists feel guilt? Let’s examine what guilt is and whether grandiose or vulnerable narcissists can feel guilt.
What is guilt?
What causes a person to feel guilty? You might think this is an easy question. When a person does something bad, they feel guilty about it. But it’s not that simple. It depends on the person.
For example, a psychopath like Ted Bundy didn’t feel guilty for his actions. And remember, we are talking about narcissists here and whether they feel guilt.
Behavioural studies show that in a normal human being, unethical actions induce feelings of guilt. However, that’s not all. The studies also show that people feel shame as well as guilt. So the two emotions are closely linked.
But what’s the difference and why is it relevant when we talk about narcissists?
Guilt vs Shame
Guilt and shame have a lot in common. Both are negative emotions that occur from behaviour that goes against a person’s moral code or judgment. But they are slightly different:
- Guilt: “I have done a bad thing.”
- Shame: “I am a bad person.”
Guilt is an emotion we feel when we regret something we have done that caused harm. Empathic people are more likely to feel guilt, as they can imagine the effect of their actions on the other person.
People feel guilt for several different reasons; cheating on a partner, taking money without asking, badmouthing a good friend, and so on. Guilt reflects ourselves when we go against our morals and core values. But can we feel guilty if we have no morals or values?
Shame is a different kettle of fish altogether. Shame is the emotion we feel about ourselves. Shame is self-evaluated. It is a form of criticism of our behaviour or actions. Shame is associated with high neuroticism, low self-esteem, and negative feelings about oneself.
Therefore, guilt and shame are feelings of self-criticism and distress at one’s failings. In other words, guilt and shame are self-critical emotions triggered when we are unhappy with our actions.
However, self-criticism differs, and this is important because it helps explain how grandiose and vulnerable narcissists experience guilt. The first thing I need to tell you is that there are two forms of self-criticism:
- External blame: the person is sinful and wicked but thinks they are entitled to do what they like. They have the power and are willing to cause harm.
- Self-blame: the person is stupid and ugly, but feels humiliated and ashamed. They lack the power to meet their own standards.
Do narcissists feel guilt and what’s empathy got to do with it?
Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists engage in unethical behaviour to satisfy their needs. And we know that both types of narcissists score low on empathy.
Narcissists only think of themselves. They are the centre of the world and they don’t consider the effect of their actions, good or bad. They are unable to put themselves in another person’s shoes. So, how can narcissists feel guilt?
Can a grandiose narcissist feel guilt?
A grandiose narcissist believes they are entitled to do whatever they want, and as such, they do not feel guilt. A vulnerable narcissist may not feel guilt either. However, there is evidence to suggest that they feel shame.
Grandiose narcissists are overconfident in their abilities, highly manipulative, charismatic characters, with a high level of self-esteem. Grandiose narcissists believe in their self-worth. They don’t need anyone to tell them how great they are; they already know.
Their core values are to get everything they can to better their lives, to achieve the admiration they deserve, and be the centre of attention. So, there is nothing in their behaviour that goes against these core values. A grandiose narcissist will not feel guilty about his or her actions.
The other factor to remember is that the grandiose narcissist is unaware of other people’s feelings, so they won’t feel guilty. If a grandiose narcissist doesn’t get the attention or recognition they feel they deserve, they’ll lash out in anger. They certainly won’t feel guilty.
Can a vulnerable narcissist feel guilt?
On the other hand, vulnerable narcissists worry a lot, have low self-esteem, are neurotic and defensive. The vulnerable narcissist doesn’t know their self-worth, they need to get it from other people.
They depend on admiration and praise from others because they have such a low opinion of themselves. They feel inadequate unless someone tells them otherwise.
The other difference between a grandiose and vulnerable narcissist is that the vulnerable narcissist is fully aware of what others are thinking. And this is where the shame element comes in.
The vulnerable narcissist’s self-esteem relies on other people. They are desperate to be liked and adored – that’s how they gain confidence and the attention they crave.
The difference is that is if a vulnerable narcissist doesn’t get the attention or recognition they want, they’ll blame themselves and feel even more insecure. As they don’t have an overinflated view of themselves, they won’t feel guilt, vulnerable narcissists will feel shame.
So, do narcissists feel guilt? The final answer to this question is no, but the vulnerable narcissist can feel shame. So, my advice is: don’t ever feel guilty for cutting a narcissist out of your life. They probably won’t even notice.
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