Updated: May 31
One of the questions I am asked most often in therapy is: “how do I deal with the guilt of not having a relationship with [blank] person?” As most people seek my services to learn about narcissistic abuse, this often comes after months and sometimes years of agonizing interactions and abuse. Clients are exhausted, overwhelmed and want validation that what they have experienced is real. IT IS REAL. Typically, the next thing I ask is, “Is this YOUR guilt?”
Guilt and Shame
When we take a look at guilt, it is defined as believing that you have done something wrong, and you have a negative feeling about this behavior. We feel bad about all sorts of things that we do, like not showing up for a friend’s party or forgetting to send a birthday card. However, this often gets tangled up with shame, which is defined by shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown as feeling “I am bad” and feeling as if you are “never good enough”. Both of these ideas help drive behavior to reduce associated negative feelings. Shame is also a key factor of Narcissism. People on the narcissistic spectrum feel shame very heavily and this accounts for their hypersensitivity and often explosive responses. They do not have a strong sense of self, they find all their worth in external sources. So when an external source says or does something that they perceive as a dig towards them, they cannot regulate the response. Further, they do not have the capacity to look inward and assess if what was said is true or not, so they automatically redirect the responsibility. Simply, a narcissistic person does not like to be on the defense when it comes to shame, so they turn it around on the other person instead, in an offensive tactic.
You may have seen this when trying to hold someone accountable for their actions. If you start a sentence with you, they will respond the same way. For example, “You forgot to pick up the milk from the store like you promised”. It is a simple statement with facts; however, they will likely respond with something like: “Well you should be able to manage your time better and do it yourself!” The subtext of the first sentence is that a promise was broken, and now we don't have milk, but it will be heard as “I have no honor, I am worthless and forgetful”. They will not address any of these things, and likely their response will have nothing to do with promises or milk. It will be a counter-attack on you. As you switch gears into defense, you will be so preoccupied with defending the vicious attack on your own character, you will likely forget the original argument or give up to end the conversation.
Let’s take it a step further and begin to look at tribal shaming. Humans survive best in a pack. This has evolved over time. Now, you may be part of several tribes throughout life, and these groups are essential for the survival of each of us while often enriching our lives. We share resources, help provide meaning, protection, connection and shield the weak. These tribes can include your family of origin, maybe your religion, colleagues or classmates, culture, nationality, or even your friend circle. Each of these tribes has a set of rules or laws, written or unwritten, that are understood by the members of the tribe, with the intent of protecting the survival of the tribe. When a member of the tribe steps out of this boundary, tribal shaming is used to bring them back into the fold.
Although meant to be a positive thing, tribal shaming is often used in a negative way. The tribe or a tribe member feels threatened by your behavior (often unconsciously), so they make you feel bad about yourself as a forcing function to drive you back into the group. For example, you might have just told someone that your mother is doing terrible things to you, the relationship is weighing on you and negatively affecting your mental health. But maybe your tribe places a high emphasis on family values. You might hear something like “Yeah, but she is your mother”. The shame here is in the subtext. Her unhealthy, toxic behavior towards you is less important than meeting the needs of the tribe, of presenting a united family front. This is not your shame. This is the shame on behalf of the tribe, and it is very effective because we want to belong. So when it comes to choosing our values, behaviors, and beliefs that might be incongruent with the tribe, or finding our own way, more often than not, we choose belonging. Research by Dr. Mario Martinez even suggests that shame can cause inflammation, anxiety and disease in the body. In order to avoid this we choose the tribe to reduce the “conflict” both from the tribe and in our bodies. In an article by Elizabeth Gilbert, she discusses how people will self-sabotage to be welcomed back into the tribe because they will always welcome you back when you “fail” even if that is not what is in your best interest.
Narcissism and Needs
So here is where it gets really sticky. When we break down the basic tenets of narcissistic abuse, another key fundamental idea revolves around needs. It comes down to one person placing their needs over the needs of everyone else and manipulating, tricking, or forcing others into allowing this. Those on the narcissistic spectrum are really good at using specific tactics to accomplish this and they have had years to practice. Like the diversion and personal attack above, guilt and shame are also in their toolbox.
Sometimes the person in question is a leader of the tribe, and therefore creates the rules in which the tribe sticks to. This could be a parent who yells “I make the rules in this house!” or “it's my way or the highway!” or “In this family, we are always on time!” This indoctrination may begin when a child is very young. Later in life the parent no longer has to verbally enforce the law, it is already part of their children’s inner voice. They instinctively understand that they must stay within the lines or suffer the consequences, whatever they may be, typically a rageful explosion. As these children grow up, that inner voice continues to drive them back to the tribe or family out of survival. “If I don’t follow these rules, I will be cast out, I will suffer the consequences, I am a bad person.” They struggle to choose between their new ideas, beliefs and feelings versus no longer belonging to the group, and/or losing sight of their identity as a result. Other times, a toxic person may bend the rules of an established group in their favor. “Who do you think you are to challenge the rules of the group?!” Being the enforcer gives the narcissistic person power.
Let's go back to the basic idea behind narcissism: needs. People on the spectrum will specifically target those who are caretakers, people-pleasers and fixers. They prey on the belief “taking care of other people is good” and twist this to their purpose. They might not come out and say so directly but the sub-text is “If you don’t take care of my needs first, you are a bad person”. This is where the guilt and shame come from. “If choosing my needs hurts another person (behavior-guilt) then that must mean I am a horrible person (shame).” This is why time after time a person will subvert their needs to meet the needs of others until they are so worn thin that they can’t take anymore. They have been used, a pawn to meet the needs of another human being without any consideration of their own needs.
Learning about the tactics used in narcissistic abuse is a strong way to begin to notice ongoing patterns of abuse in your life, however this blog is not intended to replace therapy. If you determine that there might be narcissistic abuse in your life, finding a therapist who understands narcissistic abuse is highly recommended.