Last Updated on January 24, 2022 by Alexander Burgemeester
If you’ve ever been in a relationship with a narcissist and experienced some of the terrible, selfish behaviors that are their trademark, you’ve probably wondered “how do they live with themselves”.
The lying, gaslighting, and emotional manipulation must eventually wear on them – no one can be that insensitive to other people’s feelings, right?
To answer that question, you have to understand the psychology of a narcissist and how it differs from the average person. Their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors can be quite different and the reasons for them may not be clear to those around them.
We’ll dive into whether narcissists feel guilt, but first, let’s take a look at what makes a narcissist.
Defining a Narcissist
To fully explore narcissists’ emotions, we first need to understand what it means to be a narcissist. Narcissism is a personality trait that we all possess to some extent.
Unfortunately, the term gets thrown around in everyday conversation in a way that suggests that anyone who displays narcissistic traits is a psychopath that lacks empathy and is incapable of feeling guilty or remorseful.
In truth, narcissism is simply an inflated sense of self-importance, and whether this is considered a personality disorder is a matter of degree.
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What we typically call narcissism are examples of grandiose narcissism – individuals with very high self-esteem, charisma, a willingness to exploit others, and overconfidence in their abilities.
It’s hard to imagine a person with grandiose narcissism feeling guilty; it’s rare that they even recognize that they’re capable of doing something wrong. Grandiose narcissism isn’t the only way the personality disorder can be manifested though.
Vulnerable narcissism is the inverse of grandiose narcissism, at least in its root cause. Those afflicted with it are often introverted, have very low self-esteem, are hypersensitive to criticism, and feel intense inner shame after rejection.
While the grandiose narcissist is unaware of other people’s feelings, the vulnerable narcissist is attuned to the emotions of everyone around them, at least as those emotions pertain to them.
Though vulnerable narcissism comes from a different place than grandiose narcissism, this doesn’t necessarily change their behavior towards others.
Whether someone is over or under-confident, they will still lash out when exposed to criticism. The narcissist’s ego must be protected either way, which usually means discrediting or humiliating others to repair their self-image.
However, understanding what emotions narcissists feel can help you to understand what will set them off and how you might be able to manage their narcissistic tendencies.
What Emotions Do Narcissists Feel?
It’s common to describe narcissists as unfeeling, but nothing could be further from the truth. They are non-psychopaths devoid of emotion, but rather highly-emotional creatures who have become fixated on their own feelings at the expense of others.
They lack the capacity to understand other people when those feelings aren’t about them. The emotions they do end up feeling depend on the type of narcissist they are.
The entitled and self-important narcissist has an abundance of positive feelings about themselves, but either indifference or negativity when it comes to other people.
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Grandiose narcissists believe they are the best at everything and that the world doesn’t do enough to praise them for their talents. When they’re fed a steady source of narcissistic supply, they’re fairly content.
When they’re not getting the praise they need, they experience anger and frustration. Their anger is turned outward, usually towards those close to them, until those people are fearful enough to give them the supply they need.
These covert narcissists have many of the same feelings that you probably do – shame, insecurity, and anxiety.
The vulnerable narcissist desperately needs everyone to like and admire them because they have no other way to regulate their self-esteem. Where they differ from emotionally healthy people is in how they react to threats to their self-esteem.
When called out for selfish and insensitive behavior, they react with anger, resentment, and a complete disregard for other people’s feelings.
However, their aggression is often turned inward, leading to more shame and insecurity. When those feelings are too overwhelming, they might lash out at others.
Do Narcissists Feel Emotional Pain?
Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists are capable of feeling emotional pain, but they can’t endure it for very long. Emotionally healthy individuals can feel sad, guilty, embarrassed, shameful, or even angry without lashing out at others.
They use emotional regulation techniques like reflection, mindfulness, and reappraisal to turn down that pain or limit their exposure to it in the future.
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Narcissists take a much simpler approach to regulating their emotions by blaming others, demeaning them, or engaging in delusional thoughts about their own superiority. These behaviors are exhibited regardless of whether their narcissistic personality comes from high or low self-esteem.
Do Narcissists Feel Guilt and Remorse?
Asking “do narcissists ever feel guilty” or “do narcissists ever feel remorse” might not be the right questions. We feel guilty or remorseful when we do or say things that are contrary to our values.
Guilt and remorse aren’t actually based on universal principles though. If you grew up in a culture where it was considered acceptable to kill another person, it’s unlikely that you would be racked with guilt after a murder.
In most cultures, murder is taboo though, so the vast majority of people would feel guilty about carrying one out.
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Don’t assume that narcissists have the same values that you do though. Lying and manipulation may not bother their conscience, so there’s no reason for them to feel guilty or remorseful. Narcissists are capable of understanding other people’s values though.
They know what is and is not acceptable in society, and they’ll make an effort to follow those values so long as the cost of doing so is worth the advantages it brings. However, if they don’t think they’ll get caught, they’re more likely to act in ways that are contrary to society’s values.
Do Narcissists Feel Guilty about Their Actions?
Narcissists know when they’ve done something wrong, as long as someone has brought it to their attention.
Grandiose narcissists, in particular, may not notice the harm they’ve wrought unless someone tells them; they’re too concerned with their own feelings to be intuited about other people’s feelings.
Knowing you’ve done something wrong isn’t the same as feeling guilty though; it’s lacking the negative emotions that should be attached to doing wrong.
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Narcissists of either variety won’t have the emotional component of guilt, only the dispassionate realization that people won’t like them much if they continue their hurtful behaviors.
More than anything else, narcissists are concerned with getting a steady source of narcissistic supply, so losing that source of supply can be a major blow. Reflecting on these actions and their consequences is the closest thing narcissists can feel to guilt.
Can a Narcissist Have a Guilty Conscience?
For better or worse, narcissists live in the moment. It’s why they require a constant source of narcissistic supply to feel good about themselves. Should the supply be removed for even a few days, their self-esteem starts to dwindle, and they need someone to pump them back up.
The transitory nature of their emotional states makes it difficult for them to have a guilty conscience.
Guilt is the product of rumination, thinking about the pain you’ve caused someone and how inflicting that pain is opposed to your values. Narcissists, especially grandiose narcissists, are not known for ruminating on subjects that cause emotional pain.
Vulnerable narcissists will ruminate on that pain, but only as it pertains to themselves.
Perhaps a better question would be, do narcissists feel regret? Absolutely! Narcissists understand when they’ve made choices that are contrary to achieving their goals. Coming to that realization can make them sad or angry at themselves, which can manifest in regret.
How to Make a Narcissist Feel Guilty?
We’ve already established that narcissists don’t experience guilt in the same way that everyone else does. They might express feelings of guilt, but it’s a calculated move intended to benefit themselves.
For example, if a narcissist lashes out at someone, they don’t feel guilty about it after the fact, but might make a show of remorse so as to not push that person away and forgo access to narcissistic supply.
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To make a narcissist feel guilty about their actions or mistakes, they need to know that there are consequences. Let the narcissist know that you won’t tolerate their actions and that you’re willing to walk away from the relationship if it continues.
To get back in your good graces, narcissists will start “love bombing”, where they shower you with gifts and praise. These behaviors are short-lived though, so make it clear that this outpouring of positive emotions is not what you’re looking for. You want stable behavior change.
Do Narcissists Feel Shame?
Shame differs in some subtle ways from guilt. While someone might feel guilty for a specific action they took, they wouldn’t feel shame so long as those actions didn’t come to define them as a person.
Shame encompasses a person’s sense of self-worth; when someone is feeling shameful, they feel they are worthy of contempt outside of any specific behavior of theirs.
One of the defining characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder is a lack of shame. Whenever feelings of inadequacy crop up, the narcissist pushes them away with fantasies of grandiosity, actions that enhance their self-image (sex, spending money, denigrating others), or attention-seeking behaviors.
However, a narcissistic personality disorder is a complicated condition with disparate causes, and what most people think of like a shameless narcissist is a grandiose one. However, other types of narcissists are actually capable of feeling intense shame.
Those who are high in vulnerable narcissism, which is associated with low self-esteem, neuroticism, and a constant need for praise and attention, feel shame on a near-daily basis. Shame is what drives their behaviors.
How to Make a Narcissist Feel Shame?
If you want to make a narcissist feel shame, you need to know what kind of narcissist you’re dealing with. If it’s a grandiose narcissist, shaming that will almost certainly backfire. They’re too self-important and they’ll try to turn the situation around to shame you. Shaming is possible with a vulnerable narcissist under the right circumstances though.
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Intentionally shaming a narcissist in public, or even privately in the heat of an argument, is unlikely to change their behavior in the long term. You’ll activate their narcissistic defenses – denial, distortion, and rage towards the cause of their negative feelings.
In a controlled setting with a professional therapist though, exploring feelings of shame can be very productive for certain narcissists.
As long as those feelings come in small doses, they can get to a place where they experience those feelings without resorting to their narcissistic defenses.
They simply need help regulating their emotions and building up their self-image without requiring a constant source of narcissistic supply.
Narcissism’s Unique Guilt
Narcissistic personality disorder is a complicated mental illness to treat. Grandiose narcissists may not believe there’s anything wrong with them – they’re just living in a society that doesn’t measure up to their standards.
Vulnerable narcissists are so sensitive to criticism that it’s too difficult to break through their defense mechanisms. However, narcissists can always be counted on to do what’s best for them, and this can be used to your advantage.
The most important thing to remember when attempting to make a narcissist feel shame or guilt is that their defense mechanisms will be on high alert.
You need to make them understand how hurting you is going to hurt them, but without them feeling like they’re under attack. It’s a difficult balancing act, one that even professional therapists struggle with.
Once those self-defense mechanisms are shut off, narcissists are no more or less rational than anyone else. Using guilt, shame, and regret isn’t a great way to get those defenses down though.
You want them to feel positive about themselves, but without becoming a source of narcissistic supply. Once they’re comfortable with themselves, they can feel empathy towards others.
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