Guilt, remorse, and shame are emotions that ordinary people may experience when they do something wrong or improper.
But what about narcissists? Do they feel these same things, or do their egos shield them from such negative feelings? According to experts, narcissists may not regard these emotions the way other people do.
If you’re wondering why this might be the case, we asked experts to discuss whether or not narcissists feel guilt, remorse, and shame.
Here are their insights:
Laurie Hollman, PhD
Psychoanalyst, Choosing Therapy | Author, “Are You Living with a Narcissist?“
Shame and guilt are intense states of emotional distress that begin to develop in childhood and continue to be felt in adulthood. The narcissist experiences shame, but it’s unconscious.
- Guilt is felt more consciously but dismissed quickly.
- Remorse is absent.
- Shame is generally felt about a view of oneself.
Whereas guilt is felt about what one has done to another. Remorse can follow either emotion but is the most complex.
Related: What Is the Difference Between Shame, Guilt, and Remorse?
The narcissist may feel shame, dismiss it, and cover it up quickly
While it is often believed that to feel shame is a sense of being dishonorable, wrong, humiliated, or foolish, a person has to be “caught in the act” or exposed. But for a narcissist, when caught in the act, the person will try to override it, maybe with a lie.
In contrast, more importantly, shame can be an internal emotion; that no other person even suspects. It has to do with ideas and expectations for ourselves that we develop as we grow up and mature and then falter and do not perceive we are living up to our standards or own expectations.
This is what the narcissist is always on guard about.
Physiologically, there is a mounting feeling due to the reduced activation of dopamine in the limbic forebrain-midbrain circuit of the brain. Normal adults, hopefully, are capable of shame.
It means the adults monitor their feelings about themselves and can realistically assess if they have, in fact, been dishonorable or even foolish in some way. Then they can try to repair this self-feeling by understanding the source within themselves and making more satisfying connections.
The narcissist may feel this, dismiss it, and cover it up quickly.
The humiliation would be a good example. An adult goes to a party thinking it’s to be a casual event and wears jeans and a t-shirt, only to discover it’s a formal cocktail party, not a barbecue!
The narcissist might feel embarrassed, foolish, or ashamed; they could laugh at themselves but would never; they could apologize for their error but would never. So the shame overtakes them, and they’ll likely rage about something else.
As adults, we hope that there are standards, morals, and self-expectations about how we are perceived not only by others but by ourselves. That comes with maturity.
For adults with personality problems, however, this is not the case.
The self-centered narcissist does not experience shame. It is a deficit, perhaps even in a part of their cerebral cortex. This lack of shame makes it hard for them to sustain healthy relationships. They are quick to fault others for not responding as they wish rather than feel foolish and inferior in any way.
This self-aggrandized adult, the narcissist, is an individual who buries shame. Shame will not guide him.
In fact, shame is his enemy to be avoided at all costs consciously.
Superiority is the aim of the grandiose individual who misperceives himself in the world. If he is charming, he may get the responses he needs, but his lack of ability to understand why he may not be as favored as he definitely expects is a lack of an ability to feel shame: a personality deficit.
Guilt requires moral responsibility and regard for others — the narcissist will only blame others
Guilt is a whole other ballpark that is based much more on being able to feel appropriate fault with oneself for behavior or actions towards others. Again, it develops with maturity and is taught with good caretaking the adult narcissist lacked.
If you only act guilty for lying as an adult when you are caught, something’s amiss with your moral standards with regard to a belief in honesty. Then guilt is not well developed at all by such an adult, and they will soon learn the consequences of failed relationships. But the narcissist will blame others.
Guilt requires moral responsibility and regard for others. This may sound close to shame but remember that shame is about feelings of self-worth and feelings of inferiority and dishonor.
In contrast, guilt is more about behavior toward others, as simple as following rules. The narcissist generally follows the rules because he does want acceptance, actually very high regard.
That is the only reason he will try to correct a mistake, not because he feels he did wrong. That he won’t readily, if ever, admit.
A person with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder may not understand remorse
Remorse is defined generally as deep regret for a wrong committed. It follows from guilt if you are an emotionally healthy person.
This is problematic, however, for the narcissist who does not understand remorse. (Even worse is the sociopath or psychopath who is prone to end up in prison because their brain literally does not have a remorse ‘valve.’)
Related: Narcissist Versus Sociopath Versus Psychopath: What’s the Difference?
A lack of remorse is a serious personality defect. This is when we are looking at a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. There is no deep regret, repentance, or penitence.
To be even more specific, regret may lead to avoidance of future punishment, so this is a slippery slope of whether the person actually feels guilty or just wants to avoid trouble.
But true remorse comes with an acceptance of the pain you have caused others for your verbal or physical actions. This is the person we want as our friend and lover. This person is not a narcissist.
Dr. Bryan Bruno
Founder and Medical Director, Mid City TMS
Narcissists can weaponize guilt to make others feel as if they’re the problem
Narcissists can weaponize guilt to make others feel as if they are the problem. However, when it comes to feeling guilty themselves, they are unable to empathize with the receiving end.
When a narcissist makes a mistake, they may believe that it’s not their fault. NPD keeps the narcissists unaware of their flaws, and in this way, they can end up hurting their loved ones.
Guilt is a natural, self-conscious emotion we experience when we violate one of our core values. A narcissist’s core values are rooted in their self-interest.
Prioritizing their self-image justifies their behavior
When we feel guilty, our brain sends us signals to keep us on track with our values. Narcissists miss these signals in favor of maintaining their self-image–usually the belief that they are always right or superior.
That said, it makes sense that people with narcissistic defenses tend not to believe they could have a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Defense mechanisms protect narcissists from shame
Narcissists need a constant supply of narcissism to keep them running. This can be sustained by enhancing their self-image (e.g., through sex, money, demeaning or attention-seeking behaviors, etc.).
Making others feel inferior can feed their need to feel superior.
Primarily, narcissism comes from a lack of empathy. Once they detect a situation that differs from their self-image, narcissists will protect themselves with arrogant or judgmental behaviors. These behaviors can be grandiose and disdainful and hurt those around them.
Sensing an incoming harmful action from someone else can also cause a narcissist to go into defense mode. During an interaction, the absence of empathy will block feelings of guilt and can cause them to make hurtful decisions.
Shame differs from guilt by having an emphasis on self-worth. To avoid shame, narcissists compensate for past inferior actions or self-evaluations that can take the form of disdainful comments. Narcissists combat and suppress shame by convincing themselves of their superiority and worth.
It takes work for narcissists to feel guilt and shame
So, if narcissists have difficulty seeing themselves as the problem, it seems logical that narcissists are incapable of guilt and regret. Their lack of empathy often problematizes the other person.
If a narcissist realizes they’ve hurt someone:
- They might feel remorseful.
- They might hide this from you so as to not appear weak.
- They might think that apologizing would make them look weak.
While narcissism is hard to treat, it is not impossible. In retrospect, narcissists can recognize dysfunctional patterns of thought and action. It can take years of psychotherapy to make a breakthrough, and it’s easy for a patient to give up and “relapse” on the way.
Related: Can Narcissists Change if They Want To?
Narcissists don’t reflect on their bad behavior willingly. A narcissist will need to lower their defense mechanisms to make sense of how their actions have hurt others. Encouraging reflection should come in small doses–not in the heat of a conversation or in public.
In addition, they will need to find alternative ways to feel positive about themselves that are not through narcissism.
Can narcissists regret their actions?
Regret is tricky because it doesn’t mean that they’ve recognized their wrongs. For example, a narcissist may regret losing a relationship because they miss the transaction—the benefits they do not receive any more.
Broad cultural and societal standards can also make it easier for narcissists to feel regret. If an action is widely considered to be unethical or harmful, it’s possible for a narcissist to recognize their faults.
Similarly, it’s possible for a narcissist to express guilt when the benefits outweigh the costs. If admitting to a mistake can prevent them from losing resources, for example, they might apologize.
Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD
Certified Psychiatrist, The Pleasant Mind
They lack the ability to empathize — they’re too preoccupied with their own selfish interests
A typical narcissist never pays attention to the subtle feelings of others; their grandiose feelings justify all their misdeeds and ill-actions.
- They lack guilt feelings
- They can never carry the burden of mistakes on their shoulders
- They inevitably cannot be ashamed of their actions
Technically speaking, they lack the ability to empathize and remain preoccupied with feeding their own selfish interests. They will never focus on any feelings that contradict their grandiose feelings because it makes them feel weak, which is a big no for them.
For people diagnosed with NPD, feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, and regrets are not in the cards at all because they never admit that they can be wrong, even by chance.
These people are highly manipulative and always put on their guard of defenses to keep them in the “safe zone.” Most narcissists use deflection and projection to safeguard their ego from getting hurt or abused by others in some way.
Related: How to Respond to Someone Who Is Projecting
It means they don’t even realize that there is really anything to be ashamed about, and likely there is no guilt also.
If anything goes wrong between you and your narcissist friend, they will manipulate the situation in such a way that it will appear that you are the real culprit and they are completely innocent.
Even their love claims are fake and shallow and cannot be trusted at all.
They also use defenses to cover up their negative feelings of shame and guilt just to keep their false self-esteem intact.
They maintain a sense of being perfect and right always.
Guilt: guilt hurts their sense of entitlement and hurts their self-esteem
The grandiose narcissist never feels guilty about their actions because they always feel entitled, carry a superiority complex, and are damn confident in their actions.
To feel guilty, one has to admit faults and misdeeds that are immoral and go against ethical rules, and they will never do that. So, guilt is not for them.
Guilt hurts their sense of entitlement and hurts their self-esteem. Conscience feels weaker to them, which distorts their need to stay in the spotlight.
As a result, a narcissist never feels the need to be guilty.
This, in turn, makes them arrogant, less compassionate, loving, and sometimes brutally unkind. Narcissists can feign morality if it feels threatening to their self-interests. This way, you may find them totally not concerned about right or wrong.
Remorse: a narcissist feels no guilt, thus, no remorse also
Remorse comes from an ability to take the onus of one’s actions and mistakes. A narcissist feels no guilt, thus, no remorse also. Remorse is wrapped up in pain, suffering, guilt, and regret.
Thus, if there is no moral conscience, where will remorse see through?
They never feel the pain of hurting others. Sometimes, narcissists appear cold, emotionally distant, and highly manipulative. They cannot ask for an apology from others and remain boastful as always.
Shame: they never feel ashamed about their actions because they feel entitled about themselves
Shame comes from feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. It’s all about being inherently flawed or not good enough in some way.
Related: Why Are People Insecure?
Grandiose narcissists never feel ashamed about their actions because they feel entitled about themselves. They consider themselves flawless, someone great and important.
They do not feel shame because their false ego covers their darkest truth of being immoral and flawed.
Since accepting the truth is painful, they defend their ego by setting a high opinion about themselves. However, the vulnerable narcissist feels ashamed because of their need to be approved and accepted by others.
Without external validation, they feel poor and unworthy from within. They have broken self-esteem that says aloud that they are flawed and imperfect.
You can say that shame is inherent in them, and they internalize this feeling to self-loathe themselves. Thus, they are highly attention-seeking and seek praise from others.
Coach and Speaker | Author, “Girl, You Deserve More“
Narcissists are in a perpetual state of feeling shame. Because they never face these feelings, and they never process them. That’s why they always feel bad and lash out at others.
People who feel bad, need to get rid of that negative energy.
Narcissists abuse themselves to handle shame
A person like this often directs it within. This is when they abuse themselves.
Examples are when they become addicted to:
- shopping, or
- doing other things to soothe their pain.
This is why these coping mechanisms are common among narcissists. However, they like to make it look like their life is perfect on the outside.
When they direct it towards themselves, that’s the part that only those closest to them see. Close family members, partners, and those who live with the narcissist witness this. But the narcissist does not show this image of themselves to the rest of the world.
Narcissists abuse those closest to them to handle shame
But narcissists are known to direct their negative energy onto others. This is why they abuse others. This is why a narcissist can never have a successful and loving relationship with another person. They can’t just be nice to a long-term partner.
A narcissist must offload negative feelings onto those closest to them.
Related: 35+ Signs You’re Dating a Narcissist
While the narcissist may seem giving and charismatic to strangers and casual acquaintances, they treat their own families the worst. Only a live-in partner, kids, and workplace subordinates will ever see the narcissist’s full wrath.
What happens when a narcissist gets old
When they get old, most people leave them. Once their kids are out of the house, they no longer have to speak to them. Their spouse is often tired of them and may divorce or abandon them. Since they aren’t attractive enough to get another partner, all they are left with themselves.
Related: How to Divorce a Narcissist
Now they have no one left to lash out at; this is when all their negative feelings are turned within.
This is why the meanness starts to show on their faces when they may have been beautiful when younger. All the negativity built up on the inside contributes to them getting diseases.
This is why they get more desperate than ever. They start reaching out to everyone they know and start guilt-tripping them to take care of them. Sometimes people feel sorry for them, so they may come to visit—if they’re lucky.
Many of them are left with no one. But it’s their own doing.
The irony is if they’d just faced their feelings of shame, they could’ve cleared it. This would’ve made them feel better about themselves. They would’ve been able to send good energy to those around them instead of toxic negativity.
They would still have a family, spouse, and kids in their old age. But because they make everyone around them feel miserable due to unprocessed shame, they chase everyone away.
What apologies mean to a narcissist
If they try to apologize or show remorse, this is a last-ditch effort on their part. It means they know you’re mad at them and don’t want to deal with them anymore. They will do whatever they can so you talk to them again.
Don’t be fooled into thinking they won’t hurt you again or that they are actually sorry. In their minds, they can do no wrong.
This is because a narcissist’s ego is fragile. And it takes a strong person to admit when they are wrong.
If you need help dealing with a narcissist in your life who apologizes but doesn’t mean it or won’t leave you alone, it can be helpful to educate yourself further. Read books on the topic or hire a coach who specializes in Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Dr. Holly Schiff, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Jewish Family Services of Greenwich
They lack empathy and will act in selfish and hurtful ways
Someone living with narcissism will rarely ever care about hurting someone’s feelings. They lack empathy and, therefore, will act in selfish and hurtful ways when it doesn’t serve them to be charming or cooperative.
They don’t have the ability to relate to someone else’s feelings nor feel compassion, sensitivity, or remorse. These are emotions they cannot understand or access. They will do whatever it takes to get what they want, even if that means hurting someone else’s feelings.
Narcissists tend to enjoy other people’s pain or hurt.
They can demonstrate limited amounts of remorse if the benefit of doing so outweighs the cost
A narcissist can demonstrate limited amounts of remorse if the benefit of doing so outweighs the cost. If they think admitting to a mistake or taking accountability for something that was their fault is small in comparison to the potential positive return, they’ll do it.
Real remorse is not likely, though, because that would require some emotional awareness that narcissists do not possess.
Narcissists do not pay attention to anything that contradicts their self-inflated view; therefore, they will not feel guilt or shame. If they do feel shame at all, they will unload that onto others by accusing them of things or insulting them.
This is a way to project their pain onto others and an attempt to make themselves feel better.
They have a distorted perception of reality; they can’t see things from another person’s point of view
A narcissist may even be capable of faking compassion for a brief period of time, but doing this over a longer period of time is nearly impossible. They have a distorted perception of reality which doesn’t allow them to see things from another person’s point of view.
A narcissist is not capable of real love. They may show someone love and act in loving ways, but this tends to be conditional because it is dependent on what you can give them in return.
They are capable of love if it makes them feel good. However, they have difficulty really loving someone else because they don’t truly love themselves.
They are unable to see their partner as a separate person and instead just as how they meet their selfish needs and supply what they want.
A common misconception about narcissism and emotions is that they never cry or are unable to. While people with narcissism have lower empathy, it doesn’t necessarily mean no empathy whatsoever.
People with narcissism can cry, and things that trigger their sense of superiority and entitlement may make them experience genuine tears. While not largely empathetic for other humans, they can express concern and compassion for animals, so they may cry when their pet dies.
Sara Makin, M.S.Ed.,NCC,LPC
Founder & CEO, Makin Wellness
Failure to meet their standards for self-image feeds into their shame
Narcissists do feel guilt, remorse, and shame, but the way these emotions function in their lives is somewhat different than one would expect.
Like other aspects of their lives, guilt becomes a self-centered experience.
They feel guilt not for what they did or who was hurt but rather for exposing themselves to a situation that reflected on themselves poorly or called into question their judgment in the eyes of their perceived audience.
Failure to meet their standards for self-image feeds into their shame.
Narcissism, like all personality traits, can be viewed as a spectrum. Individuals may experience empathic remorse outside of this self-centered construct, but most will be too ashamed to admit it.
This is the key point; guilt is transmitted quickly into shame for the narcissist.
There is no one in their world they can speak to about this feeling while maintaining the difficult standards they set for themselves. The narcissist holds onto a shame-based persona built on a deep fear of rejection, lack of control, and failure, which ultimately prevents them from connecting authentically with others.
Related: How Does a Narcissist Handle Rejection and No Contact
Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy | Director of Marketing & Content, Divorce Answers
Narcissists may feel guilty, but only because it’s beneficial for them
The lack of empathy makes it rare for narcissists to see what they did wrong, and they don’t have second thoughts about hurting other people as long as it serves their self-preservation.
However, there are instances when they may feel guilty, but only because it’s beneficial for them or it’s calculated, so they don’t lose face to other people.
Narcissists are less likely to feel remorse
Because remorse is born out of guilt, which narcissists rarely have, then that only means they would rarely feel remorseful about what they’ve done.
Remorse is basically an acknowledgment or recognition that you made a mistake and you hurt someone else’s feelings, but narcissists barely ever see that, nor are they sorry for it.
They may feel shame when they’re forced to acknowledge a mistake they made
The reason for narcissists feeling shame is not because they’re guilty nor remorseful, but because they are called out, and others have noticed their false pretenses.
They feel shame because they are forced to acknowledge a mistake they made that others pointed out, but they would never feel this way without anyone calling them out. The reason for feeling shame is not born out of real guilt for what they did because of their impaired empathic abilities.
For most narcissists, shame can be used as a defense mechanism.
Senior Editor, Tandem
They won’t take full responsibility for an action; they’ll try to place blame or wrongdoing on someone else
As a business professional with 25+ years of experience, I have had my share of dealing with many narcissists. Narcissistic people are those that think the world revolves around them.
There are multiple types of narcissists, with some of the more well-known being:
- Overt – When you think of a narcissist, you most likely are thinking of this type. Overt narcissists can be aggressive and think they are the best in everything they say or do.
- Oblivious – A person who is an oblivious narcissist has no idea that their actions affect others. They may lack empathy, partially because they don’t understand how what they do or say can offend others, or they simply don’t care.
- Hypervigilant – When a narcissist is hypervigilant, this is someone who is extremely affected by the actions of others, including how one acts or reacts when they talk. Their feelings get hurt by how they interpret other people’s body language and facial expressions.
If you are wondering if a narcissist can feel guilt, remorse, or shame, it’s important to first understand each of these terms.
As defined by Merriam-Webster:
- Guilt – A feeling of deserving blame for offenses.
- Remorse – A gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.
- Shame – A painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.
They often try to justify their actions to lessen their feelings
Some situations are so severe that it would be hard for a person not to feel some level of guilt, remorse, or shame, even if they were a narcissist. A narcissist, however, might not take full responsibility for an action. Instead, they might try to place any blame or wrongdoing on someone else.
For example, suppose a narcissist bumps into someone and makes them fall to the ground. Instead of feeling sorry about what transpired or apologizing, they might automatically blame the other person.
“He wouldn’t have fallen over if he was paying attention to where he was walking.”
Diverting blame enables the narcissist to feel better about themselves as they attempt to make the other person the focus. That doesn’t mean that the narcissist doesn’t feel any level of guilt, remorse, or shame. It only means that they often try to justify their actions to lessen their feelings.
The question remains — can a narcissist feel guilt, remorse, or shame? The answer is that it depends.
Though narcissists won’t feel as deeply responsible as many others, some of them can feel slightly accountable, and narcissists are able to feel some level of guilt, remorse, or shame.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does a narcissist apologize?
Narcissists may apologize, but their apologies aren’t always sincere and honest. They may use non-apology apologies, apologize superficially, or deflect responsibility for their actions.
It is important to have realistic expectations and prioritize your well-being when dealing with a narcissistic relationship. Support from friends, family, or a therapist can be helpful in coping with the effects of a narcissistic relationship.
Can a narcissist be sincere?
Yes, a narcissist can be sincere, but it is important to take their behavior with a grain of salt. Look for consistency in their actions and remember that narcissism exists on a spectrum. With the right help and support, a narcissist can learn to be more sincere and empathetic.
How can you protect yourself from a narcissist?
Protecting yourself from a narcissist can be challenging, but some strategies may be helpful, including:
• Setting clear boundaries and communicating them assertively
• Limiting contact or ending the relationship, if possible
• Seeking support from friends, family, or a therapist
• Focusing on your own well-being and self-care
• Educating yourself about narcissism and its effects
What can I do when dealing with a narcissist?
When dealing with a narcissistic person, it’s important to remain firm but respectful: establish boundaries by making your expectations clear from the beginning—this will ensure that neither party crosses boundaries that could lead to an uncomfortable situation.
Also, don’t let yourself become a victim of their manipulation—recognize when conversations are becoming unproductive and back off before the situation escalates further.
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