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No Shame, No Gain

Unless your abusive partner can feel shame for his violating behaviors, he will make no gains. That’s why I say, no shame, no gain.

By “gain” I mean, of course, the permanent ceasing of his abuse.

This rules-out sociopaths who, by definition, will lack the capacity for shame necessary for personal reform. This is worth repeating, as basic as it is: the sociopath is beyond help, beyond reform. Only his victims can help themselves by escaping, and healing, from him.

And yet shame alone isn’t enough to produce gain. It’s what the abuser does with his shame that’s critical. If he projects his shame defensively into, say, “blame,” then he is going nowhere fast. And unfortunately, all too often this is the case.

And so yes, no shame, no gain. But maybe it’s more accurate to say, no “owned” shame, no gain. Or even more accurately yet, no “responsibly processed” shame, no gain.

After all, only when we own our shame can we do something good with it; only then can we learn from it, grow from it. And I want to be clear that I’m referring here to shame related to the perpetration of harm against others. I’m referring specifically to the shame of the perpetrator, not the shame his abuse engenders in his victim(s).

Notice that I emphasize shame, and not guilt. That’s because guilt, in my experience, is a less powerful change-catalyst than shame. Guilt can be an intellectualized, rote experience. It can also be expiatory, as in, “I did my guilt, I suffered my guilt, now I can start with a clean slate.”

This can be a “clean slate” from which to repeat further transgressions, only to expiate them with yet more guilt, before perpetrating yet new transgressions. Guilt in this instance becomes ritualized enabling, rather than deterring, of future exploitation.

As I said, responsibly processing shame is no easy task—not for anyone, let alone someone with an exploitative orientation. What is it that makes the experience of shame, let alone its responsible processing, so hard for so many narcissistic and, of course, all sociopathic personalities?

The answer, I think, lies in the “ego-syntonic” essence of narcissistic psychopathology. “Ego-syntonic” is just a fancy way of saying that you are comfortable with what you are doing. When what you are doing is consonant, not dissonant, with your concept of your“self,” it is said to be ego-syntonic. It follows that ego-syntonic attitudes and behaviors are unlikely to evoke shame because they aren’t clashing with, or violating, your internal values and self-concept.

Conversely, when what you are doing is clashing with your values and self-concept, it is said to be “ego-dystonic.” And ego-dystonic behaviors are thus likely to produce internal discomfort, including possibly shame.

And so the intractability of severe narcissistic disturbance can be attributed, I think in good measure, to its fundamental ego-syntonicity.

Severe narcissists and other exploiters simply aren’t sufficiently disturbed by their abuse of others for genuine shame to emerge as a potentially transformative experience.

In less severe expressions of narcissism which will fall short of the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (and, of course, far short of sociopathy), you can find individuals who’ve been extremely self-centered and even abusive, yet who do not want to be experienced as such (either publicly and, more importantly, privately).

In other words, others’ experience of them as abusive violates their self-concept (their self-concept disapproving of insensitivity and hurtfulness towards others). Your knee-jerk reaction may be that such individuals don’t exist, but they do. Even some chronic abusers, while in the minority, can reform.

But I reiterate that it’s not enough that such individuals can sometimes feel shame upon registering the vast discrepancy between their self-concept and others’ experience of them.

Only if, and it’s a big if, these individuals can face their shame and, as I’ve stressed in this post, not disown it, not project it as blame (or in some other toxic form), can their shame sometimes catalyze change.

(This article is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW)


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53 Comments on "No Shame, No Gain"

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This article is setting off some kind of light bulb for me. When you talk about the lack of shame, I’m having an “Aha” moment here. I think it goes to the fact that at least the way I understand my ex (who exhibits all the narcissistic/sociopath as well as Cluster B), the thing is it’s not that he doesn’t have shame. He is FILLED with it. That’s all he has and I think that fills him with rage. Admitting, actually owning and being conscious of that would destroy him. So, in order to not be destroyed he NEEDS to project it somewhere. He needs to see the shame as not his but someone else’s.

That’s where I come in. I think that’s where I became a target. He saw shame in me. After doing much reading, I realize that my mother is just like him (I had this intuitive gut feeling/knowledge/recognition a number of times when he acted just like she does but denied it to myself). So, I think they get that mirror fix off of the target and see that that they make the perfect vessel for all that they can’t see in themselves.

If the target is unaware of the shame in THEMSELVES, they will then take it on and own ALL of the shame. I think that’s what happened for me.

When I stopped allowing the projection of shame onto me, that’s when all Hell broke loose.

Hi TNewman,
My ex had the same story about his father. I strongly suspect he made everything up though, blaming his father for what he did himself, namely abusing the whole family. It must be very hard for parents to admit they’ve given birth to a monster. They are victims too but tend to be enablers as well. Maybe you should leave them where they are. They will always protect him and never his victims. Just my two cents…

Ditto about the father thing. My ex-S has 8 or 9 kids out there with different moms and he was never there for my ex. The father abandoned he and his mom around 9 years old. But he had the same characteristics…from woman to woman until he was in his 40’s.

Ditto about the shame and guilt routine. When I met my ex, he was sorrowful and shameful about the children he abandoned..let’s see. He has 8 out there with 3 or 4 different moms and abandoned them all. He has joint custody with the last born whom is now around 14 and has sociopathic tendencies too. He is a little con-artist and is constantly lying. Back to the shame and guilt. My ex said he was sorry too for leaving his ex wife. They were only together 8 months. And he was sorry and shameful for what he put me through for 2 years. He actually called out of the blue 9 months after the split and said how sorry he was, etc. etc. and how he is serving God now and taking his son to church too. He left me penniless for another woman he was having an affair with for the entire time he was with me. Last I heard, he was seen alone in the grocery store. How much you want to bet her money ran out and he is looking for a new gig? They don’t change. Their sorry and guilt goes on…and on…and on..Next!

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