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)