A new study published in BMC Psychiatry pinpoints the role of shame in contributing to the negative outcomes associated with narcissism in young adults. The researchers found that youth who were higher in vulnerable narcissism demonstrated greater shame, and in turn, higher scores in preoccupied and fearful attachment.
Although narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has attracted much attention from scientists and laypeople alike, research concerning effective treatment for the disorder remains scarce. The personality trait of narcissism is defined by an inflated self-image, a lack of empathy for others, and an exceptional need for attention.
Charlotte C. van Schie and her colleagues point out that narcissistic traits tend to increase naturally during adolescence, and some of these characteristics may even be adaptive. However, at their extreme, narcissistic traits can develop into pathological narcissism and become maladaptive.
The researchers were motivated to study the psychological process through which narcissism in adolescence becomes maladaptive. They proposed the contributing role of shame, suggesting that when adolescents with a heightened sense of self do not perceive themselves to be living up to this unrealistic standard, they experience shame. This shame then leads to internal struggles and interpersonal difficulties, impairing their social relations.
A total of 348 young adults between the ages of 17 and 25 completed a questionnaire that measured two facets of narcissism: vulnerable narcissism (characterized by sensitivity to rejection) and grandiose narcissism (characterized by elevated self-confidence). The survey also included a scale that assessed shame concerning one’s character, body, and behavior. Finally, the four attachment styles of secure, preoccupied, dismissive, and fearful were assessed.
The researchers discovered that the youth with higher levels of vulnerable narcissism also experienced higher levels of shame. This was not the case for those with grandiose narcissism.
Moreover, shame was found to mediate the association between vulnerable narcissism and attachment styles. Specifically, young adults who were higher in vulnerable narcissism experienced greater shame, and in turn, higher fearful and preoccupied attachment and less secure attachment. Shame did not mediate the relationship between grandiose narcissism and any of the attachment styles.
The authors explain that experiencing high levels of shame can impede social relationships by causing individuals to withdraw from others, become overly clingy, or even become hostile. The findings might suggest that youth with vulnerable narcissism experience greater shame due to the disparity between their ideal selves and their actual selves and that this shame leads to antagonistic characteristics that thwart their social relationships.
In particular, basing one’s self-esteem on others’ judgment — termed contingent self-esteem — was the aspect of vulnerable narcissism that was responsible for the link between narcissism and shame. The authors note that this is aligned with the view that narcissistic people have a “weaker sense of self” that depends more on how others perceive them and less on their internal experiences.
Van Schie and her team discuss possible implications for the clinical treatment of narcissism, suggesting that, “fostering self-compassion in treatment, including with young people, may counter the disruptive effects of shame by allowing one’s needs and sense of self, including negative aspects of the self, to be experienced.”
The study’s authors emphasize that their research was cross-sectional, which does not allow them to infer causality. While it seems plausible that vulnerable narcissism causes increased shame, it could also be that shame precedes vulnerable narcissism.
The study, “Narcissistic traits in young people and how experiencing shame relates to current attachment challenges”, was authored by Charlotte C. van Schie, Heidi L. Jarman, Samantha Reis, and Brin F. S. Grenyer.