A study in Italy has found that characterological shame mediated the link between vulnerable narcissism and maladaptive daydreaming. The new findings suggest that vulnerable narcissists deal with their deep-seated sense of inadequacy by fantasizing about situations where their shame is overcome. This link was also present with grandiose narcissism, but was weaker. The study was published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Narcissism is a personality trait that consists of an inflated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, and of a lack of empathy. It can be divided into grandiose narcissism, reflecting traits related to an overinflated sense of importance and dominance, and vulnerable narcissism, characterized by hypersensitivity to the opinions of others, an intense desire for approval, and defensiveness.
There is much research evidence that shame might be a central aspect of vulnerable narcissism, but a less important aspect of grandiose narcissism. Shame refers to an affect involving the perception that one has personal attributes or has engaged in behaviors that others will find unattractive and which will result in some kind of humiliation. Further investigations have shown that, when they are feeling threatened, narcissists resort to fantasies to bolster their self-esteem.
“It has been supposed that narcissists use heroic and achievement-oriented daydreams to cope with their stress, regulate their fragile self-worth and achieve a compensatory sense of entitlement,” wrote Simon Ghinassi and his colleagues in their study.
The researchers wanted to integrate previous findings and verify that there indeed is a pathway towards maladaptive daydreaming from narcissism that leads through shame. Maladaptive daydreaming refers to recurrent and persistent absorption into vivid and complex fantasies that interfere with one’s own functioning. Ghinassi and his colleagues propose that these daydreams might represent a strategy for regulating feelings of shame.
The researchers organized an online survey. Participants were 357 people from the general Italian-speaking population recruited through social media platforms. They completed assessments of vulnerable narcissism (the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale), grandiose narcissism (the Narcissistic Personality Inventory), shame (the Experience of Shame Scale), and maladaptive daydreaming (the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale-16).
The researchers tested a statistical model in which vulnerable and grandiose narcissism affected maladaptive daydreaming through three types of shame – characterological shame, bodily shame and behavioral shame. Characterological shame refers to a deep-seated sense of shame and inadequacy that is tied to a person’s core identity. Bodily shame is shame related to one’s physical appearance, while behavioral shame is related to one’s actions or behaviors. Test of the model showed that such an arrangement of relationships between the studied factors is indeed possible.
However, when individual links in this statistical model were considered, two that could be confirmed with an acceptable level of certainty were links between the two forms of narcissism and maladaptive dreaming via characterological shame. One additional confirmed link was between vulnerable narcissism and maladaptive daydreaming leading through bodily shame. However, this link was much weaker than the previous two.
While the association between vulnerable narcissism and maladaptive daydreaming was positive, (indicating that people with more pronounced vulnerable narcissism tended to have maladaptive daydreams more often), the links from grandiose narcissism to maladaptive daydreaming (through characterological shame) was negative. The link of vulnerable narcissism going through bodily shame was also negative.
“Overall, the results support that both vulnerable narcissists and grandiose narcissists show a tendency to engage in maladaptive daydreaming. Yet, as hypothesized, relative to grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists seem to be more at risk of an ‘extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning’ to find a kind of retreat from shame,” the study authors concluded.
“The present study highlights a stronger link between vulnerable narcissism and maladaptive daydreaming, and also shows that it is mediated by shame experiences, in line with both studies showing the centrality of feelings of shame in this form of narcissism and evidence of different ways used by narcissists to protect themselves from fully experiencing a deeply embedded sense of shame and inadequacy.”
The study sheds light on an important aspect of the personality trait of narcissism. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, although the statistical model used seems to propose cause-and effect relationships, the design of this study does not allow any conclusions of that type to be made. Additionally, the sample was mainly composed of young people from Italy. Results on older individuals and in other cultures might not be the same.
The study, “Is shame responsible for maladaptive daydreaming among grandiose and vulnerable narcissists? A general population study”, was authored by Simon Ghinassi, Giulia Fioravanti, and Silvia Casale.