Guilt and Shame

It’s Narcissist Friday!  

One of the more subtle and unexplored connections between narcissism and legalism is the use of guilt and shame as motivation and control tools. So prevalent are these tools in the message of both legalism and narcissism that the connection can hardly be ignored. From the pulpit and the bedroom, from the family home to the service organization, guilt and shame are readily available and liberally applied.

Guilt and shame are usually found together, especially among Christians. The church has done a poor job of helping believers to release guilt, in spite of a message that proclaims the forgiveness of sins. Instead, the church has used guilt in a mixed message that never quite allows believers to feel forgiven.

The feeling associated with guilt, especially in the church, is shame. Shame moves church members to conformity and obedience; or, at least, compliance. Those who are intimidated by shame find it much more difficult to stand up against injustice, particularly to themselves.

Over the years I have suggested that guilt is a very inefficient motivator. It drains the accused of energy, energy that could benefit the one doing the accusing. In other words, using guilt and shame to motivate your kids to clean their rooms may work, but it costs them in both enthusiasm and creativity. Workers shamed into cooperation are still unwilling and without passion for the work. Employers and leaders who use guilt and shame will receive a lower quality of performance.

However, if you see the people in your care as somehow less than equal and less than valuable, you may be content with mediocre work and reluctant cooperation. If your members or workers are not real people in your mind and their greatest contributions are unworthy in your estimation, you may not care whether they perform with enthusiasm.

Enter the narcissist.

The narcissist has serious difficulty in valuing others or even in seeing others as real. Therefore the contributions of others have no real value to him. Slaves, servants, peons, sycophants, and moochers surround him. He expects them to serve him, but he also expects them to serve him poorly. So he uses whatever motivation will work.

I suspect that one reason a narcissist will attach to a believer is because the believer is often easier to manipulate with guilt and shame. Believers are usually pre-conditioned to accept this type of motivation. We have learned throughout our lives that most things are our fault. We have been told for years that we are inadequate and unworthy. So we accept the narcissist’s judgment as both true and normal.

But there’s more.

Guilt and shame may be very familiar to the narcissist. If we accept the typical version of a narcissist’s childhood, where parents are absent or conflicted and love is withheld except when it serves the parent, then guilt and shame are the primary motivations for the narcissist to hide and project an image. Rejection was his/her fault. He/she was to blame for the difficult childhood. If he/she had been a more worthy son/daughter the parent might have loved more.

The narcissist knows the power of guilt and shame. So it shouldn’t surprise us when narcissists seek victims who are already conditioned to that motivation. Nor should it surprise us when the compromised legalist uses it from the pulpit to control his parishioners or move them to conformity. When the narcissist tells his wife that their marriage problems are her fault, he is probably projecting the guilt and shame he has felt all his life and using it as a primary tool to control. When the legalist preacher condemns his people for the clothes they wear or the television they watch, he may well be projecting the guilt and shame he feels for the compromises of his own life.

So the answer to this control is to know the truth of God’s love and acceptance. Shame makes us feel less as persons. We relinquish our rights and our value when we live in shame. We accept the abuse of others and add to it ourselves, because we own the guilt. But that is not the message God has for us.

There is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus, according to the Scriptures. No more guilt or shame, because Jesus came to take that away from us. Yes, our actions may cause pain and our attitudes may be wrong, but that does not lessen our value to Him. We should be quick to confess injury to others and seek reconciliation, but from a position that is both secure and strong. We are loved by the greatest Judge of all and that will never change.

In other words, believers are healthy when they accept the acceptance God has toward them. We are strong when we acknowledge that nothing can remove us from His protection. We are confident when we understand that guilt and shame have been completely overcome in us by the One who sacrificed Himself for us.

Neither the narcissist nor the legalist preacher has the right to pronounce guilt on us. They have no power over us to place us under shame. We are free to simply shrug off their condemnation and manipulation. Understanding that is health and peace . . . and victory.


Filed under Narcissism

18 responses to “Guilt and Shame

  1. Susan

    Thank you !

  2. I am getting better at not internalizing the daggers, but oh my, I wish they would stop coming at me!

  3. SingingEagle

    OMG!!! There it is! Thanks you!!!!

  4. Thank you for the wisdom in this post. I was a raised by a narcissist–a MEAN one–and I was his scapegoat. I’ve only recently begun processing all that happened when I was young.
    For the last few years, my husband and I have been members of a church where a lot of legalists attend. Even though the pastor does his best to keep this tendency down, sometimes I find that being around the legalists brings me down. It’s like the sun hitting sunburned skin. I’ve tried to tell my husband over and over how these people affect me, but not having been raised in an abusive home, he doesn’t really understand. Is what I’m experiencing typical of abuse victims when they attend legalist churches? Thank you.

    • UnForsaken

      Karen, I believe you are right about legalism. I was raised by a N and in legalistic churches, but fortunately avoided a physically abusive home. That said, I identify with other kinds of abuse emotionally , and I know these churches crush the life and freedom in Christ out of us! It is the “style/subtlety” that is hard to compare, but they do things for so Many of the same self-serving reasons.

      I don’t know if it’s typical or not…but if you can identify it, that is a healthy response. So many people stumble into different looking abusive situations and can’t see …. for various reasons. It’s important to know what healthy looks like, something I’m having to learn every day!

      Hmm, your pastor isn’t grieved to see this in the people? I’ve known some “understanding ” individuals to be just “peace” makers … keep everyone happy and still coming. It can be trying to keep his job, but it’s still a compromise and one that makes it hard for people like you or me to be a real part of anything or benefit spiritually.

      If you are troubled and not finding it a place you can serve, I really would pray about finding another place to attend. If your husband isn’t open to that, you might concider a mid-week Bible study in addition to your church. You need to be able to trust someone near you, and grow in a kind environment.

      I will be praying that your husband will see your need ,even if he can’t understand . Sending You a great big Hug. 🙂

      • Karen–Yes. Legalism is a yeast that works its way through the whole dough. I know. I thought I was such a strong believer! I thought that I could recognize and deal with all the heresies. But with abuse combined with a church congregation (again, like you, not the pastor’s teaching, but the mindset of many in the congregation bent on legalism and patriarchal oppression of women), it ate me up and eroded the grace foundation I had been born-again into. I didn’t see it coming until it had broken me. I’m thankful you see the signs. Beware the yeast of the Pharisees! You are hearing your Savior’s voice. Listen to him! And if the church leadership won’t deal with the false teachings of the “wolves” in the congregation, do consider moving elsewhere. There will always be some, I fear, but if they get a foothold, it really is true that it will work its way through and cause a lot of harm and spiritual confusion and anguish for others.

  5. David These posts are so valuable to me. You have a way of succinctly explaining and exposing the truth through the murky layers of deceit. Thank You

  6. Maggie

    I like this writing today very much. As I read I am aware of the attitude and behavior that began to present in me as I battled to sustain my person/dignity/sanity over the years with a very mysterious and disheartening set of behaviors in my N spouse. My attitude and thinking about my spouse sometimes touched on the idea that he was “less than” and I spiraled downward in expecting very little from him as a result. Interesting to me is that I cannot write that I felt or thought he was less than me. I simply thought he had less to work with and there were times I had very little respect for him in as far as he did not work on growing, maturing , moving away from behaviors that kept him “less than”. I have written before that my N spouse had a covert addiction that he sustained , unknown to me, all friends and family members for decades. It is suggested the addiction was a way of medicating the N truth and behaviors that presented in him…verbal, emotional abuse, no friends, selfishness, etc… Maybe it was, maybe it was not. Either way the addiction was destructive and thwarted any ability to grow and reach his full potential. I had and still have very little respect for him. I am careful, prayerful, humbled about my own behaviors in response to my N spouse because so often the response to such an extreme personality can in fact closely resemble the exact nature of the N’s personality/behaviors. Thank you for this safe place to express deeply personal truths.

    • UnForsaken

      Yes Maggie, accepting Christ’s acceptance is So freeing! I have also been deeply humbled seeing N traits creep upon me. I’ve seen whole church bodies changed to become like the contolling N, forgetting to watch and pray and care about what God thinks. Such bitterness, frustration and now such empty lives! But that could be me…. They believed the lie about their inferiority, and knew they could never measure up. But making a control freak happy is nothing like knowing God Is our perfection! Pleasing God is Not pleasing man. Such a relief!!!

  7. UnForsaken

    No more guilt or shame……Thank You Pastor Dave!

    I hear little echos in my mind, having probably read or heard something like this a long time ago. But it didn’t sink in ’til much later. I believed in self esteem – as Worth in God’s sight – although my relations condemned it. Oddly, even as they depersonalized me, God helped me stand back and not personalize the rejection. It gave me a little more boundary later, when I began to really see the problem. Amazed at how He started opening my mind….It wasn’t something I see myself choosing!

    I was interested recently when reading about another version of the “typical N childhood”. Although it probably includes shame and guilt as well, I think a melodramatic flair for being a “victim” applies well to the “Spoiled N”. This N seems to have no abusive background, or excuse for his behavior – if I read correctly. That is my N. I know something hard happened in his mother at about age twelve, and that if he was like he is today, he took it Personally. ( Incidentally, he doesn’t remember much before that age.)

    But, he has always been in control and inpressed people, so maybe his N thinking was in place already without a reason to feel “tragic”. He reacts to everything as if he is being attacked.

    I look at his parents and Know he was loved, pampered and bragged on. His parents were his security blanket, and he became much worse after they passed away because he transferred that to ” we inferior children”. Impossible to please… 🙂

    This has made me look harder at my own motivations and strive to gain my confidence in Christ. There is nothing like relying on human perfection for stability – it will always fail. Personal ego can always be punctured. There will always be people there to push you down. BUT, when we seek our identity in Christ it Lasts, because it’s about Him. And He is always there for us with His Perfect Love. He helps us please Him! 🙂

  8. Leah Brockenberry

    Excellent….excellent. Thank you!

  9. larae

    Thank you for your articles. My mother has narcissistic behaviors and a prescription drug abuse problem and I have been in a state of no contact with her for over a year. I still feel guilt and shame over my choice to protect myself and family. We attend the same church and I go to a different service to hide from her. She uses the bible against me telling me I need to leave the past in the past, but yet she never apologizes for anything. She also leaves voice mails telling me that I need prayer and that i am destroying my life. I feel so confused and much shame over this. I have tried to confront her but I get yelled at and told I am out of line. I am 36 years old and just want to be free. Your blog has opened my eyes to what grace really is. I was always working hard to be good before. I still struggle with guilt and shame and a feeling of not ever being good enough for God but I am starting to see that as part of the abuse I was under. I don’t say anything to my pastor for fear that they will suggest that I reconcile and I just can’t go back to that cage until things change. I worry that I am being disobedient and sinful because of that but I will continue to read your posts and ask God for guidance. Thank you!

  10. Penny

    Three generations of in-laws, plus extended family, have recently heaped shame and guilt on me & my family because… son is disabled, and “I didn’t have to have him”. Meaning: I should have let him die, or aborted him. My sin was in letting him live, if you can believe that, and it’s a nuisance to them. My precious son is a nuisance to them! He is sweet and dear and kind and they could learn a lot from him if they chose to, but they are not interested. All of them are beyond irritated b/c he is now a vulnerable adult who truly needs & deserves attention and they resent it b/c it interferes with their own need for attention. They don’t want to think about what’s best for him. They don’t “see” him, as Pastor Dave has previously written, and they don’t want to. Their empathy & compassion is non-existent; they don’t want to be bothered with bestowing actual, hands-on compassion or empathy or even meaningful contact. No, they would rather polish up their fake “image” by proxy: posting links to human-interest stories on social media to give the appearance of being caring & compassionate, without any real sacrifice, while getting positive feedback from their “friends” for actually doing nothing. It’s a “virtual narcissism” and they polish up their mirrors to get maximum reflection. They don’t want to actually get their hands dirty and they don’t want anyone to know they are fakes. It is really quite stunning to see ALL of them walk the same “party line”, while ignoring the incident that started it all. There was a breach of his privacy recently, and when I made it clear that it was unacceptable, every single one of them piled on me (and on him) with absolutely NO accountability toward the person who actually committed the breach. Then they really tried to shame me into silence, accused me as the one being hurtful, and threatened retaliation toward him if I exposed them. It has been unbelievable. The take-away for me is that now I know who to never trust again, and who will throw me (and him) under the bus if it serves them to do so. No one came to our defense, yet I was able to put it squarely back on their shoulders and walk away. But oh how it has hurt. It smarts like the sin that it is. I am so grateful for Dave’s last paragraph: “They have no power over us to place us under shame. We are free to simply shrug off their condemnation and manipulation. Understanding that is health and peace . . . and victory.”
    Amen. Thanks, Dave.

    • UnForsaken

      Penny, my teeth are on edge reading this,,,,oooooh. But sending you a good, hard hug!

      It is So painful when we experience injustice and vulnerable people we love are trampled on. I always think those individuals with no empathy should be helpless for just a little while to know how it feels….but Ns would probably dramatize it to get More pity. They use situations and people, and actually like the attention.

      No need for shame has relieved me of some pain too. I like to think it’s part of that burden Christ took for us on the cross. He destroys evil’s power over us and gives us His real srength.

      • Penny

        Thank you so much UnForsaken, for your kind words. Just to know that someone “gets it” means so much. I needed a safe place to vent, and this is that place. I think when Jesus separates the sheep & the goats, most of the goats will be N’s: they did not “see” the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the sick or the imprisoned~they had no empathy! And He will say “I never knew you”.
        I think I understand that a little better, b/c even tho these people are related to me, I never knew them. It makes it easier to walk away.

      • UnForsaken

        Penny, I know what you mean!

        There have been many people in my life I’ve cared about who never cared about me. Why should they? And yet , why should I have cared for them? I believe God gives caring as a gift to soften our hard hearts.

        I only began to understand caring as a special extention of His love when I was being rejected Personally for something I was only a part of. But God helped me continue to care…..and let go – to walk away, as you said. So sad, but they really weren’t the people I thought I knew.

        It’s hard not to take it personally, even the things they did to others I love. But it -Is- easier when someone understands, listens, and unscrambles my jumbled words. Thanks for being one of them!

  11. Thank you need to hear this. I injured my N’s ego recently (held him accountable) and the daggers/attacks have been going on for about a week. I am much better at dodging the daggers and ninja-ing the attacks but it is exhausting and draining. I know that things will settle down after a bit but I needed to hear the encouragement because sometimes this is so lonely. I keep at it for my kids but I need to be reminded that Jesus right by side. I will not allow guilt, shame or any other manipulation to make me feel isolated from my Lord.

  12. Stephanie Parker

    Shame is probably one of the most sadistic and “effective” tools of a narcissist. I am so glad that I will never understand what shaming someone does for a person, unfortunately I have experienced the darkness that results from years of being told in many degrading and demeaning ways that I was not just not good enough, but invisible and insignificant. Shame and guilt can destroy a person’s hope and will to live. I was delivered by God from that situation and I want to tell everyone that God will not forsake you. He will always keep coming for you and he will show you the beauty of your soul. All glory and honor to The Lord, Jesus Christ!

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