I live at the intersection of Shame and Humiliation.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. I’ve talked over and over about the effects of growing up with a narcissistic father and an unstable mother who left us. The more I studied narcissistic personality disorder over the last decade, the more sense my childhood made — and the more I understood my father’s continuing patterns.
Until he died — almost five months ago — I was always trying to understand more about narcissism as a way to defend myself against him. That was always the context. Now that he’s gone, though, my thinking has changed in a very uncomfortable way. More than ever, I’m having to confront the question of what his abuse did to me — and how it affects the person I am today.
Imagine a vampire story in which the vampire bites his victim — starting the process of turning him into another vampire — but then something happens and the vampire is killed. The would-be victim is rescued and he goes back to the normal world. But the victim carries an unseen poison within, even though nobody can see that and he never becomes an actual vampire.
That’s where I am. There are two stages of becoming a narcissist. The first is being taught to feel deep shame and the second is learning to strike out against others as an abuser — as a defense mechanism against the shame. I escaped becoming an abuser — but I struggle with the shame.
When it comes to narcissism, we all tend to focus on the abuse itself. (That’s understandable.) Few people comprehend what’s underneath the abuse, and I suspect that’s because many hurting victims are too angry at the pain — and too eager to find a way to escape a pattern they’re locked into — to care about the narcissist’s internal pain. The idea that the narcissist is in pain and suffers immensely is almost insulting, because it can be seen as justifying the narcissistic abuse.
But narcissists become what they are because of the intense shame they feel inside. They don’t feel good enough. They hate themselves on some deep level. Their real selves are so fragile and damaged that they construct a false self to project to the world. I used to assume that a narcissist’s projection of a false self was mostly a matter of trying to get others to accept that false self — to hide what they really are from the world.
But I now understand that narcissists are mostly trying to convince themselves. They are terrified of what they believe they are. They’re afraid they have no worth. They’re afraid they’re not worthy of being loved. They’re afraid if anybody really knows them, that person will reject them.
I’m not trying to create sympathy for the narcissist by understanding this. I’m trying to understand the mechanism by which the abusive situation is created. All the victims see is the abuse. The victims and others who watch the narcissist just want to get away from this terrible person (as they should). They don’t understand that there’s a hurting person lurking beneath the abusive exterior. For the most part, it wouldn’t help to understand it, though, because the narcissist is typically so disconnected from reality (and his own true self) that he couldn’t become vulnerable enough to understand his own pain and start to heal.
Social work researcher Brené Brown has done a lot of work about shame and what it really means in humans. She says, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love.”
When you understand that — that a narcissist is someone in incredible pain about his own self-worth — it becomes easier to understand why he becomes a person who lashes out at others. It doesn’t justify any of the abuse, but it starts to make sense why it happens.
Here’s something I’ve started to understand more clearly about myself. My father’s abuse took me through the first stage of learning to be a narcissist. He taught me that I wasn’t good enough. He taught me that I wasn’t worthy of being loved for what I was. He taught me that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
In other words, the narcissistic vampire bit me. I was infected with shame — but something went wrong with the dysfunctional process of becoming a narcissist. Something in me wouldn’t move on to becoming an abuser.
I’ve talked with you before about the painful period about 10 years ago when I first started learning about narcissism and I had to be brutally honest with myself about the ways in which I had learned some unconscious behavior patterns from my father. There’s no way I can explain how hurtful that was — to see that I was acting in some ways that made me fear I could be like him.
It would have been even more painful — in a way that was unthinkable — to realize what I’ve seen now. I had already numbed myself to the shame I had been taught to feel. By doing this, I was halfway down the narcissist road. The only thing that saved me was becoming conscious of what it was and then becoming intentionally vulnerable with others.
You might recall that I wrote last spring about why I have to be so vulnerable about my flaws. I was trying then to explain this process — in terms remarkably similar to what I’m saying now — but I think I’ve come to understand it even better today. You see, being open with you about my flaws and failures prevents me from having to have a false self which could lead me into narcissism.
If I’m open with you about what I am — my fears, my failures, my shame — I can’t have a false self to defend. The downside, of course, is that I feel shame about admitting to the things most people hide. I feel shame about not projecting that I’m perfect. I feel shame about showing myself to be someone who you might not love. But this stops me from deceiving either one of us — and that self-honesty short-circuits the mechanism which could make me act like a narcissist.
This has been on my mind constantly for the last few days because of something I got angry about Sunday afternoon. The specifics don’t matter. I was rightly annoyed about something, but I felt irrational anger that made me want to strike out at someone — and I’ve come to realize that this sort of irrational anger is always a sign that I’m accessing an emotionally unhealthy part of myself.
When I feel that way, I disengage from the situation and think about what I’m feeling. It never fails that I feel as though someone else has control. It never fails that I feel small and vulnerable and worthless. When I feel those ways, I feel as though I’m under attack. When that happens, my defensive instinct is to strike out in anger — verbally, not physically — and that’s when I have to disengage and get a handle on what I’m feeling.
When I’m in the midst of such feelings, I feel terrible about myself. I feel worthless. I feel unloved (and feel as though nobody will ever love me). I feel as though I’ll never be good enough to do or be what I want to do and be. It’s a very destructive place to be — and I absolutely must deal with it.
The psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “Shame is a soul-eating emotion,” and I know that to be true. Shame can be so damaging that you feel you have nothing left and nothing to live for. It’s a terrible place where I sometimes find myself.
I don’t know why I never turned into the abuser that my father was. I’d like to think I’m just a better or smarter or wiser person than he, but I doubt that’s true. Whatever the reason, I now see the pattern that started working its way through me when the narcissistic vampire bit me. He kept injecting me with his poison, but it somehow never completely “took.” I never became what he was — and the more I understood the process that was going on, the easier it was to avoid it entirely.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get away from the shame entirely. I might live the rest of my life constantly afraid that I’m not worth being loved and that anything which goes wrong for me emotionally is because I’m fundamentally flawed. I hope not, but that might be my reality. I know that I’m intensely sensitive about some things which a lot of people would find to be “harmless kidding.” The people in my life have to understand that — and I have to constantly work to stop defensive reactions which would otherwise have me lashing out.
The one thing I know for certain is that I will never be an abuser. I know too much about this process — and I’ve worked too hard to be open about who my real self is. I have to keep working hard to be more and more honest — with those few who care to see — to avoid having the need to build a false self to protect.
I suspect the only thing that’s ever going to change the shame is long-term consistent love of being part of an emotionally healthy family — having a wife and psychologically healthy children. Right now, I fear that I’ll never be loved by the sort of woman I need. That’s my biggest terror, because it would “prove” my worst fear — that I’m not worthy of being loved.
It’s all complicated. I still have a lot to learn. I’m just grateful that I started down this long path of self-discovery 10 years ago. I’m very thankful that the narcissistic vampire who raised me didn’t finally turn me into the clone who he always desired me to be.
I might share some of his shame, but I will never share his abusive ways. I will love instead — and I will try to be someone who is worthy of being loved.