Shame is a powerful emotion. We have all felt shame and let’s be honest; it doesn’t feel good. The emotion, “Shame” can be used as a weapon and tool to control, manipulate, and influence one’s life, behaviors, actions, beliefs, and lifestyle. I have known parents to use shame as a discipline tool, but I am against it because of its impact on teaching our children the “habit” of shaming another person. Shame is one of the lowest negative energy vibrations on the map of consciousness. Love is 500, but shame is 20, along with despair, misery, humiliation, and elimination. Therefore, in this blog post and podcast, I will cover the shame response, narcissistic shame, internalized and externalized shame, shame and the shutdown response, understanding the shame response, the narcissistic blame game, and lastly, how to treat shame.
What is the Shame Response?
People, in general, will do anything to avoid shame. Shame towards one’s self and shame from the outside world and society. We have heard the saying about men that when a man is backed into a corner, he will do two things. He will either lie down and die or come out fighting. If he comes out fighting, it will be a fight to the death. Shame can be an unstoppable force that some men will do anything to avoid and protect. To protect families, businesses, reputation, social appearance, and status. We want to bury our sins, and we pray that nobody will find the skeletons hidden within our backyards. I know shame very well. I grew up in a house that filled every crack and corner with shame. Shame upon the family, shame because of what family members did to one another, and shame for being born a girl. When anyone learns that they are a narcissistic psychological abuse victim, they will most likely feel shame, humiliation, despair, and misery. And the more professional, successful, and admired one, maybe, it can be even more challenging to swallow that pill of shame.
So, what does someone do to avoid being exposed or having the truth revealed? A person will hide or bury the truth, lie, devalue, or undermine the impact and severity of the shameful acts, mistreatment, or behaviors. Oh, and yes, some might sacrifice another to take the fall to avoid exposure. They are leaving morals and values outside the building. So, instead of a parent seeing their beautiful child, they only see their parenting mistakes. The self-shame for the harsh words, actions, behaviors, and even lack of actions taints and diminishes love. As if the shame is oil and only a stain remains. This is one form of the shame response. Then, there can be narcissistic projection, rage, stonewalling, and all those other messed up behaviors that someone will use as a weapon or tactic to avoid feeling shame. Then there is self-loathing, self-pity, emotional shutdown, and other survival mechanisms like fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. The responses are never positive because shame is such a powerful negative emotion.
As human beings, we judge people and even shame one another. This is not an honorable character trait, but I have learned that the ones with the most shame tend to be the harshest and most ridged when judging others. They do this to avoid looking within at their guilt. So, to avoid feeling worse about themselves, they get satisfaction from humiliating, mocking, and hurting others. And the shame can go even deeper within, taking root and infecting one’s soul. It can go as deep as scarifying another to save oneself. This truth has even been written in the Bible in the story of Abraham. Just speaking about shame brings up so many emotions. So, I would like to give you all a warning. This topic is not easy, but we need to discuss it. I know you will learn so much today, so just be brave. Plus, all this information might turn on the light bulb within your mind. Give insights and clues to those odd and puzzling behaviors driven by a shame response reaction. Because shameful people never respond, they always react.
I felt shame when I realized my son’s father was a covert narcissist. I felt guilt and shame when I lost custody of my son for eight months. I felt shame because I was a professional, successful therapist. I should have known better, but I got fooled. So instead of whaling in my guilt and disappointment, I educate and inform society. I just turned it around and want everyone to understand one another better coming from a place of compassion, kindness, clarity, and wisdom.
The Difference Between Guilt and Shame
Guilt and shame are not the same. Understanding the difference is important to help a person work through their negative self judgments. In the book, The Secret Language of Your Body, guilt is associated with hip problems, migraines, weight issues, insomnia, impotence, heart disease, and venereal disease. The whole justice system is based on the guilty and the innocent. Guilt has strong consequences and guilt is tied to shame. Guilt and shame eat away at the body because many of us hold self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviors in ways that we punish ourselves. As humans, we are so hard on ourselves. We say the harshest things to ourselves, but would never let those same words escape our lips when it comes to someone we love. Humans are odd creatures. Guilt comes up when something goes against our values. This is considered appropriate guilt. Shame on the other hand is a deeply held belief about our unworthiness as a person. Appropriate guilt is when we have subjectively done something wrong. An example would be stealing or being caught in a lie. This can show up as early as three to six years of age. Appropriate guilt would be considered a person’s moral behavior. When we work with clients on guilt, I like to focus on taking responsibility for the damage done and then to seek self forgiveness. So the client takes responsibility for the behavior and the damage to change the harmful behaviors and attitudes.
Inappropriate guilt comes up when someone holds irrationally high standards and the person cannot meet those standards. This inappropriate guilt comes along around three to six years of age. I would like to give you an example. People that are perfectionists often beat themselves up with guilt. Guilt that they did not meet their high standards. Guilt that they were late. This inappropriate guilt can be seen in someone who is a perfectionist because their parents used guilt and shame as a form of punishment and control. Yet now, as an adult, that person will use the same weapon upon themselves as self-punishment and judgment. A clear sign of deep seeded shame is when you notice the person constantly apologizing for everything as if they expect whatever they do to be considered wrong. We cannot prevent or control life events, yet inappropriate guilt can loom over one’s head like a gray cloud. That is why knowing the difference between appropriate and inappropriate guilt is critical. The irrational high standards or beliefs will remain until they are explored, and more rational ideas are implemented.
So, we need to recognize the healthy guilt and separate it from the unhealthy guilt. Self compassion is very important here because it allows people to start to accept their strengths and weaknesses. If you are a parent or therapist, help that person make a list of their strengths and weaknesses. Just make sure the list is realistic and not fabricated. Here is my point, if we believe we are strong at everything like the perfectionist, then it will be difficult to be compassionate when we don’t excel in someway.
What is Shame?
Shame involves feeling and thinking you are flawed and you do not belong. Shame in that someone has done something wrong. Shame can be used as a weapon to get you to do something or not do something. Shame can be used to prevent a person from acting on impulse or doing something that is frowned upon or taboo. Let me give you some examples. When I was growing up, it was taboo to be gay or lesbian, date a man of color, smoke, drink alcohol, smoke weed, swear, and have sex. The list was long. Sound familiar to some people? Shame was drilled into my brain, and I had to pull those irrational shameful guilt ridden nails out of my head and fill those empty holes with compassion, wisdom, love, acceptance, and mercy. But let’s say you are attracted to someone, and they are the same sex as you. The shameful messages drilled into one’s head can create conflict with the heart. Should you follow your heart or listen to the outdated shame-based messages from society, cultural beliefs, and family? Love is right before you, but who will win in the end? This is the power of shame. It can prevent someone from genuinely living authentically or keeping someone prisoner.
When someone is struggling with shame, they often have feelings of being undeserving, unloved, disrespected, and feeling defective. Shame is much more challenging to treat than guilt because it is wired into the brain at such an early age. As early as fifteen months of age. When a person struggles with shame, there is a fear of rejection, leading to disconnection or avoidance. Shame is also linked to several mental health concerns, including narcissism. In addition, shame is linked to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, addictive behaviors, and social anxiety. Finally, shame is linked to gender and gender roles. It is also linked to how males and females handle shame.
Women have reported experiencing more shame and I would have to agree. Let me give you some examples. A man can sleep around and will be considered a stud or ladies man. A woman who sleeps around is considered a whore, slut, tramp, skank, and many other disapproving choice words. The body type standards for men and women are flawed. For example, a man can gain twenty to thirty pounds and he will most likely not be shamed about his appearance. A woman who gains twenty to thirty pounds will be shamed and humiliated by society, family members, and peers. The shame will impact the woman’s self worth and self confidence. The male, might have his self-esteem and confidence impacted, but the percentage is much higher for women. We want to remove the gender roles and self stereotyping, but there are gender differences. There is also ethnic groups and multi cultural perspective around shame. There are several taboos that are linked to cultural community perspectives and what is considered acceptable and not acceptable actions or behaviors. There is also shame around aging and how the body changes in our culture. In some cultures, shame is used as a discipline. For example in German and Asian cultures. Children will start to think and feel something is wrong with them when they don’t perform in certain ways or manner. Therefore, shame is dealt with very differently based upon different cultures.
What is internalized shame?
Internalized shame is when we feel bad about ourselves and unworthy. We can feel like we don’t belong, don’t fit in with societal norms, are broken, damaged, not good enough, or are failures. A person can appear timid and shy. A person can struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth. They can act subservient, and the world can validate these thoughts and feelings because this person became a people pleaser—pleasing people to feel worthy, important, needed, and worthy of others.
What is externalized shame?
Externalized shame would be the projection of that shame upon others. It can show up as aggression towards others and angry responses. These behaviors get validated by the outer world because when someone is angry and feels like someone is picking on them, then the world confirms that anger by the angry responses towards them. This is what someone narcissistic will do to another person. We also see the same behaviors in someone who is being bullied. The keyword here is projection. This leads me to our next topic, what is narcissistic shame?
What is Narcissistic Shame?
In previous blog posts, I have discussed attachment styles and how a person becomes narcissistic. Shame can begin as early as 15 months of age. Many cultures use shame parenting approaches to control a child but are unaware of the damage and consequences. Narcissism is the primary defense against shame. When someone feels an overwhelming sense of shame, they will most often seek an outside sort of comfort to feel better about themselves. Someone narcissistic and struggling with unbearable shame will seek distraction or avoidance from others. They will seek admiration from others (the outside world) to deny or hide from reality (the inside world of disappointments). When dealing with someone narcissistic, they might notice how they test a person’s patience, enjoy pushing boundaries and taking risks, can drain us emotionally because of their constant need to draw attention to themselves, and enjoy making fun of others who believe they are beneath them. Their narcissistic behaviors can make social interactions dull and one-sided or a drama-filled roller coaster ride. Recognizing that someone narcissistic suffers from unbearable shame may support someone in developing some compassion, but it doesn’t make excuses for poor behavior. Is there a solution?
Why is it challenging to treat narcissistic shame?
I have mentioned that only a tiny percentage of narcissistic people seek help. You should know by now that I have compassion and acceptance for someone narcissistic. They were created from coldness, disconnection, control, manipulation, guilt, abuse, and shame. No child should be raised in a home without unconditional love. Yet, a person can become narcissistic from bullying and trauma. Therefore, the narcissistic types I will discuss today are those created from different parenting styles and child abuse. Since the narcissist’s primary defense is to avoid shame at all costs, when a therapist or support person tries to discuss the client’s narcissistic behaviors as a defense, it can trigger a negative response. You might have noticed the same reaction when you tried to communicate with someone narcissistic. Let’s unpack it.
The narcissist has worked hard to create this beautiful “I am important” outer appearance when the real world inside is flawed and too painful. Rather than realizing the therapist is trying to help them uncover the truth of this wounded and imperfect inner world, the narcissistic client often feels humiliated. Remember, humiliation and shame are the lowest negative energy vibration level. Here is a better example: When friends or family members get too close to the truth, and the narcissistic person is about to be exposed, the narcissistic person might suddenly lash out in rage to protect and defend themselves. The narcissist wants to avoid pain and shame. Therefore, they might scream, projecting and searing their pain into another person. This is an avoidant tactic that often works because it can scare the crap out of any decent person. This sudden and unexpected behavior can make a person feel disconnected, unbalanced, unsafe, and frightened. That is why it is challenging to treat and communicate with someone narcissistic. As soon as you start to peel away the layers and reveal the deep seeded weeds growing within, the narcissist will retreat, usually not in a friendly manner. The second form of defense the narcissist will use to avoid feeling shame is BLAME. Let’s unpack it.
How to Avoid the Narcissistic Blame Game
The pairing of shame, blame, or indignant rage, is extremely common. I would like to give you an example. Let’s say a couple got into a fight the night before. The narcissist client will heavily rely on blame as their defense instead of taking responsibility for their actions of being hostile or manipulative. Instead, the narcissist might spend hours reviewing the argument in a highly accusatory manner, examining and picking apart all of the other person’s faults until it has progressed into a total character assassination. Yet, underneath all that blame and projection, the narcissist feels ashamed and guilty about the “crazy” way they instigated these fights. Will the narcissist client confess their responsibility for their destructive behaviors? Hell no. That takes maturity and courage. Instead of seeking a positive solution to their problems and lack of communication skills, the narcissist will shift blame to make themselves feel superior and better about themselves. Avoiding and denying the truth is a form of manipulation. Manipulating another person to avoid feeling shame will eventually ruin the relationship. So how do you prevent the narcissistic blame game? This might seem odd to some people, but I have tried this approach, and it has worked. The easiest way to connect with another person is to make eye contact. Let me explain: when someone feels shame and guilt; they will avoid eye contact. This is about responding, not reacting. When you get on another person’s level, face-to-face, eye contact, you connect to their soul. The soul does not judge and is neutral. Speak from your heart and use the sandwich approach. Timing is everything; how you feel and think inside during communication and connection is vital.
What is Narcissistic Contempt?
Narcissistic contempt represents another layer of self-defensive posture, which is extremely difficult to penetrate. It’s a like a fortress wall of protection because the narcissist has experienced enough shame and wants to avoid letting those ugly emotions out. So, let’s explore the feelings of contempt and disdain for a minute. When someone narcissistic feels contemptuous toward someone, two dynamics are at play. First, the narcissist is angry with the target of their contempt. Second, narcissist believes they are superior to that which is contemptuous. The same applies to the emotion of disdain. When a narcissist displays either overt or covert feelings or contempt towards a person, they believe they are in the one-up position. The narcissist can appear smug and superior. They might blame judgments upon the person. The whole act displays external shame projecting their unresolved negative shameful emotions.
There are two reasons that narcissists often feel these contemptuous and negative emotions. One is because someone in their youth (probably a parent or primary caregiver) projected these shameful emotions onto them. In doing so, the parent or caregiver “imprinted” this type of behavioral expression of negative emotions onto the youth, which they replicated in adulthood. All behavior is learned behavior or monkey see/monkey does theory.
So, how do you communicate with someone who uses contempt against another person? I suggest shifting the person’s perspective by creating a pinhole of light within a dark room. For example, in a disagreement or conversation, “Maybe there is another way of looking at this situation that is just as valid but from a more positive perspective. Maybe we can explore some options and find a better solution.” On this surface, this remark appears neutral; underneath, it can betray their complete contempt towards you. How do you know someone is projecting their self-loathing contempt upon another person? A clear sign is when you notice the person’s habit of responding to things you say with their “own interpretation,” delivered in a condescending tone and smirk. This person is projecting their damaged self into another and treating it with superiority and contempt.
How to treat shame and the shutdown response
As I said earlier, it is very challenging to address shame when working with a client or just communicating with another person. Most people will immediately want to hide or avoid shame when someone addresses it. The person will hesitate and feel uncomfortable because shame is such the lowest negative emotion. That is why when anyone addresses shame it is done in a gentle, respectful manner.
Connection with other people is essential in treating shame and guilt. Self help groups can be helpful because you can feel this sense of connection with the group. If you don’t then you need to find a self help group that does give you that sense of compassion and connection so you can heal.
Shame is so deeply internalized that it is linked to who we are as a person. So when we address self criticism and beliefs of being inadequate with self compassion, we find that we are able to bring that shame out of hiding. This is the battle in treating shame. One has to gently support a person in taking that shame out of hiding. This is not an easy task. To begin, we need to shine a light on that shame and accept that it does exist. That is why compassion, kindness, and forgiveness is essential. Shame is never a joyful topic to explore or the first in line. Therefore, when a person feels that they belong, the shame can more easily addressed because the person is in a safe space and trust has been established.
Another way in treating shame is to remove the label of good and bad. When we label a person good or bad, we are stuck in split thinking (black and white). The way a person or child internalizes good and bad can mean acceptance or rejection. As a parent and person, nobody wants to be rejected. Therefore, our choice in words matters. For example, we need to stop telling a child that they are a good or bad. Good can equal perfection or the tendency to become a perfectionist is the parent fixated on having their child be consistently good. Hyper fixation can lead the child into becoming a narc or tattle tale if another child misbehaves. Teaching the child to become a bully or self righteous. If we focus on the bad the majority of the time, the silent message we are sending our child is they are flawed and don’t belong. Since the child is not receiving enough positive re-enforcement, the child might act out more in defiance. Instead, of using the labels good or bad, we should be saying the following:
1. I do not like that behavior and I would prefer…next time. Here is my logic. The child is still a good person. The child is just behaving in a manner a person does not like or approve in the moment.
2. Instead of saying a child is good, thank them for the good behavior. Point out how and why the behavior was good and appreciated. When we do this, we our showing our child mutual respect.
3. When your child made a mistake, instead of telling them they are bad, try this. You can say, “Well, that was not your finest moments. What could you have done differently? or That did not turn out as you expected. What did you learn from that experience?”
Finally, I want to address meditation and hypnosis. These two tools are exceptional when it comes to changing a habit, behavior, or belief. I have been a certified clinical hypnotherapist for 20 years and have been voted the best in my area for the past 13 years. I highly recommend this tool for removing limiting beliefs, anger, accepting yourself, eliminating guilt, social anxiety, and stopping those addictive destructive behaviors.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post about shame and the shutdown response. I covered a lot of ground today, but I know you learned a lot. After what you have learned today, you might understand why a narcissist does the things they do. Of course we do not like the things they do, yet it brings about clarity and dispels the confusion.