Understanding Narcissistic Shame:

It is important to understand that narcissists have difficulties auto-regulating their shame, the reason for that is because most of the time their “shame” is unconscious and unrecognizable to them.  I believe that this may well be the cornerstone of their disorder, and the reason that many victims fall foul of their rage.  In order to bolster themselves from shame, the narcissist hides behind a mask of grandiosity, but if you shame them, and cause that mask to slip, you will become a victim of their rage.  Rage comes in many forms (from mild irritation, aloofness, serious outbursts, to violence) , but all pertain to the same important thing, revenge.

Shame has long been recognized as a defense mechanism against humiliation, and that it is central to the experience of the self (whether being taunted or admired).  However, to-day’s theorists are realizing that there is a direct relationship between the effects of shame and the phenomenon of narcissism.  It appears that narcissism is deeply involved with shame issues experienced during early developmental stages, and this may well be the root cause of the unexpected flare-ups of rage in the narcissist’s pathology.  To understand this a little more, we need to look at the Internalization Process.

 The Internalization Process? 

The Internalization Process that John Bradshaw (theologian and psychotherapist) speaks about is the gradual process of development that happens over a period of time for every human.  In Development Psychology, when we speak in psychological terms about the “Internalization Process” we are talking about the long-term process of consolidating and embedding one’s own beliefs, attitudes, and values, when it comes to moral behavior within the environment.  Whether you support the theory that the child comes into the world as a tabula rasa (or a blank slate) that is not capable of making a distinction between himself and important others, or you believe that the infant is equipped from birth with considerable powers to engage the attention of his caregivers, I think it is generally accepted that each child has a need to form an emotional attachment with their mother (or other care-giver), and experience that individual as a part of itself.  The child’s knowledge comes directly from its experience and perception of his/her world around them, whether that world is safe or unsafe, healthy or unhealthy, all of which becomes inevitably bound up with the process of their identity formation.

Role models (usually parents, grand-parents, teachers etc) are major players in this internalisation process within the child’s environment, and they will determine greatly how the child will grow to view itself.  The role models will endorse a particular set of norms which the child will internalize.  By the process of introjection the child takes into itself the behaviours and attributes of their external role models. It is through this internalisation process that social interactions become part of the child’s mental functions as it grows, (for example, after having experienced an interaction with another person the child subsequently experiences the same interaction within itself, and makes it a part of its understanding of interactions with others in general).  This identification is a psychological defense mechanism whereby the child can develop a set of norms and adapt itself to similar moral values and guideline by which his/her role models live; this assists the child in their ability to adapt to its surroundings in order to feel safe and secure, not only in their environment, but in the world generally as it strives to form an identity of self.

This is the normal way in which a child develops their self-concept and learns what is acceptable and unacceptable in relation to their personal and sociable behavior.  Of course, while the child is growing there is much for the child to learn, and often he fails in those tasks miserably.  Each failure the child experience will bring with it a feeling of shame, making it needy for reassuring arms.  Whether the shame is experienced as healthy shame or unhealthy shame will depend on the responses of those people around the child.  For example, when a child is struggling with a task, it experiences the feeling of healthy shame which will make him/her reach out for help; this reaching out renders the child needy in that moment.    If loving reassuring arms come to the rescue, providing them with the patience and encouragement that is needed in order to spur it on to “have another go”, while at the same time being able to feel good about him/herself, then the healthy shame will stay intact.    However, if the parent (or caregiver) repeatedly fails to respond appropriately to the child’s needs, he will get the message that it is too needy, and therefore  internalise that they must be bad.  When this happens the child is likely to experience the core wound of abandonment and their healthy shame will quickly turn to unhealthy toxic shame, making it believe that he/she is unlovable.  According to Kaufman, the experience of shame is a fundamental sense of being defective as a person, and it is accompanied by fear of exposure and self-protective rage.  So when shame occurs because of a failure to meet a child’s need, this creates a fundamental uncertainty which can become internalized in the form of a self-contempt.  So it is through the internalisation process that the child’s healthy shame gets transformed into toxic shame.  This toxic shame will affect how the child then sees its self, and their beliefs, thought, and attitudes will be reflected in their self-concept and self-esteem as they grow.

Internalisation of Shame:

The Internalisation Process is when healthy shame is transformed into unhealthy shame and the person experiences him/herself as flawed and defective as a human being.  According to Bradshaw, in the case of shame,internalisation takes place when the following 3 processes are consistently reinforced:-

  1. Identification with shame based models.  Identification is one of the most basic human needs, and this begins with our primary caregivers and significant others from the moment we are born. At this early stage, the egocentric child has not yet developed ego boundaries.  Ego Boundaries are necessary to guard the child’s inner space, therefore when it is not yet developed the child has no protection.  In order to develop boundaries, the child needs to identify with a primary caregiver that has strong boundaries for it to model – without good modeling the child will not develop this resource within themself.    The child also needs this identification process in order to learn to depend on someone outside of itself, which will give the child a sense of security, protection and belonging.  Unfortunately, when a child has shame-based parents, it identifies with them. Shame-based parents act shamelessly and pass their shame on to the child because “There is no way to teach self-value if one does not value oneself.”  This is the first step in the child’s internalizing shame.  When caregivers consistently withhold themselves from their egocentric child, it experiences the trauma of abandonment and internalizes that something must be wrong with them.    Through the core wounds of abandonment the child loses touch with its authentic self and ceases to exist well psychologically.
  2. Abandonment: The Legacy of Broken Mutuality.  A child needs narcissistic supply in order to mirror and echo who and what he/she is.  The child looks to the reflective mirroring eyes of his primary caregiver in order to know how it is doing now in the moment. Without such mirroring it is abandoned. The abandonment includes the loss of mirroring that is so vital to it knowing “who it is”, without such knowing, especially in the first year of life, the child will struggle to form its true identity.  However, when the child receives the reflective mirroring that it needs, it will feel good about him/herself.  It is then able to express their needs and desires without any fear or threat, and feels safe enough to develop at his/her own pace, developing trust in the caregivers as it goes.  As the child’s trust grows, an emotional bond is formed with their primary caregiver.  This bond becomes the interpersonal bridge between the child and other caretakers who make up their world. Through mirroring it learns to see itself through the loving eyes of another. He/she learns the difference between “good and bad” without the need to split itself off.   A shame-based parent who is shut down emotionally cannot mirror and affirm the child’s emotions.  Furthermore, such a parent cannot tolerate their child’s emotions because they trigger their own repressed emotions, which are too overwhelming for them.  Rather than being the child’s narcissistic supply, the roles reverse, and the parent looks to be dependent on the child to be their narcissistic supply.  When this happens the child is deprived of someone being there for their needs, and it experiences isolation and alienation.  Not only is the child alienated from others, but also from its own self.  When the Interpersonal Bridge between the child and his/her primary caregivers is broken, the child experiences the core wound of abandonment.  Bradshaw states, because the child can neither support nor grieve the pain of this broken mutuality, its emotions are repressed and the grief is unresolved.  From that point on, any time in the future if there is an experience that resembles the original shame-based trauma (even vaguely), there is an interconnection of memory imprints which can easily be triggered.  Each time this happens, a new imprint attaches to the existing one until it builds into a kaleidoscope of shameful emotions, and the child becomes shame-bound to the core of its identity whenever it has any needs or desires.   The child then becomes an object of disease and contempt to itself which it must reject, what Kaufman calls, “creating a binding and paralyzing effect upon the self”.
  3. The Interconnection of Memory Imprints Which Form Collages of Shame:  The repressed shaming visual and auditory experiences are imprinted in the individual’s memory bank, and from then on, any other similar shaming events that are experienced become attached, building into a collage of internalized shameful memories waiting to be triggered.    I find the metaphor of a train crash useful for understand this phenomenon.   Imagine the first major shaming memory as the engine of the train, and every subsequent shaming memory a separate carriage that gets linked to the last.  In time the train becomes longer and longer.    If for any reason the train becomes derailed, then it is logical to assume that the more carriages that are involved, the greater the impact of the crash is going to be.  The same is true of an individual with years of frozen shaming experienced all looped together at the core of their identity; all it may take is a word, or a facial expression to derail them, releasing an unexpected flare-up of rage in their pathology.

What is Shame?

Shame is the quintessential human emotion that governs all human development, which can be experienced as either having a positive or negative energy charge.  Bradshaw refers to these energy charges in either of two ways, as being either Healthy Shame (positive charge) or Unhealthy Shame (negative charge).     Regardless of which shame a person experiences, how they internalize that shame charge will affect them greatly.  Actually, when we experience shame as a positive charge, it can be transformational in that it can lead us towards a wondrous healthy state of being where we can develop our True Self in the fullest sense as we journey to become a fully actualized and Authentic Self.  However, when shame is experienced as a negative charge of continuous toxic shaming energy, it can pervade the whole identity of the person in a way that leaves them feeling flawed and defective to the core of their being.  To withstand the agony of this core shame of abandonment, a False Self develops in order to comfort the tormented soul; unfortunately this inauthentic self only serves to isolate the individual from its true humanity, preventing them from becoming a fully alive authentic self.

Healthy Shame V’s Toxic Shame:

We shall look at these two kinds of shame (Healthy Shame and Toxic Shame) in order to give a fuller understanding as to how unhealthy shame contributes to the forming of the narcissistic personality.  Healthy shame is the positive energy charge that nurtures the soul, while Unhealthy Shame is the negative or toxic charge that bankrupts the soul and contributes to the forming of the narcissistic personality. Unhealthy shame wounds not only the individual self, but also the family, the community, and the culture at large.

Attributes of Healthy Shame:

Healthy shame is the experiential ground from which conscience and identity spring.  Healthy Shame, According to John Bradshaw, is honest because it lets us know that we have limitations, and therefore give us permission to accept our humanness at all times.  Healthy shame also helps us to establish a boundary system of socially acceptable behavior in which we can operate safely in relationship to ourselves, and with others.  Without boundaries we create problems for ourselves with others, which can lead to feelings of not being accepted, which can leave us feeling lost and confused.  Healthy Shame keeps us grounded, reminding us that we are not yet Gods, but mere mortals who occasionally need help from others.  Seeking help from another signals the desire to be humble; to have power with someone, rather than power over someone.

Healthy shame makes itself known when we feel embarrassed or blush, thus informing us that we have made a mistake, giving us an opportunity to learn and grow from that mistake.  Healthy shame makes us aware of our shyness and protects us from unfamiliar people by signaling us to be cautious.  For example, when an infant of six to eight months is approached by a stranger he will exhibit “stranger anxiety” and will reject the stranger.  He may lower his eyes shyly, covering his face with his hands or blanket, perhaps throw himself down prone in his cot so that he can hide his face.  He may even cry or scream.   These are all responses we associate with shame, so perhaps shame is an emotion that exists at birth in order to protect us. For example, through the safe arms or mirroring eyes of the mother the child will know that it is safe.  Once the child feels safe its stranger anxiety will be quenched.  Healthy shame highlights our basic need for connection through relationships with others.  It lets us know that “no man is an island”, and it pushes the aching heart to find comfort in social settings within a community of friends.    From as early as two months the infant searches the mothers face looking for facial expressions in order to make contact.  He/she will even try to make faces at the mother  in order to get her attention.  If it does not get the response it is looking for, it will cry out in distress, or it will avert its eyes from the mother’s eyes in order to evacuate its disappointment or fear, thus hiding its shame of abandonment. Healthy shame is the thrust that we need in order to find love and intimacy with another.  Later in life when we find that intimacy in a loving relationship,  that “love of the lovers” is so powerful that it can literally bring new life into the world, and into the heart of the community for all to share.

Healthy shame makes space for us not having to be always “right”.   Richard Bandler suggests that one of the major blocks to creativity was the feeling of knowing we are right.  Being always right is equivalent to always having to have clarity.   To have appropriate clarity is useful, but needing clarity all of the time in order to be always right is inappropriate, as it kills spontaneity, curiosity, and ultimately one’s creativity.   In many cultures the Shaman (who is a man of knowledge) views clarity as being an enemy of any man/woman who seeks knowledge, because it can render them consciously blind.  This blindness tricks a person into never doubting him/herself, leaving them to think that they are greater than they really are, and may lead them to think that they are “special” over everybody else.  With this impatient clarity of mind, the person looses modesty and develops a false pride, which will only stop them from continuing the path of knowledge.  The Shaman urges man to defy clarity, to use it only to see where he can push his creativity and imagination further in order to become even more curious.  However, in those times when he feels that he needs to rest in the arms of Clarity, the shaman warns, “let it be for just a brief time, lingering too long in those arms will rob a man of his awe and wonder”.  Man’s search for meaning begins in awe and wonder, without it he interrupts his creativity, and will bring his search for knowledge to a sudden end.    Healthy shame keeps us in a state of awe and wonder, where we are always unfolding and growing towards our spiritual nature, where we can become whole once again.  That is the true meaning of the word “holy”, we are whole when we are uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, and complete.  Healthy shame is essential for guiding and grounding us to the ultimate source of reality.  Grounded in reality we will be further directed towards developing a healthy personality where we can strengthen and transcend our ego states in a “harmonious family of self”.

Attributes of Unhealthy Shame:

Unhealthy Shame, (or what Bradshaw calls Toxic Shame) is the unconscious demon that undermines the individual’s self-esteem, self-worth, personal power, spontaneous action, and joyous spirit.  All of which produces intense self-scrutiny, leaving a man with an all pervasive sense that he is defective and worthless as a human being.  When the “self “considers itself to be basically flawed, the individual experiences excruciating pain and fears within their self, making them want to hide their flawed self from the world. Terrified that they will be found out, the person will goes to great lengths to guard against exposing their inner self not only from others, but also from their own self.  Afraid that he/she is not good enough, not smart enough, not intelligent enough, the person becomes a slave to their own incessant inner critic.  As a slave they are no longer free to communicate their thoughts and words in an open honest manner.  All the time their incessant internal voices are snapping at their heels like hungry dogs, making sure that they rehearse every word before they dare to speak.  These overzealous internal voices function for only one purpose, to save the person’s vulnerable self from any form of criticism or humiliation.    Unable to operate from their true self, whom they believe cannot be trusted; they abandon their authentic self in favor of a persona that is a false self.   Sadly for a narcissist, it is this false self that houses their pathological narcissism.  This causes the narcissist’s False Self to looks to the outside for fulfillment and validation from narcissistic supply, because they cannot trust their own perceived interior flawed self.  This leads to a spiritual bankruptcy, because rather than just Being, the narcissist is dominated by doing and achieving.

Unhealthy Shame and Its Recognition in Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

Unhealthy shame leads the narcissist to suffer a sense of smallness, worthlessness, and powerlessness in their relationship with others.  The shame can be triggered whenever he/she feels exposed (whether shamed by own self, or by another), whether it is real or imagined makes little difference to them.  Being “seen” is at the centre of the narcissist’s shame.  Their internal images of being “looked at” are so distressing to them, that they wish to disappear out of view when there is the hint of any shame attaching to them, and if they cannot escape then you are likely to experience their almighty rage erupting.

Follow me
Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
Follow me
Latest posts by Christine (see all)