Stephanie felt the ball leave her racquet cleanly and watched it sail deep into the back court, just inside the baseline. The focus of her attention was split between the path of the ball and her own body mechanics. "Watch the ball," she told herself, "get sideways, hit through, finish up." Forehand after forehand, she repeated her silent mantra until the rhythm of the drill overtook her conscious efforts at control. For a few precious moments, she was in that "zone" that athletes cherish when everything comes together and there are no mistakes.
She was smiling secretly, enjoying a licit high, wondering if her husband, Doug, had also noticed how well she was hitting today, when a heavily underspun return angled into her backhand. She lunged, stabbed, and caught the ball on her racquet rim, sending it flying out of the court. "You never read that spin," Doug scolded from the far court. "Never," Stephanie echoed, suddenly feeling as though she had just blown an internal tire. Pain washed over her and settled in the middle of her chest. She felt too heavy to move her feet, too awkward to connect the racquet at the end of her arm with the small neon projectile hurtling toward her. "I'll never be any good at this game," she thought miserably, smashing the next three balls into the net. The elation of only moments before had evaporated, replaced by a hopeless feeling of ineptitude. Stephanie swallowed the tears rising in her throat and gave herself a mental kick in the backside. "You're such a baby," she muttered to herself as she prepared to pack up and go home. "You wimping out on me again?" Doug called out. He was only teasing, trying to goad her back into the drill, but his words were like salt on a fresh abrasion. There would be no more tennis this day.
Boy, is she touchy, you may be thinking, and you would be right. In my business, we call this a "narcissistic injury," and as trivial as the things that provoke it may seem to an observer, to the injured party, the pain is devastating, as it was for Stephanie in this instance. What seems like a rather mundane occurrence is actually the reopening of a very old wound: a relationship of trust is disrupted by a "misattuned" communication (his criticism colliding with her joy) and, adding insult to injury, Stephanie's trusted husband failed to help make the pain go away. Stephanie's sensitivity, her sudden collapse from a state of pleasure, and her difficulty recovering her emotional balance all point to a very primitive sequence of experiences encoded deep within her psyche, most likely beyond the reach of her conscious memory. It is her hard drive for the emotion of shame.
Shame is among the most unbearable of human feelings, regardless of our age or station in life. Unlike guilt, it speaks not to the misdeed but to the misery of a pervasive personal flaw. We first experience shame in the eyes of our mother or primary attachment figure, when, starting around the age of one, we bring her (usually) our excitement and, instead of sharing our pleasure, she scowls and says, "No!" Her unexpected disapproval shatters the illusion of power and importance that is how we see ourselves at that early age, derived from our union with her. Without warning, we have been ejected from this paradise, and it can only be because we are bad. We feel bad, therefore we are bad.
For some children, this experience, repeated over and over in the course of socialization, is so crushing that they never quite get over it, and they spend their lives avoiding anything that makes them feel ashamed. Recent research in neurobiology has shown that the developing brain is not yet ready to process the intense experience of shame at the age when socialization begins and that the lack of an emotionally attuned parent at this crucial time can actually stunt -- for life -- the growth of the pathways for regulating such profoundly unpleasant emotions. What helps the infant's brain develop properly is for parents to provide what the young brain is not yet able to, the soothing of the very shame they have inflicted.
Catherine is the mother of a vivacious two-year-old who is the apple of her family's eye. When Janey had to share her mother's attention with a visiting infant one day, she expressed her indignance by hitting the baby. Catherine was horrified and scolded her daughter, then sent her to her room in tears of shame. Catherine felt compassion for her daughter, however, and did not let her sit with the humiliation too long. After a few moments, she went to her and said, "It was bad to hit the baby, and you must never do that again. But you are a good girl, and Mommy loves you. Now, let's go say 'I'm sorry' to Betsy," and then she gave her a hug. Together, they returned to the living room and Catherine helped Janey apologize.
When parents do not respond as Catherine did to soothe the shame they inflict, children develop their own means of compensating -- they wall off the intolerable feeling, and they use fantasy to distance themselves from the monster behind the wall. They cling to notions of themselves as special, powerful, or important.
In the Narcissist, shame is so intolerable that the means have been developed not to experience it at all. What psychologists call "bypassed shame" looks like shamelessness or the absence of a conscience, hiding behind a protective barrier of denial, coldness, blame, or rage. Since there are no healthy internal mechanisms available to process this painful feeling, the shame is directed outward, away from the Self. It can never be "my fault."
I recall one young woman I worked with from her late teens until her mid-twenties. A child of divorce who had been alternately pampered and ignored by her self-centered father, she struggled mightily with chronic feelings of low self-worth. She saw herself as stupid and repeatedly acted out her sense of incompetence. These feelings, however, and the shame that accompanied them, were close to the surface compared with the humiliation she felt at having been rejected and abandoned by her father. The depth of that pain was to be dramatically expressed one day shortly after she learned that he had been diagnosed with cancer. "Just in time for my wedding," she said, her mouth contorting in an ugly sneer. "He's never paid for anything in my life." The specter of his possible death -- the ultimate abandonment -- had pushed her past the shame of inadequacy to a state of congealed rage. She showed not even a hint of embarrassment at the coldness of her outburst, only raw, wounded contempt.
More typically, the shamelessness of the Narcissist comes across as cool indifference or even amorality. We sense that these people are emotionally shallow, and we may think of them as thick-skinned, sure of themselves, and aloof. Then, all of a sudden, they may surprise us by reacting to some minor incident or social slight. When shaming sneaks past the barriers, these "shameless" ones are unmasked for what they really are -- supremely shame-sensitive. That is when you will see a flash of hurt, usually followed by rage and blame. When the stink of shame has penetrated their walls, they fumigate with a vengeance.
Shame is the feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame in healthy ways -- to face it, neutralize it, and move on as healthier individuals do -- leads to the characteristic postures, attitudes, and behavior of the Narcissist.
Copyright © 2002 by Sandy Hotchkiss
The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism
Why Is It Always About You?
The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism
Whether the narcissist in question is a coworker, spouse, parent, or child, Why Is It Always About You? provides abundant practical advice for anyone struggling to break narcissism's insidious spread to the next generation, and for anyone who encounters narcissists in everyday life.