narcissists and shame

Narcissists and the Shame Agenda

 “Wouldn’t the red shoes look better with that outfit?”

A seemingly innocent question, no?  But, if the person being asked is in an emotionally abusive relationship, it can trigger a sinking, burning sense of humiliation, which – in the case of a relationship with a Narcissist – is what the asker wants to achieve in the asking of the question.

If you’ve been following my blog or reading about Narcissism in general, you probably already know the intent of an emotionally abusive partner when they provoke you to feel shame.

But, where does that shame come from?  How do we develop it? 

And how do Narcissists know exactly what to do or say in order to trigger it?  Let’s examine two types of shame and how they manifest in our lives.

Shame resulting from guilt

It may be surprising to learn that some shame is healthy.  Specifically, the kind of shame one might feel after hurting another person, either intentionally or unintentionally.  Or, perhaps when we’ve been persuaded to do something that’s completely out of character for us.  Feeling this kind of shame is generally good.  This is the type of shame that comes from having a healthy conscience and a desire for other people to feel good about themselves.

This first type of shame is an emotion; a feeling.  We experience it, and then hopefully make strides to correct whatever action we took that produced it.

However, there is another type of shame that is destructive.  In fact, this type of shame isn’t an emotion or a feeling, but a state of being.  This is toxic shame, which has been internalized within the person who lives with it. 

It’s part of who they are, often without their being consciously aware of it.  And unless they make a dedicated effort to get to its source and heal from it, they will never feel at peace with themselves, nor in the relationships they form with other people.

Let’s look further into the subject of toxic shame and how it develops.

Toxic Shame

Sadly, toxic shame develops in one’s childhood as a result of having caregivers who themselves were raised to feel they weren’t good enough.  It’s a disease that’s been passed down through generations for centuries.

When we were little children, around the age of, say, two or three, we were innocent.  We loved to explore and learn about the world and our surroundings.  Being naturally curious, we often got ourselves into situations that our parents or caregivers didn’t particularly care for.  Maybe we were curious about our mother’s cosmetics, or perhaps our father’s musical instrument. 

If we were raised by parents who carried the disease of toxic shame, we were likely punished.  At times physically, even at such a young and tender age.

During our formative years, we did not have the capacity to process these events.  All we knew was that we were having a great time, when all of a sudden, our hand was being smacked, or perhaps we were suddenly yelled at and spanked. Obviously, if this happened on a regular basis, we began to believe we were just bad.  We started to feel perpetually anxious and afraid, never knowing when our caregiver’s wrath would be delivered upon us.

As we grew older, maybe the physical punishment continued, and when we were old enough to understand more about our language, we heard things such as, “Cant’ you ever learn?!”, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”, “Tears come easily to a girl who doesn’t get her way”, and the like.

Then, cultural shame added to our sense of being innately bad.  Perhaps, during the course of childhood, we attended Church…where we were told, “We are all born into this world sinners because of the sins of Adam and Eve. That’s why childbirth is so painful, and why we all must die a mortal death.” 

Admittedly, I was afraid of the Church as a small girl.  It seemed our whole existence consisted of fire, brimstone, and gnashing of teeth.  Unless someone told us otherwise, how were we supposed to learn we are good and that the world can be a wonderful place? 

How were we to know real love instead of fear and shame?

Unfortunately, most people who live with toxic shame never had anyone to tell them they were worthy, smart, or had great potential.  What’s more, this is what they carried with them into their adulthood.  They grew up believing they were born bad and there wasn’t a thing they could do to redeem themselves, except to conform to other people’s wants and desires…perhaps getting a sliver of recognition here and there…similar to the ones they may have received as a child.

These are the very things that Narcissists seek out in their partners – stories of painful childhoods; of not feeling good enough; of not being recognized or acknowledged; of parents who were never around, or  were always too involved in their own lives to care for anyone else. 

Once a Narcissist learns this about a new lover, he or she coldly and calculatingly starts the love-bombing phase to hook their target.  Once their target is in love and feeling safe, the Narcissist begins withholding affection, stonewalling, being unavailable, and worse, begins the silent treatments…all to activate their target’s fear of abandonment, which in turn, brings to the surface toxic shame which their partner has tried to keep dormant during his or her lifetime.

Narcissists are shame experts

It’s no secret that Narcissists typically don’t experience the same feelings we do as they pertain to emotions such as joy, love, compassion, and common decency.  However, if there’s one thing they do share with us, it’s shame.  That’s why they are so good at shaming us.  They know exactly what to say and do to bring out that burning sense of not belonging, not being good enough, and being inherently “bad”. 

It also explains why, no matter how much we give during the relationship, it’s never good enough.

People who carry the heavy load of toxic shame truly believe there is something wrong with them.  They dislike themselves for it and they are deathly afraid that the people around them will see through the images they project and dislike them for it, too. 

In many cases, shame-based people have no idea they have these feelings about themselves because they’ve built up defenses to bury those thoughts so they could survive.  However, healing toxic shame is a critical first step for those who find themselves addicted to toxic relationships

It all starts with acknowledgment

Carrying toxic shame doesn’t mean you can never be happy, healthy, or know real love.  All that is still in you, waiting for you to clear out the shame in your mind and let your true self emerge.  It won’t be easy.  In fact, it’s often terrifying and excruciatingly painful.  Facing and conquering your shame will require more bravery than you’ve probably had to muster in your life. 

But, if you’ve read this far, I imagine this journey may very well be something you’re willing to try.

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  1. Shirley Akpelu

    I am happier now than I have ever been thanks to healing and recovery. It is a long, lonely process but worth it. Yes, shame started in childhood as a generational curse and now it is up to me to stop the curse, to keep it from manifesting to the next generation. Fear, obligation, guilt and shame were used against me and my parents but acknowledging this is half the battle. I want to learn from these issues and teach my son and my relatives who have been shamed what is really going on in our homes and what to look for. Thanks Kim for your encouragement.

  2. Diane Murillo

    I want to thank you for helping me though this hurt at the same time . Every one tells me . I deserve better. He betrayed me when I trusted him and lived for him. How could he be so cold heartless and blame everything on me .

  3. Debbie

    My hands were shaking and tears sprung in my eyes whilst I read this. My Narc left 18 months ago after 20 years together after beginning a relationship with a work colleague. Amongst the ‘what have I done’ I have been forced to look at our relationship; shaming was rife and his negativity became my negativity. Add single parenting 2 children since birth whilst in a marriage, I suddenly saw that I was alone in our relationship from the start, instead of a partnership he treated everything as a competition and I always fell short. I was angry, I was useless, I didn’t look right, love right where in reality my mind and body were fighting to hold it together alone for a very long time. And to everyone he was perfect, a great guy. When I looked deeper I saw the child that just wanted to belong, to be loved. My father was ill for most of my life and my mother was left to parent me almost single handed, but she wouldnt; her attention and love was given solely to my older brother to the extent that I bought myself up from a very young age. I’m slowly climbing the mountain of repair and of recognition that I am worth so much more than the crumbs I have been given for all of my life. My mother has chosen to repeat history, and treats my son as she treated my brother whilst my daughter gets nothing. And my son has decided that his father’s behaviour is perfectly acceptable in that everything wrong with the world begins and ends with me. It’s a tough climb but I’m no longer afraid to make it.

    1. Kim Saeed

      Debbie, thank you for sharing your experience so beautifully and poignantly. I’m so very glad that you are no longer afraid to walk the path to healing.

  4. Anastasia Lynne Dunn

    Done it. Got rid of the toxic partner, dug into my childhood and rescued the little girl that was shamed, letting her know that her abuse as a child at the hand of her mother, was not okay. Healed her. Now, I’m doing bigger and better things than I’ve ever imagined… including, a dream realized, just recently due to the rock-solid belief I have in myself, and the love for me, first and foremost. I made it to the top of the mountain.. and looking over the beautiful valleys and rivers on the other side, is amazing!! I’m back to ME again, and stronger than ever – and I thought I’d never get through it; indeed it was the toughest thing through which I’ve had to go. BUT… it gave me strength, strength I never knew I had!

    If you don’t love yourself, you can’t expect that anyone else will truly love you. Your self-respect and solid boundaries are KEY to finding who you are, REALLY are! Love yourself, and do not let others disrespect you, treat you badly, or shame you, because they are self-loathing. YOU DESERVE BETTER, so go out and get it!!!

    LOVE YOURSELF… ABOVE ALL, LOVE YOURSELF!! The rest will fall right into place, in the right time. :o) <3

    1. Anastasia Lynne Dunn

      (and for those that are in the worst of it right now… I PROMISE. If you go through the tunnel and repair the damage that was done to you by correcting what you know to have been done to you that was wrong, hurtful and abusive, you’ll learn to get past this painfully difficult time. They’ve completely altered your brain pattern, by keeping you in a constant state of confusion and disorientation. That is NOT who you are; that’s the way you’ve adjusted, in order to try to save a relationship that was never going to survive: not because of you, but because of your toxic partner bringing you down. Throw the weight off of your shoulders, and march on, proud of who you are! LOVE YOURSELF!! <3 It won't always hurt this badly, that's a promise!!)

    2. npeden

      Lovely, spot on post Anastasia. I am doing sound healing and a lot of trauma and recovery work after 40 yrs. putting all MY creativity into a NARC who abandoned me after I had cancer. Check the news; this is a common occurrence: men leave sick wives; wives stay and nurse the NARC.

      I am digging deep too and maybe the self loathing is mitigating a bit. I recently had a profound insight of how I had put all my creativity into HIM, not me, as I felt I had none. Well, that is changing. I AM A CREATOR working on loving herself just as she is. If that doesn’t work for you, then go. I invite into my life loving support from mature people.

  5. tina

    I agree, where and how do we find soles when we are so drained and portrayed as “crazy”, “pre/menopausal”, blah, blah, blah, the adjectives go on and on, (as well as they do for our male counterparts that suffer narc abuse). I feels like we suffer within ourselves, battered, bruised, broken, ashamed. We have no physical ailments to show, right? Yes, if you follow the journey Kim and her accomplished fellow research community, bloggers, our own comments and struggles, and this wonderful site helps us all through. We all are broken at some point who knows when, where or why (that’s our own self work) but, we are also, caring, self-sufficient, dependable, obviously attractive in a way we all will find ourselves again. I HOPE you will see you are not alone. Karma is full circle please believe, deep breathing at the rough times, you give ONE go at this life, live it to the fullest, kick ass, take names…whenever.

  6. Cecilia A. Sparks

    “I had no idea,” said npeden. No one knows whether they’ve begun a relationship until it’s too late. I was with my S. for 4 1/2 years, and had no idea, partially because I was teaching and taking care of my parents, then retired and becoming a 24/7 caregiver. The warning signs are just not there, and the “monsters” know exactly what they’re doing. Where are the advocacy groups to support the victims? How do we find the route and means to change injustice against victims, especially when the consistent lying in court ruins any chance a victim can get compensation or justice? Any suggestions/answers?

  7. Kat

    Narcissists traffic in shame–that’s the short version I give to folks who are new to it and are just beginning the journey of finding their way past the abuse. The first step in protecting yourself, IMO, is not only to refuse to be shamed or worse, ashamed, but to righteously claim your own truth, without the need to justify, explain, or back down. Easier said than done, but once I refused to be (a)shamed, it became much easier.

  8. narcmagnet

    I also agree with the silent treatment thing. They know it works and use it. Anyone else the peace keeper? sometimes apologizing for them just to have peace?

    1. LG

      I had no idea what the silent treatment was about until being introduced to Kim’s articles and doing more research. It is one of the most terrible things to do to a person and treat another human being, let alone a person that you are in a relationship with. When I started to understand that this was a form of mental and emotional abuse, I felt more strength inside of me and confronted the Narc, my boyfriend and told him of how well I am informed and know of his abuse! Thank you again to Kim and her informative articles and information/knowledge to help others, like myself to understand these people.

      1. npeden

        Wow, I had no idea about the silent treatment which he did all the time. Definitely a way to control me and make me go bat shit.

  9. LG

    Excellent article Kim! So informative and I always wondered how a person that says they love you can shame you by calling you names that demean you. Of course, the silent treatment was also used after that person is the one who arguing with you and calling you those hurtful names and saying things about you to cut you down personally! You again, give me more and more strength through all your articles. Thank you Kim!!

  10. narcmagnet

    Could I have possibly had a good childhood but married a narcissistic man that started the shame? My parents were actually very loving and supportive…but was raised in religion with strict rules. Without my parents I wouldn’t have been able to leave my husband who also was a voyeur /peeping Tom and I found out after marriage. I hate that it has made me codependent, untrusting, people pleasing, and attracted to narcisstics. I currently date a narcissistic man and I’m struggling. Because about 50% of the time he is wonderful and caring. I feel like I’m constantly Tip toeing as not to upset him.ughhhhhh.

  11. Anonymous

    I’m a survivor of a 25-year marital relationship to a diagnosed Narcissistic husband. It’s taken years of therapy to realize I “married my mother” (I’m a girl, lol). This article jumped at me because my mother used to say frequently “You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!!” The general consensus for my sister and I was that (although we could never understand nor articulate it at the time), was that we could never “compete” with my mother’s pain of her difficult childhood of being raised in an orphanage. Only until we had children of our own did we realize that her message was “you have no idea how good you have it, I am the one who suffered true pain, so your feelings of anything sad, difficult or challenge are not valid” Sadly, I was drawn to a similar personality type for my marriage, someone who took joy at belittling and ensuring that I knew my feelings and thoughts were not important and invalid. But today I am free. 2 years separated (divorced just a few months) and I couldn’t be happier (but it’s a journey though, was very hard at first). The shame game and control tactics, hidden behind his pretend happy/goofy demeanor was a life of hell. I thank my lucky stars for another chance at peace. Thanks, I’m a newbie here and I love your blog!

  12. npeden

    Great post. I am a little confused. I worry that I am a narc because I know how to get to my bully brothers and that is to shame them, in fact I have felt like I walk on eggs around the three narcs I have had to deal with. Out of the blue something I say shames them. I have a lot of compassion for this as I know it is based on their poor parenting.

    So I hope I am not the narc as I do know how or accidently seem to do it a lot, shame a narc.

    I do feel lately really liberated and perhaps the safest in my life. I initiatied no contact and threatened a restraining order to my older brother who decided he wanted to become involved in my medical care. (I am disabled.) He made the last few years of my sister’s life miserable and I did not want that to be the case for me. Since sending the email, the whole family has cut me off (a restraining order would keep him from owning guns and he owns a lot.) I thought I would feel grief but instead I feel the safest and most liberated I have in year. I am not a violent person normally and I do not want to hang out with those who are.

    And yes, I know how to shame probably because I felt it so much.

    1. G. Shannon

      “Yes, I can be very cruel. I was taught by experts.” Olivia de Havilland in the movie “The Heiress, 1949.

  13. Excellent post, I forget about “your roots”, and what a powerful role they play, as I try to be in the the present and move forward. “God is watching you”, was my mother’s favorite phrase, when I was small child, it was very frightening. Hell, fire, brimstone! Indeed!

    1. Kim Saeed

      LOL…I heard that one, too. Not only was He watching, but could also read my mind!

      1. I forgot about that one. Haha! How silly of me. I am sure it didn’t help I went to parochial school until sixth grade. Sigh……all kinds of ammunition. What I feel they should of been teaching us is God knows your heart. I probably wouldn’t have lead my own personal rebellion!

      1. James Flowers

        Can you do a topic on my question. When my former female sociopath/Narc said she wanted to change she started abusing alcohol and marijuana almost everyday. I wonder why she did that?

  14. Tonya R. Moore

    This post brought tears to my eyes because I can totally relate. Moving forward does take a tremendous amount of courage. One thing I’m learning though, is that we’re all a lot stronger than we think.

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