“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 (or other Cluster-B, personality-disordered type), 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 their target(s) 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? I will attempt to answer these questions, but first 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 a 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 most of the relationships they form with other people.
Let’s look further into the subject of toxic shame and how it develops.
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, not ever 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 easy to a girl who doesn’t get her way.”, and the like.
Cultural shame added to our sense of being innately bad. Perhaps, during the course of one’s childhood, one may have attended Church…where they 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 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 that 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 who 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 said 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 acknowledgement
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.