- Christian Sterk / Unsplash
- Intense feelings of shame can affect people’s personalities.
- Sometimes, if someone feels a lot of shame about their early life, it can turn them into a narcissist.
- This is because it’s easier to have a grandiose, arrogant mask than to face what’s gong on inside.
- By looking down on others, narcissists don’t have to imagine there is anything wrong with themselves.
When was the last time you felt shame? Maybe you were embarrassed in front of your colleagues, or you felt guilty because you let someone down. Whatever it was, you’ll remember it wasn’t a nice feeling.
Many of us can eventually shake off the discomfort and get on with our lives. But others find it incredibly difficult, and it affects how they turn out as people.
Joseph Burgo, psychotherapist and author of “Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem,” which will be released in November, told Business Insider that intense shame in early life can be the reason some people become narcissists.
“To me, narcissism is the flip side of shame,” he said. “When things go wrong, like if your childhood varies dramatically from what we all expect a childhood to be like, it leaves you with this feeling of core shame. As you get older, it can become so unbearably painful that you feel driven to construct this false personality to cover it over.”
There are three distinct types of narcissists, but generally they share similar traits, such as an outwardly grandiose personality, contempt for others, and selfishness. Many psychologists believe that narcissism is often a cover for low self-esteem, and according to Burgo, a mask which is the exact opposite of the real self the narcissist is ashamed of.
“Someone who becomes a narcissist decides ‘I’m not going to be this shame ridden damaged person, I’m going to be this winner,'” he said. “These defences take hold, and the more shame they feel, the more they defend against it, and it’s like a shell walling the person off from that central feeling of defect or damage.”
The narcissist doesn’t necessarily consciously know they are dealing with shame, as they are so defiantly defending against it. Also, a narcissist doesn’t often realise there is anything wrong with them, so they place blame elsewhere, and only seeking psychological help if their lives start falling apart.
“They will battle to the death to defend that sense of self whenever it’s challenged,” Burgo said. “If they feel attacked, if they feel there’s any threat to their self-esteem, they’ll do everything they can to annihilate the source of the threat and defend their self image.”
Essentially, this could explain why narcissistic rage is so fierce. Any question over their character or actions is seen as a direct attack. This could be because their narcissistic armour is all that’s standing between them and facing up to their shame.
“It’s almost reptilian in a way,” Burgo said. “It’s just so killer reflexive, it’s like: ‘If you challenge my sense of self, I’m going to strike out and hit you.’ It happens as such an instantaneous reflex. It’s certainly not consciously thought out or planned.”
By unloading their shame onto others, with accusations and insults, narcissists can re-route their shame. They project their pain onto other people, and make them feel bad about themselves, so they can feel slightly better.
“They really perceive that they are right, and you are wrong, and they are superior and you’re an idiot – and that’s just the way it is,” Burgo said.
“Narcissists view the world in terms of two packs, there’s winners and there’s losers, and that’s all there is. Their aim in life is to constantly build up this sense of themselves as a winner, which usually means making you feel like a comparative loser, so they can triumph over you.”