Underneath the Narcissism: Shame Is Ugly Face Behind the Mask
Although Eric and Christine had been married 12 years, their lives never felt settled or comfortable. Eric could be incredibly charming and was a man of fantastic charisma; indeed these traits were the very things that had originally attracted Christine and swept her off her feet. But behind closed doors, he could be an entirely different person. He refused to help with meals or chores and if things weren’t completed on time or to his satisfaction, he had a way of punishing Christine. Eric could be cold and silent for days, or he might launch into a fury of criticisms and judgments meant to hurt her in her most vulnerable places. More than once when Christine had been forced to work late, she came home to a wrecked kitchen—broken dishes everywhere—and a missing husband. He wouldn’t return for hours and there were no explanations or apologies once he did.
When things were going well, however, when Eric felt especially powerful or respected, or when Christine found a reason to flatter him (Eric loved to be admired more than anything), he could be the most wonderful husband in the world. During those times, he bought her expensive gifts and gorgeous flower arrangements, sent to her office in order to “impress the girls.” In a good mood, he liked to list the reasons he loved Christine, and told her frequently she was beautiful and worthy. Everyone thought she had married the most amazing man, and sometimes, Christine did too.
When her husband behaved in a way that was punishing and cruel, Christine merely created rationalizations for him. She knew never to contradict Eric and never, ever to point out one of his mistakes. Christine recognized that underneath her husband’s sometimes overwhelming façade, he could be a frightened little boy. In fact, his father had been especially cruel to him growing up and because she knew this, she suffered in silence and chose to take care of him the way no one had done when he was a child. She might have to endure his protracted tantrums, but it was worth it to her because she knew she’d still get to see his shining, brilliant side—the part of Eric who loved pleasing her and showing off what a good husband he could be.
What Lies Beneath
In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead, author and researcher Brene Brown, Ph.D., opens with a bit of a gripe. She’s frustrated with the cultural trend many of us seem to have taken up of labeling everyone—from millennials (the generation now heading off to or graduating from college) to bosses to exes to in-laws—as narcissists. She makes a good point, accusing someone of narcissism shouldn’t be taken so lightly; it’s partly a clinical term, after all. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) exists, although the numbers tell us that it is not common enough to warrant a nationwide diagnosis. Brown writes: “The topic of narcissism has penetrated the social consciousness enough that most people correctly associate it with a pattern of behaviors that include grandiosity, a pervasive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame.”
Shame. There it is. The ugly face behind the mask so many of us wear.
David Bedrick, Ph.D., calls shame the “master emotion,” and indeed, our relationship to shame underlays so many of our decisions, motivations and addictions. When dealing with a narcissistic personality, it’s important to recognize that criticism, blame and attempting to cut them down to size will only foster their underlying sense of deficiency and nurture the shame that is at the root of their negative behavior in the first place. Yes, it’s true. Narcissists are often people who suffer low self-esteem or who fear rejection and criticism above all else. As Brown explains, “Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure.”
Putting a Stop to the Abusive Cycle
As we see with Eric and Christine, a person with narcissistic personality disorder is likely to involve a loved one in a cycle of abuse. This cycle may entail physical or emotional abuse or a combination of the two, and there will be times when the abuse does not occur. In some relationships, both parties may engage in abusive behaviors. Often, the only way for the abuse cycle to end is for the person being abused to become empowered enough to step away from the relationship.
People who exhibit narcissistic personality disorder are unlikely to seek treatment for the disorder, even if told by a professional that they have it. Dismissing the credentials of the helping professional is common, or believing they are rare, special and too intelligent to have a mental illness are common reactions to the suggestion of treatment by people with the disorder. Some may seek help for depression or other issues, however.
If you are involved in a relationship with a person who has narcissistic personality disorder, you must decide what is most important to you. Learning to validate your loved one’s needs and emotions while maintaining healthy personal boundaries can be a way for you to remain in the relationship on your own terms—positive terms. Shaming and being shamed will get you nowhere fast, so it’s important to be true to yourself, and honest with your loved one, but kind. Kindness is something we all require after all, even the most entitled among us, and because kindness is accepting, it is the very cure for shame.