Posted by: Botolff | September 9, 2009

Shame: The Underside of Narcissism- Part 3

I realized as I wrote the title to this fourth installment on shame that you have no idea how many parts I am going to write; and if I didn’t tell you that I don’t know, you might be wondering what my plan was.  For a second there, I felt just a little more powerful.  Like I can know my plan and not let you in if I don’t want to.  Well, I am going to give up that power and tell you that I have no idea how long this series will go, or if it will end after this post.  But I think power is a good thing to be talking about.  So, let’s start with that.

Power is directly connected to shame.  When we feel ashamed, we often feel powerless.  So we work to feel more powerful so we don’t feel so ashamed.  I mentioned in my last post that shamelessness actually finds it’s origin in shamefulness.  I don’t know about you, but that concept is enough to make my head spin.  Let me see if I can sort it out some…

Shame is a powerful tool, and rarely used to promote better health and well-being.  More often than not, shame is used to try and control people.  All of us know someone, or multiple people, who have shamed us in order to try and get us to say, do or believe something that will benefit them.  We all, knowingly or unknowingly, do that to people more than I think any of us would like to admit.  Some people (maybe some of us) however, have grown up under a blanket of intense shame in our homes, schools, religious institutions, etc.  Situations where we rarely seemed to be able to truly say, do or believe anything “right” in the eyes of the person demanding control and attention.  And if we finally learned how to live “right”, we probably lost ourselves in the process of making other people happy; which is enough to really piss us off, even if we can’t admit it.  The problem is, we can’t, nor are we meant to handle that level of intense shame.  We were created to live freely in love and gratitude.  Shame opposes all three of those categories, and when introduced in large quantities, creates a large problem.  Intense shame can lead to depression, anxiety, paranoia, fear, confusion, rage and so many more disruptive feelings.

Because we were not meant to feel that level of oppression and constant discomfort, our bodies begin to fight back.  We begin to develop whatever personal strategies we need to in order to avoid feeling more shame.  Naturally right?  Who wants to live under a blanket of shame their whole lives.  Usually our strategies come out in the form of rage, manipulation or lies to help us get out of the conversations, looks, moments when someone is trying to make us feel ashamed.  Whatever defenses we develop that work best to dodge the shame pies being thrown at our faces, that’s what we begin to adopt into our personal tool box.  As the box is filled with our “101 Ways to Avoid Shame”, a kind of metamorphosis happens.  We go from being severely ashamed, to dodging the shame, to shaming other people instead.  Unless we are aware of our feelings of shame and are able to deal with them appropriately, the progression ALWAYS leads to shaming other people.  Then we begin to take on the character of the very people who made us feel so bad to begin with.  Maybe that’s something of what the scriptures mean when it says that the sins of the fathers will be passed on from generation to generation.   

Needless to say, when we learn to avoid our own shame by putting it on other people, we begin to feel powerful.  We no longer feel the same kind of shame that other people put on us, and over time even begin to deny the shame we should legitimately feel for the pain we have caused other people.  If we learn to conceal our shame well enough, we will also learn to deny that we are hurting others, or worse, revel in it.  It’s hard to give up power when we’ve felt so powerless for so long.  But the problem is, when we feel so powerful, or in control, that we no longer feel shame, then we wreak havoc on our own mental/emotional stability, as well as other people’s.  Shame exists for a reason, and is very valuable when it is experienced in the right context.  I believe it is meant to call us to back to a humble position with God where we relinquish our demand for control and personal satisfaction; and instead, when the shame is truly ours to hold, that we repent for whatever it is that has brought that shame upon ourselves and others.  Repent.  Repent.  Repent.  God didn’t say don’t ever sin.  He said REPENT. 

So, if you are in relationship with someone who seems like they have no shame for their abusive words, attitudes or actions, you can be rest assured there is deep shame there.  But helping truly abusive people to admit that they should be “ashamed of themselves” is a very difficult task, because they have spent a lifetime creating all the necessary defense systems they need to deflect those feelings of shame as often as they can.  Which begs the question…”How will I ever truly believe the sacrifice Jesus made was for me, unless I can admit I need it?”

In a future post…”What can/should we do about our shame?”



  1. You write, “Unless we are aware of our feelings of shame and are able to deal with them appropriately, the progression ALWAYS leads to shaming other people.” I’ll take the capital letters in “ALWAYS” to mean that this is a statement of which you’re certain. Why? How do you get there? It’s hard to buy into your thesis without believing that such a progression is inevitable, and I don’t know whether it is or not.

  2. Part of being whole as a human includes the inevitable expression of our emotion. We can’t not emote. I’m going to reemphasize that without the double negative. We will ALWAYS emote. Not that we will emote constantly, although there could be an argument for that. But instead, that inevitably we will emote as a result of our circumstances. And our feeling of shame is one the strongest motivators for emoting. It can cause fear, hope, confusion, longing, anger, guilt, loneliness, curiosity, happiness, risk and so much more.

    Due to the fact that we will emote (there’s not an option not to), if we don’t express our emotion in a way that helps us to see, accept and address our own shame, we will inevitably make someone else experience it. The reason? We can’t not emote. I believe at the heart of healing and salvation (in many regards one in the same) is repentance and grief. If we will not accept our sin with the strength to face it and the tenderness to forgive ourselves for it, and if we refuse to grieve, we cannot heal, and I believe it’s also impossible to know salvation. True repentance and grieving requires an acknowledgement and acceptance of our sin, as well as our loss, loneliness and longing for God who has not yet redeemed this fractured world.

    “ALWAYS”? Yes…ALWAYS. In every circumstance for all times with every person? No, not likely. But inevitably, if we can’t deal with our own shame, we will ALWAYS require someone else to deal with it for us.

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