Shame

Toward authentic self-esteem

Lance Armstrong: The Hero as Narcissist

Losing the race against shame.

Despite damning evidence in a report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the loss of all seven of his Tour de France Medals and the cancellation of his lucrative product endorsement deals, Lance Armstrong remains in denial, refusing to admit that he relied upon illegal performance-enhacing drugs in order to win. But compelling evidence from his teammates has now exposed a systematic effort, backed by intimidation, bribes and threats, to conceal the truth and fabricate a public image of the man as hero.

Courageous cancer survivor.

A model of perseverence and integrity.

Humanitarian.

When you consider that Lance Armstrong is reportedly worth $125 million, it's easy to chalk this massive P.R. effort up to greed. You might also think that a man who expended large amounts of time, money and energy to conceal his use of performance-enhacing drugs, who repeatedly lied about it under oath, must be so hyper-competitive that he will stop at nothing in order to win. Both interpretations must be true, but Lance Armstrong's careful cultivation of his public role as hero and the adulation it inspired say much more about what motivates him.

Because the label regularly shows up in the media these days, most of us have a passing acquaintance with narcissism and what it looks like: vanity, grandiosity and arrogance; a preoccupation with power and prestige; the desire to remain at the center of attention. Lance Armstrong seems to fit the profile. But what drives the narcissist? What lies behind that need for admiration? What in Lance Armstrong's past shaped him into the man he is today, who will apparently do anything to protect his public image as hero?

Current thinking in the field of psychology links narcissism to profound and largely unconscious shame. Donald Nathanson and Andrew Morrison, in particular, have explored that connection, and I've written extensively about it on my own website. Narcissism stems from an especially painful and pervasive kind of shame whose origins lie in early childhood. It takes root in the soil of failed attachment and emotional trauma such as abandonment or abuse. It often feels like a kind of inner deformity or ugliness so painful as to be unbearable.  (This video on my YouTube channel explains type of basic shame in greater detail.)

People afflicted with unbearable shame often construct a persona to deny it, an idealized false self to cover over the sense of inner defect. They devote large amounts of psychic energy to preserving and protecting that image. Though notoriously sensitive to criticism, they know on some level that the image they present to the world is a lie. Marshaling resources to bolster that lie consumes them.

We know enough about Lance Armstrong's life to recognize the features. His mother was only 17 when he was born and his father abandoned them when Armstrong was two. The fact that Armstrong refers to his biological father as his "sperm donor" and refuses to this day to meet him suggests that this abandonment was traumatic. His mother's second marriage a few years later didn't last, and Armstrong never bonded with his step-father. This is the kind of chaotic early childhood that instills a basic sense of shame and unworthiness.

Armstrong appears to have spent a lifetime perfecting an ideal self-image to cover over a sense of inner defect. He has assiduously cultivated his image as a courageous survivor of cancer, a tireless and heroic competitor, a crusader on behalf of other cancer victims. While these descriptions all contain an element of truth, it turns out that Armstrong's persona is fundamentally a lie. Like all narcissists, he has expended vast resources to preserve that lie. He has threatened friends and teammates, committed perjury under oath and paid bribes to medical doctors, all in order to bolster his ideal false self.

Now, the lies have been exposed. The persona has crumbled, leaving Armstrong in the painful glare of public humiliation. Whether he will manage to lead a more truthful life now, by facing his shame, remains to be seen. Narcissism tends to be a tenacious and largely intractable condition. Armstrong's continuing insistence that he is telling the truth -- another enormous lie in the face of undeniable evidence -- doesn't bode well. I suspect that, even moreso today, the shame is unbearable.

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author of the Popular Blog "After Psychotherapy."

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