Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

Shame Is at the Root of Narcissistic, Borderline Disorder

Shame makes relationships difficult on many levels

This is part 2 of my second series about the similarities and differences between those with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. Here is part 1. To see a list of the 10 parts of the first series, click here and view the top of the post.


The "Boscia albitrunca" tree, called the "Tree of Life" because it offers sustenance to both humans and animals, grows in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Because of its parched environments, it needs a deep root system to gather as much water as possible. One 32-foot high boscia albitrunca had roots that grew 223 feet down--about the equivalent of an 18-story building!

In the same way, most researchers say that all-embracing shame is at the root of both borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. As such, it is probably the force behind all the DSM-IV traits for both disorders--although less a factor in the grandiose, invulnerable narcissist than vulnerable NPs, who have BPD-like emotions such as emptiness, inadequacy and fears of rejection and abandonment.

Other researchers believe that narcissism is being taught in our culture and that many narcissists have grown up entitled, rather than deprived. So shame may not be present for all narcissists. Most readers of Stop Walking on Eggshells and my other books say they are married to BPs and NPs with difficult childhoods, and most describe their narcissists as being the "vulnerable" type.

Shame vs Guilt

First, let's define the term "shame." Shame is an often hidden emotion that sabotages our relationships with other people. While many people confuse the terms shame" and "guilt," they are two different emotions. When you feel guilty, you recognize that your actions were wrong-something not in line with your values--and may hurt someone else. It's an emotional warning sign that points the way to better behavior.

Healthy shame is a normal emotion; a light post that guides us. It corrects our behavior when we make mistakes (like eating a pint of ice cream) and helps us make the right choices. It lets us know we're not all powerful or perfect, and that we have a ways to go until we become the person we really want to be. Healthy shame gives us the power to grow and discover.

Toxic shame, on the other hand, isn't about making a mistake. It's about feeling like you are a mistake: intrinsically bad based on the fact that you exist. If other people find out about your "badness,' they will surely leave you. Toxic shame can come from parents who criticized their children and made them feel unworthy of being loved; or perhaps the child didn't get affection, empathy and validation from their primary caretakers. 

Psychologist and author Gershen Kaufman writes that, "Shame is a sickness of the soul. It is the most poignant experience of the self by the self, whether felt in humiliation or cowardice, or in a sense of failure to cope successfully with a challenge. Shame is a wound felt from the inside, dividing us both from ourselves and from one another." (Kaufman, Gershen (2004) The Psychology of Shame, 2nd Ed. Springer Publishing Company NY, NY). 


One of the prime ways people with BPD or NPD is to dump their shame on others through blame, criticism, name-calling, and projection. This confuses them, wears away their self-esteem, and causes them to doubt themselves.  Here, a man with NPD and borderline traits explains how shame rules his life, and how he treats people who unknowingly trigger it. 

I never even noticed how shame ruled my life until I was diagnosed. After doing some reading, my actions made more sense and I could even see the patterns I followed. Almost everything I did revolved around shame: what I told people about myself, what I did, or didn't do--almost all of it.

 Like if I did something that I knew others would frown upon, I would never mention it because any type of public humiliation was devastating. And before therapy, it was pretty easy to bring shame on me. People did it by pointing out flaw, mistakes, questioning my actions, breaking up with me, rebuffing me in public, talking about me, even asking me questions I didn't want to answer, especially in front of others. Anything that may embarrass someone else was shameful to me.

Shame feels scary, like you are exposed to the world--and not just a naked kind of exposed. It's an eviscerated, everyone-can-see-your innards kind of exposed. If someone has brought me shame, I used to go into a fight or flight response just out of the pure terror of the situation. It's an unbelievably cruel and unnecessary thing to do to me, and if you do it, you are a very evil, hateful person and I need to take you down. It was one of the few things that could make me self-conscious and could puncture my Shell.  

The Consequences of Shame 

Studies show that intense and chronic shame underlies much borderline behavior, especially suicide attempts and self harm. You might say that suicide is the ultimate act of shame. It says, "I am useless, worthless, and don't deserve to live this life." It is also associated with worthlessness, self-loathing, and high-risk behaviors. Shame is at the heart of addictions in both those with BPD and NPD; in fact, an amazing 73.5% of narcissistic men have a substance abuse disorder, and 50.5% of narcissistic women (National Institutes of Health).

Shame, or the attempts to avoid feeling it, makes relationships difficult because:

  • Shame may also be behind the BPD/NPD need for control, because people with power feel less vulnerable to being shamed. Albany therapist Marc Miller, Ph.D. writes, "To let go of control is to feel that the shame and blame of the relationship belongs to one person, and that one's feelings or point of view will never be acknowledged. The final result may be chronic isolation or a constant struggle for control."
  • People who are secure and confident are able to say, "Hey, I made a mistake." People who are shame-based believe that nothing can ever be their fault; thus they blame and criticize others as a way to avoid feeling defective and insignificant. Miller says, "When partners blame each other, neither person feels heard or understood, both are too busy defending themselves instead of listening to what his or her partner is saying. Mutual blaming leads to an escalation of shame and more blame, increasing the tension and distance between partners, thus making communication and intimacy more and more difficult."
  • Similarly, real intimacy comes from our willingness to be vulnerable with others. BPs and NPs can't afford to open themselves up (if indeed, they could) because rejection would be unthinkably wounding. It may surprise you to know that people who become involved with borderlines and narcissists also experience shame. Both people may need to work on their own shame before these shame-based relationships can become healthy.



Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.


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