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Narcissism and Other Defenses Against Shame

Narcissism, blaming, and contempt are the three most common defenses.

In earlier posts, I've discussed a kind of basic or core shame that results from failures of attachment during the first two years of life; today I'd like to describe the three core defenses against such shame: narcissistic flight, blaming/indignant rage, and contempt. Denial of internal damage and a sense of inner "ugliness" lies at the heart of all three defenses.

Narcissism is the primary defense against shame and often goes hand-in-hand with the other two defenses. When people suffer from an unbearable sense of shame, they often seek to elicit admiration from the outside, as if to deny the internal damage. Beautiful outside versus ugly inside. We've all known such narcissistic types. As friends or acquaintances, they tax our patience and drain us emotionally because of their constant need to draw attention to themselves; their narcissistic behavior makes social interactions dull and one-sided. Recognizing that these people suffer from unbearable shame may help us to feel some compassion but it doesn't make the relationships any more satisfying.

The shame-driven client poses a major therapeutic challenge. If the therapist tries to discuss narcissistic behavior as a defense, to go beneath the "beautiful" outside and get closer to the "ugly" inside, it can easily feel to the client like a narcissistic injury, unbearably painful; rather than feeling that the therapist wants to help them get closer to something true but unrecognized, such clients often feel humiliated. I discussed such a client on After Psychotherapy in my post about Avatar and toxic shame. As David and I got closer to the core of shame in our work together, whenever I tried to put this client in touch with the damaged David hiding behind his narcissistic Internet encounters, he'd often begin to scream, accusing me of purposefully humiliating him. It felt to me as if the shame were so excruciating that he had to "scream it out," to rid himself of that searing pain and project it into me. As his therapist, I found the experience deeply painful but at the same time, it helped me understand the degree of his suffering, the intense pain he was constantly warding off.

In this interaction between David and me, we also see the second defense against narcissism at work: blaming. The pairing of shame and blame, or indignant rage, in my experience is extremely common. One of my clients Denise relied heavily on this defense, especially in relation to her husband Eric. Often following one of their fights (usually occasioned by some hostile and provocative behavior on her part), Denise would spend hours reviewing the argument in a highly accusatory way, going over all of Erik's faults and progressing to total character assassination. Underneath, she felt ashamed and guilty about the "crazy" way she instigated these fights. In our sessions together, we covered this territory so thoroughly that I developed a shorthand means of pointing it out. I'd sigh in an exaggerated and aggrieved way and say, as if from her point of view, "That Eric!"

Contempt represents another defensive posture, one especially difficult to penetrate. My client, Ian, a therapist-in-training himself, used to listen carefully to my interpretations and often say, "But how am I to know if what you're saying is true? Maybe you're right, maybe some other way of looking at it is just as valid." On the surface, these remarks appeared neutral; underneath, they betrayed his complete contempt for me. He had a habit of responding to things I said with his own interpretation, delivered in a condescending tone with an almost imperceptible smirk. I often appeared in his dreams in some degraded way -- in tatters, homeless or disfigured. Ian projected his damaged self into me and treated it with superiority and contempt.

David and Denise worked through their defenses and moved closer to shame in our sessions together; Ian dropped out of treatment and went through a series of disappointing and inadequate therapists after that.

One way to get closer to your own shame is to examine those experiences that fill you with contempt (if that's an emotion you often feel). Contempt may indicate that someone or something has violated our core values and sense of morality but it may also betray a defense at work. I've known clients and friends who regarded their families of origin with contempt because it kept them at an emotional distance; to feel otherwise, to get closer to the damage they shared with their parents and siblings felt too painful.

Are you a blamer? Reviewing a recent argument with your significant other, especially if you feel indignant and self-righteous, would be a good place to start your investigation. Like Denise, you might find that something about your own behavior in that fight makes you feel ashamed.

One can be an everyday narcissist without blatantly bragging or putting oneself on display. Here's one way I notice it in myself: I will mention, as if in passing, something that somebody else said about me, almost casually, as if to say, "Isn't that interesting?" The lesson here is that core defenses don't go away just because you learn more about yourself; those defenses just become subtler and more sophisticated!