The Shame Sandwich

The Therapy is Dandy Guidebook to having a Narcissist for a Parent. Chapter 15.

An ongoing survival guide.

No, this is not going to be a review of the movie Shame, starring Michael Fassbender.  But if, for whatever reason, you need to remind yourself of what shame looks and feels like, go rent that movie. It’s also pretty good at showing what people with Borderline Personality Disorder can be like. Both Fassbender and his sister in the movie, Carey Mulligan, are strong contenders for BPD.

Last time we talked about shame as it relates to our relationships with the narcissists in our life. Today, I would like to suggest shame is to narcissists what kryptonite is to Superman. They really, really, don’t like to handle shame at all. And that is the explanation for why so many of us around narcissists have to deal with it in spades. We get the projected shame of the narcissist on top of our own fragile self.


To a narcissist, shame is to be avoided at all cost. It is without question the narcissist’s greatest weakness, their Achilles heel, their albatross. This avoidance can be considered unconscious in that they may not even really understand why they avoid it; that’s how strong of a drive they have against shame. The phrase, “Have you no shame?” is a perfectly rhetorical question to a narcissist, who often can behave in seemingly shameless ways. For everyone else, when asked that question, one can imagine an appropriate answer: “Yes, as a matter, I do have some shame. There was this thing, one time at band camp…” Or, “Yes it does fill me with shame to admit I did…whatever.” Not so for a narcissist. You might as well ask a Terminator to self terminate.

Again, why?

Shame is at the heart of the narcissist’s own deluded and grandiose sense of themselves.  They have that infuriating, entitled, larger-than-life persona specifically to avoid feeling any shame whatsoever. Asking a narcissist to feel shame is like asking a narcissist to acknowledge they are living a lie. It ain’t going to happen, kimosabe.

Chances are, when backed into a corner with shame, a narcissist will respond with anger. They will blame you. They will criticize you. They will, you guessed it, try to shame you. Because that allows them to avoid their own feelings of shame and the reality of their personality.

In very dry clinical terms, narcissists use the defense of projection of shame on to others in order to regulate their own sense of self worth. For a narcissist there is no healthy internal mechanism available to process shame. So the shame is directed outward—away from the self—and that is why it can never be the narcissist’s fault.

Shaming is not the only weapon of choice for a narcissist. When necessary, they will use denial, coldness or even rage to avoid taking responsibility for their behavior.

So what can you do?

Admitting our own sense of shame in front of a narcissist is an interesting idea. Pay attention to how they respond to you. Denial? A general recoiling in fear as if you were a snake? Stone silence? Blaming the victim? They may look at you like you are speaking Martian. And then watch them change the subject. Back to themselves.

But look out for when they need you to be shamed. Often it is just a need to control others. That’s the manipulation, the charm, the way a narcissist can get you to not think about your own needs. And again, that kind of thing needs to stop.

A child or dependent of a narcissist, often without realizing it, receives a form of validation based on the narcissist’s needs, not theirs. Let’s call it anti-validation, because all the while you are paying attention to the narcissist’s needs, you are letting yours fall away and maybe even forgotten.

So, the question is: how long are you going to allow yourself to be fed this diet of shame, shame that is not even yours, and then the anger and the frustration at realizing what you just ate, and how terribly unfulfilling, how terribly invalidating it all was?

Time to change the menu, yes?

About Therapyisdandy

A dandy therapist
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