The Tungsten and Coltan of Narcissists

I still like this picture.
I still like this picture.

I am trying to get across to myself that it is acceptable to feel a full range of feelings. I don’t know if I am getting anywhere with this or not. It is as if it is so difficult to move, that it takes every ounce of strength to move two inches.

I am trying to feel ashamed.

I know that is entirely counter-intuitive–most of us want to feel less shame and not more–but the cost of not feeling everything I feel is a flattened existence. That is worse.

And I also have this deeply ingrained belief that if I can feel it, I can fix it. I can make sense of it, I can comfort it, I can heal it. If I have flattened it into non-existence, I can’t do anything about it. I am stuck.

The old saw is that we numb our feelings because they are too painful. I am completely confident that it is not too painful, that I am actually feeling only a small fraction of what is really tolerable for me. I could do better than this.

The difficulty I am having is based on a belief, and that goes back to yesterday’s post, The Balance Sheet, which makes it extraordinarily clear that the most valuable commodity is power. And attachments, shame, fear, sorrow, guilt–all of these things allow someone else to exert power over you. They are liabilities.

I can’t seem to believe that the forces of hell will not be unleashed if I embrace these liabilities. No one will play, “Let’s see what makes you cry” with me. No one will force me to stand on my tip-toes until I faint from exhaustion and fear. No one will kill an animal in front of me to see if I flinch.

I went through Beverly Hills earlier this week. It has been taken over by cupcake shops. Just FYI.
I went through Beverly Hills earlier this week. It has been taken over by cupcake shops. Just FYI.

I can flinch all I want to. I can cry until the sun goes down. I can feel worthless and ashamed and generally throw a pity party for myself and you might bring cup cakes.

It is safe.

The paranoia is hard to let go of.

Narcissists (and others like them) are shameless. They never seem embarrassed. They never admit to mistakes. They do feel ashamed–some say they are easily shamed–but they wriggle out of it so quickly through rage and projection you hardly notice.

Because their images of themselves are unrealistic–no one is that smart, that funny, that beautiful, that anything–the world tends to rip holes in them. But it’s like the couch cushion you keep turning over to hide the stains. There’s always a way not to see that.

Feeling ashamed or embarrassed, caring what people think of you, wanting to be liked and loved and cared about, these are all normal desires and emotions. They are not there for someone to use to exploit you, or ways that someone else can legitimately inspire you to twist yourself into a pretzel just to win some approval. They are there to help us to get along with each other, to place checks on our behavior, and give us reasons to reach out to and connect with one another.

We blame ourselves for being human (and here I am really talking to myself) when the reason these traits in ourselves are making us so unhappy is that someone around us is or was bad at being human themselves. And they exploited our basic human features: shame, guilt, a desire to please and to connect, because for us there is strength in numbers.

They withheld approval and affection. They induced an untenable amount of shame or guilt by suggesting you control aspects of yourself or the world that you couldn’t control: like expecting a child to keep her mentally ill mother calm and happy, that you never feel tired or hungry or sad, or that you never made mistakes. And they violated you in the ways they knew would hurt you most.

Diamond workers in Sierra Leone, post civil war. Photo credit: Lydia Polgreen.
Diamond workers in Sierra Leone, post civil war. Photo credit: Lydia Polgreen.

But that is not your fault.

It is not your fault if you felt ashamed or guilty because of your failures in a violating and overly-demanding set of expectations or that you felt lonely, insecure, and clingy when your needs for affection and regard weren’t met. They knew you would. That was the point.

Because the blood diamonds here, the tunsten and coltan of the narcissists world, are power. And you have needs that can be used to give them what the power they want.

This doesn’t mean the needs should go away. You can’t make them even if you tried. It means the narcissists need to go away, and with a little luck you can get them far enough on the periphery of your life that they don’t matter anymore.

And I think I have.


Shame and Guilt

I’m still working this out, so bear with me.

Auspicious start to a post, isn’t it? I don’t know what I’m talking about, but listen to me anyway. How many hits does a post get, starting out like that?

Nonetheless, it’s true. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but you might want to listen anyway. You might not. You might prefer to listen to this fantastic performance instead:

And that’s okay too. I rather liked it myself.

Now, since you’re still here, let’s get started, shall we? Let’s get started with this business I don’t have worked out just yet.

Shame and guilt figure prominently for abuse survivors. Traumatic stress is not just about fear, but about guilt and shame as well. Person-perpetrated harm is more likely to lead to ongoing distress than natural disasters, although those cause distress as well. Trauma is a social experience as much as a physical one.

We need our troop to protect us. And when it doesn’t, or when it turns on us instead, we’re vulnerable. We’re terrified, and rightly so.

And we also have socially-mediated emotions as well: shame and guilt. Because interactions with other human beings are social experiences, even if what they are doing is highly anti-social.

Dogs are social animals and seem to feel shame. Cats aren't very social and I'm not so sure they do.
Dogs are social animals and seem to feel shame. Cats aren’t very social and I’m not so sure they do.

There are many sources that talk about shame and guilt as destructive emotions. I disagree. They are part of being human, like having teeth and nails or a complex digestive tract. But other people sometimes use our biologically mediated emotions against us. Or, they disregard them, in the same way they might disregard the fact that without water, we’ll die. In those cases, it is the disregard that is so terrifying.

But they are difficult, just as anger and sorrow are, but I don’t think they are inherently destructive. They are important, however, and I do think they are worth understanding.

I’ll tell you what I see as the defining difference between shame and guilt: control. Shame, to my mind, arises when we believe we lack an appropriate or expected level of control. When someone harms me, and I cannot protect myself or escape, I feel shame.

Often, we feel shame when we feel we aren’t in adequate control of ourselves. I might feel shame if I forget an appointment, leave my zipper down after using the restroom, or pass gas in public. That kind of mild shame we usually call embarrassment, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally different than the more intense shame we feel when we drink to excess or can’t seem to stop being gay.

Shame is useful. It prompts us to assert more control–either outside or inside myself. Shame urges me to check my zipper after using the restroom and cut down on the broccoli and beans. It motivates me to strike out against my attackers.

But shame is crippling when what I understand as an appropriate level of control is not appropriate at all. Being gay isn’t like being gassy. I can’t just cut down on the interactions I have with attractive members of the same sex, or spend more time looking at straight porn. And if I can’t overpower my attackers, I am just left with shame.

And it may also tell others to stop. The distress I feel at my lack of power is transmitted via affective empathy, and should cause my attacker distress as well.

Shame is useful for people living in large groups: most often, it urges us to exert self-control. But it is misused as well, when we are encouraged to see situations and personal traits as matters we should be able to control when we simply can’t. And it’s problematic when our attacker lacks empathy and is unmoved by our distress.

Guilt, in contrast, arises when something goes wrong and we feel we do have control over it. So we are harmed, or someone else is harmed, or a moral taboo is broken and rather than feeling helpless, as we do with shame, we feel we caused it.

Guilt is overall a good thing. It is the foundation of conscience. Just as shame exhorts to exercise better self-control, guilt makes us think about consequences. Guilt tells us, “You have power. Use it well.”

We have problems with guilt when we overestimate our degree of control. I think we do this willfully at times. It is so much less terrifying to feel guilty than powerless when someone harms us deeply.  And sometimes we are misled by others about the degree of our own power either deliberately or because they rely on emotional reasoning and magical thinking themselves.

emotional-reasoningGrowing up, I heard regularly how much I was torturing my mother by “making” her feel bad in one way or another. As if I controlled her thoughts and feelings. I didn’t. But she used emotional reasoning. She felt bad. Therefore I must have done something to cause that.

Or, she used magical thinking. If I had a negative thought, that was something that had the power of action, and my negative thought alone was dangerous.

She told me I had far more power than I had.

And many perpetrators have distorted ideas about power. They believe themselves to be both less and more in control than they really are. They are both helpless victims caught in the clutches of others putting bad thoughts in their heads, forcing them to act in ways they’d rather not and also god-like figures capable of manipulating the world through thought alone.

Confusion about power leads to confusion about shame and guilt. And that’s only one problem.

The Box of Dirt

Sometimes I think in pictures. That used to be most of how I thought. Now, I think a lot in words. But there are still things I understand through the pictures of them I make in my head.

Last night, I had a picture in my head of holding a box of dirt. A tea tin of dirt. It wasn’t a nice tin of dirt. It smelled bad. It was ooey and muddy and there could have been something dead in it.

I was very attached to that box of dirt. I did not want to give that box of dirt up. So attached, in fact, that I cried quite a lot at the thought of having to give up that box of dirt.

Image credit: Berkeley Garden Coach
Image credit: Berkeley Garden Coach

The problem with thinking in pictures is that their meaning is not always terribly clear. It’s a little like speaking a language only a part of you understands. There is a necessary layer of interpretation.

So I had to tell myself what this box of dirt might mean–and along with myself, I’ll tell you.

I think the box of dirt is everything terrible I know about the world and about other human beings. It is the depravity and cruelty I know is possible, that some people live in all the time, and some people will slip into under the right pressures. It is what I know about evil, and what I have felt in the presence of evil, what I remember evil feeling like, what it does, and how it thinks.

I have never wanted to give that up.

There are some practical reasons for that. Whenever we forget what is possible, we stop working to prevent it.

But it is also simply a part of me. It was my reality for more than a decade. It is what I know. Intimately.

And what I want is not to return to a place where I can be pure, and innocent, and without any knowledge of malice. What I want is to be loved and valued along with what I know and have experienced. I want to be accepted just as I am, with my teddy bear and my box of dirt.


I feel like my head is one sideways today.

Some ideas are really that big.

This is today’s big idea. But I have to preface it a little, give you a bit of context. So here goes.

I’m talking about child abuse again. Bear with me. I will think about other things again in a few years. Until then, I hope you aren’t too bored.

Image by Maura Luna.
Self-blame. Image by Maura Luna.

Abuse makes us feel ashamed. I’ve written about that before in Thinking Like the Enemy: Why Victims Blame Themselves. There are lots of reasons for it. But we all know it doesn’t feel good, so it’s one of the main things that survivors work at changing–that uncomfortable feeling. When we are abused as children, we typically blame ourselves as well. That’s closely linked with shame.

We generalize along these lines: I feel bad, I blame myself for whatever has caused my bad feelings, therefore who I am must be bad to be causing this.

So, that’s the context.

Here’s the big idea. It was easier to blame myself than the perpetrators. Now, we know that that’s what kids do and we know they do it for that reason: It’s easier. Nothing new there.

But no one has mentioned this part before, so I thought I would: I had more control over myself than over the people who were hurting me. It was more effective for me to numb unbearable feelings than to prevail upon the abusers to stop. Exercising an extreme degree of self-control made more sense than expressing feelings that would never be heard and that would probably result in being abused further.

Holding myself accountable for dealing with life as it was allowed me to function much better than trying to change a situation I couldn’t. That is still the case. Luckily, I have more tools. And life is a lot easier to deal with.

But I think that is also a part of why we sometimes blame victims as a larger society. We feel we have more control over the decent people who are kidnapped, beaten, or raped than the monsters who do it. We don’t know how to control the monsters among us, that look like us, act like us, speak like us, but don’t think like us. And when they get the chance, prey on us. That needs to change.

The Shame that Covers Us

Illustration by Ai Tatebayashi. All rights reserved. Please do not duplicate in any form.
Illustration by Ai Tatebayashi. All rights reserved. Please do not duplicate in any form.

Ever had one of those naked dreams?

You know, you arrive at school (although you may have graduated from any kind of classroom environment decades ago), there is a test you aren’t prepared for and you look down and suddenly realize you aren’t wearing any clothes? I know you have. Everyone has.

We feel ashamed in those situations. Being exposed tends to trigger embarrassment as well as its more intense emotional cousin, shame. But exposing our deepest, most intimate selves can also be exciting. It is part of the reason our hearts beat faster when we take that first step towards a new love. Revealing ourselves is one of the most exhilarating actions we can engage in. It’s fun.

But being revealed against our will–either by accident or by force–is not fun. Unwanted exposure leads to shame. Feeling ashamed occasionally doesn’t harm us. It’s like being irritable from time to time. It’ll happen. But the writer of Manyfoggydays says, “The real damage of shame is when it becomes ingrained, a long term, deeply held belief, rather than an emotion that lasts a few seconds.” That’s true.

guiltshameChronic forced exposure is at its most essential level a form of violation. It is both about power (and our loss of it) and about shame. When we have ongoing, baseline feelings they become part of our views of ourselves. If I am generally happy, I will see myself as a happy-go-lucky, optimistic person. If I am generally ashamed, I will come to see myself as a shameful person. How we see ourselves has all kinds of consequences for the choices we make and the way we treat ourselves.

At the same time, if our trauma involved exposure (and it often does), then exposure of any kind will become closely linked to a feeling of shame. Exposure will become part of a fear structure in which revealing the self, powerlessness, and shame will all be tightly connected and triggered by any one of these three elements of the structure.

Fear structures tend to be aversive. Those with phobias and post-trauma symptoms can attest to that. If spiders spark an intense fear for me, I will probably avoid spiders. If self-revelation is part of a fear structure, I will avoid situations when I need to share myself with someone else.

It won’t necessarily matter if those are situations within my control–a public poetry reading, for example–or one in which I don’t have control. Because the fear structure is not that smart: it incorporates self-revelation of any kind. This means I will tend to avoid situations that might lead to intimacy and support as well as those in which I might be humiliated.

I lose out on opportunities that would counteract the fear structure: ones where I might be responded to in a positive way and where I might feel closeness instead of shame or pride in myself in place of humiliation.

You can give yourself affirmations and try to brainwash yourself into thinking that you have nothing to be ashamed of. If you keep saying the same thing, you do tend to come to believe it. Or you can provide yourself with different experiences.

Reveal yourself in situations where, after the shame passes, you might feel supported or at the very least not despised. Start small, just as the spider-phobic person might start with pictures of spiders, start with small revelations of yourself. Make sure you know how to calm the shame, because that is what will come first. Proceed to situations that require greater levels of self-exposure and revelation until the link between shame and exposure is no longer automatic.

Being forced to reveal yourself will never feel good–it is not supposed to. But the link between exposure and shame needs to be broken. Otherwise you will lose out on relationships of all kinds, and you will lose out on opportunities to see yourself in a more positive light: no one will ever let you know how much you have to be proud of if you never show anyone who you are.

For more on fear structures: The Cat Carrier and Other Fear Structures.

Just as I am: Why I Joined a Cult

On a hot September evening in 1984, I stood to my feet in a tent full of several hundred people singing “Just as I Am” in indication that I had made my choice to serve God and to be a member of the Christian cult my parents brought me up in.

Two years later, without giving any indication to my parents, I decided it was all hogwash and rethought the whole matter from the ground up.  I know very clearly why I left, but I’ve found it very difficult to understand why I joined.

The answer is in the hymn.

"Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; 
sight, riches, healing of the mind, 
yea, all I need in thee to find, 
O Lamb of God, I come, I come."

I joined in order to be good.  Not just to do good things, but to be able to feel I was good, and to escape the burden of an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and defectiveness.  I also joined because I wanted the bad things being done to me that I assumed were punishment for being bad to stop.

That was the promise of the cult I grew up in (commonly referred by “outsiders as the 2x2s, truthers, or Cooneyites).  I was promised both salvation from real or imagined defects in myself (in other words, sin) as well as punishment from sin.

In reality, I continued to feel ashamed of myself, and the abuse I was suffering continued.  I wasn’t saved from anything.  And that’s why I left.

I don’t think either my seduction into a cult or my disillusionment with it are uncommon.  I suspect that many of us who join cults do so because we don’t feel we are good.  We feel ashamed of ourselves, nebulously afraid of punishment not just for bad actions but for bad thoughts or desires or even personality traits, and we want deliverance.  We want deliverance from how we understand ourselves and the feelings our negative understanding generates in us, as well deliverance from our real faults and shortcomings.

And then someone comes along and promises that a particular church and method of worship can make it all better.

Except then, of course, it doesn’t.  And for a while we might try to buckle down and do better.  We read our Bibles more, pray more, attend every church-sponsored function whether it’s a Bible study or a softball game, and hope that will help.  And usually it does.  For a while.  Because we are immersed in the Bible study or the softball game or reading the Bible, and that distracts us.

But because the problem lies within ourselves, and because we cannot escape ourselves, the feelings of shame and self-hatred return.  Our bad habits return–often because they are rooted in how we deal with our shame.

And eventually we may start to realize that the cult we are in lied.  There is no deliverance.  Sometimes you just have to deal with things.

As it turns out, shame and low self-esteem are not religious problems.  They are  psychological problems.  We don’t feel bad about ourselves because we have a “sin nature.”  We feel bad because we were abused, neglected, unloved, or excessively shamed by human beings.  And it requires hard work by human beings (namely, us) and not revelation to overcome this.

Uh-oh, a Dirty Diaper, and the Hell Inside

Photo: A Forest Frolic/Creative Commons


First words.  At least according my mother, whose memories of my life are about as reliable as dreaming.  (So there’s a good chance this is not at all true.)

But I still wonder.  “Uh-oh,” because I needed a diaper change.  “Uh-oh,” like I wasn’t supposed to soil my diaper at 6 months or 8 months or however old I was when I said it.  Did I feel ashamed then?  I must have.  I felt ashamed all the time.  So much so that shame felt like a part of who I was.  But did it really start that early? Am I reading too much into this?  Do infants feel shame?

Even if you weren’t abused the way I was, shame is often a part of our childhoods, part of adulthood, part of life.  Many of us feel ashamed because we were instructed to do so: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”  But why?  Isn’t it enough if we are just really very sorry?  Do we also need to be ashamed?

What is shame, anyway?  It’s an emotion, Wikipedia says, and it’s also a set of thoughts.  If that’s any indication.  Probably, not much.

I want to get at the feeling aspect of shame in this bit of writing, because the feeling is so much harder to deal with.  Thoughts you can just replace with different thoughts if you don’t like them.  Feelings, I find, I am stuck with even if I hate having them.  If you can’t make friends with a feeling, it is happy to stay on as an enemy.

And shame really is terribly unpleasant.  The worst.  Worse than deep sorrow.  Definitely worse than anger.   Worse than guilt.  Sorrow we can release and feel better from: crying does wonders for sorrow.  Anger has the benefit of jolting us with energy and purpose.  Guilt can be expiated with apologies and making amends.

Shame sucks.

I read a book by John Bradshaw a few years back.  He says shame is a sense that we don’t have any worth.  It’s the sense that we are a mistake.  Not necessarily that we’ve made a mistake, but that we are the mistake itself.  That sounds a lot like the thought part of shame.  I’m not so interested.

I want the feeling.

What I think about my own situation is that I felt shame when someone else felt contempt for me.  Gershen Kaufman describes shame as contempt directed at the self.  I think of it more as the mirror image of it, a response to contempt, which partly involves the contempt, but also involves some other things.  It’s what you feel when someone else finds you to be disgusting, less than them, less than human.

Contempt. Photo Credit: Paul Ekman

What shame feels like to me is that I am being cast out, which I suppose is a thought rather than a feeling.  But the feelings are harder to name.  I’ll try: a deep sorrow and disappointment, profound loneliness, and a fear of being cast out even further.  All that, mixed with the contempt leaked into me from someone else.  So, a confusing blend of anger and disgust as well.

As social creatures, we tend to reflect the feelings of those around us to a certain extent, especially those of powerful or important others, like our parents or siblings or the most popular kid in the class.  If we are children, and our psychological boundaries are still porous, this is all the more true.

So there is a little anger in there, a little disgust—the two closest relatives of contempt—but then also that other part: the sadness and the loneliness and the isolation.

Disgust. Photo credit: Paul Ekman.

It seems to me shame is used most often to keep people in line.  Being cast out of the group of people we call our own is often the worst kind of punishment possible.  Contempt casts us out into a desert of the soul.

Often the things we are most ashamed of do come from when we were young, when other people were most directly trying to control us, so maybe that’s no accident.  Our parents want us to do certain things, our teachers want us to do other things, the most popular kid in the class wants us to do something else.  They all have a reason to try to shame us into behaving the way they would like.  And sometimes they do.

So I suspect many of the situations that trigger shame are related to those from when we were very young,  When shame rises up in us and overtakes us, some of that shame is from the present and some of it is merely a memory of what has already happened.

But all in all it is a long-standing association of thoughts and feelings.  For example, a link between a certain quality of ours or a certain action, and contempt or disapproval that is activated when we display it, even to ourselves, we can become overwhelmed with that sense of being exiled from those we most want acceptance from.

If you read my last blog entry on trauma, and are familiar with the whole juice/chair episode, then you’ll understand that what I feel most urgently when that trauma is activated is shame.  I feel terrified as well, but a good measure of what I feel is shame.  The intensity of my lizard brain’s need to remember every detail of the episode makes shame a part of what needs to be remembered, because the emotions are as much a part of the experience as the events.

Near Ayparahui, Bolivia, South America, 1998. Photograph by Maria Stenzel. Copyright: National Geographic Society

It’s part of what I find tedious, and repetitive, and wish I could get out of my head and can’t.  I suppose it counts as what many people consider to be toxic shame.  But I wonder if the only difference is one of degree.  “Healthy” shame is manageable.  Toxic shame is not.

And maybe toxic shame is stimulated by actual contempt, while “healthy” shame is stimulated by its milder friend, disapproval.  But I still believe they are an instinctive, emotional response to real or imagined exile.

For a toddler, exile is dangerous, life-threatening.  A toddler exiled from humanity will die.  So, even if my mother hadn’t hit me over the head with a chair and left me in a pool of blood, the intensity of her contempt for me was in itself a life-or-death situation.

I suppose that’s why it’s so important for me to remember it.  The contempt was a large part of the danger.  The exile was what might kill me, even if my mother didn’t.

Further Reading:

Bradshaw, J. (1988).  Bradshaw On: Healing the Shame that Binds You.  Health Communications, Inc.: Deerfield Beach, FL.

Ekman, P.  Dr. Paul Ekman: Cutting Edge Behavioral Science for Real World Applications (Personal website).  Retrieved from:

Kreger, R.  (2012, January 5).  Shame is at the Root of Narcissistic, Borderline Personality Disorders.  Retrieved from:

Science Daily.  (2009, August 16).  Facial Expressions Show Language Barriers, Too.  Retrieved from: