Over the years of my practice, I’ve found that most clients who come into treatment struggle on some level with issues of neediness and shame. In other posts, I’ve discussed difficulties in bearing need; now I’d like to address in detail three core defenses against the experience of unbearable shame: narcissistic flight, blaming and contempt. Denial of internal damage lies at the heart of all three defenses. Feelings of basic shame also form the core of what is commonly referred to as “low self-esteem”.
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 in my post on ‘Avatar’ and toxic shame avoidance. As we got closer to the core of shame in our work together, whenever I tried to put him in touch with the damaged David hiding behind his narcissistic Internet encounters, he’d often begin to scream, accusing me of misunderstanding or purposefully humiliating him. It felt to me as if the shame were so excrutiating 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.