Defenses Against Shame

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.

In this interaction between David and me, we also see the second defense against narcissism at work:  blaming.  The pairing of shame and blame, 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.  Another client, Adam, a therapist-in-training himself, would 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.  Adam 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; Adam eventually dropped out of treatment and went through a series of disappointing and indequate therapists after that.

Finding Your Own Way:

One way to get closer to 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?  As I’ve mentioned before, reviewing a recent argument with your significant other, especially if you feel aggrieved 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 casually mention, as if in passing, something that somebody else said about me,  as if to say, “Isn’t that interesting?”  The lesson here is that core defenses don’t necessarily go away just because you learn more about yourself; those defenses often become subtler and more sophisticated!

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Hi, I always find psychology interesting. You have thousands of followers on Twitter, yet little response in comments here. I can’t say I’m surprised, considering the amount of resolve and work it takes to face yourself and dig into the netherworld of your own unconscious. I finally realized that’s was what I was doing after many decades of inner work. Being clear of unconscious self motivations is a lonely place: I think people stay locked in behavioral cycles because it seems easier, safer and there are more people there! Anyway, I’m following you now on Twitter, so keep up the interesting work.

    1. I think the fact that there aren’t more comments, given how many people follow me on Twitter, also says something about Twitter in general. I think lots of people “follow” but never pay attention to the tweets. I’m glad that you do!

  2. I am a somatically trained psychotherapist and I was told of your blog by one of my clients, who has found it informative and helpful in understanding her own difficulties. I work mid to long term with the majority of my clients and find that, to uncover the deeply embedded, all-consuming and painful shame core takes a very long time, and can only be gently and gradually revealed at the patient’s own pace. Usually, strong defensive and survival strategies have had to be put into action from an early age and these must be worked with for a long time before the client has the strength and presence to be able to tolerate the underlying shame when it arises in their sessions.

    Being somatically (body/mind) trained, I see deep, core shame as the most intensely somatic (experienced bodily) of the self-conscious emotions (embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride/hubris etc). During a shame attack, the autonomic nervous system is fired into a flight or flight – and quite often, freeze – response. It is a reaction which leaves the person feeling awash with heat and confusion; it can cause one to dissociate or split off; to become ‘deaf’ and speechless, and is often accompanied by a sense of being far, far away from the perceived persecutor, in a place of psychic safety. Being helped to understand the relational origins of our shame is one important part of the therapy picture and I also find that using concepts of Mindfulness along with providing some education about neurobiology and the involvement of the brain and nervous system in feelings of shame, can be helpful. Also, some education about the implicit (unconscious)/explicit (conscious) memory systems can be of great benefit and can give the client a beginning sense of having some agency and control over their feelings, thoughts and sensations. People who experience highly intense shame and self-hatred are often relieved by using Mindfulness exercises (both in therapy sessions and at home) which facilitate a self-observing, self-reflective capacity, ie: watching thoughts, sensations and feelings as they arise, as if a step back from them, which can help regulate and ameliorate the flooding affective reactions of heat and panic. Of course, this doesn’t take five minutes – or even five years in some cases. It takes as long as it takes. One of the hardest tasks for a therapist who is sitting with a person who constantly blames others for their plight, is to find empathy for the small, damaged, terrified, unsafe, traumatised person inside them. Other clients can’t hide their shame and while it is unbearable to BE THEM, it is also excruciatingly sad to be WITH them and witness their incredible fragility pain and fear. As therapists we can only sit with our patients and provide what we can in the way of guidance, support, knowledge and understanding, but ultimately the healing and the way forward has to – and will – come from inside them, via their experience of the safety of a warm alliance with the therapist. As a client, when the going gets tough it’s imperative to try and overcome the desire to RUN AWAY and hopefully, over time, enough safety and trust in the therapeutic alliance will have developed for that to be possible. Then the hard work can begin!

    This, however, is not to say they will be “cured”. As human beings, these hard-wired feelings and emotions, which arise in the context of our early relationships, can be softened, but I don’t believe they can ever be truly expunged. The best we can do is learn to recognise and regulate them, observe them, learn to feel compassion for ourselves and the terrible circumstances we have had to endure and survive, and in doing so, bring about a greater capacity for resilience and self-presence, and improved the quality of our relationships.

    I’m sorry, I seem to have gone on at length, but I felt inspired to write and to congratulate you on your blog. I do hope you compile your writing into a book as you write in accessible language which people, from their comments, obviously relate to and engage with.

    Thank you!

    1. And thank you for that generous and thoughtful comment. You sound like an excellent therapist and I agree with each and every word you said. I don’t often have that experience. I especially like what you have to say about the difficult task of finding our empathy for the client who constantly blames. Especially with the angry borderline-type client who may frequently assault the therapist (because he or she NEEDS to do so), it’s hard to hold onto compassion when under siege. But I find that over the long haul, it helps them enormously when we do.

      1. As a client with shame, when I read the words about a warm, trusting alliance with a therapist, I feel anger towards my therapist for presenting himself as someone like that; someone to trust. I want to criticize him and treat him with contempt, like how dare he think he can offer that to me?
        I read Yelp reviews of him by clients who said he was extremely trustworthy and deeply caring and I want to throw up on all of them.
        I want to make him feel bad; like he is not good enough and I’m contemptuous of him for presenting himself as if he is.
        This pretty much sums up how I was treated and made to feel as a child.
        I think I’m jealous that he feels good about himself and has trusting relationships.
        I feel rage and grief about how I was attacked as a child and what I lost.
        I don’t really want to attack him, he’s a nice person, but sometimes I still do.
        I feel like an ugly patient, and sometimes think I should leave him to his sweet, trusting clients so they can have their little lovefests and I should just go home.
        I wonder if he wishes I would.

        1. This feeling of jealousy you talk about (what I’d call envy) is familiar to me — you envy the good feeling he has about himself (which you’d like to have for yourself) and so want to destroy it by attacking him. Envy is a common experience and usually not a big deal; when it gets tied up with deep shame, it can become lethal, especially when he seems “beautiful” to you and you feel “ugly”. I doubt your therapist wishes you’d go away; he probably wants to help you and wishes you weren’t in so much pain.

          Another possibility — that you want to criticize and treat him with contempt because you’re afraid to become dependent on him. He’s not the good, trustworthy therapist who you so long to be in contact with; he’s a charlatan and not worth your time. In other words, it might also be a defense against unbearable neediness.

          1. All of that is true.
            I do have unbearable neediness.
            There’s no way he can love me like I need.
            I’ve been without support my entire life.
            50 minutes of empathy a week for money, just being a client, one of many…
            The contrast between that and what I need is agonizing.
            Do you have any feedback?
            Thank you.

            1. The only feedback I have is to agree, that it’s a painful situation. I felt that way in my own therapy, very needy, dependent and conscious of being “one of many.” But I learned to bear it and to get what I needed from him anyway. It was worth the pain.

                1. To already be so comfortable sharing so much, I suspect you are much closer to deep connections than we might realize. Thanks for the courage and good luck!

          2. I have/had a friend who seems to have narcissistic traits or shame based issue’s. Can the contempt & envy be applied, (along with so many other issues) to me. I have been in therapy for a couple of years and working on my issues – stopped apologizing to her, been changing getting a bit better emotionally. So besides not being as much as a narcissistic supply – could the contempt and envy be part of it. I am told I’m too nice etc. She recently did the D&D thing. Just trying to understand and not blaming myself for everything.

            1. JJ, I’m not sure what you mean — whose contempt and envy? Hers? Do you mean that she treats you with contempt in order to offload shame into you? What is “the D&D thing”?

              1. Sorry Joseph I didn’t explain myself well. I believe I have been one of the narcissistic supply to a friend for the past couple years. I have been in therapy for my issues. Recently I have stopped apologizing to her. I’m guessing I was getting stronger emotionally. She recently did the devalue and discard thing. So my question was could she have contempt and envy for me – as I was getting healthier emotionally. Add to that I am not apologizing. So that is why she did the D&D thing – although she would never acknowledge that. I have known for a long time that she can’t handle the slightest perceived criticism.

                1. Now I see. Yes, I think her reaction may reflect some contempt. I imagine that as you withdraw your usual narcissistic supply from her, it throws her back on her own shame; she then defends against it with contempt and devaluation. Not sure about the envy but it’s possible.

              2. Hi, I haven’t been to formal therapy but I have been praying and meditating and this morning I was awoken by the spirit stirring my soul. I have long deep hidden pain of childhood shame. It was so hidden I didn’t even recognise the source until God pointed it out to me this morning. As a child I always got scolded about my physical feature i.e my mouth which hurt me deeply. My lips are thicker than most and my mother and a few others would always tell me to pout or hold my lips a certain way. This caused me immeasurable shame as I became severely self conscious and hated myself. I’ve worked hard to become an engineer and a father, but God told me I was hurting my daughter who has eczema with my words and have to find healing. Facing this long buried pain has been almost unbearable for me. I was crying and convulsions ran through me. I believe I have been narcissistic and dismissive. I will not seek formal therapy, but will submit to God for healing as this has been his revelation. I believe your work helps me understand the journey ahead. Thanks a million.

    2. This is an excellent entry. I would like contact Brenda with a follow-up question if that is possible.

      1. When I approve your comment, Brenda should receive an email notifying her that you have responded to her comment. Feel free to post your question here.

    3. Mindfulness and the DBT skills of observe and notice helps to recognize when I am feeling shame and to stay present with the feeling. When I was born, my older sister was five and was sexually assaulted on a walk with on our family’s street by my father’s youngest brother. I turned 55 this year; she turned 60. She told my mother immediately that she had been sodomized and my mother lost it and got angry with her; my father dealt with his brother (who had been living with us) but my sister’s sexual assault was ignored. I have targeted by her my entire life and I keep in mind that her contempt and devaluation must be fueled by the incredible shame she experienced as a little girl while I, the newborn infant, stayed safely home with mom. I do not contact her for my own mental health but am kindly when out paths do cross.

      1. I meant to say that the DBT skills, “Observe and Describe” help me to name the overwhelming shame that I sometimes feel and to stay present in the moment. It is shame that is incredibly overwhelming yet in owning it there is a acceptance of myself that is incredibly beautiful. Shame is a tough, tough feeling to experience and to stay present.

  3. Just wanted to stop by to say that I often read your posts on Twitter, but have not had the courtesy to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. The comments today brought that to light for me. I think many of us are reading your posts, but don’t take the time to thank you for your wonderful insights. So, thank you for taking the time to write this blog and for sharing your wisdom and experiences as a therapist.

    1. I very much appreciate your taking the time to do so. It really does matter a lot, and makes it all worthwhile.

  4. Hi Joeseph,

    I too want to thank you for your words of wisdom. I’m 15 years into a battle where the ‘enemy’ continues to mystify and elude me. However, since about 1 month ago when my therapist first mentioned the word ‘shame’ at which time I really struggled to make any sense of the that word meant to me, I am now beginning to see that ‘shame’ may well be the instigator that ive been searching for all this time. your writing makes a great deal of sense to me and I appreciate it a lot. Thanks!

  5. I was reading this article (it is excellent, btw) but got to the end and felt that you left out an important defense. Then I searched your whole site for this defense, and got zero hits.

    So what about ‘dissociation’? It’s not a ‘problem’ defense for family/friends, like narcissistic defenses. Perhaps that’s why it’s often overlooked or minimized. But it is real for the sufferer, and it can become 24/7 permanent. What then, when it is not under conscious control?

    1. I’m slowly doing a series of posts on all of the defense mechanisms; I will eventually get to one on dissociation … bear with me!

  6. As someone who has struggled a very long time with overwhelming feelings, that I know now, are shame based, I can only concur that it can a very long time to change. The good news is that if you are willing to pay the piper, change can happen. I have to say I have been surprised with how much I’ve been able to improve. I spent years going to therapy. I had a lot of bad therapists. One slept with my wife and wanted to fight about it in front of a group therapy session. (I refused to talk about it). Another exploded at me demanding that I explain why my father would sexually abuse me in a particular manner, as if I could read the mind of my offender. Therapists, are just as human as the rest of us. Honestly with the degree of bad therapy experiences I had I would have expected that I would have stopped and simply bad mouthed therapy in general. Now, at the age of 52, I have been going to therapy with the same therapist for around 3 years. And the last year and half have been amazingly productive for me. I can tell that I’ve got fully developed transference relationship going on, and it helps. About blaming, I understand how it links with shame. I have an additional thought about blaming. If you are in an abusive situation, if you grew up that way, as I did, blaming in some sense may be your attempt to explain to yourself, give meaning to the experience. One has to learn that rather than being able to “explain” a bad situation, you must know how leave and protect yourself. It is a hard thing to learn to do. I have a friend who told me: “I just don’t put up with the kind of behavior you put up with”. I think that is it in a nutshell. You’ve no need to blame anyone if you value yourself enough to protect yourself by leaving. Rather than staying and attempting to communicate in a situation in which communication isn’t genuinely possible.

    Thanks for your posts. They are helpful.

    1. “You’ve no need to blame anyone if you value yourself enough”

      I agree. I think that this kind of blaming is just the opposite of true self-esteem.

      1. it’s about good to be reminded of this. in a way, as I sometimes suggest to clients- the only one we really need to trust is ourself- everything follows from that foundation:-)

  7. Just another great post, Joseph. I don’t know about others, but it takes more than one reading for me to truly grasp all the content that you put in just one article.
    In regard to certain parts of Brenda’s response and your response to her, as well as other places here on this site where you’ve mentioned it, I can’t but say that I find it tremendously helpful to hear a professional therapist’s reassurance and confirmation that I don’t have to—and actually really can’t—get rid of all my psychological ailments, that all I’ve have to do is to become aware of them and learn to deal and live with them, make peace with them, accepting my whole self as an imperfect and yet worthy human being. And also that it takes time and will never be completely fixed. For many long years I was trying to undergo a complete change of personality, being totally unaware of all the real psychological factors that were driving me, reading self-help books, being allured by the promise of heaven, hoping to be that perfect person one day, totally immune to any difficult feeling and emotion. Only in the recent two years (I am 32.5 years old), thanks to first discovering Gary van Warmerdam’s site, and then reading many psychology and spirituality books, have I been able to finally see the whole picture and started working on accepting my real and authentic and imperfect self. I have uncovered many “not good enough” issues, many defenses, projections, complexes. I have become much more aware and mindful. I have analyzed a lot from my life history. But the change has been slow and so tremendously hard. But I just can’t see any other way. And your writing on this site contributes to my resolve to keep working on becoming more and more aware of my psychic and emotions and learning to let go of the many defenses and to accept myself as much as I can. And to know that I don’t have to strive for the perfect healing.
    Thanks a lot and keep doing your great work!

    1. You’re welcome, Mark. I truly wish there were some easier, faster way to do the work, and one that produced a more “ideal” result, but I’ve never found it.

  8. I feel contempt for my therapist.
    Someone told me that all contempt is really self-contempt. I think that’s true.
    I feel toxic shame…I think the contempt for my therapist is about my shame.
    My shame is due to feeling like a bad person- I have contempt towards people I think are bad.
    So I have self-contempt.
    My shame and contempt make me feel that my therapist is superior to me.
    I feel inferior to him and rejected by him.
    I stand in my imaginary world of inferiority and rejection, and defend against that painful position by finding flaws in him about which I can feel contempt.
    Got that one figured out.

    1. Alyssa, you seem to have a good grasp on the issues. Contempt is definitely a defense against shame. But your self-contempt is also a defense. I sometimes say to my clients that feeling contempt for themselves is a way of gaining distance from shame. There’s the damaged, shame-ridden you and then the superior, contemptuous you who sneers at the other “loser” self. That’s not really me because I feel so superior and contemptuous of it.

  9. I am a Social Work Student on placement within a theraputic setting. After observing two sessions about ‘toxic shame’ I had to write a reflective account on what I learnt but so much of what I learnt was so personal, so revealing that I felt scared. I love a challenge so I had to learn more which is how I came to find this blog. Thank you for the invaluable knowledge and the imput from everybody just seems to bring it all home. Its just amazing how one’s self-belief could be intoxicated that it becomes so ‘damaging’, not only to the self but to those that the person loves as well those close to him/her. My wory now is how I can help my 8yr old girl who seems to have and continues to sufer from mine and her father’s ‘imperfection’ so to speak. Is there any way I, as her main carer can help mininise the consequenses. I should say that I can not afford much therapy for myself and I’m afraid of giving my girl a ‘label’ by asking the school for therapy for her, any sugestions?

    1. I think the best thing you can do is to be as real as you can with your daughter; by that, I mean being honest about your own “imperfections” — your own shame — and not modeling defensiveness as a way to cope with it. Shame becomes toxic when it is felt to be so unbearable you must escape from it somehow. Bearing with the shame and facing it yourself will help her to feel that her own shame — if she struggles with it — can also be faced.

  10. Thank you ever so much! Something tells me that its not going to be an easy road, but I think for my own and my children’s personal growth and understanding I will find a way to work it through. Please keep up the good work and thank you again, I’ll keep reading from the blog.

  11. Dear Dr Burgo,
    You responded to me on another blog and encouraged me to explore ‘basic shame’. So I have been reading around here. Your articles, especially this one, certainly provided me with a few very valuable light-bulb moments.
    Many thanks!

  12. Thank you for writing this.

    I facilitate a lot of parent education groups. Shame is in the centre of being for those parents who find it difficult to change their parenting practices.

    I am very child focused in my practice and talk about shame versus guilt in relation to raising children, but have only just realised that shame is holding parents back from being able to meet their children’s needs. The blaming of children for their behaviour and the need to diagnose/label/medicate is tricky territory for me.

    I’m now wrestling with how I approach this subject with parents where shame is problematic. Lots of compassion and understanding, naming and externalising the shame. So much to ponder.

    Thanking You

    1. This is something I also see, where the parents’ shame is externalized and the children are to blame. As you say, it’s very tricky because this type of parent is so heavily defended.

  13. Dr. Burgo,
    My husband of 13 years, whom I love a great deal and we’ve shared a wonderful life and two children together, has recently confessed his 4 affairs to me this past Fall. I was shocked and devastated. I thought we had a very solid relationship. So solid, in fact, that I quit my job as an attorney to stay home with our two children – a move he highly supported since he is also a lawyer – and felt my life was almost perfect.

    The affairs started ten years ago and ended with the confession. I was filled with rage and hurt, and he moved out immediately. He then went to a therapist and we attended couple’s therapy to try and figure it out, but the entire time I felt blamed. Our dynamic was broken. I was controlling and didn’t allow him to “be his own person” inside the marriage. Things always had to be my way. I was dumbfounded by these accusations since I’ve always tried to support him and his hobbies and never really dissuaded him from doing this own thing. We were both professionals, laughed and joked, had a great sex life, and both kept active and fit. So not only was I betrayed and hurt, but now blamed? It was too much.

    The couple’s therapist even took my husband in a separate room to ask if there was still another woman, or why he was acting so distant / aloof. It was getting very hard to manage. A woman at his office even flirted with him, giving him token gifts and compliments. He flaunted them to me and I was horrified. Why would you cast more doubt in my mind at a time like this? He laughed it off as me being entirely crazy. Finally, after months of such nonsense, we went on a date and he indicated that he wanted to work on our marriage after all. I was hesitant, and yet thrilled at the idea. After all, we have two very small children and I love this man very much.

    Three days later, instead of meeting me and the children for dinner (his idea), he was found drunk with the same woman from work. They were both passed out in their offices and found at 2 am. I was again shocked and hurt. Why this self-destrucitve behavior? Why would he bail on me and his children after saying he wanted to begin reconciliation? Why make the choice to go to a happy hour instead of coming home to a wife, a fire, a pot of stew bubbling on the stove, and two precious kids? After that occurred, he labeled me judgmental and non-forgiving and said it was simply a mistake and not a big deal, which clearly to the rest of the world was false. I finally filed divorce with a heavy heart. It was my last option, and yet one I had to take to preserve my own self-respect.

    The problem is that his individual therapist is making things worse – encouraging him to love himself, feel safe, build barriers around himself from me, and basically feeding his narcissism. I offered to meet with her, but such an invitation was refused. My prayers and pleas for him to find the Lord in all this and to truly seek a clean heart were forwarded to the therapist in an effort to paint me out to be a fundamentalist, judgmental whacko. When I express this sentiment that this therapist might not be helping him, he labels me controlling and laughs it off.

    I feel he’s so lost and there is nothing I can do! That is the most frustrating part! Narcissism, shame, and blame are so difficult to penetrate. And yet I wish I could break through for the sake of our marriage and children. We are currently going through the divorce, but I told him I’d withdraw the divorce in a heartbeat if he would just own up to the affairs, “get on his knees” if you will in repentance, act as if he truly loved and wanted me, and showed me some real affection. His response was “it’s just like you force me to emote the way you emote. I am my own person and I won’t be forced to do things your way.” Sigh. Is it that hard to buy a woman you’ve loved for 13 years flowers, maybe a card? Tell her she’s the love of your life? AFter betraying her so vastly? He labels my words a pious lecture. So there is no hope, and that breaks my heart in a thousand pieces.

    My own therapist and MD recommend I break off communications – if he has narcissism personality disorder he won’t change, and I can’t push God into his heart. So the only thing I can do is move on with my life. Which is so hard to do. I just wish I could reach him and make him hear me, that he’s making the biggest mistake. I wish you had some insight. . .

    Thanks so much for your words on this blog. It’s so very helpful.

    1. It’s tough when you have two small children, but under no circumstances should you take this man back. Whatever his diagnosis, he’s not going to change in any substantive way, especially not with a therapist who nurtures his narcissism.

        1. Hi Amanda,

          I could relate to your situation. First, I’m wondering if your husband is a sex addict. It’s worth checking out with a reputable source. If he is, meetings for spouses of sex addicts could be very useful. And there are lots of books on the topic. This sounds a little odd but consider checking out the auto-biographies of women like Patti Hansen married to Eric Clapton and George Harrison. Fame, wealth, achievements and their obsession with her didn’t make up for her own lack of self-respect and they both were addicted to drugs and sex making their lives insane. She generously shares the journey.

          What I’ve found helped me when I was going through something similar was hanging out with other women who could relate. Sometimes they had the insight I lacked, sometimes they say things that sound so completely crazy from the outside but I recognize them as my own thoughts too. Most of them were still involved with the spouse they couldn’t trust, and that was devastating them too. Most were with men who were doing well financially, and were very attached to externals he provided. The men had a tremendous sense of entitlement and simply took what they wanted, geniuses at providing just enough of what would keep their wives around. I wanted a different life, I wasn’t sure how to do it, but I believed I could make it happen if I tried new ways.

          Your desire to control the uncontrollable and hang on to someone who continues to shame you when he’s aware of the pain he’s creating could be a symptom of your own deep shame as is written about here. It’s so much easier to focus on fixing them, rather than our own needy and shame-filled selves. My turn around was when I woke up one morning after beginning the group therapy filled with a truly horrible, overwhelming feeling. Was I sick? I stayed in bed for three hours before I could even put a name to it: shame! It was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe it was possible, I’d always was proud of my accomplishments. But there it was. I’m much more in touch with it now and when it comes up I know it’s time to step back and look at what I’m doing and my decisions. It was the start of a whole new life.

          Starting over isn’t the cure. You could find another everything-is-great-on-paper guy to play the same dance unless you work on sitting with and working on your own shame.

          Staying with someone who is creating intense tension in the household is not healthy for your children or you. Yet that’s the place you, a very accomplished and smart woman, feel compelled to put all of you back into. Doesn’t that sound a bit crazy? I noticed you talked a lot about the externals of your marriage when talking about your relationship: sex, tone bodies, good income, children. Those things are great, but they don’t describe a relationship. You could acquire all those things without a mate. You weren’t describing your relationship with that specific man. He might feel objectified by you, not seen as a human being but as a bag of goodies. Of course he like he couldn’t be with someone who would. The question is: could you? Do you feel lovable yourself to be really known, who doesn’t need a mate to provide the externals that keep the shame at bay?

          You found yourself here and are talking about his flaws, but the article is about projection. This might be a great opportunity to turn your life around into something more authentic and harmonious from the inside out. Sounds like you have a lot on the ball, and a lot to live for. I started turning my life around at 32, everything about my life improved over time as I stopped the struggle with a man who was in no place to judge, and learned to build the things that would drive real self-esteem. I had to rearrange just about every relationship after shifting myself. It’s really hard work, it always will be, but I’m better for the people in my life and vice-versa as a result. Good luck!

  14. I thought you would mention a sense of humor among the defenses against shame. I know a few people I consider narcissistic and they seem to lack the ability to laugh at themselves. People with a self deprecating sense of humor call attention to themselves too, but in a way that seems to relieve tension. People who can laugh at their foibles bring difficult issues to light and diffuse them.

    1. I think that’s a good point. Narcissists have virtually no sense of humor about themselves, though I wouldn’t number a “sense of humor” among the defenses against shame. It seems to me it’s the lack that reflects defensiveness.

  15. Joseph, I am so grateful to have come across your work! I have always had a sense of feeling ‘different’ to others, especially as a child. (Narcissistic mother and absent father)
    I didn’t recognise this difference as being shame until around 6 years ago, at the age of 40. It came to me in a flash as i was driving my car, a bolt of deep understanding. I felt shocked and deeply upset. I could not believe i hadn’t recognised this before. Everything was surfaced and I arranged to see a therapist (which lasted for around 10 months). A very positive experience.
    All I know is that i am at best a brave person (at worst naive)… I unravelled and continue to unravel back to health. I am currently training as a clinical Hypnotherapist and life feels closer to the heart.

    1. It’s amazing how deeply we can repress the awareness of shame, isn’t it? It’s sound like you’re on a good path these days. Facing shame, as painful as it might be, most definitely has its benefits.

  16. I recently attended group therapy and was wondering why the therapist made disapproving noises when ever I spoke. I am a Narcissistic gay man and can be a complete nightmare at times. I think he could feel my shame and tried to give it back to me , it wasn’t in a bearable amount though, and it kinda just sabotaged the therapeutic relationship. It felt as though the therapy turned into , him not really knowing how to ” treat ” me, just re shaming me and that being the basis of treatment.

    1. Dear Julian: Would you consider speaking with your therapist and asking this question? I wonder if your assumption about the therapist’s behaviour was factual and if the therapist was aware of his/her interaction with you; or if your assumption was not factual, how this interaction can ultimately give you support and insight in your growing perceptions of yourself and others. Please let us know the response you get from your therapist.

  17. Hi Joseph,
    I have just found your site . I started my websearch with “When my therapist hates me” and the trail came to you. Maybe she doesn’t after all. Your words and the responses of other contributers you facillitate to do so, here are thought provoking, and simply make a lot of sense. While I feel I am working with the right person, therapy been horribly rough going for a while, and I am working hard to figure it all out. Possibly too much so.
    No need to elaborate on my own situation, its all been covered here!
    I just want to say a big thankyou for creating and maintaining your blog. I will keep reading.

  18. I don’t think I have contempt for my therapist (as in your narrative) so much as I do for one particular person I work with. I’ve been trying to figure out this contempt because it drives me crazy. It’s maddening when someone can push your buttons whether you want this to happen or no. I’m figuring that whether ‘Joe’ can trigger that contempt on a particular day has more to do with me than him, that much I understand.

    ‘Joe’ is obese and sits next to me, close enough that I am privy to all sorts of details I would rather not be present for. At first I thought he was fine…but after a while I am contemptuous of the way he speaks, the way he tells stories, the sounds he makes when he eats & drinks, the fact that he eats from a serving bowl because of the quantity of food he considers a reasonable lunch…you get the picture. I wish I could feel compassion, it bothers me I have so little compassion, what is wrong with me that I am so full of disgust and contempt, how can he be so disgusting…all these thoughts are constantly going through my head.

    I think this is probably about my problems with physicality, at least in part. “I’m not like that, not one tiny bit.” Mmm-hmm.

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