Shame Trading

In a very early post on this site, I described people who view the world in terms of winners and losers, where one person will shore up his own self-image by triumphing over someone else, usually by demonstrating that he’s more successful, better-looking, wealthier, more popular, etc. Feelings of contempt for the “loser” usually go along with such triumph. These dynamics also lie at the heart of different kinds of narcissistic behavior.

As I’ve discussed in many of my posts, the core narcissistic defense involves flight from unconscious feelings of profound shame about oneself — how dysfunction in your family of origin has damaged you — into an idealized false self meant to disprove all that damage. At the same time, the narcissist will project his damage into someone else, who then “carries” it for her. By triumphing over the other person, the narcissist “proves” that he has successfully rid himself of all that unwanted shame; humiliating the “loser” confirms his idealized self-image.

Sometimes two people who regularly compete with one another will unconsciously “trade” the shame back and forth between them, continually in battle to be the winner and not the humiliated loser. It might be an ongoing struggle with many fluctuations; or their roles might be relatively stable for long periods and then reverse. It is rare that they’re both doing well at the same time. If one of them has succeeded, almost by definition the other one must fail.

During the early years of my practice, I happened to be working simultaneously with three different women who had identical sisters. At one time, they’d each had a more “merged” kind of relationship with their twin, as identicals often do; then they’d separated but done so along polar lines, where if one of them was doing well, the other almost invariably seemed to be struggling. The “losers” unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) strove to reverse those positions and come out on top.

In those days, I didn’t understand the role of shame in psychological difficulties; I’d probably be more helpful to those women if they were my clients today. You can also see this dynamic in divorcing or separating couples who once idealized their own relationship but who now hate the former partner; each one tries to “win” and make the other appear to be the “loser” (see my post on the shame-based divorce).

My friend Angela Davis-Gardner — whose excellent novel Butterfly’s Child recently came out in paperback — has brought to my attention a short story by Michael Cunningham called “Mister Brother” which perfectly illustrates this dynamic. (I’m a great admirer of Cunningham; The Hours is one of my favorite novels.) This short story depicts the relationship between two brothers, beginning in their teens; the eldest, a charismatic sexual athlete, feels contempt for his younger brother Twohey. In the opening scene, Mister Brother (the older one) preens naked before the bathroom mirror, preparing for his date, while Twohey sits by, admiring and at the same time hating his sibling because he feels so utterly inferior. Despite Mister Brother’s contemptuous dismissal of him, Twohey can’t pull himself away. They’re locked in a relationship where one — the winner — looks down upon and feels contempt for the shame-ridden loser.

By the story’s end, the brothers have aged and to an extent reversed roles, although Twohey can’t really shake the shame at his core. The memory of the ideal “Mister Brother” is too strong, even if his actual older brother has aged and “failed”. Many people who struggle with issues of low self-esteem like Twohey unconsciously believe in such an ideal; they feel persecuted by it, forever the loser in relation to this ideal self. In my experience, a big part of the task of psychotherapy is to shed light on this ideal, the way clients feel ruthlessly criticized by it but at the same time aspire to that ideal. As much as they want help, they resist facing the true extent of their damage and the inevitability of shame; they don’t want to relinquish all hope for the ideal, to accept more realistic types of growth that involve limits: the ways they’ll always have to take their damage into account and never fully transcend or heal it.

I try to make these issues easier to understand by using everyday language, but a well-crafted novel or short story by an artist like Michael Cunningham can sometimes do better at conveying the dynamic I want to describe. Here’s a link to the story; it’s not very long and is well worth the few minutes it will take you to read it:

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. As always I learn a lot from your site. I will look up the link and I think what you are describing can describe the sibling rivalry I have with my younger sister, I think it is the same as the brothers.
    We now hate one another. She was always in competition with me , even when her life was more successful.
    I also find some people that I have interacted with on the internet behave this way , they are putting me down or others down to make themselves feel better. Although they won’t admit it and I am not trained in psychology, I do think they do it to feel better, by putting others down. If you tell them that they will not admit it.

    1. Your point about people doing this on the Internet is a biggie. The Internet seems perfectly designed for not only shame trading, but a stange kind of narcissism and self-congratulation that can take the form of hostile comments on a news story, or by an innocent seeming Facebook or Twitter update. I’m guilty of this myself, but I’m trying to see how it functions for me as something other than just “making a point” or “sharing.”

      Social media often seems anything but social, and the prefect place for us to exercise our neuroses, our shame dumping and our desperate attempts to feel connected to someone, including ourselves.

      1. Probably some sort of splitting.

        The past, the old identity Im running away from, I shame it and feel superior to it. I visualize where I would be if I hadnt changed, and I stamp my foot on his face.

        Then the future, or the new idealized identity Im trying to reach, but I never fully do (hey, its an ideal, and its in the future), that one looks down at me in shame, which makes me feel shameful.

        I guess I have a circuit of shame that tries to bounce the crap out and then it bounces the crap onto me.

  2. Hi Joe,

    1. How would you define healthy competition?

    2. If a “winner” is winning, how would “bringing them down” help the “loser”?

    1. 1. Healthy competition involves doing your best, some sense of enjoyment in performing well and winning, but no contempt for the “loser”, no smug gloating over your victory and enjoyment at the humiliation of others.

      2. It doesn’t actually help the loser, but sometimes it helps mitigate feelings of envy … if I understand your question.

  3. Very interesting, as usual.
    I am trying to understand the idea of “toxic shame” that you write about. I think what you mean is, 1) regular shame…we have done something that we think is wrong and feel shame…and 2) we embody a shame about ourselves-that permeates everything we do…an inner sense that we are damaged—and we are always looking for a way to get rid of the damage.

    And, is it connected to an inner sense of worthlessness? For instance, if someone asks, in response to an admission that they “feel” worthless, why do you feel worthless, and the person responds, I don’t know, it’s just intrinsic to my being…could this be connected to the idea of “toxic shame”?

    1. Yes to everything you say, except that what you’re calling “regular shame” in number 1 is what we mean by the word guilt. Guilt is about something I’ve done; shame is about who I am as a person. I discussed these differences in my earlier post about the difference between shame and guilt.

  4. Wow, that story is poignant. “Mister Brother” sure is bad company.

    I wonder if that’s partly why triangulation seems to come naturally to these characters? Because whenever they’re in the company of another person, there’s always a third person in between them.

  5. What I mean is that often, “Mister Brother” types are very good at creating triangles and pitting two people against each other with “Mister Brother” in between. But, in a way, the narcissist himself is two people: “Mister Brother”, and Mister Brother’s shame.

    The idea of “Mister Brother” as a personified ideal is so strongly evoked in that story, and this character, despite the fact that he does not and could never exist, is in a triangle with the two brothers, pitting them against each other so they can never achieve the intimacy they crave.

    If that’s the *inner* experience, it kinda makes sense to me that in the *outer* world “Mister Brother” would recruit two other people, one of whose job is to play the role of Mister Brother’s shame. But when the third person leaves, Mister Brother’s shame is still in the room with him and the second guy.

    1. Wouldn’t the world be a boring place if eevryone thought the same way as eevryone else?I suppose the best one can do is avoid the Radio Me types like the plague. With experience one develops a kind of radar warning of the approach of the self-absorbed, which allows one to fly out of range! Otherwise, there is the old remedy of saying: Good Lord, is that a tiger over there is Mrs. Smith’s garden. I must run. I do enjoy asking other people questions, although in general, I find people will tell me all sorts of things even if I ask them nothing (this is a skill I inherited from my Dad). It isn’t just therapists who are insightful, heh heh. (just my little joke).You are right, Joseph, about steering clear of discussions on religion and politics.And I think what you suggest here is an excellent approach: Which decision do you regret most in your life? In retrospect, if you could have chosen any career path, what would it be? Ask challenging questions. You might start off by making a personal disclosure and invite others to join in . And how wise is this: I think being a true friend MEANS not letting someone use you as a toilet, since that’s not really good for either one of you .And then, there’s the friend who comes to you with a raft of problems and tribulations, and asks that question: what would you do in my place . It makes me giggle to think of what I wanted to say to the person and what I actually (more kindly) did say.There are, fortunately, many interesting characters around. I do so love those conversations with a group of long-time dear friends. Importantly, we know how to laugh at ourselves, and often the evening will end with us remarking: Well, now that we have sorted out the world and its affairs, it’s time to go home .As always, enjoyed reading your article, Joseph.Hermes

  6. As I left the library last week I overheard a young woman comforting a friend over the apparent end of a relationship. “At least you have someone to make fun of,” she said, “sometimes that can help you feel better about yourself.” I was shocked by the crass honesty and a little disappointed at the easy way in which she delivered the advice–as if this mocking of the ex wasn’t an exceptional activity but merely the way relationships should always end.

    In light of this, your posting here was timely, and it reinforces for me why I so often return to your blog: You not only give me insight into the seeming inscrutable minds of people, but you do it in such a clear and engaging way. Thanks!

    1. That is a great anecdote! So telling about the way people cope (or don’t cope) with loss and disappointment. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post.

  7. Thanks…I understand a bit better now the difference between shame and guilt. I also watched Dr. Brown’s talk on TED…very interesting topic
    Also, I read the article Mister Brother…and wasnt able to go too deep into it…but upon reflection, [maybe this is my narcisstic thinking-I don’t know too much about this] isn’t it common in life that you have some absolutely beautiful young people who are admired greatly due to their looks and then as they age so does the admiration…and then the drinking etc. starts…seems there are many examples of this in stardom

    1. That’s interesting, Marge. I have no experience with blood feuds, but it seems likely that you’re right.

  8. I read the story, Joseph, and it is so excellently crafted, bringing to life the two protagonists, that your hand itches to give the oler brother a good push into a muddy pool. LOL.

    That said, I notice the author places Mister Brother at 17 years of age, a time when preening and general stroppiness are very common. Mister Brother is not as great as he thinks he is, and by Twohey’s remarks we assume he only can draw “skanky” type girls. He doesn’t outgrow his teen narcissism, though, and that shackles him for life, as it does all those who have the disorder

    Leaving aside the teenage angle, we wonder how did the brothers get to be the way they are? The mother is only mentioned fleetingly. Were they pitted against each other as small children – by the mother?
    Just to mention a book by Patrick McGrath “Trauma”. Two brothers there too, and being a novel the theme is developed further.

    I enjoyed the read, Joseph.


  9. Nice summary. I like the excerpt of the book you talk about. You can always notice the difference between normal childhood sibling rivalry because it has a ‘testing and humours’ edge to it. Shame on the other makes the competition deadly serious and is very destructive to self-esteem.

    1. Good point. I like what you say about shame turning competition “deadly serious.” I think it must have to do with emotional scarcity, too, don’t you?

  10. Hi Dr. Burgo, I am a clinical psoiohlygcst in private practice. I enjoyed your article, as it resonated so much with my experience, thoughts and feelings. The hardest thing for me to deal with in my personal life, is the degree I come across people, who I ask many questions of and sincerely want to make a connection; it many times, does not go the same way .reciprocity. A lonely place to be to have so much insight into people. I think I need to be around more psoiohlygcsts like you to comisserate with your article was so validating. There are many narcissistic (pathological) psoiohlygcsts as well, like field. Thank u.

  11. I’ve been thinking about shame trading recently. It seems to me as if bullying might function on the same principle of dumping your shame on your victim. But shame doesn’t seem specific enough.
    I’ve developed a little theory of sorts. I think many male bullies unconsciously dump their unconscious feelings of vulnerability onto the first seemingly vulnerable or weak guy that appears and many female bullies unconsciously dump their unconscious feelings of unattractiveness onto the first seemingly ugly or unattractive girl that appears. But with the gender equality movement I think these are getting mixed and guys are expected to take better care of themselves and women are expected to be more independent, so bullies can now dump both feelings onto both genders and feel a relief when they do.
    I’m not sure If I’m trying too hard to fit shame into only two different categories but I find it very helpful to know exactly what is being dumped onto me so I know what to reject so I don’t end up carrying it.

    1. I think that’s a very interesting theory, especially the part about dumping unconscious feelings of unattractiveness into others. I have little experience with cross-gender bullying, but you’re right, that people who seek relief from shame can make use of anyone for that purpose.

  12. I just found your site and I am so…relieved? The shame game I have played since I was small is killing me and my relationships. I am 43 and feel so stupid that I can’t seem to get beyond my childhood self-hatred. It is true that we must address the underlying belief system that something is deeply wrong with us in order to gain any real traction. I’ve been in therapy on and off for 20 years. Your words are bounding off the page into a heart that really needed to read them
    Thank you

    1. I don’t think that it is simply a mistaken belief system; often, there truly is something deeply wrong with us. That doesn’t mean growth and a meaningful life are impossible, but authentic growth begins with facing that particular truth. Self-hatred is not the same thing as shame — it’s often a way of utterly rejecting the damaged, shame-ridden self rather than stepping into it.

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