Triggered by Shame

Due to chronic lower back pain, caused mostly by spending too much time seated at my desk and staring at a computer screen, I decided to enroll in a four-week yoga workshop designed for people with similar issues. Like many of you, I’ve spent lots of time attending group physical fitness classes of different kinds over the course of my life. Though I don’t overtly show it, I become highly competitive when I find myself in such groups. Even before I attended the first class, I was wondering if I would feel the same way in yoga, to which I am a newcomer.

One would think that yoga, with its spiritual dimension and a focus on peaceful relaxation, wouldn’t be a competitive arena, but my daughter (who has a regular yoga practice) assures me otherwise. The competition hides behind a veneer of “loving kindness,” she tells me. As my first class unfolded, I didn’t feel particularly competitive, but I did watch with amusement as familiar thoughts with a lifelong history bubbled up in my mind.

The teacher probably thinks I’m doing a good job with that stretch.

The teacher gave me a correction – that must mean she noticed me.

The teacher can see I’ve had experience working with my body, even if I’m a beginner in yoga.

One of the advantages of being (almost) 60 is knowing oneself well. I’ve had a life-long issue with teachers, and wanting to be singled out, the residue of a childhood where praise and recognition from my teachers made up for what I lacked at home, where being viewed as excellent helped me ward off the core shame I felt. During that first class, without any surprise, I noticed these thoughts passing through my mind, understood what they meant, and let them go of them. I like to tell my clients that this is what “after psychotherapy” looks like: old parts of you don’t disappear, but they no longer control your behavior in the same way. Mindful self-awareness allows you to make better choices about what you say and do. Usually.

Similar teacher-related thoughts made brief appearances during the second weekly session. After it was over, I went up to ask the teacher which of the other classes on the course schedule would be helpful to me, given that hers was not an ongoing class. We chatted briefly. I told her how much relief the first class had given me. Then I revealed some personal information I had no reason to disclose. In the end, she offered to teach me and a smaller group of students at her private studio after the workshop was over.

Driving home in my car, I felt troubled by that exchange. Though I laughed at myself for “wanting the teacher’s attention” (we’re talking about a young woman half my age!), I could not shake a feeling of discomfort. I couldn’t let go of the conversation though I tried to laugh it off. I’ve had this experience often enough to know what it meant: shame. Memory of the unnecessary self-disclosure brought some heat to my face. My thoughts felt mildly disordered. I wondered if I had come across as narcissistic.

This was a very mild form of an experience I described in my earlier post about shame attacks. (And I do want to stress the word mild. It was a subtle experience, one I might easily have overlooked.And please don’t submit a comment telling me that I’m “too hard” on myself!) After that second yoga class, feeling discomfort, I forced myself not to turn away. I entered into the shame and eventually understood what had happened and why. My desire for attention from the teacher had definitely taken a (mildly) narcissistic turn. After a time, I felt the shame pass away. Rather than feeling bad, I felt more compassionate toward myself. Old emotional scars have a way of lingering, long after the wounds of childhood have “healed.”

Again, this is what “after psychotherapy” looks like. Shame is an inevitable part of life, especially for people like me who grew up in a dysfunctional family with a narcissistic mother, and it’s the defenses against it that cause the most trouble, not the shame itself. In the end, I felt good about myself for enduring the shame and not turning away. I feel mildly embarrassed to write about it here but also proud that I have an ability to understand and honestly describe. This, I believe, is the difference between narcissism and authentic self-esteem.

In a similar vein, I’ve been struggling with my feelings about having received the final edits to my manuscript and completed the revisions. I find myself wanting to voice the pride feel about my editor’s feedback (she called the book “magnificent” … thank you, teacher) and asked for minimal changes. Each time I’ve shared this information with friends (three times), I’ve felt some self-doubt. Am I being narcissistic, or sharing an accomplishment about which I feel great pride? Is it always narcissistic, to draw attention to your achievements?

Lately, I’ve been feeling proud of my psychotherapy work, too. My affection for my clients grows deeper. My empathic connection grows stronger. I feel that I am being truly helpful. Is it narcissistic to say so? And why do I even feel the need to say it aloud? I’ve only said it twice, but each time, I’ve made note and wondered about it. I didn’t have a shame reaction but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable, either. What, after all, can other people say? “Congratulations! That’s great!” It’s not exactly a conversation starter.

Maybe another legacy of a childhood like mine is this ongoing uncertainty, an inability to completely “relax into” one’s pride. Sigh.

To the best of my knowledge, I’m not asking for praise or congratulations. I’m trying to describe an experience that I think may resonate for many of you who have also struggled with shame and self-esteem. Let’s have a conversation about that!

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. This post resonated a lot with me. Shame was actually something I brought up this week in my session with my therapist. Your candid self-disclosure in your writing continues to help me synthesize what I’ve learned in therapy; to read about the topics later and process them on s different level.

  2. I enjoyed the honesty of this post.

    You wrote: ‘Am I being narcissistic, or sharing an accomplishment about which I feel great pride? Is it always narcissistic, to draw attention to your achievements?’

    I can relate to this uncertainty. It is only recently that I have started to promote my own published writing online (with some trepidation). Those of us who grew up in the dysfunction you describe are particularly sensitive to the dynamics of narcissism and self-promotion.

    But aren’t we all a little narcissistic sometimes? I mean ALL of us.

    If we didn’t have a sprinkling of it, what would make us do stuff – like get up and get published?

    Narcissism is like adrenaline, too much and you become an unstoppable nutter. Too little and you hold back because you don’t feel entitled to be ‘out there’ in the world. Healthy narcissism, like a whoosh of adrenaline – helps us perform.

    If you were being a little narcissistic in any given moment, what would that mean for you?

    In my case, the shame I sometimes feel is tempered by trying to love and accept all of me, narcissistic moments and all.

  3. Sometimes I put my most embarrassing moments on Facebook. I call them my “Sheila moments. ” They are the laughable moments that happen in my life that most people would be relieved to know that no one else was witness to. They are silly things that happen, but moments that for me are quite embarrassing to admit to anyone.
    I share these moments to provide a good laugh for my friends and family, some who have commented that they have had tears of laughter from my experiences.

    But these are also shame moments for me, incredibly embarrassing for the most part. And so too, you are sharing your “Joe moments. ” I think, for me this is how I try to deal with not being perfect, in an uncomfortable but humorous way.

    I applaud your courage to share your Joe moments with us. I think it helps to empower the rest of us to do the same; to embrace the moments when we still mess up and recognize that we are all human.
    As far as being proud of your work, you have the right to do that too. If you stood in a room going on endlessly to a group of people about all of your triumphs then that would be narcissistic. But if you are humble about it, yet excited, people can tell the difference.
    When there is no one else to tout our accomplishments, we must do it ourselves, with humility.

    Being self employed I have had to learn to do this. When people ask me what projects I’ve completed I have to direct them to the properties so that they may see for themselves. I try to keep accolades from going to my head. It interferes with creativity.

    Remember to share your triumphs with those who understand where you are coming from.
    Thanks for sharing your moment of shame. I think so many of us can relate to wanting or needing the attention of a teacher.

    1. I think so, too. I was hoping that readers would identify with the teacher issue. I think it’s a big deal for a lot of people. And thanks for the support. The honesty is the main thing.

  4. It is ironic, I was going through the same experience with my Yoga class… I tried so hard that I damaged my back. I think it is a human nature to be competitive, even in such non-competitive activities as Yoga. Well, eventually I gave up on Yoga and switched to Qi-Gong – just love it 🙂

  5. It never feels narcissistic to me when someone shares an accomplishment (or whatever) in a way that makes it a warm moment for both of us. We smile, they look at me, I can see their good feeling in their eyes and we share it.

    It feels narcissistic when people reveal that they are proud of something but I feel alone, in the cold, while I watch them and their unshared satisfaction with themselves.

    What you describe doesn’t sound narcissistic.

    1. hehe lads… you do make me smile.
      Mr R’s yoga teacher is also his physiotherapist and she’s lovely: beautiful stature, poise, physique, manner…intelligent, engaging. Mr R is quite smitten, I think.
      He came back from the last lesson to note yoga teacher’s/physio’s dad was in the class as well.
      ‘He’s as old as me,’ he says. ‘And possibly even more unfit…’ Sigh.
      The trials of getting older eh? Mine too. But that is a different thread!

  6. Absolutely, the “teacher thing” resonates a lot with me too. I think we had similar parents, really. The attention and praise I got from teachers was the only attention and praise I got in my life, period. So, who wouldn’t like that? It’s natural…for us, in our context. But yes, as as adult, I’ve taken a few classes here and there on topics that interest me, and even now, I really like to be singled out and recognized for excelling. Even among my clients (I’m self-employed), getting a one-line appreciative email that says “You’re seriously the best — thanks!” (like I got this week) will make my day and getting a complaint (like I got this week from a different client) really devastates me. Sometimes I wish I was just “over it” — but it just is what it is.

    Re whether sharing stuff is narcisstic or not — I agree with Sarah who makes the distinction between whether it brings people closer or not. Hm, the way I think about it is, if someone is genuinely happy and excited and wants to share the happiness and excitement of an accomplishment with me, that’s a positive thing. They are sharing something, giving me something to be happy about WITH them. If by contrast someone seems more like they are bragging and expecting some kind of tribute, they are trying to get something from me, not giving anything.

    That’s probably why most of us share our happiness and excitement with people who we expect will give a damn, like spouses or close friends. Telling a stranger on the subway wouldn’t be quite the same, because there’s no relationship there.

    1. Yes yes yes. The distinction I make in THE NARCISSIST YOU KNOW is that the narcissist builds himself up at your expense, making himself feel big by making you feel small, envious, or full of admiration.

      1. Yes! Which I suppose is why no one likes ’em very much! 😉

        Also, I just had another thought. People with parents like we had, who HAD nothing to give us, perhaps gave us the impression that anything we said or did — our very existence — was sucking them dry.

        In essence, they acted out the role of parent as if they were being cornered by a narcissist, simply because children have needs and they weren’t up to meeting those needs. So, in being regular children, trying to get regular needs met, or trying to share everyday happinesses or sadness with the parent, we were treated as if we were unwelcome little narcissists. Such a drain on the parents! We are programmed to believe that.

        So no wonder we worry about being “narcissistic” as adults. We’re sort of programmed to believe that any need is selfish, and any sharing is an unacceptable drain on the other person, who probably just doesn’t want to hear it.

        1. Barbara, I think you have hit the nail on the head. We were taught that any sharing of good news is “bragging,” and we were shamed into not ever “bragging.” In my home of origin, it was called “Tooting your own horn,” and it was shamed viciously. And Barbara, I really like your differentiation between the narcissistic sharing and the healthy sharing, i.e., what brings US together and makes US feel good, as opposed to what makes ME feel good and YOU feel bad. Very insightful.

    2. The student teacher relationship is very complex. If you have the opportunity to learn from someone with real skills this must play a role in our own attraction to them. As a high school teacher I find that I always have time for a student who is into learning. There aren’t many who are motivated so I’m not ever burdened by sharing my time. I especially enjoy it when the unexpected student is excelling, I feel like I relearn how to be less judgmental.
      Your yoga teach is probably naturally motivated to share her skills with people who really want to learn. She must also feel some sort of connection to offer extra lessons. It would be weird if she didn’t like those students who get some extra attention.

      I would also note that there is something wrong with men who don’t like attractive women.

      1. I’m with you on this: student–teacher relationships are two-way.
        I consciously engage teachers (and my therapist who’s as much in a teaching role) and encourage a two-way dialogue.
        If you want to get the best out of learning as a student, encourage the teacher. That’s about feedback and active involvement.

  7. Hi Dr Joseph Burgo

    Great post!
    I think there is a distinction between healthy pride vs narcissism.
    It is natural to take pride in something that means a lot to you, that you’ve put a lot of effort into and have done well in. Talking about it and telling your closest friends and family about your positive feelings for something you’ve done well or telling them your editors described your book as ‘magnificent’ is, I think, part of personal disclosure among those you love and trust and who will share in your success and positive feelings and play a part in building or enforcing your genuine self esteem, sense of worth and validation. This kind of thing, I think, is appropriate and it will be a two way thing- you share equally in your partner’s personal pride too. And who doesn’t want recognition when its duly and genuinely deserved? This is healthy.

    What is different and I feel is more narcissistic is if you go around telling every one you talk to about your book that the editor said it was ‘magnificent’; when you tell people your job you add, you’re a particularly ‘good’ psychotherapist because all your patients tell you so. This is not pride nor does it stem from genuine self esteem or self worth, this kind of ‘bragging’ really does reflect the feeling of being small and worthless because you’re desperately trying to tell people how great you are, and its not just you who thinks it but everyone else too!

    I know one person who i hugely admire who never blows his own trumpet or boasts about any of his achievements because he doesn’t have the need to. He never feels the need to solicit praise and admiration from anyone because he already has it within himself and feels secure about his own self worth. He can listen to other people’s successes without the need to put his out there to kind of compete for admiration and show he’s worthy too. It was years before i found out about some incredible things he had done and was amazed he had never told me!

    Contrast this with another person who, within the first few minutes of conversation, i know how great they are at something, they won the gold award for something else and was the first person to do something else etc.I know all this because they’ve been determined to tell me. It is this person who underneath the bravado is deeply lost, sad and insecure with no feelings of any kind of worth or self esteem. Is this the shame you talk about? and the narcissist defence?

    1. What you say is true. I think that once I get used to having this thing I have wanted my whole life — recognition as a writer — I may feel more relaxed and become more like your friend who never blows his own horn.

  8. Another helpful post. My former therapist would say that the fact that you are aware of not wanting to be narcissistic will keep you from being so.

    Share away. We’re happy for you and are proud of your accomplishments.

  9. While I read this, there were so many “this-could-be-me” moments. I, too, struggle with a need to be noticed, to be the best so that those in authority or those whom I admire will think I am outstanding in some way. In fact, I sometimes think this need keeps me from being completely forthcoming and authentic, even in therapy! Much of this desire to be “seen” comes from my family of origin whose members simply didn’t care about my activities and accomplishments. My teachers certainly did care, as does my therapist; I know they will acknowledge and praise, but sharing my accomplishments and/or personal disclosures with those I am not sure will react with pure happiness and acceptance feels extremely vulnerable, and I, like you, feel troubled when a situation like this occurs.

    As an aside, I had to chuckle at your statement about being almost 60 and “knowing oneself well.” I, too, am almost 60. I bumbled through my life thinking I knew myself well until everything unraveled, triggered by a horrendously painful divorce, just after I turned 50. I then committed to therapy, and it is that commitment that now allows me to know myself well. I thank my higher power that I was brave enough to step onto that path.

    My best to you, Dr. Burgo.

    1. Thank you. Understanding that shame = interrupted positive feeling (according to affect theory) helps. You take your joy and enthusiasm to your friends, but if they don’t join with you in your joy, it’s excruciating. So we become extremely cautious about revealing ourselves.

  10. I can relate to this. Thanks for sharing! At the end you said, “What, after all, can other people say?” – well the reason I get a jolt of shame or regret is that people can criticise and mock or bitch behind your back or judge or think bad things… I project my negative self-talk into them… but after a couple of years of therapy I have, like you described, learned to take a step back and observe the feeling, sit with it and wonder with curiosity about the fact that my mind conjurers up these thoughts and my body creates these feelings, then I let it go. I try to remember that I am not a mind reader and I try to deal with the facts. The facts in your story are that your teacher invited you to additional, private classes – would she have done this if she thought you were a show-off or a narcissist? Probably not.

    I liked your honesty – I can’t imagine there are many people who have not experienced this kind of shame.

    Great to get a notification of a new post by the way and hope your back troubles ease soon!

    1. Thanks, LK. My back is much better. I was so pleased to get the book off my desk and to feel an open space around me so that I could blog. TNYK has taken up an awful lot of mental space.

      What you describe about your internal process is much the same as mine. The ability to not just be “in” a feeling or mental state but to step back and observe oneself. That’s a very good thing.

  11. There are so many ways of viewing this.

    It seems we all have narcissistic parents in common, and that we’re talking about ‘them’ (narcissists) when we’re probably more narcissistic than the average person who had healthier parents.

    I can feel a lot of anger towards narcissistic people who have hurt me, but I can also see ‘them’ in me.

    I know it’s a matter of degree, but I feel it’s a false comfort to talk about ‘them’ as if they’re a different breed.

    I believe that anyone who had severely narcissistic parents has a large degree of narcissism themselves, for the very reason their parents did-lack of nourishment.

    1. I agree. In my new book, I talk about the narcissistic continuum, and how the major defenses used by Extreme Narcissists to defend against shame are just more extreme versions of everyday defenses we all use to bolster our self-esteem from time to time.

  12. To me, your need to speak about your achievements is to express joy and celebration. The universal need for celebration is as important as the human need for mourning. What do you think??

    1. Yes, I think that what humans crave from earliest infancy is to share ourselves with another person and to feel that other’s joy in our presence, especially when we achieve something. This morning, I’m feeling more relaxed, relieved to be finished, and joyful in my accomplishment. I’m not going to backpedal and try to tone it down. I am very happy and proud.

  13. I can certainly identify with the “teacher issue”. I too, as a child, got little approval from parents and sought it from schoolteachers, and patterns of approval-seeking have continued in my life.

    The phrase you used that pulled me up was “unncecessary self disclosure” – – I now tend to think of that as an achievement! Previously I have tended to be secretive about myself, because of shame, and have been working to disclose more of myself (without going to the other extreme). I have still have teachers, and I want to have a relationship with them, not just regard them as lesson-dispensers. And disclosing a little of myself is how I do that, for example, recently in conversation with one I mentioned a singer that I like, disclosing a little of my taste in music. The question for me, and it is NOT an easy question, is was it just the truth, or did I pick my disclosure with some calculation as to what I might have thought would please her. (And yes, I think it significant that it is a “her” and not a “him”).

    But for making such a disclosure, I tend now to give myself a pat on the back. In the past I would have struggled to do this. I guess what I’m saying is, I think seeking attention and even approval from other people is human and a good thing; the question is am I putting on an act or is it genuine. (Whatever that may be).

    1. As for the “unnecessary” disclosure, the standard I apply is: did I reveal something to make myself better known, or was it for attention, admiration, or something else of a “narcissistic” nature.

  14. Barbara

    “In essence, they acted out the role of parent as if they were being cornered by a narcissist, simply because children have needs and they weren’t up to meeting those needs. So, in being regular children, trying to get regular needs met, or trying to share everyday happinesses or sadness with the parent, we were treated as if we were unwelcome little narcissists. Such a drain on the parents! We are programmed to believe that.”

    that was really helpful

  15. OMG, this is what I live with daily. It would help so much to know more about it, know better what happened exactly to make sense of your experience. but I understand why you can’t.

    About voicing your pride, I think it’s touching, simply and joyful, and people will just be HAPPY for you, genuinely. Believe. Congratulations on the new book and on Yoga, which will change your life.

  16. I also do yoga and find myself being proud of being “good” at it. Some postures I can do with ease and I sometimes look around and feel “better” than others. I often have the thought that “I am so good at this that I wouldn’t be surprised if people come up to me later to say so”. Of course this never happens. It’s my need to be good, better than, and admired. I now use yoga to see this part of me and try not to attach to it.

  17. I really relate to the shame about over disclosing. thankfully my narcissistic need for constant praise and attention has gone. It’s such a relief!

    About the over disclosure – I really relate. However I often can’t decide if I felt shame because i actually did over- disclose or because (for once) I showed strong emotion/desire to connect. Can be confusing!

    What Sarah said about narcissistic boasting is so true – their intention is to show their superiority not a sharing of their joy. That isn’t the case with you.

    As usual I enjoyed the post and it made me think! Good luck with the yoga and I hope your back gets better soon.

    1. I know what you mean about the confusion. If you disclose to connect but it doesn’t “work,” that can lead to shame, too. The interrupted positive affect type of shame. Does that make sense?

  18. Hi Dr. Burgo,

    Thanks for your honesty. Your description of your mild shame attack definitely sounds familiar. My own mother was mentally ill. She diminished and negated my experience every single time I opened my mouth. It has taken me a long time to be able to express myself without fear of reprisal. Even though I have done an enormous amount of personal work, I still experience shame attacks such as you describe above.

    The sad things is, depending upon the particular context, I experience them even when I have done or said something good or acted in a way in which I was truly authentically myself. If I find myself in the presence of an authority figure, or if I feel that I have “done something wrong” ala your moment of “too much self disclosure”, I experience exactly what you described, shame. When I am in the presence of the teacher, getting an answer right is extremely validating and makes me feel good, but of course, there is the flip side, so if I get an answer wrong that is the experience that stays with me long after I have left the class.

    I have learned, over time, to recognize these attacks and acknowledge what they are related to and wait for them to abate. They can be painful and debilitating but for me they have gotten less intense over time.

    Thanks for being honest about your experience. It confirms what I know from my own experience related to recovery from childhood.

    1. It helps to know that the shame attack will pass. All the defenses I used to use just prolong the shame, but like you, I find it has gotten easier over time to weather the shame.

  19. What a delicate dance we must do around intentions and conclusions: a little bit of narcissism, a touch of humility–but, wait: wasn’t there really something profound in the manifestation of that experience?

    Bravo to you on so many levels: I so much enjoy your self reflection about your experiences in
    your life. I, too, am in the ‘post-psychotherapy’ mode, and it is refreshing to experience and perceive only twinges of the dramatic emotions that I used experience in so many aspects of my life.

    Trying to find true humility within the context of well balanced pride in one’s accomplishments is the final frontier. Congratulations on your well written, well edited book–I am very much looking forward to reading it. Congratulations on your consistent and compassionate self care by taking yoga for your back issues. Bravo for you checking in with yourself about the twinges of self doubt about your motivations, to further understand your deepest self. You are in what I call the “Art of Conscious Living”, a rare and wonderful accomplishment.

    One specific comment about yoga, which I have practiced for 30 years: the American-competitive-sibling-rivalry-I-can-do-it-better-than-you creeps into most yoga studios. I had to
    stop the practice because it was enhancing asymmetries in my posture that kept me having to return to the chiropractor. Yoga should be about the dialogue between yourself and your body, rather than attaining poses in a competitive fashion. I do hold the teachers responsible because they often do not offer frequently enough modifications for those who are having difficulty (or simply should NOT) accomplish any particular pose. Good luck, there! Do not
    throw the baby with the bathwater: yoga offers an intense respite from troubling thoughts and feelings, and a surprisingly intense workout for the body.

    Good luck to you on so many levels.

    1. Thanks, Patricia. I would like to approach yoga as a place of repose. I have no interest in the aggressive Ashtanga type. I just want to find better ways to release the tension I carry around in my body.

    2. I have done yoga off and on for many years, and I love the practice. But the comments about the competitiveness in yoga practice class really fit. I had thought at first that it was all in my mind, but I’m realizing that it’s not something I’ve made up. I participate in a yoga class at a local health club, which is attended mostly by older women, and there feels like some extreme competitiveness there, which is too bad. My personal growth route seems to be for me to go anyway and not use that competitive feeling as an excuse, which I must admit that I’ve done. Perhaps the growth in yoga comes not only from the stretching exercises but also from stretching the emotional mind to not compete for the teacher’s attention or compete with other class members, even subconsciously. We all know the people who want to be special, need special tutoring, that type of thing, and we’ve all snickered at them. But then again, I probably wouldn’t recognize it if I didn’t have that secret desire myself….LOL

  20. Hey Dr Joe, Yoga and Yoga Therapy have sure gathered increasing legitimacy in Western medicine, and I’m glad you’re finding it so useful for your body [and mind and spirit]. I sure don’t think all pleasures shared in our successes and accomplishments is narcissistic or shame based. If we don’t let folks know what we do well, and feel comfortable about it, who will? And warm congratulations on your publishing successes ! Dr Bob

  21. Hi Dr. Burgo,
    Thank you for another interesting and honest reflection. I know what shame attacks feel like. They are painful and so difficult to bare. It took me a long time to get the courage to begin to share my feelings of shame with my therapist. Thankfully his responses have always been validating and kind. For me, learning to love myself and others is a lifetime process. It’s a good feeling to know others are on the same journey. Please keep writing!

  22. Thank you! I am so glad you described this! I have spent years in therapy and I do believe I understand a lot of the shame, trauma and wounds I have, but I was really troubled that I seem to repeat over and over these small cycles of pride-drawing attention-huge shame. They are barely noticeable to an outsider, but I struggled greatly knowing that even after understanding, even after so much hard work I seem to fall into the same trap over and over again. I sometimes can find a warm spot in myself from which I can look at it and laugh softly “Here we go again…” But sometimes it’s hard to know that old stuff never goes away fully…

    1. It gets easier if you stop expecting that you should just be over it. I find it helps just to think there will always be a part of me like that and I need to bear that fact in mind.

  23. Dr. Burgo, You put into words what happens to me when anything is performance based. Knowing why is helpful to understand why I feel ashamed and perhaps someday I can catch myself before My actions embarrass me. I tend to either be helpful to the teacher in some way or be an active participant to ensure the teacher is encouraged. But when I get largesse with myself it feels uncomfortable after the fact to an unbearable degree at times. I as a result limit my opportunities. Being aware of why I need to shine and get attention helps. I do think I failed to get normal developmental acknowledgement of accomplishments and had to look to scholastics to provide what I needed. I had a public speaking assignment recently and worked hard on not being overly charming and just presenting the information but I ended up still being praised. This made me feel ashamed of myself because I was taught very diligently to not draw attention to achievements that it was not modest. I felt my recent speech was genuine and maybe need to start appreciating genuine comments. Perhaps keep trying to focus on the material and helping others while being true to myself. It’s an exercise to not bask in limelight or beat oneself up for feeling good about attention. I think a life long struggle. This article was insightful and helpful to watch what triggers my shame and to try to find a balance. Thank You!

    1. I’m not sure I fully understand why we feel shame even when we present ourselves in a non-narcissistic way. Part of it is the messaging we receive — not to draw attention to ourselves — but that doesn’t fully explain it. I wonder if the shame acts to “tamp down” the joy, which might get out of control and become narcissistic if we ran with it. I know that when I feel good about some accomplishment, a kind of hypomania can easily set in, which I recognize and keep in check. Thoughts?

      1. I am curious about this, too. When something really positive happens, I usually become hypomanic. I start thinking grandiose thoughts, feeling like everything will be different this time, everything is possible. This can last for days or even weeks but is inevitably followed by a crushing collapse of my mood. What I’ve learned is that the hypomania is set in motion by approval from someone in a parent-like position, including my therapist. It’s all tied up with what everyone here has been saying, but I thought Barbara nailed particularly well with her comment about ignored children being treated as “little narcissists.” It mattered so much to me that my mother noticed me (among her nine similarly ignored children), but if we asked for approval, she would deliver rejection. We all grew up to be brittle, highly competitive professionals who crave the approval of others but can never find it for ourselves or others. Sad. Thanks, Dr. Burgo, for spurring the awareness that is our only hope.

      2. Yes, a hypo mania has set in when I roll with the commendation. I get the attention I need instead of giving myself recognition. In the past when I didn’t tamp down the feelings I became overwhelmed by too much activity and accomplishments rather than enjoying relaxation. It was a driven feeling. My psychologist suggested that I keep it simple. Pat myself on the back, say Thank You to praise and then let it go. I am going to try this. It’s relearning rewards. I almost feel like I am letting go of an addiction. The shame for now seems to be the trigger to keep things in check. Maybe if I practice keeping it simple and then letting go I can begin to enjoy achievements guilt free.

      3. I think that dampening down the joy is what many of us learnt to do to not incur the envy and negativity from the narcissist whose own good mo0d/disposition towards us we needed, as children, in order to survive.

  24. I can relate to this. I actually see you as an authority figure and want to win your support and approval, I think this is related to my father and my belief he is not proud of me etc

    I bought your book for Christmas so I hope that makes you smile. 🙂

  25. It is your honesty that makes your posts so special. Once again you provide a means for the reader to carry out some purposeful self examination warning us of the pit falls of using it as an excuse to beat ourselves up with. Thank you.

  26. Hi,

    I have always had a hard time knowing what getting better ‘looked like’.

    I know my issues, feelings, my inner child, my story and how to express my emotions in front of my therapist and partner. But then what?

    Of everything I have read and asked about, what healing ‘looks like’ (a term a child might use) has always been vague and it made it difficult for me to know what to do and how to deal with my feelings.

    Your statement, “After that second yoga class, feeling discomfort, I forced myself not to turn away. I entered into the shame and eventually understood what had happened … After a time, I felt the shame pass away. Rather than feeling bad, I felt more compassionate toward myself. ” explains that to me well.


    P.S. I was in the exercise field for a long time and the best thing for lower back pain due to sitting is lots of regular walking. Many athletes do this after surgery.

  27. Hi Dr. Burgo,

    I don’t have much new to add but felt compelled to say that your post reminded me of a couple of shame attacks that I have experienced after sharing some things on this site! It is interesting to me that these attacks occur for me even when I am completely anonymous and posting on a web site. It is a very ingrained response to very early patterns for sure. I was recently reading something about the healing around this issue that can occur in the psychotherapy relationship.

    “I thought to myself how often we, as psychotherapists, are called upon to hold an image of our patients’ wholeness when sometimes they feel utterly fragmented and in pieces, or so inwardly shamed that they have lost sight of their own potential as persons. Perhaps this larger vision is analogous to what Bion (1962) meant by the mother’s “reverie” and her capacity to contain and transform what is otherwise unbearably painful in her infant-a process that appears essential to the development of the baby’s authentic selfhood and secure attachment.”

    Thanks for your post as always.

      1. It is Donald Kalsched from his book titled “Trauma and the soul – A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption”. His writing has been very helpful in my quest of understanding my own childhood trauma. He is a Jungian Analyst who has written a couple of books about Jungian psychotherapy from his perspective (which is very Jungian, mythopoetic and spiritual). He uses many writings, including Dante’s “inferno” and St. Exupery “The Little Prince” as paradigms for the psychotherapy process. He also draws from the writings and philosophies of many psychotherapists (like Bion). A fascinating read for a mythopoetically oriented person like myself. You can tell he sees the psychotherapy relationship as very beautiful (within its container). Probably TMI but I really have loved his books. Thanks for asking!

  28. I appreciate your ability and courage to put into words what so many of us feel but are too embarrassed or defended to admit. I have been practicing yoga for around five years now and have struggled as much with my teacher fixation as with my tight hamstrings. The great benefit of yoga over other sorts of exercise is that self-awareness is encouraged. Good teachers remind students to focus in on themselves so as to avoid all the usual mind traps, including competing for the teacher’s attention. In some ways I think my teacher fixation was a necessary step in establishing a practice: my desire for his approval was the thing that would get me out of bed on a cold Sunday morning to go to class. When he left to go overseas, the limitations of this approach became painfully obvious – I was devastated and de-motivated in equal measure. However, I forced myself back in the room. I now make a point of going to a number of different teachers in the one centre so as to avoid becoming overly attached. Someone told me to practice for the ‘teacher within’, which is a lovely way to manage those feelings that seem so common to so many of us in these kinds of environments.

  29. I still struggle with over sharing about myself especially with people who are in authority. I know this is a shame reaction and a self-esteem issue (or lack thereof). And these two issues are the hardest to discuss with my therapist. I just clam up and shut down, which then highlights my trust issues. However, I think the acknowledgement of feeling shame is an accomplishment and shows I’m heading in the right direction.

  30. Thank you for this insightful post, Joe. I understand exactly what you described. I have just spent a day on a postgraduate uni course for work and have another day tomorrow. Although I am enjoying it, at times I have moments where I struggle with myself. I think people would be surprised to know that I (who apparently come across as very confident and not afraid to speak) have a fear of saying too much and being seen by the group/tutor as a) stupid b) boring c) tiresome d) narcissistic e) sucking up to the teacher. I hold the tutor in awe even if they know less than me about a particular thing. I am sorely tempted to comment on anything I feel even slightly knowledgeable about, just to get the tutor’s attention (and to show the class I am perhaps a little better than some of them!!!!) And the funniest thing (and I do now often seem to be smiling at myself in a much more gentle way) is that I am a very experienced teacher, tutor, trainer and facilitator, so I have also had some extreme experience of the other side of the coin, where needy students have sometimes caused disruption and I have had to gently quieten them to allow others to speak and learn. It was good to hear that even though these things still happen, they don’t mean we are narcissistic, but that this is an automatic but tempered replay of old behaviours learned from our childhood. Noticing it seems enough to allow me to readjust and manage my urge to be noticed, but importantly to not take it too seriously. And I wonder how many other people in my group are also managing the same urges? I will take notice tomorrow and see if I can spot any clues!

  31. A couple of thoughts. Stop being so hard on yourself. You entered yoga for a reason, to help yourself. Your goal in talking to your teacher is to help yourself. You know your own best way to learn, since you’re hardly a kid. Time is short. Don’t down yourself for wanting to make your teacher into the best teacher for you.

    If you’re feeling anxious about being narcissistic? Maybe your unconscious is telling you to write your blog posts about other people for a while, instead of about yourself. It’ll be all about you soon enough, when the book comes out.

  32. Hi ,
    I read this post with a lot of interest because I also struggled with these same issues. I haven’t stopped thinking the very first article you wrote here about shame. I still read it over and over again. I am so happy that I can now read a second post on shame. As a teacher, I’ve come to understand and fully appreciate how important an honest complement is to a student. I use to complement individual students in front of the whole class ( as a new teacher) quite frequently. This is a shameful practice based on inexperience and ignorance. Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot about teaching and learning to know that once you assign a quality to only one individual in a group of students, you’re inadvertently “shaming” the rest of them. This is the way it works with kids (probably with adults,too).
    note: I still would like you to write about narcissists at the work place. I struggle with them, and I know that they’re struggling with ‘shame at the core” but I find them unbearable.

    1. I talk about narcissists at work in my new book (coming out in September). After the post I just wrote about narcissistic self-promotion, I’m a little hesitant to mention my own work, but there are several profiles in the new book that deal with this type of personality in the workplace.

  33. Thank you for your honest post.
    I grew up in a very stable house with no experience of narcissism.
    Yet, I too can relate. Perhaps our life experiences make us vulnerable to that type of thinking that you describe.
    I also try to be conscious of that and ask myself what is it that I feel insecure with that I need to be self promoting. However, more times than not there have been accomplishments that I should mention with pride but I don’t for fear of appearing like I’m bragging.

  34. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Currently I am stay-at-home-mom with a 3.5 YO and a newborn. I’ve made small talk with another stay-at-home-mom for the last few months at our children’s’ preschool. Until the other day, this woman had never asked about my career or my life before children – I had asked many questions about her. I was thrilled last week when she finally asked what I did for work.
    In my past life, I worked at Google – something I am quite proud of even though I ended up quitting because ultimately it wasn’t a good fit. I worked hard to get there and much of the work I did there, I am proud of. It was such an interesting place to be that I am STILL trying to articulate my experience. I’m mindful of how it may come off when I talk about my time at Google so I keep it short and easy-going. I told her “I worked at Google” and paused a second because people usually interject with an opinion at that point, then I finished, “running usability studies.” She looked at me without comment and then a child interrupted us. Once the child was tended to and gone, I looked to her to continue our conversation but she wasn’t interested. It’s not that she wouldn’t look at me, but she wasn’t giving me any sort of signal to resume. It hurt, but it also stirs up shame. I find that I sigh aloud when I replay the conversation, a sure sign that shame is involved for me. I think it’s that ‘pause’ I gave, it must seem SO narcissistic of me to do that and I didn’t realize it until it was too late. But truly, I’ve gotten in the habit of people commenting on Google right from the start, and not all of it is positive! On the other hand, I did not drag on (I’m always very careful not too) nor did I put her down (that I’m aware of…) I come away willing to face the shame in my ‘pause’ and my pride around my career but I’m going to let her own some of this “ick”. It hurt me that after all of our conversing about her, she could not bare to sit through even a description about me. Sometimes, it seems, shameful interactions are a little more complex than we think at first and both or all people involved are playing a part in the “ick” factor. Does this make sense? Do you agree with how I view my situation? Perhaps I’m skirting true ownership of my shame in pulling her into the mess…

    1. You don’t strike me as narcissistic. I think you opened yourself up, said something about yourself that (I expect) you’re proud of, and to be met with indifference filled you with shame. It’s a classic shame response when enjoyment-joy or interest-excitement affect aren’t reciprocated. It’s not narcissistic to feel proud of one’s work.

  35. Hello Dr. Burgo,
    In reading many of your insightful writings like the above, and that of others in an effort to find the best path to a strong sense of self least burdened by shame, I have come across some material about suffering from shame and other symptoms of mental disorder that I am trying to integrate with the helpful info. you have shared re: core/ basic shame and the blueprint for normalcy. If this is old hat please forgive, but when from infancy thru childhood perceived or actual mistreatment generates feelings of deprivation, helplessness, being controlled, condemnation, worthlessness, or rejection internalized early on, fouling our blueprint for normalcy causing shame to set in from sensing we are flawed/damaged/defective, do you think this can tie in with the notion that these painful negative emotions experienced repeatedly when very young undergo psychic masochism- coined ‘the deadly flaw’ (the libidizing of painful debilitating emotions early on, preserving baby’s pleasant egocentric state of mind and healthy existence) creating attachments (addictions) to these early negative emotions… unconscious attachments (addictions) that carry into adulthood that we indulge in due to ‘the deadly flaw’ prompting our readiness, willingness, or desire to repeatedly experience these old, familiar, destructive, perversely pleasurable emotions masochistically, not yet realized or accepted in this light to be dealt with?
    I use to come out of debates and many other situations over and over feeling the victim ( I must admit I felt satisfaction in feeling a victim) or the defeated, powerless, incompetent one and shameful about it but also accepting it because it was just the way I was made. But when I see this coming on now and suppose I could be addictively setting myself up to indulge in a painful, familiar and possibly even libidized childhood emotion that’s destructive and that I now have the skills of an adult to resolve, intellectualizing the irrational tendency to cause myself pain in a perversely acceptable or even likable manner helps me take control and make a choice not to let it go on, strongly motivated by how irrational and senseless this would be. This makes me feel less childlike… less passive and immature… less thin skinned… not so easily triggered to turn a situation into an indulgence/ drama of feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or being controlled.
    So, it seems there is the approach that we are flawed by the fouling of our early blueprint for normalcy resulting in negative emotions including shame from sensing this that we suffer now, and the approach that we are flawed by an early process in our psyche that made negative emotions perversely acceptable or even enjoyable that we indulge in but also suffer now.
    From trying to team both modes of thinking, I now approach my mental disorder more as a skilled brave adult than an wounded beloved child, with less focus on the source being someone’s actions that long ago as a vulnerable baby (to now) have injured, damaged, compromised and distressfully flawed me and more focus on that also maybe long ago a quirky almost unbelievable early process built into my psyche and everyone’s else’s as well that protected my mental vulnerability as a baby from being injured, damaged or compromised did not flexibly shift/ evolve/ give way over time (relieving one from the libidized painful negative infant/childhood emotions) to more appropriate emotional states to promote normalcy as my body and psyche developed into a stronger/more skilled being and instead lingers now rigidly planted in the text of adulthood as negative infant/ childlike emotions I seem to want to still feel anytime I can see or make a way to trigger it …obviously manifesting now as a flaw to be resolved, now that I realize I have been psychically duped into childlike passivity/acceptance all these years of masochistically suffering from my ‘deadly flaw’ and so not asserting my skills and strengths as an adult. Whether my troubles are due to flaw from (perceived) bad treatment in relatively extreme degree fouling the normalcy of development set forth my infant blueprint, or due to a what-if-it’s-for-real infant masochistic psychic process (occurring to some degree in all of us maybe) that becomes a problematic flaw in relatively extreme degree if we do not evolve/ shift away from it as we grow up– both models together seem to have afforded me more inner power/efficacy and help discovering and employing the genuine, skilled, engaged self that should govern my mind and life rather than old lingering mental programming/baggage.
    And I now see patterns in others easily exhibiting these child era type negative emotions uncontrollably/defensibly in situations they encounter, or that they even escalate or create where they then express them in a temporary childlike demeanor that comes and goes repeatedly— instead of just watching and being annoyed or critical I now spontaneously translate how they behave or react into cause and effect back to probable early in life negative emotional origins based on my exposure to both ways of approaching the origin and development of distressing lingering negative emotions thru extreme mental/psyche flaw.

    So, it feels like there’s new progress, and I am closer to coming home so to speak, and also like I may have something here that should be shared— but also feels like external reaction/ feedback would be good at this point from folk who mutually share an avid interest in what goes on in our minds and can shorthand into what I am going thru in my head and let me know how it sounds to them…… makes some sense holding to both ways of looking at mental flaw? ….. too odd, bizarre sounding or radical an endeavor?


  36. your observations are good. and you’re right about it not being a conversation starter. i’ve noticed all the exact same events in my own life.

    how excrutiating it is to wonder about others and the childhoods they may have had.

    how can they just sit there and make conversation entirely for the benefit of others? yet, it appears that’s what they can do.

    we are experiencing a strange change in the world where people’s insides are being turned outside.

    are some of us moving into another dimension? but not all of us?

    i just want to sit around the fire sewing or knitting, with all my family around me. except that reality doesn’t exist – and not just for me i suspect. what went wrong?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *