Shaming is a control technique woven throughout abuse cycles. Shaming can be accomplished with mixed messages, sarcasm, scapegoating, narcissistic rages, gaslighting, and trauma bonding, to name a few. One thing is for sure: you’ll find active shaming wherever there is a narcissist.
Shame tells us that everyone is judging us as unforgivingly as we judge ourselves. Shame lies. It says that we’re unworthy of acceptance or belonging; that we deserve insults, criticisms, rejection, and loneliness. Shame says that we’re not good enough.
THE POWER OF SHAME IN ABUSE CYCLES: UNDERSTANDING CONTROL TECHNIQUES
Using the word “abusive” to describe any relationship can feel like a sad excuse or blame for unresolved issues. When we use the word “abuse,” it can feel like attention-seeking or sympathy-seeking. It can feel like we’re saying, “poor me; I’m a helpless victim.” The word “abuse” is full of shame.
We may intentionally minimize our painful experiences because we don’t want to think of someone as an “abuser” or ourselves as unwitting targets. Having those thoughts can cause us to feel more ashamed, which affects our core identity. Those of us who’ve experienced traumatic events due to someone’s narcissism may feel a sense of disgust or humiliation in addition to shame and see ourselves in a negative light as compared with others.
The shame of enduring mistreatment or abuse from anyone leaves long-lasting scars.
In her book, “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough,’” Brené Brown discusses shame as a “silent epidemic” and something that everybody experiences at some point (2008).
METHODS OF SHAMING
Why does anyone actively shame? In the case of narcissists, it’s because they need to feel superior, and it allows them to put themselves in an untouchable status: it minimizes the future threat of someone expressing embarrassing comments or thoughts about them. Shaming allows a narcissist to feel invincible while eroding their target’s self-confidence, self-esteem, and enjoyment of life. It’s what they do best.
A narcissist will shame someone in a variety of ways:
1. Changing the narrative: After attaining an accomplishment, the narcissist will re-tell the story of the achievement and add a shameful twist. If asked, they’ll jokingly say they did it because they don’t want their target to become self-important or to have a “big head,” but really, it is intended to humiliate.
2. Breaking confidences: Narcissists love to gain embarrassing or humiliating information to use later, so they’ll appear more important or intelligent. A narcissist will keep their target anxious about the possibility that they may share this upsetting information with others.
3. Pointing out flaws: Narcissists believe they have no faults but are very good at identifying those of others. They enjoy shaming their targets by passive-aggressively devaluing them. A narcissist might say, “I was only joking,” or “You’re too sensitive,” if their target is hurt by this behavior.
4. Playing the victim: As we’ve seen, narcissists love to be the victim in their version of reality. A narcissist will purposefully frustrate their target and then use their exasperation to justify flipping the scenario and becoming the victim herself. Then she’ll openly deem her target’s frustrated response as a shameful thing.
5. Blaming: Narcissists don’t take responsibility for their actions. When a narcissist makes a mistake or if something unexpected goes wrong, they’ll place blame on their target. The target has no power to prevent this and can’t change it. It is a no-win situation.
6. Belittling: Narcissists are typically condescending and belittle others by talking down to them, calling them names, implying that they’re jealous or insecure, or telling them to “grow up.” Narcissists enjoy giving the impression that they’ve developed beyond the level that others have.
7. Laying on religious guilt: Every religion has standards and expectations, and a narcissist will use them to guilt their targets into behaving in a particular manner. They may say they’re praying about the target or asking for God’s intercession because the target’s behavior is displeasing to them.
8. Using aggressive tactics: Narcissists personally attack others to make them defensive. Defensive people become highly alert to protect themselves. A narcissist will use defensiveness as a sign of guilt. They’ll accuse the target of wrongdoing even when there hasn’t been any.
9. Playing the expert: Narcissists will sometimes speak authoritatively above a person’s level of understanding or knowledge. They do this to make the person feel inferior. Narcissists do this to be seen as authority figures. They’ll use their vocabulary, posture (looking down), and the elaboration of details as a way of shaming. The message is that they are smarter and more knowledgeable than we’ll ever be.
10. Comparing: As a result of their need to feel superior, narcissists act as though they’ve already outperformed everyone else. They insist they said or did “it” first, and much better. By outdoing their target, a narcissist minimizes their accomplishments, which supports the target’s belief of not being good enough.
11. Physical appearance: Narcissists like to appear physically intimidating or untouchable. They love attention and admiration, so they often dress to get noticed. They may even use their physical appearance as a way to demean and shame others. For example, an athletic narcissist will make hurtful comments to others about their bodies as compared to theirs.
12. Expectations (using “should” or “ought”): A narcissist will frequently play the game of “I told you so” by reminding their target that they didn’t heed given advice. For example, “You should’ve taken your boots like I told you to do. Now your shoes are ruined.”
13. Manipulation: Narcissists don’t ask directly for what they want because it feels like weakness. They don’t want to feel indebted to anyone. They gain an intense feeling of power by controlling and influencing others. They prefer that to openness.
14. Gaslighting: Narcissists like to control others’ beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. To do this, they “rewrite” past events casting themselves as either the good guy or the victim. If others disagree with the revised version, the narcissist will mock, humiliate, dismiss their memory as faulty, or say something equally shaming.
15. Dog whistling: This tactic is a form of gaslighting and manipulation. It gets its name from the device called a dog whistle that, because of its pitch, can only be heard by dogs. When using the dog-whistle approach, a narcissist uses coded language. Their words will mean one thing to their audience but something entirely different and hurtful to their target. For example, a narcissistic mom knows that her adult daughter is struggling with weight loss efforts, and when they’re together, the mom can’t stop talking about how great her best friend’s adult daughter looks after losing weight.
16. Sandbagging: Purposely appearing weak or less informed to deceive someone is called sandbagging. Narcissists often manipulate others by faking weaknesses or ignorance. A narcissistic mom may pretend to be ill when she wants her adult child to visit. Instead of simply inviting them over, she pretends to be sick so the adult child feels shamed into making an appearance.
FORGIVENESS AS A FORM OF SELF-CARE
Have you considered forgiving your abuser? Or is that idea outrageous? Maybe your wounds are still fresh, and it feels too soon or impossible. It might be a good idea to consider it at some point, but not for them. For YOU.
Forgiveness is a decision made to release the anger and resentment you feel. True forgiveness is extended regardless of whether it’s asked for or deserved. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting their behavior or condoning it. Forgiveness is for you, not them.
Offering forgiveness gives us peace and freedom from destructive anger. It means empowering ourselves by letting go of negative, destructive feelings. By forgiving, you acknowledge your pain without allowing it to define you. In doing so, healing and moving forward become possible. As we move forward, we continue learning to let go of the need to control outcomes and consequences. You see, forgiveness doesn’t mean that they get away with their hurtful, selfish behavior or avoid any repercussions. Instead, we allow the abuser to face the naturally occurring consequences of their actions, including but not limited to:
- Family estrangement
- Lost romantic relationships
- Lost friendships
- Missed opportunities
- Legal, financial, or career issues
- Damaged reputation
If you’re too hurt or angry to forgive right now, acknowledge and validate your feelings and resentments. They’re there for a reason. Doing this can help you see where your boundaries need to be.
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Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism, by Diane Metcalf
For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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