Glory, built on selfish principles, is shame and guilt.
- William Cowper
The parental emotion
Humanity is eternally growing and improving. We are becoming exponentially more innovative and self-aware. Olympic world records are broken and re-broken over and over again. Technology and healthcare have improved our quality of life immeasurably. Music and art are evolving in exciting and beautiful ways. We are constantly discovering more about the mind and about our universe. Therapeutic methods keep coming and improving.
Inside all of us is a power which wants to expand and improve. This force gives us grand images of being bigger and better than we currently are. It’s not there by accident; life has an agenda. It wants to evolve. For this reason, we are born with an inherent grandeur. This is an inner sense of specialness which we can tap into and which can spur us to both create and to become more than we are. Grandeur is deeply personal and spiritual. It tells us we are capable of anything. It is an upward, outward and infinite force. It is our innate creativity and connection to the god realm.
Related to this is grandiosity. Grandiosity is one person’s grandeur in comparison to another’s. It is ego based. It makes us want to be bigger and better than other people. It pits us against one another. Anybody who has ever received a first place prize or has been given something for free while everyone else paid knows how satisfying grandiosity feels. It is rising above the crowd and beyond the usual standard. It’s about achieving more and being more than others.
Life also wants us to coexist. Unchecked, grandiosity can be an ugly thing. If we are all blindly following our grandiose instincts, we could destroy ourselves and each other in an attempt to rise to the top. Men such as Adolf Hitler and Pablo Escobar had uncontrollable grandiosity. One desired world domination and the other sought nothing less than unlimited power and money. As a result, mass murder for them became ‘collateral damage’. Life cannot tolerate such a blatant lack of humanity; it needs balance. Luckily, for most of us, there’s an opposing force which keeps our grandiosity in check: Shame.
Shame is an unpleasant emotion. At its mildest, it’s a slight ache in the chest and a loss of vigour and energy. At its most potent, it physically deflates you – your head sinks into your shoulders, your shoulders slump and your body crumples. It emotionally stunts you – your brain feels foggy and sluggish, you question yourself, you lose heart, you hold back your feelings and opinions. It’s an emotion which reduces your mental capacity – you draw a blank and can’t think or come up with any ideas. It temporarily exiles you from the world - you feel overexposed with a desperate need to hide from others. It creates a dark, introspective, confined space in your psyche where nothing else can enter. It brings you face to face with yourself, where you can see all your flaws and spots up close. It makes you painfully aware of the fact that you are limited and not as god-like as you sometimes feel. It is the parent who tells you ‘no’ and ‘go to your room’.
The normalising power of shame
This ‘psychological timeout’ exists for three main reasons:
- To remind you that although you have the capacity for grandiosity, you are a human being in a human body, living in a human world. Your influence and ability only go so far, and your environment can only accommodate you so much.
- To give you the time and space for self-reflection and to make adjustments if needed.
- To balance the social hierarchy. When one person in a group exhibits more power and grandiosity than the others, shame will cut down the grandiosity of the others to ensure balance is achieved. Alternatively, if a person demonstrates their power and grandiosity and is cut down by another member who feels threatened, shame will arise to compensate. This balancing act is designed to encourage conformity and unity and ensures that the boat is not rocked too much.
Shame effectively functions on two fronts:
- Personal: Personal shame arises when you envision a particular reality for yourself but come up short. For example, when you cannot afford your dream vacation or if you wish you were taller (or shorter).
- Social: Environmental shame is based on the people around you, such as being too loud and being given a disapproving stare by a loved one or when somebody else has more money than you.
If you aim high for yourself and fall short, shame will remind you that you are not there yet and need to improve. If your environment does not tolerate your needs, wants and expressions of self, shame will kick in to warn you that what you are doing and who you are at that moment is threatening to those who you value.
Fit in, play nice. Measure up, get it right
Clearly, shame is not just about being too big for your britches. It’s about living up to the standards set by the people in your life and society as a whole. Imagine a child sitting with their family, who are all eating chocolate, but being told that they cannot have any until they are older. Everyone is enjoying their delicious chocolate, savouring each bite and sharing opinions about what they like most about it. Now imagine the child sitting there, observing this, wanting desperately to join in, but being told sternly by father or mother that it’s not going to happen. The child will not only feel held back but also inferior. Shame will wash over them. The child will feel the harsh reality of wanting but instead falling short. They will feel the agony of not measuring up to the people who they value. This is a very painful experience.
Figure 1: Shame is encountered when your limits are smaller than that of another person
Figure 2: You will also encounter shame when the expression of your grandeur is not accepted by another person
Everybody can recall times when they saw others have it better, and as a result began to feel inferior. A standard was set which they valued and wanted to meet. For example, you may wish to lose weight. One day, your friend explains with great joy how they managed to shed 6 kilograms in the last month. You instantly start looking inside yourself to consider how far you are with your weight loss. Your reality narrows down, and you start to think about what you can do to achieve the same thing. You blurt out something like ‘Yes, I’m signing up for the gym soon. My target is 10 kilograms by the end of the year’. Your shame has kicked in.
The more you look at it, the more you see how shame aims to bind society together. Depending on the situation, it will either cut you down or spur you to grow and improve. It doesn’t want every person to walk around believing they are royalty nor does it want people to fall too far behind the pack. It wants the herd to achieve balance and harmony, to behave according to the rules and to live up to the standards set by others. It wants us to do what the majority are doing; to act, feel and behave like other human beings.
Shame activates in countless ways. For example:
Right or wrong, shame wants us to fall into line. It tells us that we don’t measure up and we should improve/adapt in order to fit in. It says we’ve gone too far and that we need to tone things down. It tells us that there is a finite amount of power in our group, and if we push any harder we will threaten the balance. It tells us to make room for others. It teaches us that we are not gods and that we live in a society. Not only does it aim to keep our grandiosity in check, but it also aims to keep us unified. If our needs, wants and expressions threaten or separate us too much from the tribe, then it will threaten our place in the group. We are programmed to believe that we can only be in harmony when everybody is on even ground.
The shame/grandiosity continuum
One thing that both shame and grandiosity have in common is that they require someone/something to measure against. Simply being alone probably won’t induce shame until you compare yourself to a group of people having fun together. Being on a stage has no impact unless you have a cheering crowd to worship you. This commonality between grandiosity and shame can best be represented on a continuum, as follows:
Figure 3: The shame/grandiosity continuum. Too much shame severely limits a person’s life force and causes them to feel less than human, whereas too much grandiosity makes a person feel more than human and severely limits the life force of other people.
When all people in a group are viewed as equal, they lie in the middle of the continuum and feel perfectly human. Recalling that every social hierarchy requires balance, the more grandiosity a person exhibits, the more shame other people are forced to experience in order to compensate. When grandiosity gets out of hand, it forces other people too far left on the continuum. The further left a person is pushed, the more inferior and unworthy they feel. Drifting too far to the right of the continuum causes a person to lose touch with their humanity and become more interested in their own well-being than that of others. They feel more than human. The middle of the continuum is a measure of healthy shame, where a person maintains a connection to their grandeur as well as their humanity.
In any relationship, the further right a person drifts on the continuum, the further left it forces the other person. By creating the impression that you have more or you are more, you are coercing the other person to experience their shame, whereas when two people are on equal terms, they both sit in the middle of the continuum and shame is effectively cancelled out.
The law of grandiosity
Grandeur is a strong and creative force. This overwhelming drive inside all of us to ‘be more’, while intoxicating, can lead to problems when it becomes grandiosity. As shown on the shame/grandiosity continuum, in any standard which we value, such as attractiveness or social status, somebody can usually convince us that they are above us. People of high status can set a bar and evoke our own shame response. Let’s call this phenomenon the law of grandiosity.
The law of grandiosity is the shame-based reaction of a person who is met with someone who they perceive as being higher status.
This law dictates that we can react in five different ways:
- Accept our low status: We will be left to contend with our feeling of shame and will shrink ourselves so that balance is achieved on the continuum. This includes not rocking the boat and not making attempts to improve.
- Attempt to meet the higher standard: In this instance, shame acts as an agent for growth and improvement. For example, think of the men and women in the gym or at the salon, spurred on by the shameless beauty and health industry, which sets a benchmark of the perfect physical appearance.
- Identify: Some people choose to identify with a celebrity or sports figure. By following their every move and psychologically ‘merging’ themselves with the celebrity, a person effectively becomes the high-status figure. In doing so, they can completely sidestep their shame of being ‘ordinary’. In their mind, they are up there with the star. They are on the same team as the high-status figure, and in doing so can live out their grandiosity instead of dwelling in shame.
- Dis-identify: Deeming a standard as unimportant will short-circuit the effect. Many people are not envious of celebrities and channel their grandeur instead; into their own art, for example. Someone’s weight loss means nothing to you if you are not concerned with your own weight.
- Attack: Turning shame into rage is an attempt to reclaim power. Consider the snide remarks and put downs made in the comments section on social media. This is an attempt to shoot down the ‘star’ in order to counter the feeling of shame - i.e. the feeling of being below standard.
Shame is the reason we are so strongly affected by celebrities and other high-status social figures. Celebrities literally tower above us on billboards and movie screens. For many people, celebrities are difficult to ignore, since they are spoken about in all forms of media. They are marketed in such a way that they create the illusion of having more, knowing more and being more. In our social hierarchy, they are supposedly at the top.
The law of grandiosity and the shame/grandiosity continuum are not just limited to celebrities, however. They can apply equally to our friends and family who we perceive as higher status than us i.e. who we believe to have more assets, ability, wisdom or strength. They can apply in any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and they can definitely apply to the parent-child relationship.
The misunderstood emotion
As horrible as it can feel, shame is not actually there to harm us. It provides us with a feedback loop, reminding us not only when we are overdoing it, but also when we are not quite there. It serves a noble purpose. Knowing your limits allows you to function inside a more manageable structure. For example, before you can play a musical instrument, you need to learn your chords and theory first, followed by hundreds of hours of practice and a lot of trial and error. You need to face your limits and be reminded of them over and over again until you reach your goal. When another person outdoes you in something, your shame will inspire you to grow and to match the new standard. It stops one being complacent. In this context, shame is a useful tool.
The only way shame is harmful is when it is irredeemable. Not measuring up but having the chance to improve or change is life affirming, being placed in an endless loop of not being good enough is life crushing. There is great despair in feeling like you will never measure up. The hope of measuring up is how life spurs us into growth. That is life’s intention; like two rugby teams, our grandeur should push up against our shame and maintain the pressure, claiming more and more ground, until it reaches the goal - or until we accept and make peace with our limitations.
Also, being equal and at one with others in your social circle feels great. It’s the very essence of being human. By embracing our shame, we can live in a state of equality and humanity. We are psychologically godlike and physically mortal. We are mortal gods. We are all in this together. And we can only be aware of this through our shame.
When shame becomes toxic
Shame has a dark side. It doesn’t always arise for good reason. It can be forced upon you by those who have no capacity for it. It can also be fabricated by those people looking to enhance their own sense of grandiosity. It really doesn’t matter what the standard is, as long as you believe in it, you will be affected by it. The same goes the other way. If you look down on your friend’s weaknesses, you might feel a sense of grandiosity. This can be used with deadly effect. If somebody creates a scenario where you believe that you are beneath them and makes you feel small, they will activate your shame. You will unwittingly dive into your dark, isolated, psychological purgatory, believing that you need to take inventory and improve. You will sink below the level of humanity and begin to feel less than human - you will feel inferior. If they shame you enough and reinforce it continuously in the relationship, you will stay there. It will become a part of your core identity. The result is toxic shame. You will cut yourself down to fit. You will lower your gaze, talk more quietly, express yourself less and doubt yourself more. You will become more cooperative and appeasing. Your respective places on opposite ends of the continuum will become solidified, and an unfair balance of power will be achieved.
This is exactly what the narcissist is counting on.