Shame is a new concept for me. I lived it, but I never understood it. From as early as I can remember I’ve felt a deep sense of shame, a belief that I was inherently such a bad human I deserved nothing.
As a child I was called “practically perfect”. My family thought this was cute. I independently did my homework, brushed my teeth, laid out my clothes for the next day. What my family & I didn’t understand was that this obsessive need to do everything perfectly came from my profound sense of shame.
Here’s how it works.
As an infant, toddler, or young child, your family is unable to meet your needs. Attempts on your part to get attention, love, even basic necessities, are met with hostility or simply ignored; brushed off. In my case, I was the 3rd child in 3 years. My mother was alone most of the time, and my older brother was collicky. When I came along and had a sweet demeanor, my mother was filled with relief. Finally – one less demand on her time, her energy. I get that. I get it 100%. For some mothers, infants and toddlers, while adorable, are overwhelming with their needs. I often felt the same way with my children.
As the undemanding, quiet one of the 3 children, it was natural that my mother and father, feeling a sense of relief, dubbed me “the perfect one”. Once this label was given, it was my job to live up to it, which I did.
All of this is natural. Parents are human. They give their children what they, the parents, are able to give. Mostly it is enough. Unfortunately, it is sometimes not enough. In my case it was not enough. I was quiet, undemanding and “perfect” because I was trying, desperately, to feel deserving.
To be clear, I am not parent bashing. In fact, I am fairly certain I repeated this with one of my sons. The problem with my upbringing came from my nature combined with my parents ability.
By nature I am an introvert. If you were to ask most who know me they would say “ridiculous!! she’s the life of the party, always engaging and loving, making people feel at home and welcomed”. This is true, but the two are not mutually exclusive. I became the life of the party, the engaging and welcoming person, in my attempt to feel necessary, essential, deserving. While I’ve become extremely good at behaving in an outgoing manner, it is actually against my nature, and it is exhausting. I continue to do it but I am now aware that this “acting” exacts a price, often physical, and I have to honor my need to retreat.
What does this have to do with the narcissist? I met my narc when I was a few years out of graduate school. I was the Human Resource Director at a hotel/resort. I loved my job. My job tapped in to all of the skills I had honed as a child. I was charming, welcoming, accepting and energetic. I was a really good HR director! I paid a price for that. I could pull off this energy when at work, but my down time was actual down time. I needed much more time alone than the average person, and I took it. I spent most nights and weekends alone. Unfortunately, I thought this meant that there was something wrong with me. I was trapped in a cycle of feeding my shame. I spent my work week acting out of character to please others, then I spent my off time isolating to recover my energy. Both of these approaches reinforced that there was something wrong with me.
There are some people who innately understand other people. I believe the narcissist is this type. They don’t understand the true nature of others, but they hone right in on two assets: shame and the ability to successfully hide that shame. It’s as if they have a built in divining rod for shame in others. When they find it they are like minors at a stream bearing gold: relentless in their pursuit of a payoff. The person filled with shame provides a huge payoff.
I am not yet clear about how my narc built on my sense of shame. I’m struggling to find examples, because he was sneaky and covert in his destruction of me. I am sure though, that I spent 25 years with him so mired in my sense of shame I lost all sense of what is good about me. I know this because of 2 recent events:
1. As I increase my role at work I am met with more, and more (!) approval and praise from others. Fellow employees tell me I am perfectly suited for the role I play, they appreciate my ability to draw them out, and my desire (and ability) to make all feel part of a group. I don’t know that I’m adequately describing this, but it happens on almost a daily basis. Someone, a fellow employee, a yogi, a friend, expresses what I’m pretty sure is a compliment about my nature. Each and every time I’m taken aback. I have an actual physical response. My response is to lose my breath, then discount the compliment. But it is happening so much that I’m starting to think not only do people mean it, the comments are actually true.
Each time I accept that a compliment might actually be true I feel an overwhelming sense of anger and betrayal. Odd, yes? Here’s why : when I accept that I am welcoming, loving, open to all people, enthusiastic and compassionate, I remember how many years I spent feeling the opposite of these attributes. My ex-narc honed right in on these qualities I’d worked so hard to obtain, and slowly but surely destroyed my sense of each one.
2 – A song “you aren’t good enough” This one is really strange. I was in a yoga class. It was a class that focused on staying in your own body & mind. There was no music, no laughter, no sharing, but there was tremendous focus on accuracy in our postures. Sounds boring, right? It wasn’t! The class was physically hard. I made it through the class on my feelings; I actually banished my thoughts. For those of us abused by a narc this a really powerful thing. When we get into a space in which we dismiss our thoughts of inferiority and shame, we encounter our true self. Some call this our soul, others our spirit, others simply our self. Whatever it is, I was living it, my feelings and thoughts of shame banished. At the end of every yoga class there is a time of meditation/relaxation, called Savasana. (I’ve struggled with Savasana, so if I’m losing you, hang in – I Get It!!) During Savasana experienced yogi’s apparently go someplace out of their body. I don’t. I am able to relax, but I am still very much in my body. During this Savasana the teacher finally put on music. The song was beautiful and one of the lines caught my attention. It went like this: “You think you are not good enough. It is true; you are not…….but who is anyone else to judge?
This really spoke to me. I have spent my entire life believing that I have to be perfect to be worthy. I’m not perfect. I will never be perfect. But I don’t know anyone else who is perfect! Other’s faults might be different than mine, but the truth is we all have them. We all have our weaknesses, our quirks, our defenses, our obnoxious behaviors, that might leave us feeling we are not “enough”.
This is the essence of what I’m saying: If you have been with a narcissist you have come to believe that these faults define you, they are you, and they make you unworthy.
Here is the truth: You aren’t good enough, but neither is anyone else! Yes, you have faults. Every person you meet has faults. Think about the people you admire the most and, as you envision them, you’ll see they have faults. We are, by definition, faulty.
If you can escape your narc you will realize this: the issue is not your faults, the issue is who is allowed to judge you. Your narc has convinced you that he is trial, jury, and judge, and found you unworthy. How ludicrous is this? What makes him the judge or your worthiness? Is he worthy? Is your best friend, your sister, your mother, your aunt worthy? Most importantly, are you worthy to make that judgement?
I had an encounter with one of my bosses last week. She essentially told me to mind my own business. If I was still with my narc I’d have been devastated My thoughts would have been “there you again, you stupid moron; who do you think you are, you should probably be given some punishment worse than death”. Now that I am away from him I’m able to see these facts:
- I’m not perfect. I sometimes screw things up, stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong, and overreact. Welcome to being human.
- My boss also is all of those things: human.
- Sometimes, when I am bashed by another human, it is Not My Fault!
I picked up on this within minutes of the incidence, and boy was that a revelation for me. You know the phrase 2 steps forward, 3 steps backwards? On this day I felt I was taking the forward steps, while simultaneously aware that the backward steps will come. And, it was ok! I didn’t feel that sense of burning shame in my gut. I was actually ok.
Which doesn’t mean I will be tomorrow. Tomorrow I might take 3 steps back. Hopefully, when I take those steps back, I won’t feel that knot of dread in my stomach that wishes a hole would open up and swallow me whole. Hopefully, when I take those steps backwards, I’ll do so while thinking “who are you to judge me?”
Does that make sense?