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The penny drops

 

Man is free at the moment he wishes to be.

– Voltaire

 

The fact that you’re reading this book means you’re onto something. Maybe a particular event burst the bubble and a small gap opened up as a result. A gap in what, you’re not sure, but you felt it. It happened when a significant person in your life went that little bit too far, and you finally said to yourself: ‘This is not normal. Why am I tolerating this crap?’ You didn’t really know what normal was, but you knew that the union which you have with this person is definitely not it.

Through this small gap which opened up, you may have begun to realise some or all of the following about your relationship:

  • It’s unbalanced: The other person seems to have the upper hand and the final say, and you have to struggle to get an equal footing with them. Their problems get top priority. When you try to express or assert yourself, the other person finds a way to subdue you and bring the focus back onto them.
  • It’s manipulative: Like being under a spell, the other person seems to have an uncanny ability to pull your strings and get their way with you. Often you don’t want them to, but it just happens. When you try to influence them in any way, you’re met with so many obstacles you give up.
  • It’s intrusive: They have a permanent place in your mind. There doesn’t seem to be any psychological separation between you and them, and they enter your emotional space effortlessly. You find yourself craving some separation and psychological ‘air’, but end up feeling enormous guilt. Being a distinct individual in control of your destiny does not feel like an option with them in your life.
  • It’s rigid: You don’t experience much growth from the relationship, and it doesn’t go anywhere fast. It feels ritualistic, and you wish there were more to it.
  • It’s exhausting: You walk on eggshells around that person. There’s no particular reason. Simply being around them makes you anxious, like you don’t quite stack up and you have to prove yourself to them.
  • It’s oppressive: It’s taken for granted that the other person is superior to you. Spending time with them leaves you with a hopeless sense of inferiority.
  • It’s hollow: The relationship feels empty and sad, and you don’t get much emotional nourishment from it.
  • It’s perplexing: You can never seem to find solid ground. There’s always a drama which must be addressed or something which the other person is unhappy about that you feel you need to fix. You crave peace and security, but it somehow always eludes you.
  • It sucks you in: There seems to be an invisible force which sucks you toward the other person. Even when you disconnect for a while, all it takes is a simple question to draw you back in and distract you from your task. You feel powerless to resist this emotional force, which seems to take on a life of its own.

Then one thing leads to another, and you find yourself googling ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’. You read a few articles, and your jaw drops. After the initial shock wears off, you investigate further. You read the forums, and you realise that a countless number of people share your experience. You learn the lingo; gas-lighting, idealise, devalue, discard, triangulation, hoovering and baiting. You put the pieces together and begin to see that many of these tactics have been done to you at some stage. It’s like your life story is being told to you. You begin to wonder: can this be true? Do people like this really exist? You read on. Finally, it hits you with full force. You realise that you’re not crazy; what you’ve been experiencing all this time is definitely real. People like this do exist. Not only do they exist in the world, they exist in your world. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. You feel rage, sadness and despair, and a little bit of relief. You walk around with a sense of lightness, but also with a sense of having been stained somehow. Your entire reality has been turned on its head. You start questioning your core instincts. You realise that the relationship dynamics which you accepted and took as gospel are both unhealthy and grossly manipulative. You start to look at people differently. You monitor their behaviour, even that of the people you have known for years or a lifetime. The picture is not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that you have a problem with narcissists and you’re only just waking up to it.

Down the rabbit hole

What you might not have realised is that monitoring the behaviours of others, while important, is not enough. Staying on the surface will only serve to get you mixed up in drama after drama and will keep you guessing as to what’s normal and what’s narcissistic. The crucial thing to realise is that the tactics which you have been subjected to are just the tip of the problem; it goes much deeper. The core of the problem is often much harder to see.

Also, if you think it’s as simple as walking away, guess again: The way out is not an actual road which leads to a new life and exciting adventures. You might have already suspected this. It was not a coincidence that you found yourself in this position to begin with. You are still carrying the same beliefs, behaviours and paradigms. You can walk away from a partner, or distance yourself from certain family members, choose a new set of friends, or quit a job, but in time you’ll end up in the arms of another narcissist, or eventually back under the control of the same narcissist. To make lasting changes, you will need a strategy.

Sharpen your sword

As the title points out, this book is a 101 on how to kill a narcissist. No, we’re not discussing actual murder! This is about understanding the core of the problem, not just the symptoms. It’s about seeing the core of the problem in the narcissist, and the core of the problem in you. This is about becoming conscious of what makes you a target for narcissists. It’s about shifting your paradigms so you can begin to separate yourself from the problem. It’s also about obtaining new internal resources which narcissists don’t want you to develop, mainly because these resources make you less susceptible to their control. It’s about developing a new belief set. It’s about educating yourself, and as a result, empowering yourself. It’s about developing your own autonomous identity, free of shame and guilt; a fortress which nobody will be able to access without your explicit permission and unless they offer you the due respect. With time, your new resources and beliefs will allow you to hop over to the sunny, narcissism-free side of the street. So in a way, yes, we are going to kill some narcissists. More specifically, we’re going to starve them to death by taking away their narcissistic supply. And it all starts with you.

 

First things first

 

Terms such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Sociopath, Psychopath and Narcopath are the labels typically associated with narcissism. With extreme levels of narcissism, it can be helpful to have such labels. Violent, destructive and acutely manipulative people should be placed in a pigeonhole to remind us that only physical distance can protect us from them. Dealing with the most violent and sadistic of narcissists is beyond the scope of this book, however. Being forced to go no contact, restraining orders and post-traumatic stress disorder are not light topics. Personality disorders and domestic abuse are also beyond the scope of this book. Professional help should be sought when dealing with such issues.

Most narcissists sit more in the middle band, and at first glance seem harmless. The damage done by your average narcissist seeps in like a slow acting poison. Being in a relationship with a narcissist causes untold damage, without them necessarily swindling you of all your money or becoming violent. A lot of narcissists subject their target to the slow, painful death by narcissism – without criminal intent. They do most of their damage through emotional abuse, by shaming and manipulating their target to enforce control.

This book focuses on the narcissist archetype. This archetype applies to the father or mother who fills their own needs by objectifying their children and keeping them both subjugated and trapped in a psychological cage. It applies to the friend who loves having weaker people around just so they can ridicule them and feel powerful around them, as well as feed off them for narcissistic supply. It relates to the lover who objectifies and keeps their partner trapped in an agonising emotional storm. It applies to the boss who charms, controls, frightens and objectifies his employees with the intention of reinforcing their power in the workplace. This book focuses on narcissism as not only an archetype but also as a regime; a structure with strict rules aimed at objectifying and subjugating others for narcissistic supply. This book tries to leave the popular labels and theory behind so that the heart and soul of narcissism can be clearly seen without the external layers to muddy the view.

For the sake of simplicity, the term narcissist will be employed in this book. Narcissist regime will refer to the structure between two or more people where a person controls others and extracts narcissistic supply, either through a position of power such as parenthood or a management position or through emotional manipulation in a relationship. Often it is a combination of both, where a position of power gives a narcissist the licence to control their target and emotional manipulation enforces the control on a more personal level.

On the other hand, the target of the narcissist will not be given a special label, since that would pigeonhole them and define them in comparison to the narcissist, hence keeping them trapped in the game. The entire purpose of this book is to assist the targets of narcissism in breaking free, reminding them that their identity does indeed exist outside of a narcissist regime and encourages them to define their identity and self-worth according to their own choosing. Again, for the sake of simplicity, the term target will be used in combination with you, which addresses the reader as a person who can relate to the content. This provides us with a useful label that is not based on subjugation or a role. Anybody can be a target of something. Being so does not influence one’s identity.

Lastly, it is crucial that we view narcissism itself as the enemy, and not designate specific people as evil. Although extremely difficult in some cases, hatred for the narcissist keeps us stuck and leads to us surrendering our personal power. We must remember that beneath the behaviours and beliefs we are all human beings. It is specifically this humanity in us which is the gateway to a life of strength and peace and which separates us from the perils of narcissism. Furthermore, narcissism can be handed down for generations and be so ingrained in the family dynamic that there is no awareness by anybody that it is going on, including the narcissist. Many people learnt narcissism through abuse from a parent or loved one. It is also argued that some people are simply born with a reduced capacity for shame, and narcissism as well as manipulation are a natural outcome of this. To top it all off, we need to remember that we are all capable of narcissism if we stray too far from our inherent humanity.

Make no mistake, narcissism is a horrible thing. But the finger should be kept pointed solely at the disease, and never the person. Yes, how you treat a person will change when they exhibit narcissistic behaviours, but as this book will explain, once we have identified narcissistic tendencies in a person, the next step will be to bring the focus away from that person and then inward into ourselves, where change can happen.

 

The enduring effects of life under a narcissist regime

 

Paul has a recurring nightmare where he is trapped in an underground cave with hot flames all around him. An intense feeling of claustrophobia shakes his core, and he wakes up in terror, gasping for air. He realises he is having a panic attack. It feels like being in purgatory; an unbearable, infinite fear which he tries desperately to escape but cannot find a way out. He scrambles to switch the light on and then starts pacing up and down his apartment trying to shake it off. He rushes down the stairs and out into the chilly morning air. It helps a bit. It takes over an hour for the feeling of panic to dissipate. He has no idea why he keeps having dreams like this.

Cindy is an intelligent, pleasant girl. Her broken smile hints at the sadness inside, but she is polite and acts happy enough, so people don’t stick their noses into her business. She obediently obliges most requests, tends to agree with most opinions and goes along with most of the plans of others. She’s simply there, and people can trust her not to rock the boat.

Igor is 34 years old, but people think he’s 25. He’s a dreamer. He’d like to be in a band, or maybe write the next great novel. He’s not sure which. He never felt capable enough or smart enough to act on his dreams. To make matters worse, he feels trapped working in a call centre. Also, he’s been with his girlfriend Anna on and off for 4 years now. Every time they fight, Igor threatens to leave but is met with tears and threats of suicide. The guilt is overwhelming, and he stays. He wants desperately to leave the relationship but can’t see a way out.

After an intense summer romance, Noah asked Ariana to marry him. She said yes. Noah was a dream come true. He was attentive, he focused all of his energy on Ariana, shared in her dreams and was ready to commit. They got married in a simple ceremony. Soon after the wedding, things started to change. Noah became critical of Ariana, and flew into a rage if she came home any later than the expected time. Ariana had seen that rage in small doses before the wedding but had disregarded it, especially when Noah apologised swiftly with his boyish desperation. Noah was grandiose and insisted that everything he did was far superior to anyone else. He loved having the attention on himself and would tell endless stories to any willing audience without ever showing interest in the listener. He had a certain charm about him, so most people tolerated him. Ariana was deeply dissatisfied with the relationship and tired of Noah’s rage, which came out randomly and without any real reason. After fourteen years, three children and having left most of her friends behind, she was far too daunted by the idea of leaving and starting again.

 

Why me? Qualifying as a target

 

Get em’ while they’re young

As children, we are curious, sensitive, vulnerable, and of course, impressionable, absorbing everything around us like sponges as the core of how we relate to others is formed. We worship the people who are responsible for us. Our helplessness means we have no choice but to give them absolute power. With that power, they have the potential to either lead us toward a life of independence or to use us for their own ego supply. Narcissists choose the latter.

This position of power obviously begins with parents but can also apply to uncles and aunties, family friends, teachers or sports coaches. For the narcissist, having impressionable young people looking up to them heightens their sense of power. They get to play out their shameless ‘wise leader’ role at the expense of the child. They feel that their position of power gives them a license to judge, control and belittle the child if the child does not meet their expectations. In their grandiose mind, they can take advantage of the responsibility bestowed upon them by using it as a way to feed their ego.

The dangerous (and sad) thing is that it lies outside of the child’s conscious awareness. It happened at a time when they had little of it. True awareness begins in adulthood. When vulnerable and dependent, the child can unwittingly become an object of narcissistic supply, and not really be aware of what is happening. When it’s done long enough, it can become as normal as the air they breathe. The child is manipulated and groomed into a role of perpetual worship and dependence.

Leadership is about showing others the path so they can walk it, outgrow it and then eventually forge their own path. Narcissists in leadership hold back the target from differentiating by supporting the child only within the constraints of the relationship, and only as long as the child is fulfilling their role by providing narcissistic supply. The narcissist projects their ego needs onto the child, and rather than put their needs aside to help the child grow, expects the child to adapt to them instead. This role reversal is the core of a narcissist-child relationship, which leads to arrested development in the child and grooms them to be more susceptible to narcissism. The child grows up believing that relationships are about playing their role and adapting to the needs of others. It’s one of the greatest lies told to some children; that dependence is a fact of life and that it never ends. This lie can continue throughout adulthood.

The ideal target

Some people could have unwittingly fallen into a narcissist regime from a young age, and/or they could be an emotionally sensitive person. Empaths, as they are referred to:

  • are intuitive and possess high emotional intelligence
  • experience their emotions with a very high intensity, which often debilitates and severely stunts the ability for rational thought
  • can sense and are very attuned to the emotions of others, even going as far as to take on these emotions, which can quickly drain the Empath’s energy if they are not careful
  • are good listeners and can sacrifice their attention for long periods of time
  • have a very strong craving to connect with others emotionally, which is often stronger than reason and common sense
  • have more difficulty than others in keeping up with daily life, and so are more prone to seeking out a higher power for guidance and support
  • can more easily be influenced than others

The emotional world of an Empath is very rich. They are artists and dreamers. They inspire others with their energy and zest for life. They are healers, and usually very creative and spiritual. They can brighten up a person’s day just by being themselves. Yet this richness comes with a cost:

  • Empaths crave love and connection more than most people, and they suffer when isolated. As a result of this deep need for emotional connection, their boundaries are usually weak.
  • The emotional buttons of an Empath are easier to push than those of Non-Empaths. Because they have a super sensitive emotional antenna, even the smallest attack can shake them up. When somebody else shows intense emotion, whether it be anger, sadness or outrage, the Empath feels like they are being engulfed and bombarded. With that, their immune system drops and their anxiety increases.
  • They often feel fatigued, just by being around people. They get sick more easily. They are often nervous and afraid. It has nothing to do with strength; inside their body and mind, they are simply overwhelmed with fear, shame and anxiety. This deafening, blinding emotional system makes it hard to see out into the world.
  • Empaths must have structure at all times. They need an environment which insulates them so that emotions don’t get out of hand.

For all of the above reasons, Empaths are perfect targets for narcissists. Their inner beauty, weak boundaries, compromised internal strength and strong need for connection make them a gold mine of narcissistic supply. To get the upper hand, the narcissist only has to bombard the emotional system of the Empath and then coerce the Empath into cooperating with their demands.

A high degree of skill and support is required to manage the often tumultuous inner world of the Empath properly. In many families, especially conservative, traditional or abusive ones, the need of the Empath to be deeply understood and supported can be neglected. Even worse, especially for men, they can be shamed for their ‘softness’. These unmet needs and an inability to weather their emotional storm can leave the Empath with low self-esteem and an overwhelming craving for love, and not really be aware why. The narcissist will smell this like a shark smells blood and swoop in. The charm of the narcissist can be intoxicating and irresistible to the Empath. The narcissist can offer the Empath structure, even though that structure is oppressive and mostly benefits the narcissist.

Identifying with being an Empath and/or with being born into a narcissist regime can help you understand how your origins have impacted your life so far, and can also remind you that it’s not your fault. Most importantly, it can help you draw a line and make the decision to take your future into your own hands. Where you go from here is entirely within your power.

 

Mortal Gods

 

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.

 

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