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Narcissism and Healthy Shame

Michel Hendricks is a co-author with Jim Wilder of The Other Half of Church. He helps churches and ministries bring the transformation of character back into the center of what they do.

Our brains are designed to metabolize emotions. Shame is one of the six big emotions with dedicated neurological circuitry (that is, sadness, anger, fear, shame, hopeless despair, disgust). In the healthy case, shame gets digested through relational attachments—through hesed. For example, if you see me do something that does not reflect the character of Jesus, you have a chance to change my character. This growth opportunity involves helping me metabolize the shame of my flaw. 

You approach me at the proper time and say, “I really enjoy our friendship and care about you. I sense that you forgot who you were back there. Are you open to being reminded of who we are?” 

I feel ashamed, and, in the healthy case, I sense our attachment and receive your message. The shame gets digested quickly and is displaced by peace and relief. If the correction is done properly and I am humble and receptive, you have helped mold my character. I am now a little more like Jesus thanks to you. In God’s kingdom, shame is always combined with a strong dose of love.

However, we can also metabolize shame in nonrelational ways, and this corrupted digestion is the playground of narcissism. When we speak of narcissists, we are talking about people who have narcissistic traits that dominate their character. Narcissists have formed unhealthy character habits for interacting with others.

For example, if I am infected with this relational disease, I will respond differently to your loving attempts to remind me of who I am. I will see our interaction as a threat. Our conversation becomes an argument that I must win. My motivation to defeat you is especially fierce if you are correcting my character and my leadership. I think, This person, who is trying to make me look bad, must lose!

We will have difficulty improving our character if we refuse to accept healthy correction. Proverbs 15:31 says, “Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.” When we ignore this path to wisdom—by refusing to learn and grow from the people around us—we are heading toward narcissism. We cannot handle the shame of being reproved, and we do not want to learn because we are focused on winning. In this state, our character is immovable. 

Narcissists will not accept a healthy reminder when their character is flawed, but they are skilled in using toxic shame against others. It is essential to refuse to accept toxic shame, and this is especially crucial in the presence of a narcissist. If we are weak and untrained, the narcissist will make us think we are crazy, because they are masters of wielding condemnation. 

Communities with rich soil train their people to protect themselves from toxic shame, and this renders powerless one of the narcissist’s favorite weapons. Our example gives the narcissist hope. He or she sees you acting in a way that seems impossible to them. You are refusing to accept condemnation (toxic shame), and you are also accepting the healthy shame of correction. You have given the narcissistic brain an image that creates a new option for behavior. Remember that we change through imitation. It is impossible to teach a narcissist new behavior. They must see you metabolize shame with their own eyes.

Nonrelational strategies to digest shame by winning seem necessary to us when we are convinced that all shame is toxic. When we do not know how to deal with shame in a relational way, we create complex strategies to avoid it at all costs. These anti-shame strategies drive much of the behavior that we see listed in popular and psychological explanations of narcissism.  These strategies are not the disease itself but the symptoms. At its core, narcissism is a shame disease.

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