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Drowning in Shame

There’s no pain quite like shame. Its sting is unique in the rich variety of human agony. The vitriol of another’s words shred our self-esteem.

It’s A Given

It’s no surprise that shame is the guiding light of dysfunctional families. Narcissistic families, like mine, thrive on shame and its close cousin, false guilt. Why wouldn’t they? In their twisted logic, to destroy someone else automatically elevates themselves. I call it “dancing on their carcass.”

In addition, they take it extremely personally if an outsider, perhaps a teacher, incorrectly finds wrong in their child. It threatens their need to appear perfect to all and sundry, including through their child’s perfection. Instead of coming to their child’s defense and taking the opportunity to teach them boundaries, they inculcate more shame, teach people-pleasing and champion self-neglect.

“Stop, Look and Listen:
New England Conscience On The Track”

The Raw Nerve

Five years ago, I escaped the Family of Shame-Throwers. No one has shamed me for five wonderful years. I can’t believe it!

Yet the nerve is still raw. So easily triggered. The least whiff of shame is like lemon juice in a paper-cut.


Let me give you a real-life example of what “triggered” feels like and how the least thing can be a “trigger.”

It all started when my friend called at 10:15 one morning (in violation of my don’t-call-before-eleven rule) and wanted to go shopping. That day just happened to be the day-after-therapy. I dunno about you, but I’m an exhausted zombie after therapy. Opening my soul to a virtual stranger is so hard, so over-stimulating, so exhausting. To add insult to injury, I usually can’t sleep the night after therapy. I was exhausted.

I called her back and left a message, declining to go shopping and saying, “It’s not a good day for me.” I needed to take care of me, and boy! Did I feel guilty about that! Enter Shame #1.

As always happens, my Me-Day turned out quite differently. I ended up helping the workers I’d hired clear a rotten, felled tree off the road. While I carried firewood and built a burn pile from tree limbs, my friend called seven more times. This time, she wanted to go out for supper. Coming in to warm up, I waded through all her messages and hang-ups on my answering machine. And left her a message, declining. Hello! It was a “bad day” for me! Shame #3.

Guilt VS Shame

From my reading, I’ve learned that guilt and shame are wildly different.

Guilt is the prick of conscience from an actual, bona-fide, downright wrong-doing. The violation of a moral code.

Shame, on the other hand, is being bad as a person. Not doing something bad. Being integrally bad. A bad sort. A bad egg. The besmirching of the soul.


And that’s where the problem arises for children of abusive, dysfunctional and narcissistic parents. Our parents mingled guilt for childish wrong-doing with shame for who we were.

Perhaps you too were told that you did bad things because you were inherently bad. As I recall, the exact phrase said with a snarl was, “a sinner from birth.” I’m not disputing that we all are born with the ability to do bad things. But I believe passionately that we all know what’s right to do and want to do it. Why else would we slither, argue and project when caught in wrong-doing?

Now, as adults, guilt and shame are hopelessly intertwined. We can’t feel one without the other.

Claude Rains referred to this in the character of Dr. Jacquith in Now Voyageur when he advised a (false) guilt-ridden Bette Davis to:

“Stop, Look and Listen:
New England Conscience On The Track”

Mingled Feelings

When I declined to go shopping with my friend, did I do something morally wrong? Hell no!

But I felt shame, because I’d disappointed someone dear to me. I didn’t make all her dreams come true. Instead, I chose to take care of me. And boy! Did I feel shame for it just because I’m programmed to feel shame every time another human being questions my actions.

When I again disappointed my friend by not going out for dinner, did I do something morally wrong? Hell no!


Yet, I was drowning in shame. Not that I could exactly feel it. As I wrote in Therapy #6, thanks to PTSD, I can’t really feel anything. But, intellectually, I knew the shame was there. And I feared it would come out as the secondary emotion of anger.


Perhaps the antidote to shame is self-validation.

“I always try to do the right thing, Doc, but I can’t validate myself,” I wailed to my therapist. “I don’t feel grown-up enough to self-validate. My parents were the adults. They said I was…but they never acted like it. They owned me. I was ‘good’ until I did the least thing they didn’t like. Then it felt like they withdrew their love a lá cult-like love-bombing to punish, to control, to get me back into line. How do I feel grown-up? How do I self-validate!?”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” he replied.

Huh!?! That’s not what I expected.

“Like happiness,” he said, “self-validation isn’t something you work towards. It’ll organically happen as we work on other aspects of loving that long-neglected inner child. Every one of us is born with the capacity for both good and bad. You feel like your dad couldn’t freely love you because you were a bad little girl. Were you really a bad little girl?”

Not A Bad Person

“No,” I whispered, my face buried in a soggy tissue.

Like you, dear reader, I always try to do the right thing. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. I don’t deserve to feel shame. To feel less-than the rest of humanity. And neither do you!

Always remember, if you’ve suffered shame at the hands of a narcissist, consider it a compliment. There are umpteen articles online revealing how narcissists actively seek out nice people, good people, sensitive people, kind people to shame, manipulate and control. So, in a way, being the victim of a narcissist’s shaming is a back-handed compliment.

Yeah, I know, it’s a compliment we could’ve done without! But what the heck!?! The next time you feel shame, just remember…

“Stop, look and listen. New England conscience on the track”! Cute, isn’t it.

Photo by Luiz Fernando Reis MMF

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Drowning in Shame

Lenora Thompson

For five years, "Narcissism Meets Normalcy" has followed the real-life, ongoing story of freelance writer, Lenora Thompson, and her readers’ healing journey from narcissistic abuse to healing, peace and happiness. In August 2020, Lenora launched a new blog, "Beyond Narcissism…And Getting Happier All the Time" as she and her readers explore the new world of peace and happiness. "Beyond Narcs…Get Happy" is 100% reader supported! To learn more about Lenora, her husband Michael’s heroic fight against Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis and to subscribe to her other writings, please visit Thank you!

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APA Reference
Thompson, L. (2017). Drowning in Shame. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Jul 2017
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