by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
The majority of clients that come in for counseling are experiencing anxiety or depressive symptoms. Many times clients want to experience less anxiety but don’t know what is causing it. They often feel like there is something simply wrong with them or feel that they are “going crazy”. I am a big advocate for psycho-education, or providing the theory or principles behind what I believe helps people. Sometimes this education is around Neuroscience, sometimes around relationship patterns, sometimes about self-talk and general theories of change. One question that comes up with almost every client I see, and seems to be of the greatest help to them in determining what is the root cause of their anxiety is simply the question: “What feeling do you avoid the most? Is it guilt or is it shame?” One might think that this is a surprisingly simple question, one that couldn’t possibly make sense of something as complex as anxiety. However, what if the seed that grows into full grown Narcissistic relational patterns or the seed that grows into full grown Caregiver relational patterns is simply unattended guilt or shame? How might this change the amount of hope in people and the amount of engagement in the counseling process? How much more likely might people be to attend a class on Guilt Tolerance or Shame Tolerance than one on Major Depressive Disorder or Abusive Relationship Patterns. Sadly, the ones of us who stand to benefit the most from this type of education are the ones most likely to never receive it, due to the overwhelming sense of guilt or shame that is likely to prevent them from attending. At first glance, running away from guilt or shame seems relatively harmless, but not if it sends you running into a lifetime of narcissistic or caregiving behavior.
Guilt and Caregivers
I like to talk to clients who experience mental health struggles, whether that be personality disorders, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, about a spectrum with which most of us fall on. Those of us who experience these struggles often came from emotionally unhealthy (or at the very least, emotionally anemic) family situations. We most likely had a parent combination that involved someone more on the Narcissistic side of the spectrum paired with someone more on the Caregiver side of the spectrum. If you can imagine this spectrum, imagine a Narcissist who cannot tolerate shame on the far right and a Caregiver who can’t tolerate guilt on the far left. Very often, both parents came from family situations that were not particularly emotionally healthy, even if they appeared healthy in a variety of other ways. In homes where a child is naturally very feeling and empathetic, and the parents own unhealthy lifestyle or relationship leads to a failure to emotionally attend to the child, the child is likely to naturally fall into a Caregiver role. Feeling deeply, and being keenly attuned to their parent’s emotions and struggles, the child is likely to learn early on that they are most approved and experience the most connection when they are suppressing their own needs and feelings and taking on the responsibilities, emotional concerns, or meeting the needs of those around them. Through this process the child learns that this is what is expected of them and as long as they operate in this capacity they are protected from feeling guilt. Perhaps the message they received is: “You are good and you are valuable when you are helpful and strong”.
Shame and Narcissism
On the other hand, a child growing up in the same home could have been emotionally neglected and a harsh parent might have demanded perfection and rigorously prioritized performance and achievement over emotional connection and grace. Perhaps a child was raised by a helicopter parent who prevented them from ever making mistakes. In doing so, in order to gain approval and connection from the parent, a child might have strived for perfection and never had the opportunity to make mistakes and fail or experience grace and comfort from a parent. The result, of which, is someone who cannot tolerate the feeling of shame. Perhaps the message they received was something like, “you are good and you are worthy if you succeed and if you don’t make mistakes, but shame on on you if you do!” To this person, being imperfect or making a mistake could result in a complete collapse of identity and ego and therefore this person, as an adult, simply cannot entertain such an idea as failure, for it would mean shame and disapproval.
After explaining this spectrum to clients, most of them can immediately place themselves on one side of the spectrum or the other. They can usually identify whether they are constantly running from shame or guilt. Most clients, once they become aware of their pattern, begin seeing their avoidance of guilt in everything they do, from work to hobbies to relationships. Caregivers can’t say “no” to others because they are afraid of the guilt that they know they will feel afterwards. They struggle to ask for their needs to be met by others because they have been “taught” their whole life that their primary responsibility is to others. Narcissistic individuals can’t tolerate feeling shame when those close to them are unhappy, so rather than listening to others, validating their feelings, and offering to explore solutions, they put all of their effort into making the other person’s bad feelings go away so that they can feel comfortable again. This can play out as dismissing and minimizing the feelings of others, lashing out and trying to make the other party guilty of something, so that their feelings aren’t legitimate. This way, they don’t have to feel ashamed of themselves. Whichever side of the spectrum we fall on, doing the work that we need to do is crucial if we want to experience healthy intimacy and connection.
Internalizing and Projecting
In addition to the feelings driving Caregiving and Narcissistic behaviors, there are other features that remain constant with both. One detrimental behavior that gets Caregiving individuals into trouble is that they internalize the negative messages from others, often experiencing decreasing self-worth over time. As their self-esteem erodes, and they question their own ability to understand their reality, they become more and more likely to fall into relationships with Narcissistic others and more and more likely to believe the things that other people say about them, often as manipulative tactics to push the guilt button that so readily works for Caregivers. Narcissistic individuals, on the other hand, cannot bear to feel ashamed and so they project outward the characteristics and things about themselves that they don’t like. Rather than owning the things about themselves that are less-than-perfect, they project outward onto others to deal with the threat of feeling ashamed, and if a Caregiver is nearby they are likely to take that projection and internalize it as true about themselves, furthering their guilt.
Ownership and Accountability Problems
When it comes to ownership and accountability, Caregivers seem to take ownership of just about anything to make a relationship work. Because Caregivers have been groomed to be strong and un-needy and to avoid guilt, the Caregiver will almost always find ways to blame themselves for a problem, or at least take on enough ownership to feel that they can “fix” the problem. The more their self-esteem goes down, the more they question if perhaps their partner cheated because they weren’t eager enough, or maybe their partner hit them because they didn’t perform well enough for their partner. As long as the Caregiver can own something, there’s an appearance that they can fix it. A Narcissistic individual, on the flip side, just can’t bear to feel they have failed in any way, including relationally, and so they cannot demonstrate ownership of any mistakes. Even if they know deep down that they have messed up in some way, the fear of shame prevents them from ever being able to admit it, to themselves or to others, as to face the shame would be detrimental to their self-esteem. At the core of what appears to be an arrogant and proud person is actually a deeply fearful person: fearful of failure, fearful of shame.
Over-Reactivity versus Under-Reactivity
Another big difference I notice in people who fall on the Narcissistic side of the spectrum is that they are extremely sensitive to criticism, and extremely reactive because of it. The slightest hint of a criticism seems to launch them into fiery, self-defensive discord. All of their “bad and unacceptable” thoughts and feelings (since they can’t be imperfect) get launched outward onto others. Caregivers seem to, way too often, do the complete opposite. If someone does something awful to them, even if it is blatantly obvious to others, the Caregiver tends to under-react and accept the poor treatment. If this involves a Narcissistic individual projecting onto them, where someone else might throw their hands up and walk away, the Caregiver might ask for more clarification and then internalize whatever is said.
These extremely opposing ways of relating explain why so many Caregivers are inevitably in long-term relationships with Narcissistic individuals and vice versa. Once one of the two individuals becomes healthier, the relationship is not likely to last. At the end of the day, perhaps labeling each other isn’t the most helpful way to go about understanding ourselves relationally. Seeing each other not as enemies (though it can feel that way at times) but allies in a world in need of relational healing makes us partners in helping each other grow. Labeling and owning our own work, and the direction we each need to head with regards to these behaviors and patterns, is more helpful than pointing our fingers or minimizing our part in the whole detrimental cycle. To that end, I say there is hope.
Healing from Guilt and Caregiving:
If you find yourself on the Caregiver side of things, recognize your tendencies in relationships. Recognize that at the core of your caregiving is a deep need to avoid the pain of guilt. Challenge that guilt as a lie, unless of course you legitimately, intentionally, and maliciously harmed someone. If you feel guilty for taking care of your own needs, rather than the needs of others, challenge the message that others should always comes first. How can you take care of others if you don’t first take care of yourself? If you feel guilty for setting boundaries and keeping boundaries, or saying “no” to others, challenge that guilt as well. Remind yourself that the boundaries are to protect the relationships in our lives, for without them resentment and bitterness will grow and your own self-care could be undone. Value yourself. If you find yourself admitting to things that you are being blamed for, that you feel are unfair or unjust, challenge those things. Don’t let someone push your guilt button and make you internalize hurtful messages or projections. Disable the guilt button and be free of manipulation! Dial up your reactivity. Practice feeling your anger and defending yourself when you feel you are being treated poorly. Lastly, and most importantly, turn towards your guilt rather than running from it. Explore the message that is behind the guilt. Challenge the message and stand up for yourself and what you believe to be true. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and apologize if you’ve wronged someone, but only if you believe you have.
Healing from Shame and Narcissism:
If you find yourself on the Narcissistic side of things, feeling that you are going through life at warp speed trying to garner approval and validation to support a sneaking suspicion that you aren’t ever going to be good enough, recognize shame creeping in: that nasty feeling in your gut that makes you angry. Find the sadness underneath the anger, label the shame, label the messages. Your value isn’t in your performance. Make an effort to contain your defensiveness if someone comes across as critical. Recognize that for relationships to work and for healing to take place, we must be able to hear one another and respect each other’s opinion. Build up your emotional vocabulary so that you can talk about what you are feeling, what is underneath the anger and the urge to silence the other party. Ask yourself what you are protecting and talk about that openly. Explore your childhood experiences. Were you allowed to fail?If so, did someone comfort you and explain to you that you are okay and good and worthy, regardless of how you perform? If not, is there someone in your life currently that can offer you that support. Can you be vulnerable enough to ask? Can you practice parenting yourself in a way that undoes some of the hurtful early messages you received?
At the end of the day we are all responsible for our own healing. We must turn and face our feelings (even the ones that we don’t like), we must fully embrace our feelings, and we must tolerate our feelings long enough to explore what they are telling us. Our feelings are a gift to us, messages that are continually pointing us in the direction that we need to go. If we can just face them, embrace them, and integrate what we learn from them, we will be heading in a direction of healing.