Victor’s therapist asked him the strangest question during his weekly session: “What do you obsess about the most?” He paused for a while to ponder the options, but one word kept resonating – shame. Was it true? Did he obsess about shame the most? A quick inventory over his day revealed several obsessive thought patterns all rooted in personal indignity.
But what does this mean? Where does this come from? Glancing through his childhood brought to mind a story of his father. Victor was only five at the time of the incident. His father, who was already demanding, bullying, controlling, and unbearable, was even more so when he was drunk. One night, Victor heard his dad in what he now knew to be in a drunken state yelling at his mom. He could vividly remember the sound of her crying. Victor snuck down the stairs to watch what was happening only to find his dad grabbing at his mom and hitting her. Without a second thought, a wave of protectiveness flooded Victor as he ran downstairs to get in between them.
What happened next is a bit of a blur: Victor, after the scrimmage, ended up with a broken arm at the hands of his father. While at the emergency room, Victor’s father who had sobered up by this time, weaved a false story of how he rescued Victor from a nasty fall down the stairs. He then blamed Victor for getting out of his bed as the reason for the event. As a young child, Victor accepted the responsibility because he didn’t have much of a choice. However, now a man, he still allowed others to shame him.
His narcissistic father’s early conditioning had unknowingly caused his shaming obsession. This is not an uncommon narcissistic behavior, but why does a narcissist do this? Usually they harbor a deep-rooted insecurity, masked by the narcissism that they cannot tolerate exposing even in the slightest. In order to self-protect, this leads a narcissist to manipulatively shame others in an effort to maintain their superior status and deflect any vulnerability. A narcissist, unwilling to feel their own shame and fear, instead diverts it by purposefully causing others to feel the same way. In the case of Victor, his father was targeting him to reinforce his own confidence.
To put an end to such harmful behavior, it is necessary to be aware of the ways a narcissistic parent shames their child. Here are a few examples.
Historical Revisionism. A narcissist will retell their child’s story with shaming commentary favoring the parent’s purpose. This is frequently done in front of others as a way of discounting any success the child might have accomplished. The narcissist will state that they are trying to the keep their child humble for their own benefit though, in reality, they are causing humiliation. Now those witness to the story telling view the child in a light filtered by the parent, giving the parent complete control over the situation.
Confidence Breaking. A narcissistic parent uses private detailed information to expose their child at the worst possible time. This is done to reduce the child while elevating the narcissist. A narcissist might even do this just prior to a major life event as a way of undermining any confidence their child might have obtained. By breaking the assertiveness the child might have momentarily held, the narcissist is now back at the helm and once again capable of commanding the space.
Exaggerating Faults. Within a narcissistic mind, no one is perfect except for them. Narcissists are very good at identifying the faults of their children and even better at passively aggressively commenting on them. This is a way of putting their child ‘in their place.’ When confronted, they often say, “I was only joking,” or simply claim that their child “can’t take a joke.” Writing it off as something the child could not maturely handle only highlights the dominating qualities of the parent.
Victim Card. Narcissists are talented at exasperating their child and then using their poor reaction as justification for identifying themselves as the victim. Regardless of how aggressively the narcissist incited the child, an angry reaction to the provocation is viewed as shameful. The child who is conditioned to feel responsible most often allows the narcissist to play the victim card and thereby surrenders control to them.
Blame Shifting. Whenever something goes wrong, the narcissist shifts all blame to the child. The child who may have only made a minor mistake enables the narcissist to dump more than their fair share of the responsibility onto them. This way the narcissist takes advantage of their child’s vulnerability, escapes accountability, and leaves the child to face the consequences.
Baby Talk. In any narcissistic parent-child relationship, the narcissist wants to be seen as the adult regardless of how much their child might have aged. To achieve this, they belittle in condescending ways such as literally talking down towards the child, calling their adult child immature, and saying their adult child needs to grow up. The implication is that the narcissist is more mature and has developed beyond the level of the child. This is a tactic used by the parent to maintain superiority despite the status their child has obtained.
Offensive Play. The narcissist will use personal attacks to put the child on the defense. Often, the child will get so caught up in defending their name or character that they miss the next attack. “Look how defensive you are, you must have done something wrong,” the narcissist will counter. This is a checkmate position because the child has nowhere to go. Defending themselves further only plays into the trap and attempting to avoid confrontation allows for “proof” of the narcissists argument. Cornering their opponent, a narcissist can ensure that the outcome resolves in their favor.
Talking Above. Instead of talking down towards their child (as described in Baby Talk), the narcissist will instead talk over the child’s knowledge level. Even if the child is more intelligent, the narcissist talks in circles with an air of authority to force the child into an inferior position. They will use sophisticated vocabulary, physical posturing – such as looking down at the other person, and embellishment of details to disguise the real point of shaming. The child, no matter their ability, still finds themselves unable to fend off the narcissist’s attacks and in turn the parent can always orchestrate a way to “win.”
Comparing Accomplishments. It doesn’t matter what the child has accomplished, the narcissist will claim to have done it first, better, and more efficiently. By outperforming the child, the narcissist can minimize their child’s accomplishments in comparison to their own. This produces a “I can never be good enough,” feeling in the child, and solidifies the parent’s authority and experience over them
After taking inventory of the ways his narcissistic father discredited him, Victor realized the shaming voice in his head was really a lasting influence from his childhood. In an effort to disguise his own insecurity, Victor’s father had developed an unhealthy shaming pattern that still continuously haunted his son. Now, instead of allowing that voice to control him, Victor knows it is essential to separate his identity from his father’s and stop the cycle of harm.