In my last post I discussed whether or not confronting a narcissist and “calling them out” is ever productive behavior.
The common viewpoint among experts is that confronting a narcissist is useless, because they view both positive attention and negative attention to be narcissistic supply. Also, they have an uncanny way to reframe anything into a positive reflection on them, for example the phrase “I must have haters because I’m doing something right” or “Everyone is just jealous or can’t get my brilliance” and so on and so on.
I agreed that these pitfalls of confronting narcissists are indeed true, but I also explained how one can make the encounter one that does not feed the narcissist’s ego by providing narcissistic supply. I’m not going to regurgitate it all here, especially since you can just check out the post, but the gist of it all was:
- Confronting narcissists only “works” if you make the narcissistic injury (ego bruising and image damaging) outweigh the narcissistic supply (ego boosting and image enhancing), such that the net narcissistic supply is negative.
- To ensure that the narcissist derives more injury than supply from your confrontation, you have to make sure you attack the narcissist using shame, which is his kryptonite, rather than guilt, which he is immune to.
The best way to see these two rules of narcissist confrontation in action is to go to Youtube and watch as many videos of comedians taking down hecklers as you can. There are two common types of hecklers. In fact, based on what I’ve seen live in comedy clubs or online in Youtube clips, I’m convinced 99% of hecklers fall into these two groups: hot women and drunk guys. Both are usually types of narcissists. Hot women, especially when young, are usually narcissists because they are used to being spoiled and having their asses kissed, especially from puberty on. They often are surrounded by people who laugh at their every lame joke or pay rapt attention to their every banal observation, so they actually believe that they are funnier and more insightful than they actually are. Their lives usually resemble this video, hence the delusions of grandeur:
Drunk guys on the other hand are situational narcissists. I’ve made observations in the past about how narcissism and addiction are similar, but here are some more examples of how they’re connected: The concept of codependent was first created by addiction specialists to describe spouses of alcoholics before it was realized that it also applied to people involved with narcissists also. Several experts realized that the dynamics of alcoholic families also applied to narcissistic families. Alcohol is a chemical, liquid form of narcissistic supply preferred by the alcoholic. The feeling of being intoxicated the alcoholic feels after drinking is like the feelings of grandiosity and omnipotence the narcissist feels after getting narcissistic supply. Both will idealize, manipulate, lie to, devalue, and discard others in order to chase their preferred forms of narcissistic supply. And most importantly, both are immune to guilt and vulnerable to shame, especially when they are high off their respective form of supply (for the narcissist, admiration and attention, and for the alcoholic, liquor). And even if someone isn’t a full-fledged alcoholic, for that time during which he is drunk and on cloud 9, he is at least situationally functioning as a narcissist, even though he may be usually a cool guy when sober. This is why I think heckler takedowns are great, rare opportunities to see real-life, unstaged takedowns of narcissists that illustrate the principles I’ve described.
Before we discuss the heckler takedowns though, it’s important to understand the psychodynamics involved in shame and guilt so that you can understand what I mean when I say it’s necessary to attack on the shame level rather than the guilt level.
Many people think shame and guilt are the same thing, but they are very difference. To reiterate a concept I’ve discussed in the past, guilt is feeling bad about something you did, while shame is feeling bad about what you are, your very essence, your very identity. Since the guilty viewpoint sees actions as being the problem, a person overcome by guilt feels the urge to expose what they did to the aggrieved party via confession, and to make restitution and accept punishment. A guilty person tries to make up for bad actions by following them up with good actions. Since the shame viewpoint on the other hand sees his very identity as the problem, a person overcome by shame feels the urge to conceal who they are, to deflect attention and blame and to avoid being revealed as defective and flawed. A shame-filled person doesn’t try to make up for bad actions with good actions, but instead tries to repair his image by downplaying the bad actions or blaming someone else or just slinking away and hiding so as to avoid further embarrassment and scrutiny.
If a guilty person did something wrong and no one else knew, they would still feel bad, because even though their image is still intact, it’s their actions and the content of their character that matters to them. If a shame-prone person did something wrong and no one else knew, they would not feel bad because as long as their image is fine, everything else is fine, regardless of whether their actions are morally right or wrong. To a shame-prone person, actions are only “right” or “wrong” to the extent that they damage his or her reputation or image, regardless of the actual intent and impact of the actions. To a shame-prone person, actions only matter when they damage the image, cause feelings of exposure and embarrassment, and reveal that they are flawed to their core, making them feel like frauds.
For shame-based people, even what little sense of guilt they have ends up fused with shame, making it something called toxic guilt. That is, they can’t separate their guilt from their shame, meaning they can’t separate their actions from their identity. For example, when you are operating from a sense of guilt, you can say something like “I am a good, decent guy who just happened to do a stupid thing. Doing something stupid doesn’t make my whole identity defective.” If you are operating from a sense of toxic guilt, which is guilt fused with shame, you can’t say things like that. Your thought process is “I did something stupid, therefore I have revealed myself to be stupid. Doing something stupid proves my whole identity is stupid and defective.” Even though he’s starting off with the focus on his actions (guilt), he’s unable to resist the urge to bring it back to his identity and self-worth (shame).
Now a person with a healthy sense of guilt, when he fails at something, says “I’m a regular person who just happened to fail just now.” He feels bad but he doesn’t get carried away and thinks he is subhuman or that failure is his whole identity. Likewise, when he succeeds, he says “I’m a regular person who worked hard and happened to succeed just now.” He feels good but he doesn’t get carried away and thinks he’s godlike or become a grandiose dick and make that success into his whole identity. This gives him a more stable sense of self-esteem, a more consistent mood, and an ability to forgive himself for mistakes.
A shame-based person with toxic guilt, when he fails, he says “I am a failure. My whole identity is defective, I am an inferior being.” When he wins, he says “I am a winner. My whole identity is perfection, I am a superior being.” Again, identity is all. Again, actions only matter to the extent to which the shame-based person feels they “reveal” his inherent inferiority or superiority. Since his self-view is totally contingent on his last success or failure, he has a more volatile sense of self-esteem, less consistent moods since a day can be filled with numerous successes and failures, and he has less ability to forgive his own mistakes, since with each action his whole identity is at stake, and with each mistake he further reveals his inferiority and (according to shame-based logic) cements himself as defective in the eyes of himself and others.
Now let’s combine this with a concept we’ve discussed in the past called loss aversion. As I’ve discussed in the past, human beings are much more motivated by the fear of losses, or loss aversion, than they are by the desire to maximize gains.
So think about how shame and guilt affects recovery from setbacks. A guilt-based person fails at something, feels a setback, and thinks “Okay, I’m just a regular guy who happened to lose.” Because his failure didn’t make him “lose” his sense of worth and value as a human being, he is willing to try again to do better next time. His self-worth and entire identity is not at stake with each attempt he makes. When the shame-based person fails at something, however, he thinks “Wow, I guess I’m not a superior person after all, or even a regular person. I’m actually a loser.” Because his failure made him “lose” his sense of worth and value as a human being, he has to ask himself how badly he really wants to try again, because each time he fails he realizes he risks losing more of his actual self-worth, his very identity. Each attempt risks his whole identity and self-image and feelings of worthiness. Loss aversion kicks in, and he starts self-handicapping and other forms of self-sabotage. Because he’s shame-based, a win would (temporarily) restore his self-worth and repair his identity in the same way a loss destroys them, but since human being are more motivated by loss aversion than maximizing wins, he starts playing it safe, looking for easy wins, looking for quick easy ego boosts, looking for weak competition, focusing more on proving other people inferior than on competing and proving himself, looking for people to blame and accuse of inferiority, etc. After all, he just lost “face,” and with it, he lost a bit of self-esteem, a bit of reputation, and revealed to themselves and others that they are defective. If he tries to remedy this by taking action a second time, sure he might win and end up undoing the damage to his self-esteem and reputation. Sure he might end up proving he actually is superior and his grandiosity is justified. But, he also may end up failing again and losing even more self-esteem and reputation. He may end up causing more damage to his reputation and cementing his image as a loser even more. The laws of loss aversion say, when future success looks unpredictable, it’s better to definitely avoid further loss than to possibly get a big win. Loss aversion is what people mean when they say someone is “playing not to lose” rather than “playing to win.”
Shame and toxic guilt are primitive, unevolved ways of dealing with the world. That’s why when you are dealing with children, you have to be careful of how you criticize them. Kids feel that if you point out they did something wrong, you are somehow criticizing their whole being and saying they somehow are something inferior and defective. This is why people tend to be gentle when criticizing kids. As kids grow up and develop a more evolved worldview and self-image and become more guilt-based, you are able to criticize them more harshly without them taking it as a criticism of their very self-worth or a judgment on their whole being. Since narcissists are emotionally unevolved and have never matured past the emotional level of a child, this is why they are shame-based rather than guilt-based, and why they take criticism like children throughout their whole lives, which is why they’re so thin-skinned.
Some narcissists never evolve past shame-based thinking because they were so pampered and mollycoddled that they never got the appropriate levels of constructive criticism they were supposed to get as they aged. Other narcissists never get past shame-based thinking because they were so abused that they always had it explicitly drilled into their heads their whole lives that their failures were reflections on their very worth as human beings. Other narcissists turned out this way because they grew up with both behaviors, often from different parents, sometimes from the very same parent. Another illustration of one of the biggest ironies in personality orders: how pampering and tormenting parent styles often lead to the same outcomes.
So in summation, guilt equals feeling bad because of one’s actions, and the way most people remedy guilt is by confession and corrective action. Shame equals feeling bad because of one’s very identity and existence, and the way more people remedy shame is by keeping secrets and micromanaging their image (also known as Impression Management), often concealing what they feel to be their true defective selves, either by literally avoiding people or by constructing a false, perfectionistic exterior with which to impress and interact with others. Toxic guilt is guilt that is fused with shame, meaning a person feels bad about their actions not because they are objectively and morally good or bad, but rather only to the degree that those actions affect their image and cause bad feelings about identity, right to exist, and self-worth. The way most people remedy toxic guilt is to try to find “good” actions that will improve their image and create good feelings in them about their own identity, right to exist, and self-worth, while at the same time doing their best not to risk any further damage to their image and self esteem (loss aversion). Thus toxic guilt causes people to try to remedy the situation by chasing easy wins while playing not to lose.
Now that that’s been explained, in the next part we’ll look at examples of hecklers.
There is a book by psychologist Carol Dweck called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success that discusses her findings about self-motivation and personality from working with kids. This great New York Magazine article also discussed her findings in depth. Whether or not you decide to read the book, I highly recommend you read the article if you are at all interested in seeing the concepts of this blog illustrated in real world studies. Also, it’s an article that could cause a lot of self-examination in you as you read it.
She worked with two types of kids. One group was praised for being smart and were taught to consider being smart as their inherent identity. Another group was praised for their actions of working hard and were taught to focus on their actions rather than their natural talent. As described by her Wikipedia entry:
According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on having opposite mind set, which involves hard work,learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure. These two mindsets play an important role in all aspects of a person’s life. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. Dweck’s definition of fixed and growth mindsets from a 2012 interview:
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
This is important because (1) individuals with a “growth” theory are more likely to continue working hard despite setbacks and (2) individuals’ theories of intelligence can be affected by subtle environmental cues. For example, children given praise such as “good job, you’re very smart” are much more likely to develop a fixed mindset, whereas if given compliments like “good job, you worked very hard” they are likely to develop a growth mindset. In other words, it is possible to encourage students, for example, to persist despite failure by encouraging them to think about learning in a certain way.
As you may have realized, the “fixed mindset” kids are shame-based, while the “growth mindset” kids are guilt-based. Much of this also relates to the concepts of ego-driven superiority (which shame-based people are drawn to) and enlightened superiority (which guilt-based people are drawn to) that I discussed years ago in this post.
I really want to start challenging people to see how ubiquitous all these concepts are, and how interplay and tie into each other and how the same recurring themes keep popping up. Read the Mindset book, read the NY magazine articles, read or reread the old posts linked to in this post and you’ll see what I mean. Also, for fun, when reading the NY Magazine article about Dweck, try to figure out how the findings about the two groups of kids reveals about genetic determinists like the scientific racists (or HBD followers as they call themselves) who obsess over proving they were naturally born smart and that being smart is an inherent identity and that hard work barely matters. It really makes you realize that their intellectual and psychological shortcomings come from shame and narcissism. This is something I’m going to expand on in future posts early next year.