When I was doing research for one of my posts about narcissism I came across an interesting article about where narcissism develops and some reasons why it happens. You see, people are not born to be narcissistic. Narcissism is a learned behavior and usually manifests into a malignant and damaging behavior as the individual ages. If a child is not given counseling or assistance with correcting this behavior, which is essentially a defense mechanism, at an early age, they will develop into a full blown malignant narcissist and by then their behavior is as much a part of who they are as the nose on their face is.
However, sociopaths are born that way. It’s in their genetic material.
Narcissism is also about shame and the art of shaming others into being controlled. This is a learned behavior. Children see a parent, or a teacher, or anyone in their lives that successfully uses shame in order to get their way, and they in turn use this to get their way. They are shamed into being controlled and develop habitual behavior stemming from their own past shaming.
It could be about anything. The way they speak, or their appearance, or the way they do certain things, that make the narcissist in their young lives employ shaming techniques in order to control them. Naturally the child will begin to think this is a proper way to behave, when it is not socially acceptable or even healthy. A child mirrors what they learn.
My grandmother was the queen of shaming and blaming. I had the master teacher as a child and the fact that I did not pick up her technique for this cancerous behavior is a miracle. There are days I catch myself saying something, or doing something that is reminiscent of my grandmother and I will take a step back wondering what neanderthal recess of my brain that came from.
She wasn’t your typical grandmother. She was sweet and docile on the outside with bright red rouge rubbed on her cheeks and frilly frocks instead of dresses. She wore hats with netting that covered your face and carried a “pocketbook”. She was old school and still wore silk nylons with a garter belt. It was an all out battle when I was old enough to start wearing nylons too and rebelled with pantyhose because I thought garters were archaic and refused to wear them. I laugh today that garters somehow became sexy attire.
My rebellion was what saved me from growing up to become a malignant narcissist.
When my grandfather took up shooting home movies as a hobby, I loved being filmed. One Christmas the kitchen lit up like the sun when he turned on his movie camera, which shot 8mm film with a brilliantly bright light to bathe the room in. The house was packed with family from all over and he wanted to capture the moment in time so we could all watch it again on movie night.
I had gotten a new doll from Santa Claus and I was very excited about her.
That morning I remember having so much fun following him from room to room, wearing my fluffy new bathrobe, my kitty cat pajamas and my small slippers, and jumping up with my new doll in my hand so the camera could capture her lovely image, saying “Lookit my new doll! Lookit my new doll!”
I remember being really excited when movie night rolled around too. I could not wait to see my film debut. I tugged my little rocking chair to the center of the room, right in front of the gigantic white movie screen and sat rocking with sheer delight while my grandfather loaded the huge reel of film into the projector. The family was gathered around behind me on the sofa and in the easy chairs and chatter about the new movie was being shared. Oh this was going to be fun!! I thought.
Movie night was usually on Sunday night right after dinner and coffee was served. Our family gathered on Sundays for these occasions, so the room was packed with a dozen or more people, all family.
My older sister dimmed the lights and the clack, clack, clack of the projector started as the reel spun into motion and the screen lit with images. There I was on the big screen. I beamed with pride and joy as I watched my tiny hand holding my new doll spring onto the white canvas and I could hear my voice coming back at me as my grandfather moved from room to room filming the Christmas festivities. I remember being completely awe struck. It was the most amazing thing I had ever witnessed and I could not wait to do it again next Christmas.
And then it happened.
“Oh Dellie.” It was a simple enough statement, but it was packed with the whine that I was already very acquainted with and the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
“Look at what that brat has done to your movie.”
“Lookit my new doll! Lookit my new doll!”
“She has ruined the whole thing!”
“You can’t even see anybody else because of her!”
No one else said a word until my grandfather pulled his pipe from his lips and told her to Hush Up.
I had stopped rocking. I was sitting very still and now the image of me on the big screen, chortling about my new doll, was quite horrifying. I remember wanting to run from the room in tears of embarrassment, but I was too afraid to move from my rocking chair. I didn’t want anyone else to see me crying and I was mortified that perhaps my grandmother was right and I had ruined my grandfather’s masterpiece by being in it. I just knew that if my grandmother was mad at me, then everyone in the room was probably mad at me too. They were probably all sitting behind me thinking I was a terrible child.
I was so ashamed.
I could not wait for the movie to end so I could sneak away to my own bedroom and throw myself down and cry. I knew I could be a better little girl. Next time I would try to be smaller and not take up so much room on the big screen. I would be quiet and not yell so loud about my new doll. I would be better. I knew I could be a better child. I just knew it.
You know what was shameful about what happened here?
It wasn’t me, behaving like an excited child on Christmas morning in front of a movie camera. It wasn’t me that behaved in a shameful manner at all. The shameful behavior was from my own grandmother, who couldn’t wait to belittle and degrade me, a small and impressionable child, in front of the family I loved so much. That was the shamefulness of the whole situation. That was on her.
I was one of the lucky kids though, because I had balance.
When the movie ended and my older sister turned the lights back up, I’m sure my grandfather noticed how still and quiet I had become. I’m sure he saw that my neck had disappeared as I sat hunched down, trying to be smaller and invisible. He quietly walked up behind my tiny rocking chair and squatted down so we were eye to eye. I couldn’t look at him though. I was so upset that I had ruined movie night. I had ruined everything that he loved and I was so sorry about that. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and snot was bubbling from my nose.
And he smiled at me.
He pulled one of his handkerchiefs from his back pocket and waved it across my face and then he started to giggle. It was infectious when he giggled and so I started giggling too. I grabbed at his handkerchief and blew my nose in it and I smiled at him. I told him I was sorry and he laughed some more. He said he wouldn’t have changed a thing about his movie and that I was a star.
My grandfather parented in a completely different way than my grandmother. He also taught me to rebel against her incessant need to control and shame me. He did not approve of the efforts she put into squelching my creativity and my energy, so he taught me how to let her need to torture me with words and actions, roll right off of my back.
It wasn’t an easy childhood for me, but it made me strong enough to walk away from this kind of emotional abuse for most of my adult life. It also made me aware of my own behavior and how I treat others, so whenever the ghost of my grandmother creeps into the way I am treating people I love, I see it and it scares me enough to change it.
The next time you catch yourself trying to shame someone else, think about why you’re doing it. Think about why you feel the need to shame someone to make yourself feel better, or superior, to control them, or simply to torture them. I can tell you this truth about shame and that is that shaming someone, is not about them, it is all about you and how you feel about yourself.