This being Independence Day in America, I feel compelled to write about President Donald Trump as a representation of a very different manifestation of shame. This is not intended as a political commentary, but just simply an endeavor to utilize Trump as a poster boy to illustrate issues pertinent to narcissism and the potential role that shame might pay in its formation and expression.
At first glance, Trump might appear to embody the very opposite of shame. He seeks the limelight, is prideful, unabashed, speaks very highly of his capabilities and achievements, and has a profound sense of entitlement. He even has the “best words” and “biggest crowds.” Those with shame are typically seen as hiding from scrutiny and attention, dismiss and minimalize accomplishments, skills and so on. So how can it be then that Trump, the seeming paragon of malignant narcissism, possibly be a casualty of shame?
Many years ago, while employed at a Veterans Administration hospital, I was working with a narcissist who was court referred for counseling (they seldom seek treatment on their own since in their own eyes they have no problems–everybody else has a problem). In a rare moment of insight and vulnerability, he stated, “I am an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” I have never forgotten his words. What a perfect summation of the paradox of narcissism! So in other words, at the core, they are deeply shame based and actually feel like absolute shit about themselves. The outer shell of bombast is actually a perfectly constructed defense to protect their exquisitely frail sense of self.
Trump’s young life reveals some clues. His father was a very successful real estate developer in Queens New York where they lived. He grew up with many comforts that were rare at that time. The trumps lived in a 23 room home in Jamaica Estates, had a limo driver, cooks, maids, intercom system and color TVs! His father was very stern, formal and controlling. It seems that there was very little overt displays of nurturance in the young Trumps household. Donald’s mother, Mary, was a Scottish immigrant, and is reported to have relished attention, and enjoyed being at the center of social gatherings. She also reportedly loved pageantry, “spending hours watching on television the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth.” Donald showed signs of bullying, oppositionalism, fierce competitiveness and meanness starting at a very young age. Partly in response to this, his father abruptly sent Donald away when he was 12 years old to a military boarding school 70 miles upstate from the city. Friends of Trump stated that he felt extremely rejected by this. Thus, there appears to have been a big emphasis on “success” as materially defined, appearance and status. Such an environment likely left little room for warmth, nurturance and unconditional acceptance. This, in turn, may have laid the framework for a deep sense of shame and fragility of self.
Such individuals as Trump are often described as having a “big ego”. In fact, the opposite is more likely the case. That appearance of grandiose self-love is a veneer. Thus when his need for adoration and control is questioned, the person (“Crooked Hillary”) or category of antagonist (“evil media”) is viciously denigrated attacked. There are many who see this as strength and leadership. But in fact, it is the same form of bullying tactics that have been witnessed in other brutal personalities throughout history. One who truly feels security in themselves wants to bestow well being upon others. They would only wish that others experience the joy and benefits that they themselves experience. Only one with self-compassion can experience compassion for others. Those that are denied love, will see others in the world as a competitor. They can never have true friends, only allies for as long as their interests coincide. The edifices of grandeur from golden toilets to hood ornament wives cannot compensate for what has been so desperately lacking in their young lives…nurturance and love.
There are many people whose lives are directly impacted by narcissists whether they be spouses, parents, siblings, bosses or co-workers. They are not evil. They are unwell. At the core, they feel deep and abiding shame. But it is completely outside of the sphere of consciousness and thus their whole life is a reactive acting out of their own self-loathing. One can learn to establish firm boundaries to limit the toxic impacts of such individuals, but also maintain compassion since they dwell in a hell realm that you would not want to inhabit.
As the Vietnamese Zen master Tich Nhat Han once stated (paraphrasing)… Hold deepest compassion for those who offend you the most, for they are in greatest need!