In Part 1 of this post, I discussed how shame is the underpinning emotion in Trump’s behaviors. Shame, as a prosocial emotion, is the foundation of morals and ethics, because it mediates fairness and kindness in relationships because poor shame tolerance leads to blame-shifting, or Other-Blaming. In Part 2 of this post I discussed in detail specific traits of narcissistic and authoritarian personalities and how they are all related to shame. In Part 3, I delve into the social and moral implications of blame-shifting behaviors and how they create entire blame-shifting social patterns in authoritarian societies. I list seven specific strategies we can all do to address Other-blamers and authoritarians in our lives.
SOCIETAL IMPACTS OF POOR SHAME TOLERANCE AND BLAME-SHIFTING
The blame-shifting strategies I listed in Part 1 occur at the individual level, as we can probably all recognize in our personal relationships. But it is important to recognize that autocrats throughout history have encouraged blame-shifting tendencies in their followers and at a societal level. What is destructive in individual relationships with narcissistic abusers is also destructive when played out by a strongman who dominates and abuses the citizens of a country.
The humiliating experience of the Versailles Treaty after World War I is often credited for the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Hitler, of course, instinctively knew to alleviate a post-war sense of failure by blaming Jews and proclaiming the greatness of Aryan culture.
In the same way Trump has both claimed he will “Make America Great Again,” while accusing immigrants, minorities, the news media, Hillary Clinton, and other countries of causing America’s supposed downfall. Through their bizarre conspiracy theories, Trump and his followers even invent antagonists to blame and hate, such as the “deep state.”
Social and moral philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote about blame-shifting in The True Believer: “The awareness of their individual blemishes and shortcomings inclines the frustrated to detect ill will and meanness in their fellow men. Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves.”
Because they are led by Other-blamers and fueled by blame-shifting followers acting in concert, authoritarian systems are actually country-wide blame-shifting relationships that serve the psychological needs of all the participants in alleviating feelings of unworthiness.
As Hoffer wrote: “The frustrated follow a leader less because of their faith that he is leading them to a promised land than because of their immediate feeling that he is leading them away from their unwanted selves.”
THE POWER OF SHAME
When people with good shame tolerance do something wrong, they use the resulting shame to guide them to appropriate moral action. When you get a speeding ticket, perhaps you’ll use it as a warning to drive more slowly. In this way, society controls misbehavior via guilt and shame.
Most of us would be embarrassed to behave as Trump is. His lying, self-dealing, and lack of dignity and integrity would make most of us uncomfortable. We would work to change our behaviors.
The biggest problem with Other-blamers in relationships, and now in the Trumpian political culture, is that they do not respond normally to shame. Criticism flows right off their backs. They have come to believe — through a lifetime of lying to themselves — that they have no faults. They are expert at ignoring criticism and blame. An Other-blamer’s conscience is not triggered when they see the pain their lying and immorality are causing another.
Significantly, as a country, this means we have lost the power of shame, empathy, and accountability to corral misbehavior in Trump and the GOP. When caught in a lie, most of us feel guilt and then respond with an apology. If Trump does not respond in normal prosocial ways, we have no recourse and this leaves us powerless to enforce moral codes. One cannot speak truth to power if power has no use for truth.
For narcissists, their needs come first. They will lie rather than admit they are wrong or compromise. In the same way that we learn to distrust a lying spouse, we have learned to distrust Trump’s lies and inconsistencies. The sense of betrayal produces anxiety for the victim of this abuse, because it triggers a survival related fear: “You don’t have my back!”
A Vox article notes this effect: “Trump’s behavior, meanwhile, has frayed our most important [international] relationships. ‘The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over,’ Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, said, in a stunning rebuke to the European–American alliance.”
Authoritarian and abusive relationships are at the bottom line about cheating, lying, disrespect, and distrust. Narcissistic behavior is a clear violation of the very essence of our humanness — our collective, cooperative, prosocial tendencies. We are our best selves when we care, share, and get along. Human relationships are largely based on fair play, reciprocity, mutual respect, and trust.
The current ethos, fueled and led by Trump and the GOP, is one of betrayal, hate, and self-centeredness. In relationships, narcissists and sociopaths create chaos; since he started running Trump has stirred fear, division, and chaos in the country and beyond.
When I work with couples, it is easy to observe when the love and kindness are missing from the relationship, because the couple struggles to compromise. When you disagree about how the dishwasher should be loaded and you love your spouse, you say, “Yes, dear, I’ll put the bowls on the top rack.” You put the bowls on the top rack and, hopefully, your partner gives way on some other issue (although if she is an Other-blamer this may not happen.)
In contrast, the GOP and Trump adamantly refuse to compromise. Their lack of fair play is obvious in their refusal to even consider President Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court in 2016 and the lack of hearings on the tax bill.
Our country’s traditions of public service, patriotism, and charity are evidence of a normal concern for the greater good. In contrast, extreme Other-blamers like Trump are so deep in their shame intolerance that they lack the emotional intelligence to behave with acceptable ethics, morals, or compassion. Their sole intention is not to lose, whether that is the current legislation, their ratings numbers, the next election, the past election, or their pride.
MORALITY IN PSYCHIATRY
The intersection of morality, psychology, and politics is clear when the UN Secretary General issues a year-end speech that decries division, hatred, nationalism, xenophobia, violations of human rights, and growing inequalities — all issues exacerbated by Trump and with roots in his psychological insecurities.
Yet throughout the history of psychiatry and psychology, the mental health professions have veered away from making moral judgments about human behavior. Certainly this is part of psychiatry’s push to become more scientifically based, in a desperate attempt to be like other medical specialties. (Psychiatry continues to insist that emotional and behavioral problems are caused by malfunctions of the brain, although the evidence is largely lacking.)
I believe it is a deep failing of psychiatry and psychology that the profession does not use language and frameworks that judge certain behaviors as immoral.
As I have described, many of the behaviors of Other-blamers are, by any reasonable judgment, immoral. They violate essential needs we have as humans for kindness and equity, and, at their worst, are blatantly abusive and authoritarian.
Many may worry that this discussion invokes religious injunctions, but there is considerable research in psychology and sociology to confirm that these issues are essential to our humanness, irrespective of religion. As long as moral issues are by default yoked to religion, and this stifles debate, we lose an ability to speak about these issues in ways that may be helpful.
NAMING SHAME TO HEAL IT
We must do everything we can to prevent future victims of Other-blaming abusers, whether those victims are abused spouses and children, or countries tyrannized by authoritarian leaders. If we reduce the level of shame intolerance in individuals, we may reduce the likelihood that an authoritarian like Trump will rise again and be supported by legions of shame-intolerant followers.
Here are some suggestions for bringing shame out of the psychological closet.
1. The first step is to speak forthrightly about the emotion of shame and feelings of unworthiness and how they cause personality disorders, anxiety and depression. Societal ignorance and avoidance of this topic will only enable Other-blamers and permit repeated generations of Other-blamers and authoritarians to arise. If we want citizens (and future political candidates) who have a conscience and who value truth and fair play, we must educate about the power of shame. Everyone must be able to spot feelings of low self-worth in themselves and in others, so that they recognize those who are insecure, unbalanced, and dangerous. On a societal level, this may help voters from being beguiled by despots, conmen, and predatory bullies.
2. Everyone should know the signs of abusive and authoritarian behavior and use terminology that accurately labels these behaviors. Everyone should be able to identify abusive patterns early in relationships and address toxic behaviors promptly. Mental health professionals must be acutely aware of the harm Other-blamers can cause to others and must actively educate their clients. Terms like narcissism are more confusing than clarifying; the vanity of this abusive personality is by far the least dangerous trait. Narcissism is merely the opposite of relatedness and empathy. Our current psychiatric diagnostics model, however, is stuck on a deeply flawed biological model that makes no consideration of our basic human drive toward empathy. The character disorders such as narcissism and sociopathy are merely learned behaviors or secondary emotional expressions that drive a person away from empathy and connection.
3. As a survivor of domestic abuse, I strongly believe we must all work to stop any abusive relationship we are aware of. Speak up promptly. Do not enable disrespect in any form, whether it is bigotry, bullying, sexual harassment, or emotional or physical abuse. This is the proper use of shame; we need to shame people for their immoral actions. And they need to be able to hear it.
4. Shame intolerance its learned in childhood. We must educate to curtail the authoritarian parenting style, with its angry, disrespectful blaming of children. Harsh parenting can produce insecure, unbalanced people who damage those around them by their abusive behaviors. It can also produce submissive followers who believe that someone with an autocratic personality is a true leader, when, in fact, they make the worst leaders. Good leaders are accountable, self-aware, and emotionally intelligent, all signs of good shame tolerance.
5. Shame is healed with self-compassion, honesty, and accountability. A key part of my therapeutic work with individuals is helping them improve their self-acceptance. Research shows that by treating ourselves with kindness we can learn to accept our flaws and mistakes, which reduces sensitivity to criticism. Improving self-compassion has been proven to improve the ability to care for others. Those who love themselves are better able to love others.
Self-acceptance can lead to real, permanent change in how one manages shame. It can bring happiness, contentment, and an improved sense of connection, ultimately improving the quality of relationships with others and with oneself.
Mindful self-compassion should be taught in schools and should be required in training of mental health professionals.
Each of us who regularly acts with compassion spreads an important message of love, reciprocity, and altruism — things that matter greatly to us as humans and to our emotional health.
6. Many authors have written on authoritarian behaviors, but the mental health professions have failed miserably at connecting the dots to the intra-psychic source of these problems — poor shame tolerance. Traditionally, personality disorders are labeled severe and lifelong mental illnesses, making them so stigmatizing clinicians avoid these diagnoses. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders also fails to identify the underlying cause of these personality disorders.
One solution is for the profession to develop more accurate and useful diagnostic labels. We also must specifically acknowledge the role of developmental trauma and parenting style as key factors in creating an autocratic and abusive personality.
What would have happened if Donald Trump’s parents had gotten some good quality psychotherapy and addressed their difficulties in relating to their children in loving ways? What if someone had intervened to get young Donald some help with his emotional and behavioral problems? What if, as an adult, Donald had been held accountable for his immoral behaviors, rather than enabled by family and friends?
7. One last very extravagant wishlist item: How about we pass universal healthcare so that anyone who wants to can receive psychotherapy and address their emotional and behavioral patterns?
Have you read the first two in this series? In Part 1 of this post, I discuss how shame is the underpinning emotion in Trump’s behaviors. Shame, as a prosocial emotion, is the foundation of morals and ethics, because it mediates fairness and kindness in relationships because poor shame tolerance leads to blame-shifting, or Other-Blaming. In Part 2 of this post I discuss in detail specific traits of narcissistic and authoritarian personalities and how they are all related to shame.
…be kind to yourself
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