Part 1 of a three-part series.
To some it may seem like hyperbole to compare Donald Trump to dictators in history such as Hitler or Stalin. Some may also discredit worries about his threats and saber-rattling against North Korea’s Kim Jung Un as over-reactions.
But these are legitimate concerns.
Why? Because Trump and all authoritarians, abusers, narcissists, and sociopaths share a common emotional trigger for their very predictable behavioral patterns. If Hitler could cause 66 million deaths and Stalin 50 million deaths based on these patterns, then it is believable that Trump, too, could bring on destruction for the same reasons. What is horrifying, of course, is that nuclear arms give him access to instant, devastating war-making power based only on his judgment.
Trump has shown repeatedly and daily throughout his life, from his planned con of students at Trump University to his real estate scams to his deliberate refusal to pay vendors, that he has intentionally harmed others to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Trump later gloats about these types of “wins.” Think about the sociopathic nature of these behaviors for a moment and consider: Would he feel any compunction about harming others with a bomb? Or would he consider that a win, too?
I am a psychotherapist and contributing writer to the bestselling book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Professionals Assess a President. In the book and through our current activism, my co-authors and I are working to educate about the many dangers of Trump, including one of his recent tweets dubbed “The Most Irresponsible Tweet in History” by The Atlantic.
It is important to realize that while Trump’s spectrum of behaviors appear erratic and unrelated, they are explained by one emotion — shame.
Unfortunately, I have yet to read about shame in the many articles about Trump’s psychological issues. Articles generally focus on the ethical issue of whether mental health professionals should diagnose or on which diagnostic label or labels fit. I prefer to offer a deeper psychological explanation in hopes of shedding light on the constellation of behaviors that Trump and those like him exhibit, so that we can use this as a teaching moment about human emotions and behaviors.
I believe it is essential to educate widely about the real cause of Trump’s personality, because the traits he exhibits are the very behaviors all unstable authoritarian personalities exhibit, whether they lead a family, a company, or the country. If more people could recognize these behaviors as unhealthy, perhaps future generations would not be emotionally hijacked by these persuasive, but abusive and destructive people.
As most of us are aware, Trump is not the only person who behaves in dysfunctional ways. I see the harm caused by these personalities every day in my therapy practice. Millions of people emotionally abuse family and friends, damage relationships, disrupt families, destroy childhoods, and sow chaos.
SHAME IS FORMATIVE FOR EMOTIONAL AND MORAL WELLBEING
I propose that the diagnostic labels used for Trump, such as narcissistic or sociopathic, should actually be consolidated, because they are all caused by one powerful, primal emotion — shame. It is important to recognize this fact, so that we that do not continue to dismiss these behaviors as merely due to an unexplainable and untreatable “brain disease” — which they are not.
Shame, guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, and other similar experiences are prosocial emotions that help prevent or control inappropriate behavior and encourage moral conduct.
By feeling guilty when we do something wrong, we should receive a signal to do the right thing. Ideally, we apologize and choose different behavior in the future. Through this accountability, we indicate that we care about others and our effect on them.
This link between emotion, behavior, and relationships indicates that shame is the foundation of morals and ethics, because it mediates fairness and kindness in relationships. As a survival-related emotion it helps ensure our continued acceptance in our tribe, which is what gives it such a powerful pull on our behavior — for good and bad.
SHAME LEADS TO BLAME-SHIFTING
The conundrum of shame is that it is designed to improve social relationships, but when poorly tolerated shame can worsen behavior and block human connection. Poor shame tolerance is the root cause of most immoral human behavior that is currently labeled as narcissistic, sociopathic, abusive, or authoritarian.
With this understanding of what is causing all of Trump’s volatile behaviors, you will recognize this pattern: He feels inadequate, becomes fearful of feeling ashamed, and reacts in various ways to control that distressing experience.
People who lack self-acceptance are highly motivated to manage their shame and fear, because the emotional discomfort for them is so great. They respond with three predictable and easily identified behavioral responses that involve various types of blame shifting. These counterproductive shame management strategies are: Other-blaming, Self-blaming, and Blame Avoiding.
The simple key to understanding the three blame-shifting strategies is the answer to these questions: How does the person handle criticism? When held accountable for a behavior, what does the person do?
Other-blamers, such as Trump, are hyper-vigilant to and over-reactive to criticism. They have high levels of internal self-judgment or self-doubt. This excessive self-shaming means that even constructive feedback or correction can feel overwhelming. They tend to lash out to preempt, defend against, or attack incoming criticism. When feeling emotionally cornered and embarrassed, Other-blamers find it difficult to admit to faults or mistakes. Instead they rationalize, make excuses, and blame others (just some of a long list of tactics they use).
Because of early experiences of being rejected, humiliated, or judged as unworthy by parents, those with poor shame tolerance developed emotional reactions and thought patterns that attempted to fix the self. The goal is to dial down the internal and external messages of unworthiness and gain the acceptance of others — and, most importantly, of the self.
While blame-shifting strategies provide comfort to the individual, they are counterproductive in relationships. Other-blaming is often at the root of relationship problems, because the reluctance to admit fault causes escalating arguments. In couples, this can be identified when they say things like: “Everything seems to cause a fight and we’m not really sure why.” It causes an disagreement because the Other-blamer cannot simply admit fault.
Ironically, Other-blamers are so busy managing shame in counterproductive ways that they act in shameful ways, such as adamantly insisting they are right.
They do this because the experience of shame triggers fear. Their thoughtful, cognitive brain is hijacked by a severe “fight-or-flight” reaction when they suspect they might be criticized, corrected, or embarrassed. Their reactive emotional state makes it difficult for them to see that they are behaving in very unlovable, illogical ways, perhaps even in ways that are actually not in their best interest.
In extreme cases, as with Trump, fear causes them to be impulsive and reactive, rather than thoughtful and deliberate. This is exactly the opposite of the behaviors we expect of a president or in any relationship.
To understand the behavior of narcissists like Trump, remember that to them avoiding shame is more important than any other emotional experience, even the normal, human need for love and connection. For most of us, shame leads to accountability which leads to re-connection in a relationship. But not so for Other-blamers. Those with narcissistic or sociopathic traits struggle to relate to others because the way they handle shame makes it a disconnecting emotion.
Non-narcissists often find it incomprehensible that an Other-blamer will go to extremes to be “right,” even when that behavior extends to abusive and immoral actions that destroy relationships. As a survivor of domestic abuse, I could never understand how my ex-husband could not see that his behavior was driving me away. Shame was so painful to him it provoked him into unthinking and unlovable rage and violence. Now I know it was because surviving shame was more important that being loved by me.
I now recognize that my ex-husband behaved this way because he did not love himself — the most valued relationship we should engage in. Feelings of unworthiness disconnect us from our own sense of self. Those with poor shame tolerance are attempting to find ways to love themselves, but they do it by mismanaging external sources of shame, rather than learning to manage their own self-criticism in healthy ways through self-compassion.
Blame-shifting and poorly tolerated shame destroy a person’s ability to engage in prosocial behaviors and ways of thinking, and, ultimately, destroy the ability to engage in healthy relationships with themselves or with others.
Keep reading: 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. 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.
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… be kind to yourself