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Narcissism and Shame on Social Media: An Interview with Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D.

Posted by admin 8:13 am, 3 July 2015

What emotions would you say are the most prevalent in your daily life?  Joy? Sadness? Anger?  Fear?  With the obvious answers, it’s a natural to overlook Shame.  After all, how often do we experience shame on a day-to-day basis?  Sigmund Freud argued that shame and repressed emotion are paramount in shaping the people we all become, and in the age of social media, modern psychoanalysts have their work cut out for them.

Dr. Mary C. Lamia , author of a number of books for teens and adults about dealing with emotions, teaches on the subject at Wright Institute in Berkeley and for 9 years, she hosted a weekly show on Radio Disney, KidTalk with Dr. Mary.

 

Understanding Shame

“There’s not a more powerful emotion in the world than shame.”

Most psychologists  focus on the external pressures of cyberbullying, but Dr. Lamia was more concerned with the internal pressures that we place on ourselves, comparing our experience to the model lives projected by others.

“One of the most horrible aspects of social media is how much shame there is out there,” Dr. Lamia explained.  “You don’t need to be bullied to have shame.  Shame is an emotion that makes you feel disconnected from others”

According to Dr. Lamia, Shame can lead people to:

  1. Hide
  2. Withdraw
  3. Avoid
  4. Lash out at Others
  5. Lash out at One’s Self

 

Dr. Lamia recalled an experience with one young adult, who was so dismayed by what he was seeing on other social media profiles, that he was actually considering suicide.  He was watching his friends on Facebook, with active, exciting social lives, and in response, determined that his life was unfulfilling and therefore, not worth living.

“They see a projection that others are having fun, doing something, having some privilege that I don’t’ have, and feel shame,” Lamia explained, identifying it as a common trend in the way most of us use social media.

Too many of us, and too many of our children, are using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as relative placeholders.  We compare our successes and our happiness against what we see from others, disregarding the pageantry of the whole affair.

 

Dr. Lamia explained that what people post online “is just conjecture of what people are doing.”

But what if couples tweeted their worst fights in real time?  What if Instagram was full of dirty diapers and packed sinks?  What if the average Facebook status read: “Exhausted, unfulfilled, and re-considering my career choice.”  Would we all feel as bad about ourselves?  Probably not, but we need to condition ourselves to look at social media for what it is, edited reality.

By allowing ourselves to buy into this narrative that we are somehow inherently less than others, we surrender to the pressures of shame.  That, according to Lamia, is what’s most dangerous.

“People feel depressed, but it’s really a shame response,” she explains.  “Shame is dangerous, shame is behind suicide.”

She argues that shame is not just the burden of the bullied or victimized, but that it is the fundamental driving factor for the bullies as well.

Narcissism vs. Low Self-Esteem

In both her book and her interview, Dr. Lamia referenced a study conducted in the Netherlands on the effects of shame on adolescent aggression.

“We believe that bullies lack self esteem,” she said.  “But this study shows they do not.”  Instead, the study found that most bullies are  “Very secure, sure of themselves.  They are narcissists.”

What is a narcissist, exactly?   The word itself is derived from the Greek God, Narcissus, who was famously infatuated with his own reflection.   The psychiatric community recognizes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a mental disorder in which an inflated sense of self-importance masks an exceptionally fragile ego.

According to Dr. Lamia, and most psychoanalysis, shame and Narcissism are inextricably linked, and they go back to early toddlerhood.  “Conscience develops early in life,” Dr. Lamia explained.  “Narcissism develops around age two or three, with shame at its core.”

So, by the time a bully is terrorizing the playground, be it physical or digital, that child has already entrenched themselves in layers of self-denial.  With this simple truth in mind, our standard approach to dealing with bullies becomes fundamentally flawed.

“When you tell kids not to worry about bullies, they have low self esteem, this is erroneous,” Dr Lamia explains.  “Bullies are highly shame driven.  Attacking others is a mode that narcissists use.  They know others’ weaknesses, and use them.”

So Dr. Lamia advises against encouraging your children to appeal to a bullies vulnerability.  “Changing a narcissist” is something that she says “will never happen.”

She argues that parents are really the only ones with the power to avert narcissism in their kids, and the key is as simple as paying attention to them.

 

“Disconnection to the parents, the shame response, is what evokes a lot of these behaviors,” Dr. Lamia explained.

She noted that the earliest form of shame that most kids experience is the first time a parent ignores something that was previously praised.  Children adapt to adoration, and become accustomed to being cute, funny, or impressive.  Of course, this kind of unrelenting praise is unsustainable, but for children that have known nothing else their whole lives, the first time they do something cute and aren’t recognized for it, they will perceive it as their own failure, and therefore, feel shame.

As children grow older, they may find that the easiest way to earn back this attention is through negative behaviors.  “Acting out is an avoidance shame response,” Dr. Lamia explained.  “They’re trying to avoid what they feel, and what they feel is not valued.”

Dr. Lamia expressed deep concern with the state of parenting, today, especially since the advent of smartphones and social media.  In being so connected to mobile devices, parents are becoming more disconnected with their kids, at a time in their life when emotional attachment is extremely important.

Narcissists are formed at the tender age of 2, and they can be shaped by a simple series of events whereby the parents are too focused on their smartphones to genuinely connect with their children.  A child performs an impressive feat and looks over to mommy for affirmation…but mommy is looking down at her phone, answering an email and checking her Facebook news feed.  The last thing a parent wants is to hurt their child, but this lack of attention and connection is sending strong messages of shame to that vulnerable toddler whose psyche is forming.  Enough of these incidences form the foundation of a future narcissist, a disorder shaped by shame and low self-esteem.  Dr. Lamia believes parents need to understand the implication of their behaviors, as most parents are clueless and inadvertently damaging their kids.

Kids are Resilient

Despite the profundity of the potential damage, kids are learning to cope with a “connected” society.  “Our kids are getting adjusted to this,” Lamia explained.  “Tweens or teens are not insulted by their peers looking at phones, because they’re raised by parents who look at phones.”

But parents shouldn’t see this adaptation as “being let off the hook”.  They should see it as a red flag that kids today are so comfortable with passive neglect.  Teens are mature enough that they don’t have to be the center of attention at all times.  Toddlers won’t bounce back quite so easily.

That’s why Dr. Lamia advises that parents make an effort not check email, phones, or social media while they are spending time with their kids.   Admittedly, this is much easier said than done, but shame only grows worse with age.  If parents don’t work to resolve these issues when kids are young, their kids will be prone to destructive behaviors as they grow up.

 

“One of the way kids get attention on social media is to exaggerate,” Lamia explained.  “They exaggerate self destructive behaviors in order to get other kids to feel sorry for them, or to get attention, or to create drama.  It’s pretty innocent, but it has far-reaching implications.”

This is why parents should control how and when a child uses digital media.  Set strict guidelines for smartphone and social media usage.  When they do use technology, make sure you know what they’re using it for.

“Parents should absolutely monitor their kids,” Lamia insisted.  “There’s so much pornography on the internet.  They see it, then feel guilty and ashamed.  It shapes their sexual behaviors in the future.”

Even on trusted sites like Facebook or Twitter, it’s so easy for children to accidentally encounter content that they’re not mature enough to handle.  That’s why Dr. Lamia advises parents that “anybody less than high school age should be monitored on social media sites in some ways.”

Getting into the teenage years, constant connectivity introduces a host of new possibilities for misbehavior, and children who are still dealing with significant shame are far more likely to abuse these options.  Dr. Lamia told us, “It’s easier to act out sexually, or use alcohol and drugs, than it is to feel the pain of shame” so when internet access makes all of the aforementioned options quickly available, a mal-adjusted teenager is likely to find his or herself in serious trouble.

The thing about emotional drives, though, is that they’re fickle.  When kids or teens feel shame about a certain subject, that feeling usually endures for a brief, albeit intense, period of time.  During that time, your child’s decision-making process is all out of whack and they may post something online that they regret.

That’s where our media poses a major threat, because temporary urges are leading our kids to post things online that will still be there, long after the emotions have worn off.

“Parents need to talk to their kids about that,” Dr. Lamia advised.  “Talk about the hazards, talk about how much do they want to expose themselves to the entire world, and let them know that you can’t take it back. “

Because nothing stirs up a teenage girl’s shame like having her naked pictures circulating the internet.

But shame isn’t the only emotion exploited by social media and smartphones.  The combined effect of pervasive digital media and unconscious emotional behaviors are leading us to adopt increasingly unhealthy work ethics

Task-Driven People v. Procrastinators

While go-getters and Procrastinators have always been around, Dr. Lamia argues that modern media is only making such compulsive tendencies worse.

“There’s so much stimulation in the world with electronics that doing something like writing a paper, unless you’re incredibly interested, is much less stimulating,” she explained.  When instant gratification is just a few clicks away, it takes an additional stimulus in the environment to keep you focused on the task that needs to be done.

For college kids, that stimulus is fear.  “The fear of failure and a deadline evokes the emotion that allows them to get something done,” Lamia explained.

And while readily-available media enables procrastinators to delay their work more, it’s no more helpful to the other end of the spectrum.  For people who are task oriented, mobile devices offers constant connectivity to feed the addiction.

“Smartphones are poison for these people, because they can’t not look,” Dr. Lamia said.  “It causes them anxiety to not complete a task.   Those are the people who have to learn to let things go, especially their smartphones.”  And for parents, this becomes ever more critical.  “It’s almost impossible not to take that personally when you’re a kid.”

While we may not recognize the direct harm caused by modern technology and our emotional dependence on it, Dr. Lamia reminds us to step back and take notice of how our media behaviors are affecting our children.  Studies show that kids pick up most of their social media and smartphone habits from watching parents.  All of these findings point toward one obvious solution.

 

So, The next time you pull out your smartphone or catch yourself checking your email out of ritual, be cognizant of the example you’re setting for your kids and teens.  Be aware of the message you send your kids when you dislodge yourself from the here and now for an update on what’s happening elsewhere.   Don’t miss any of your toddler’s formative moments because you were too busy customizing Facebook or Pinterest.   It may seem harmless now, but if your child slips into narcissism because you were too distracted by your own conjecture, well… that would be a real shame.

Dr Sandra Darmanin Psy.D;MA;B.Psy (Hons.)