Understanding Shame…

In a previous post I review a favorite self-help author of mine, Brene Brown (link above).  I first learned about her from a now-famous Ted Talk video (see link above).  Through her work, I was first introduced to the concept of shame:  “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of accepting and belonging” (Brown, 2006, p45).   In this post, I’d like to continue with this train of thought & share some insights on how to recognize shame.  While no real preventative cure to shame exists, if you are aware of what triggers feelings of shame, you’re empowered to grow beyond its confines. What follows are insights I’ve recorded in an old journal based on Brene Brown’s work on shame resilience….

FIRST:  Insights on the Nature of Personal Growth.

Before I begin discussing the subject of shame, I’d like to first make some comments on the nature of personal growth overall.  Despite the inherent growing pains, it is worth the effort.   Having wormed her way through the rabbit hole of personal growth, there are three insights are worth noting here….

#1 – With increased self-knowledge comes an awareness of the extent of any personal ignorance.

With heightened self-awareness comes an inability to deny and ignore any issues in your life.  We become aware the path that lies before us a perplexing ignorance builds in response to increased self knowledge.  We now know we don’t know, (which I guess is something), however we still have a ways left to go.

#2 – It often gets worse before it gets better.

file0002026387392I entered therapy back in 2008, because I was stuck.  I felt like a hamster on a wheel, running to nowhere. I was perplexed why the same things kept happening to me.  In a nutshell, I felt like a walking shit-magnet. In the five or so years of counseling that followed, I came to understand the complexity of all underlying issues in my life. You see, my perception of self in relation to others was based on unresolved feelings from childhood bullying and ostracism, as well as an abusive relationship in college. While these experiences are far behind me, their effects have remained.  As I pealed away layers of denial the old unresolved hurts re-emerged.  It got worse before it got better, but it did get better.

#3 – The only way out is through.

Working through unresolved hurt and processing it, is critical for healing. As I’ve discovered personally, you perpetuate what you deny.  What I’ve discovered personally, is that numbing and denying old hurts only causes them to live within the subconscious as annoying monkey wrenches.  It is only through a close examination of these  monkey wrenches that an endless cycle of bullshit can be revealed.

NOW WHAT!?!?!: Understanding the Concept…

Shame defined…

file0002047283122Brene Brown (2006) defines shame as “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”, (p 45).  Participants in her research utilized the following adjectives to describe this emotion: “devastating, noxious, consuming, excruciating, filleted, small, rejected, diminished” (Brown, 2006, p. 45).  Human beings have a strong and instinctual need for love and belonging.  We are social creatures.  Shame is an emotional reflection of this instinctual drive.  It forces us to accept the fact that we are byproducts of the world in which we live. We create society as it in turn creates us…

Social & psychological components

Shame is a unique sociocultural emotion.  The psychological component of shame reflects an individual’s inner perception of self in relation to others (Brown, 2006).  Thoughts, beliefs and emotions, play a part of shame’s psychological component.  At the same time this emotion is a social construct that exists as a byproduct of interpersonal experiences and sociocultural perspectives.

A double bind situation…

In her research, Brown (2006) states that shame-inducing situations are double-bind in nature.  With few if any options for resolution, participants in her research felt stuck, with nothing to do but bathe in their own misery (Brown, 2006).  With this stuckness come feelings of powerlessness and isolated.  The following quote from Brene’s article resonates with my own ostracism as a bullied kid:

The Cause of Shame…

According to Brene Brown (2008), shame is a fear of disconnection from others, or not feeling good enough.  Events and circumstances that produce feelings of inadequacy or ostracism are shame-producing.   Shame is a result of the internalization of message from others about what is essential for love and belonging.   Here are a few blog post, that provide excellent examples of the internalization of “should-be” messages created the experience of shame.

***“A Shameful Parenting Story”

***My “Shit Job”

***The “It Years”…

The Solution: Shame Resilience…

measureBrene Brown asserts we are all vulnerable to shame.  Messages of who we “should be”, come from everywhere and pollute our thinking.   Until you’re aware of these “should be’s”, they tend to re-emerge in endless perpetuity throughout your life. Random life events can trigger old memories of shame-laden messages from one’s childhood.   Over time, these should be’s become incorporated in our sense of self as measuring sticks of self-worth.   Developing resiliency in shame happens when we take time to understand what triggers these feelings.  What event/interaction/individual/memory caused us to feel shame?  What should-be messages exist within these shame triggers?  Where did this “good-enough” measuring stick originate?  Who instilled this should-be idea in our minds of what we must aspire to become?

With this in mind, what follows is a list of steps to begin developing a resiliency to shame.

STEP #1 – Understanding Shame’s Physical Symptoms


As a former bullied child, shame triggers produce vivid reminders of ostracism as a kid.  For me, shame triggers are those things that remind me I’ve failed in living up to a pre-defined social standard of what good-enough should equate to.  Its for this reason that feelings of shame are associated with stress and anxiety.  In the presence of reminders of painful experiences, our body is sent into a fight-or-flight mode.  Breathing increases, your heart starts pounding, your hands shake, and you start to sweat.  .

A school textbook I have defines coping styles as “persistent, consistent, collections of physiological and behavioral responses to stressful stimuli”  (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011, p. 379).  Additionally, research on the brain shows two types of coping responses.  Reactive coping styles are  associated with higher parasympathetic activity while proactive coping styles are characterized by high sympathetic activity.  Finally, its interesting to note how each coping style influences our level of perceived stress.  According to Lambert & Kinsley (2011), proactive coping responses show low levels of activity in a part of the brain called the HPA-Axis.  In contrast, reactive coping styles show heightened levels of reactivity in the same region.

So what is an HPA Axis you ask??? Watch this video….

So why does this matter???

Basically, what this research says is that those with proactive coping styles allow some individuals to experience lower levels of stress when faced with a challenging situation (or in this case a shame trigger) (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  In contrast those with reactive (or passive) coping styles are experience higher levels of stress and less effective coping responses to challenging situations (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  Interestingly, this reflects research I described in a recent post on the intelligence of emotions here and here……

and for those who are disinterested in clicking the link’s above, here a cliff-notes summary of these two posts…

Emotions play a critical role in our moral judgments. These affective processes occur subconsciously, outside our awareness. They affect our information processing, thought processes, and behaviors (Cushman, et al 2010).
Two systems of moral reasoning exist in the brain.  A deliberate process utilizes cost-benefit analysis to maximize one’s overall, well-being.  The other is an evolutionary adaptation in the brain promoting survival.  It is rapid, automatic and guided by limbic-based moral absolutes (Cushman, et al, 2010).
When faced with a situation deemed by our minds as highly stressful (i.e. shame trigger),  rapid limbic responses to moral decisions are based on absolutes and reflect a deontological perspective  (Cushman, et al, 2010).  
In contrast, when encountering situations perceived as non-emergent and within our capability to handle effectively, a deliberate cost-benefit analysis occurs.  This sort of judgment process reflects a consequentialist perspective  (Cushman, et al, 2010).  

What sort picture does this research paint of how coping styles affect moral judgment?

Lambert & Kinsley (2011) indicate that proactive coping responses are associated with lower levels of activity in the HPA Axis an area of the brain responsible for the stress response.  Cushman, et al, (2010) indicate that in the presence of lower stress response, the brain reacts with a more deliberate system of moral judgment that reflects a cost-benefit approach.  In contrast, passive coping styles are associated with higher HPA Axis activity and a heightened stress response (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  Cushman, et al, (2010) indicate that in the present of a perceived stressful situation, the brain reacts with a rapid-fire limbic reaction that reflects an absolutist deontological perspective.

In light of all this information, it appears understanding our shame triggers is actually quite vital?

Those things that cause shame, send us into fight-or-flight mode.  Shameful experiences are perceived as a threat to our instinctual need for love, belonging, and acceptance.  What causes us to feel shame?  Triggers that remind us of should-be messages from other of what “good enough” is.  In a never-ending desire to prove oneself “worthy of belonging”, we can fall into a perpetual fight-or-flight mode.   As the above research indicates, shame triggers lead to stress, which hijacks our entire brain, hindering our ability to handle situations effectively.

STEP #2 – First an attitudinal adjustment…

Empathy – the opposite of shame…

In her research, Brene Brown (2006), notes that empathy sits at the opposite end of the continuum from shame.  In her article she describes empathy “as the ability to perceive a situation from another person’s perspective – to see, hear, and feel the unique world of the other” (Brown, 2006, p. 47).  She continues by noting that it comprises four key attributes:

The ability to see things as someone else does, remain judgmental, understand their feelings & communicate this effectively.

Finding sources of empathy, connection and support, are superb antidotes to shame.  It is also worth noting the part of the shame equation in your control.  The personal component of shame, pertains to how we incorporate others opinions into our own personal measuring stick.

Acknowledging the power of vulnerability…

imageBrown, (2006), also states that the degree to which we acknowledge our personal vulnerabilities influences a person’s degree of resilience to shame.  In fact, whether or not we’re willing to accept this fact, nobody has the right to tell us “who we are”.  We are ultimately responsible for how other people make us feel.  What opinions become incorporated into our self-perception is a matter of our own determining.

STEP #3 – Shame Triggers


I’ve always had this belief that the key to empowerment is self-responsibility.  Understanding our role in things is critical to identify the actionable solution. Knowing your shame triggers is so important for exactly this reason.  Since shame is a feeling which is based on messages of perceived worth, understanding where these messages come from is important.  Feeling the need to “measure up” is an inevitable byproduct of our own evolutionary social needs.  Shame triggers are simply those events, situations, and/or relationships that lead to feelings of shame.  Examining these shame-inducing situations and/or relationships requires closer examination….

What are your unwanted identities?

In her research, Brene states that shame is associated with situations that a person’s unwanted identity. Unwanted identities are simply personal characteristics that undermine who we wish to be in the eyes of others.  Has there ever been a time in your life when you said “I don’t want people to thin I am a…”?    Here are some of mine:


The thing to remember is we all have shame triggers.  There are unwanted aspects of ourselves we hope to avoid and can’t see with any clarity.  Shame-laden messages from others cloud our vision. The following questions have been helpful in allowing me to gain some perspective…

Where does this perception come from?

Why is this identity unwanted

What measuring-stick underlies it?

What if you were reduced to this unwanted identity?

STEP #3 – What are your Defense Mechanisms?


With an understanding of our shame triggers, it is next important to examine how we defend ourselves against this shitty feeling.  What unconscious defense mechanisms do we do to prevent other people and/or events from causing us to feel this way?  When overcome with shame, we are overcome by the effects of the brain’s HPA axis.  It sets of a series of events throughout the body that create an alarm-bell stress reaction.  Brene, (2010) describes two primary types of defense mechanisms that I understand as forms of conformity or rebellion.  When reading her descriptions I hear both my sisters story and my own.  Here are a few links to recent posts in which I reflect to my own preferred defense mechanisms:

***“The Nature of Belief Systems”

***“The Go-It-Alone Mentality”

STEP #4: The importance of Critical Awareness…..


The final piece of the puzzle is simply “getting real” with yourself.  When overcome with shame you often can’t see beyond the fear of exposure that a flawed self lies inside.  Attempting to see the bigger picture at such moments is important.  Asking yourself a some bigger picture questions.  Here are excerpts from my own journal…

Debunking the “fucked up parent” B.S.


As a bullied child raising a bullied child, I can think of fewer experience more shame-inducing.  To see things from the other side of the coin is truly a mind-fuck.  Needless to say, these things occur within a larger sociocultural context and kids tend to fall between the cracks. Teachers and principals are overworked.  A child’s behaviors are often a reflection what they see going on in the home.   Here is my own follow-up post to provide a bit of perspective on things.

Debunking the Ugly Duckling B.S.

imageWhile I haven’t blogged on this issue yet, I’ve always felt I have a “meat suit problem”.  The issue in my case is one of having such a “wonderful personality”.  These random characteristics defining my own meat suit leave me feeling “less than”.  I hate my nose.  I need to lose weight.  At best, I’m an ignorable BLAH on a good day.

Mind you, these are just a few examples.  I’ll end this post with a few final thoughts directly from an old journal…




Brown, B. (2006). Shame Resilience Theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame.  Families in Society. 87(1), 43-48.
Brown, B. (2008). I Thought it was Just Me: But it Isn’t: Telling the Truth about Perfectionsim, Inadequacy, and Power. Gotham.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. London: Penguin.
Brown, B. (2015).  Rising strong.  Random House:  New York.
Cushman, F., Young, L., & Greene, J. D. (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view. The Oxford handbook of moral psychology, (1-20).
Lambert, K., & Kinsley, C.H. (2011). Clinical neuroscience: The neurobiological foundations of  mental health. 2nd Ed., New York, NY: Worth Publishers
Miller, J.B., & Stiver, I.P. (1997). The healing connection: How wome form relationships in therapy and life. Boston: Beacon.

Share This:

Insights from Brene Brown….

For a recent assignment, I was required to select a self help book that pertained in some way to the subject of career counseling and provide an overview of it. As a Brene Brown fan, I chose to revew her latest book, “Rising Strong”.  A Grounded Theory Researcher, Brene’s self-books provide a summary of findings from interviews with research participants, utilizing a Narrative Therapy perspective. From a personal standpoint, I’ve really appreciated Brene’s books, since they summarize my own path of self-development. Underlying this process of personal growth, was an inexplicable “stuckness” that feels much like a “vinyl record with a needle stuck in a groove, repeating the same sound over and over”, (Ingram, 2012). Brene’s method of addressing this issue of stuckness, is to utilize a storytelling approach.   It is by claiming ownership of our life story, that we can find an underlying system of meaning woven throughout it (Brene, 2015).  What I appreciate about her books are they appear to follow the author’s progression of growth.  For this reason I feel they are really worth reviewing below…

So What Does Forward Motion Look Like????

In the book’s introduction, Brene Brown describes how all her books fit within as part of an overall picture towards wholehearted living which she defines as follows:

IMG_2379“engaging in our lives from a places of worthiness…cultivating the courage, compassion, connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough’” (Brene, 2015, p xix).

Brene describes in her latest book “Rising Strong” how each book she has published, fits within an overall picture of wholehearted living.  Understanding this concept has been essentially for me to become “unstuck” and get off the hamster wheel.  It has taught me to understand how I get in my own way and develop a live a life that at one point had been “impossible”.   So what does forward motion – away from where we are to where we want to get to – look like??  To answer this question, a quick review of key concepts from Brene’s books is useful here….

STEP ONE: Listening to Shame…

Defined as “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”, (Brown, 2006, p 45), the concept of shame is first introduced in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” (Brene, 2010).  Here, we are guided through a discussion that encourages how the concept of shame is woven throughout our personal life narrative (Brene, 2015).  As an individual with PTSD, this was an especially laborious process and the subject of several years of therapy.  However, what I discovered is that these feelings of shame pertain to messages I’ve received throughout my lifetime about what “good enough” means.  In retrospect, I realize I’m someone who has been running towards a preconceived notion of what this has meant for me.  simultaneously, I’ve been running away from what unwanted identities, comprised the messages of shame from others, (I’m not pretty enough, I’m not smart enough, etc).  Recognizing this has allowed me to accept myself as I am as good enough right now.  The journey now isn’t about getting to a place I believed was necessary to be “good enoug”. Instead good enough is now.  I can finally relax into the moments of my life and be present to enjoy it more fully.

STEP TWO: Being Vulnerable…

In her second book, “Daring Greatly”, Brene defines her concept of vulnerability as “having the courage to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome” (Brene, 2015, p4).  Vulnerability has produced a sense of vibrant fear in me.  Yes, I am aware that vulnerability is crucial for full engagement in life or,”Being all in” (Brene, 2012, p. 2).  However, unresolved traumas throughout my life have taught me otherwise.  Vulnerability produces fear because it means I have to be seen, and risk criticism or judgment.  Being “perfect and bulletproof are seductive” (Brene, 2012, p. 2) for exactly this reason.  The practice of vulnerability in an uncertain world has taken time for me.  The first step happened as I addressed old hurts.  The second step came as I learned to become more secure in who I was and validate myself in ways others hadn’t.  In time, the fear of vulnerability has gradually subsided.

STEP THREE:  Growing from Failure…

Overcoming shame and becoming vulnerability can be difficult when you stumble and fail.  However, failure, as Brene notes in her latest book, “Rising Strong” is an inevitable part of progression though life.  For this latest book, Brene (2015) gathered stories of sucess in a series of interviews to uncover any commonailties.  What she found were narratives mirroring Joseph Campbell’s (2008), book “The Hero with a Thousand Phases”.   In the first act of this book, the main character finds himself in a situation, which is the onset of a new adventure (Brene, 2015; Campbell, 2008). The second act finds our hero in a situation in which he has to take drastic steps to solve his dilemma (Brene, 2015; Campbell, 2008). The final act finds our character doing what is necessary to achieve his goal, resulting in a conflict resolution (Brene, 2015; Campbell, 2008).  In sum, her latest research has uncovered stories of success arising form failure as a learning opportunity to along a spiritual path towards wholeness.  The final section of this post provides a brief overview of these steps:

Rising Strong: An Overview

“If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fail; this is the physics of vulnerability.  Once we fail in the services of being brave, we can never go back.  Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being” (Brene, 2015, p5).

In her latest book, “Rising Strong”, Berne (2015) provides an overview of how to move past failure.  The first step, known as “The Reckoning”, (Brene, 2015, p37), involves acknowledging our story and accepting responsibility for our narrative role. The second step, known as “The Rumble” (Brene, 2015, p37), involves taking ownership of our story and involves an honest examination of it. Along the way, we’re forced to acknowledge truths and erroneous assumptions. Finally, Rising Strong process involves a “Revolution” (Brene, 2015, p37), and involves rewriting our narrative and learning from our rumble to create a new story. What follows is an overview of the steps in this narrative process….

STEP ONE: “The Reckoning” (Brene, 2015).

 In her discussion of “The Reckoning”, Brene (2015) states: “you either walk into your story and own your truth or you live outside your story, hustling for your worthiness” (p45).  Brene, (2015) notes that fear and trauma often complicate our efforts to claim ownership of our story.  To explain this desire to resist our life story, she utilizes the concept of chandelier pain as an exquisite and intolerable hurt which one cannot ignore (Brene, 2015, p16).  Rather than owning it, it isn’t uncommon to medicate, numb it or stockpile it.  Taking time to work through the unresolved traumas in my own life has been critical to the initiation of forward motion in life.  In order to “get unstuck” this was an absolutely essential step for me.

STEP TWO: “The Rumble” (Brene, 2015).

The next step in growing from failure involves examining our life story, and how we have created it as the narrator.  This process, which she calls “The Rumble”, (Brene, 2015), mirrors narrative therapy.  She encourages readers to examine the stories behind our emotions.  As I’ve said often throughout this blog, there’s a big difference between thing through your feelings and not with them.  I believe this is what Brene is speaking of here.  What stories, believes, and thoughts underlie your emotional responses to life events?  What triggered the emotions?  How does this narrative exists as a self-fulfilling prophecy, by creating the life experiences which reflect it?   The section ends with an overview of questions that might be useful in examining our narrative: (1) what do I need to understand about the event? (2) What do I need to learn about from other people in this story? and (3) what do I need to understand about myself in the context of this story? (Brene, 2015, p92-93).  Finally, Brene (2015) states this process simply begins with an attitude of curiosity and willingness.  

STEP THREE: “The Revolution” (Brene, 2015).

            The final step in this process of growing from failure is revolution: a “no-turning-back” Brene, 2015, p 254) stage.   This “revolution” involves a renewed sense of clarity this process starts once insight is put into practice (Brown, 2015). In a step-by-step manner, this process involves a gradual change as we create new stories based on altered narratives. A convenient example, would be my latest (and successful attempt to lose weight). Rather than chasing a physical ideal based on what I considered to be “good enough”, I’m instead assuming “good enough” is now. The result is, a sense of peace in which self-care is the priority, and getting there occurs one step at a time.


I owe a debt of gratitude to Brene Brown for helping redefine the concepts of failure and success. When I was younger, success was always a “then point” where I could work my way into being “good enough”. Success was conceived of as a state of invulnerability, in which I was delivered from my own shame-laden life story. Failure, in turn was what I didn’t want to be in the present. As I have (long since) learned, success requires us to examine our past and any underlying narratives. Acting on these insights on the road to success, taking a chance not knowing the outcome, and risking failure.  This means acting on faith, that the journey contains the lessons we need to find our way there.


Brown, B. (2006). Shame Resilience Theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame.  Families in Society. 87(1), 43-48.
Brown, B. (2008). I Thought it was Just Me: But it Isn’t: Telling the Truth about Perfectionsim, Inadequacy, and Power. Gotham.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. London, England: Penguin.
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Random House: New York.
Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces, 3rd ed. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Ingram, B.L. (2012). Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the Client. (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.



Share This:

Psychology of the Trump Supporter…

I have to be honest, listening to Donald Trump’s speeches doesn’t exactly leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  However, since I live in the Midwest and come from a very conservative family, ignoring his rhetoric is impossible.  As the political minority, I find myself doing a lot of tongue biting.  On occasion, when I feel the need to speak my mind, I struggle.  It’s as if a I’m trying to bridge a divisive cultural gap.  The experience is much like traveling to another country where you don’t speak the language well.  Culture shock sets in as you realize much of what you’re intending to say gets lost in the translation.  For this reason, I’m hoping to better understand the psychology of the Trump supporter.  What do they see that I’m not???

To answer this question, I decided to do some random googling one late sleepless night.  What follows is a synopsis of what I’ve learned:

FIRST, a few introductory comments…

When comparing my own opinions to the rhetoric of the typical Trump supporter, I find differences in temperament-based preferences and moral perspectives.   Since I was raised in a very diverse environment, (culturally, socioeconomically, politically and racially), differences such as these are “normal”.  They are not a source of disharmony or strife by any means.  I have learned three lessons from this:

  1. FIRSTLY, the advice of John Malkovich on acting rings true here.  You can’t truly understand a someone until you suspend all judgment.  As it applies life, this means engaging in an empathetic listening that involves suspending my own view of life for another one.  What is it truly like to walk in those shoes???
  2. SECONDLY, an essential counterpoint to empathetic listening is remaining true to my own personal values. This has meant accepting that reality is ultimately a subjective creation relevant to my own life experiences.  I acknowledge that others’ may not validate or accept my perspective.  I am at peace with this and have come to realize serenity comes through being secure with who I am and what I stand for.
  3. THIRDLY, A Hegelian dialectic is always useful to resolve these competing perspectives.  According to Hegel’s dialectical theory, when one perspective (i.e. thesis) meets with a competing viewpoint (i.e. antithesis), and when they are merged together, you have a higher level of understanding (i.e. synthesis).  

In moving forward in the creation of this post, these life lessons exist as a guide.  I am willing to entertain perspectives other than my own but still hold onto my own system of beliefs.  Social reality is complex multifaceted and ever-changing.   The personal benefit of this exercise, is in that it can help me understand a facet, very different from my own lived perspective.

A “Cult of Personality”

It is important to note that Trump’s views on matters have been far from one-sided. His political beliefs and actions, over the years, fall all over the ideological map.  As many diehard conservatives have noted: “he’s like all the others, riding somewhere in the middle”.  With this in mind, I’ve asked what is the nature of his appeal is then?  Many Trump fans I’ve talked with explain his appeal simply in the following statements: “he tells it like he is”, or “he doesn’t take shit from anyone”.   As I interpret it, comments like this reflect a “cult of personality” mindset (Ben-Ghiat, 2016; Tracinski, 2015).  A cult of personality, might be conveniently defined as: “a system in which a leader is able to control a group of people through the sheer force of his or her personality and is often portrayed as a god-like figure” (rationalwiki.org, n.d.).  There are two critical psychological components underlying this insight one pertains to the trump supporter, and the other to Donald himself.  As it pertains to a cult-of-personality figure, Ben-Ghiat (2016) notes the following as essential characteristics:

“the leader has to embody the people but also stand above them. He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary, so that people will grant him permission to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny” (Ben-Ghiat, 2016).

Throughout Donald Trump’s own unique rhetoric, several unique traits can be observed: a complete disregard for the standards of political correctness and narcissistic ego.  I find it fascinating how politically divisive the responses are to these traits.  While I find him to be a disrespectful bully, Trump supports find him “refreshing”.  I’m perplexed by this.  In an attempt to understand how someone might find Trump’s rhetoric “refreshing”, I found the following commentary on Trump’s perplexing Cult-of-Personality appeal:

“People are projecting onto Trump what they want to see. They are pouring into him their fantasies about what could be accomplished by a strong leader who doesn’t care about making people angry. But that’s a dangerous fantasy to indulge” (Tracinski, 2015).

These observations about Trump and his supporters, provide me a bit more clarity on the nature of his perplexing appeal. Still, I’m left with more questions.  What specific characteristics about Trump standout in the minds of his fans, as most appealing, as source of projective fantasy?  What temperament based-characteristics in the Trump Supporter do I not yet understand as an explanation for their response?  What follows are more interesting insights to shed more light on matters:

Trump’s Extreme Narcissism

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual describes narcissistic personality disorder as follows

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy…as indicated by…the following: …sense of self-importance…sense of entitlement…fantasies of unlimited success…[and requiring] excessive admiration” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

While a formal diagnosis cannot every be made without seeking the help of a mental health professional, many of Trump’s display’s reflect extreme narcissistic personality traits.  As the video above notes, narcissists see the world in terms of winners and losers.  As a result of this black and white thinking, a compulsive need to win exists over “the losers”.  This compulsive need is a way of reflecting one’s own personal insecurities.  Joseph Burgo, Phd, (psychotherapist and author of the book: (THE NARCISSIST YOU KNOW: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age), notes Donald’s extreme narcissism, is a large part of his appeal to populist voters (Burgo, 2015). In particular, Donald Trump’s appeal pertains to a key defense mechanism which he displays as an extreme narcissist. Underlying a need to avoid one’s personal insecurities, is a compulsive desire to win in order defend his inflated sense of self through: “righteous indignation, blame, and contempt” (Burgo, 2015).  Trump’s rhetoric models “a simplistic way to vanquish self-doubt and defend oneself against existential anxiety” (Burgo, 2015).  This insight is helpful in shedding light on the personality traits underlying Trump’s cult-of-personality appeal.  Still there is much more to be said about the Trump supporter to better understand this perspective.

An Anti-P.C. Mentality

Fear of The Unknown….

An interesting three-part series of articles on the psychology of trump supports can be found at Scientific American’s website titled “Decoding Trump Mania the Psychological Allure of hating Political Correctness”  – by Melanie Tannenbaum.  As Tannenbaum (2015), notes, there is no U.S. president in recent history who is more anti-P.C. as a”blatant racist…[and] sexist”.  Still, its surprising to note the divisiveness of reactions to his inflammatory remarks.  There are those like me who find them very distasteful and off-putting (to say the least). His fans, on the other hand appreciate, his rhetoric as “honest”.  What is meant by this?  Tannenbaum (2015), first theorizes that trump supporters display a low temperament-based preference for ambiguity and uncertainty:

“Did you have one friend who embraced that sense of uncertainty, viewing it with a sense of enthusiasm and thrill, excited about the prospect of embarking on an unknown adventure? Did you have another friend who hated every moment of not knowing what would come next, feeling anxious and uneasy until the minute that every single detail of his/her plan had fallen into a definite, guaranteed place?” (Tannenbaum, 2015)

Uncertainty is associated with the unknown.  For those with low tolerance to such things, a greater degree of anxiety is produced.   Knowing where he stands provides a bit of relief for those with a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, common amongst ultra-conservaties (Tannenbaum, 2015).  Still, the perplexing perception that Trump is a “straight shooter” is perplexing, given his “winning at all costs” mentality?  What else can be said about this???….

Misperception of Non-Normative Statements….

In part two of her article series, Tannenbaum, (2015) cites research on the misperception of non-normative statements:

“When people say things that are non-normative, unexpected, or non-self-serving, those things are seen as more likely to be true, and outside observers are more likely to think they have a good chance of really knowing the authentic, deep-down, true personality of the person saying them. (Tannenbaum, 2015)”

In other words, if somebody is speaking off-the-cuff in an unedited fashion and saying what is on his mind without thinking, he is at least perceived as honest.  This is despite the fact that his statements are off-putting, and that he is a flip-flopper on many issues…

Pluralistic Ignorance

Tannenbaum, (2015) completes her three part series by commenting on the distaste of political correctness common amongst Trump supporters.  A quick online search for a definition of this “Political Correctness” yields the following:

“agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people…conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated…” (Politically Correct, n.d.)

What I find most interesting about Tannenbaum’s (2015) article, are her observations on this concept and the varied responses to it.  In particular she states:  “If you’re conservative, you may believe that the PC movement is a harmful push to censor free speech and limit the expression of free ideas: (Tannenbaum, 2013).    Indeed our culture is very “pro-P.C”.  It is useful to consider the two sides of the coin on this issue of political correctness.  For example, I value the ideals of equality, empathy and inclusiveness.  I believe it is important to show respect of others and avoid utilizing rhetoric that can be perceived as disrespectful.  Consequently, I find Trump’s rhetoric distasteful.  In contrast to this vantage point, my husband might bring up the idea of pluralistic ignorance.  This concept is best summarized in the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and can be defined conveniently as “the bullshit of the many”.  It is a dangerous byproduct of a culture which is too politically correct.  My husband is more open to hearing rhetoric like Trump’s because failing to question conventional thinking is dangerous.  In conclusion, underlying an anti-p.c. mentality in the Trump fan, is a distaste for pluralistic ignorance, ambiguity, and misinterpretation of non-normative statements.  

Moral Taste Receptors

One final article worth mention comes from vox.com, titled: “Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how.” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  In this article, the authors apply insights from Moral Foundations Theory to better understand the unique perspective of Trump Supporters.  Moral Foundations Theory states the following:

“our moral judgments verbalize unconscious and automatic intuitions that are only justified post hoc vis-a`-vis others…these “intuitions” reflect biologically prewired sensitivities regarding certain events in human social life” (Musschenga, 2013, p331).

Additionally, Moral Foundations Theory also describes six moral preferences or “moral taste receptors” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016), including:  (1) Care/Harm – (i.e compassion for others); (2) Fairness/Cheating (i.e. monitoring equity & balance); (3) Liberty/Oppression – (i.e restrictions of choice); (4) Authority – (i.e. hierarcy & order); (5) Loyalty – (i.e. us vs. them mentality); (6) Sanctity/Degradation – (i.e. elevate the “good” from harm of daily profanities).  In a public opinion poll including 2000 participants, the authors of this article found firstly, that Trump indeed rank as a moderate on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being very liberal and 5 being very conservative, (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  While I won’t delve into these results in detail, I found the following very interesting….

Preference for Care/Harm

A preference for Care/Harm can be defined as a “compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  It’s not surprising to note that in this poll, the democratic candidates ranked high in a preference for care and harm.  In contrast, republican candidates – and Trump in particular all had negative scores, indicating that this consideration was a low priority.  This is very much in sync with what I notice as a key difference between my own political values and those of my conservative family members.  The idea of the “bleeding-heart liberal” is often thrown around when I discuss beliefs pertaining to this value of care and empathy.  In contrast, I don’t understand why Trump Supporters aren’t offended by his comments.

Loyalty, Authority, & Sanctity

A preference for Authority can be defined a “value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  In contrast, a preference for loyalty is associated with an “us vs. them” mentality.  Finally, a preference for sanctity pertains to “a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life”(Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  So how do my beliefs on these issues compare to the typical Trump Supporter?  I found the answer to this question quite intriguing….

Democrats scored low on all three factors.  This reflects my own political values as well.  A low desire for authority indicates an openness to change and a progressive belief system.  A low preference for loyalty indicates inclusivity and multiculturalism as personal ideals.  Finally, the notion of sanctity reminds me of a religious ideal that divides the world into the pure vs. profane.  As a “spiritual but not religious” agnostic, I have a strong distaste for this notion.

In contrast, Donald Trump scores high on Authority, Loyalty, & Sanctity.  A preference for order and status quo reflects a dislike for ambiguity as discussed earlier (Tannenbaum, 2015).  This “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it mentality”, is often associated with an idyllic perception of “the way things were”(Tannenbaum, 2015).  The slogan “Make America Great Again”, summarizes this preference ideally. The idea of loyalty, can be linked to feelings of patriotism and a heightened fear of terrorism.  Finally, the idea of sanctity, can be linked to values such as an anti-abortion stance and view favoring “traditional marriage”, (both of which I happen to disagree with).

Preference for Fairness:

A preference for fairness can be defined as a desire to “constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  The authors also note that those who prefer fairness believe: “people who produce more should be rewarded more than those who just tried hard” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  This ideal is helpful in explaining the perplexing fact that lower-income conservatives support the “trickle-down” notion of welfare for the rich.  When discussing this idea with Trump Supporters, I hear an espousal of “working class” values.  The idea of not working for what you get is distasteful.  This ideal presupposes any other thought process that might allow one to consider the complex ramifications of a “trickle-down” economic plan…


One of my first jobs out of college was working for a law firm as a “jack-of-all-trades”.  I answered the phones, prepared documents, and even did billing.  Several of the lawyers in this firm had practices focusing specifically on family law.  As a result, I found myself in the middle of many contentious divorces.   Interestingly, much of the political rhetoric today mirrors the arguments of two bitter exes fighting for custody of the house or division of assets.  The idea of “winning at all costs” (Burgo, 2015), takes presidence over any other considerations.  As I observed, during custody cases, the children were left in the middle as the ones with the greatest losses to bear.  The parents are busy trying to “get one over” on the other while the child is left in the middle, to lose no matter what the outcome.  Its in this respect that Trump is providing us a public service:

“How could a crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic-personality disorder and policy views bordering on gibberish ‘defy political gravity,’ dominate the national stage…In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing…the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness…of…the political culture they share” (Frank, 2015)


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth (2016, January, 15).  Donald Trump’s cult of personality.  Retrieved from:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ruth-benghiat/donald-trumps-cult-of-per_b_8992650.html
Burgo J., Phd. (2015, August, 14) The populist appeal of Trump’s narcissism. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shame/201508/the-populist-appeal-trumps-narcissism
Elkins, E & Haidt, J (2016, February, 5). Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how. Retrieved from: http://www.vox.com/2016/2/5/10918164/donald-trump-morality
Frank, R. (2015, September, 20).  The Importance of Donald Trump.  Retrieved from:  http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/frank-rich-in-praise-of-donald-trump.html#
Manheim, F.T. (2016). Trump cards II: Significancr of the Donsld’s rise, his audacious two-layered campaign, and his Achilles’s heels.  Retrieved from:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2729989
Musschenga, B. (2013). The promises of moral foundations theory. Journal of Moral Education, 42(3), 330-345.
Politically correct. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically correct
Rationalwiki.org (n.d.) Personality Cult. Retrieved from:  http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Personality_cult
Rich, F. (2015, September 20) Donald Trump is saving our democracy.  Retrieved from:  http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/frank-rich-in-praise-of-donald-trump.html
Tanenbaum (2015, August, 15). Decoding Trump-Mania: The psychological allure of hating political correctness, Part 1-3. Retrieved from: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/decoding-trump-mania-the-psychological-allure-of-hating-political-correctness-part-1/
Tracinski, P. (2015, August, 15). Donald Trump’s paradoxical cult of personality.  Retrieved from:  http://thefederalist.com/2015/08/11/donald-trumps-paradoxical-cult-of-personality/

Share This: