Insights into Psychology Series

What Is… the Shame Compass

The compass of shame: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, attack other

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the shame compass.

I first heard of the shame compass quite recently in a post by Zoe of Serious Mental Health. It was first described in 1992 by psychiatrist Donald Nathanson, and it identifies four different types of human responses in an attempt to cope with shame:

  • Withdrawal: isolating, hiding, running away, drawing into the self and cutting off connections (this loss of connection is the greatest problem with this strategy)
  • Attack self: can range from deference to self-put-downs to masochism
  • Avoidance: denial, distraction through things like substance use or thrill-seeking activities – Nathanson says “shame is soluble in alcohol” (the problem with this strategy is it stops us from learning what shame is trying to tell us)
  • Attack other: blaming, lashing out verbally/physically at others (Nathanson blamed this shame response for much of the violence in the world)

Nathanson believed that shame doesn’t require doing something wrong; rather, it arises from interruptions in interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy emotion states. He described shame as a spotlight that focuses attention on all of our deficits and failures. It’s an uncomfortable spotlight, so people try to get out of it using the coping strategies in the compass.

Adequate self-esteem makes it easier for people to move transiently through the negative and back to the positive. Lower self-esteem can mean getting (un)comfortably entrenched in a given compass point.

Based on the results that come up in a Google search, it looks like this model has been used in a few different contexts, but particularly in relation to criminal offending and restorative justice. A group of researchers developed a Compass of Shame Scale for measuring tendencies to respond in each fo the four ways – there a copy of the COSS here, but you have to scroll to the very end of the paper.

Shame isn’t too big a thing for me most of the time; I’m more likely to experience guilt. While I would normally identify avoidance as my unhealthy coping mechanism of choice, compass of shame avoidance would definitely take a backseat to withdrawal for me.

Do you tend to experience a lot of shame? Do any of these compass points sound like a go-to coping strategy for you?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

25 thoughts on “What Is… the Shame Compass”

  1. I find the findings on withdrawal interesting. Does isolating automatically mean withdrawal due to shame? Shame in not measuring up to the crowd so isolating from the crowd? Just one of many thoughts.

    1. I suspect there can be a lot of different reasons for withdrawal/isolation. I isolate a lot because I find my depression makes it hard to be around people, but the online world has been a great way to have connections without having the challenges of in-person contact.

      1. Yes. I think I have isolated out of shame, but not all isolation is from shame. My social anxiety is high enough that much of the time, I’d rather relate to people online to avoid the uptight feeling I often get in social gatherings on the real.

          1. Yeah. And we’re starting to open up. One of my meetings which has been going very comfortably on Zoom was never comfortable for me when we met on the real. We’re going to start gathering again, and I wish we could just keep it on Zoom.

  2. I’m glad there is that link to a previous post of yours (What is – Shame and Guilt) because I was sitting trying to figure out what exactly ‘shame’ is, or feels like – and I don’t think I have ever experienced it. Guilt, sure. Embarrassment, definitely But shame – no. Funny how I never really internalized all the negative trash talk that I was inundated with throughout my childhood. Something in me just never believed it.

    1. I think experiencing guilt now and then is a pretty much inevitable part of being human, but it’s interesting how some people manage to avoid shame while others get walloped with it.

  3. I think I have partly been experiencing shame because I recently dropped out of school because of financial problems … I feel ashamed and guilty too because it is not my fault that I couldn’t afford tuition but yet again I feel guilty because I kind envy my friends who are graduating.

    I decided to avoid people and isolate myself because I was feeling like a failure. I am still trying to handle it as I learn new skills ….

      1. It has really been hard for me but I am keeping hope high and learning technical skills. Currently running a start up and saving up … I am hopeful ☺

  4. I get confused by guilt and shame which several months ago you helped me understand better. I do not have a lot of what i think is shame and have worked through a lot of guilt but especially when triggered to a downward motion i lean towards too much guilt.

  5. I’m glad you posted this. It spoke to me directly.

    Though I’ve known intellectually the difference between shame and guilt, it’s often difficult in practice to discern which one is operative. What seems to happen is that if I notice enough specific areas in which I feel I have been behaving poorly, I subtly “cross a line” at a certain moment and begin to revisit the idea that I simply “am bad” and that therefore all these specific peccadilloes are inevitable effects of my incorrigibly bad character.

    I believe this took place when the workshop more-or-less suddenly was unexpectedly terminated. At around about that time, I began to regard myself as a person who was incapable of making a positive impact on the lives of younger people. Even though the workshop was not terminated because of anything I specifically had done — at least not directly – I still felt responsible.

    Since then, I’ve at least done the first three things on that compass: isolation, self-deprecation, and avoidance. Haven’t gotten so deep into blaming others — largely just myself — although I’ve reached the stage where I have realized (at least intellectually) that it’s not entirely my fault.

      1. Objectively, no. Not ZERO – that’s pretty extreme. I also think I have a tendency to focus on the failings and not on the good stuff. That tendency was dramatically worsened during the last month or so of the intensive workshop, due to a couple of surprising events that I don’t feel comfortable detailing on a public forum.

        In general, I feel that I am too neurodivergent to be able to catch all the little strange brain spasms that often winding up coming out of my mouth and confusing people in my midst, and was actually summoned to be held accountable for some comments that I made that I thought were completely innocuous but that evidently triggered some concerns in some of the people that heard them.

        In general, I have difficulty accepting things at face value and tend to want to make more out of them than they need to be. I think I’ll do better next time, and in any case, I’m grateful I’m not a quitter. Or at least, I won’t quit THIS. Too much invested in it, emotionally and spiritually.

  6. I was exposed to the shame compass while attending a mental health day program thing. It was interesting to see the different ways of responding broken down, but I’d already been aware that shame is my default setting and has been my whole life. “I’m wrong” is the belief that underpins my life and it has been challenging. I’m working on it.

    I primarily attack myself, but I also related to Meg. I’m always one step away from feeling the fool in public and attack is the mode I want to use if I feel vulnerable.

      1. The trick for me was learning the delay. The pause where you assess the thought. As with everything, the more you do, the better it goes.

  7. I find it fascinating that when some people go through a challenge or a crisis – they turn on themselves, withdrawing in shame or sabotaging themselves, or self harming in different ways. Whereas others attack other people – blaming, accusing, seeking revenge, attacking in various ways.

    It makes me wonder if it is more circumstances or character that makes someone become destructive inwardly or externally.

  8. I like this model Ashley, tho’ I’d never heard of it. Thank you for sharing. And yes, a lot of my life was underpinned by my shame and I suppose I’ll always be working on getting over it.

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