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 page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.