What Is… the Compass of Shame

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 compass of shame.

I first heard of the compass of shame quite recently in a post by Zoe of Serious Mental Health. Psychiatrist Donald Nathanson developed it in 1992, and it identifies four different types of human responses in an attempt to cope with shame. Shame is a negative emotion directed at the self arising from the perception that one is bad. High levels of shame are associated with a number of mental disorders and other psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and low self-esteem.

Compass of shame responses

Nathanson’s model included these shame coping responses:

  • Withdrawal
  • Attack self
  • Avoidance
  • Attack other

Nathanson described shame as being triggered by interruptions in interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy emotion states, when we find there are impediments to our ability to fulfill our desires. He saw shame as a spotlight that focuses attention on all of our deficits and failures. It’s an uncomfortable spotlight, so rather than working to repair or reframe their identity, people try to get out of it using scripts associated with the four compass points. Scripts are a set of rules we have for how we interpret and react to different scenes (scenes are a combination of stimulus-affect-response).

Withdrawal

Withdrawal involves viewing the shame as valid and withdrawing from situations in which it is felt in an attempt to minimize the exposure to it. Strategies can include isolating, running away, drawing into the self and cutting off connections (this loss of connection is the greatest problem with this strategy). While negative emotions and thoughts are associated with this response, the individual who’s withdrawing may not explicitly recognize them as shame.

Nathanson framed depression in terms of shame withdrawal. He considered atypical depression to be the result of prolonged shame and classical/melancholic depression to be the result of the combination of shame plus fear of reprisals (guilt).

Attack Self

This response also involves seeing the shame as valid and turning anger inward. This can lead to self-criticism and self-deprecation, and contempt and disgust towards the self can amplify the shame’s effect. Rather than withdrawing, people using this response are motivated to endure the shame for the sake of trying to maintain relationships, which can lead to deference to others and attempts to conform to decrease the likelihood of future shame.

Both withdrawal and attacking self are internalizing strategies, which involve recognition of negative emotions and acceptance of the shame’s message as being valid.

Avoidance

Avoidance involves denying the shame’s message and the negative experience of self. This contrasts with withdrawal, where those messages are accepted and there is avoidance of situations as a result). People using this response are likely to use distraction techniques in an attempt to generate neutral or positive feelings. They’re also motivated to minimize the conscious experience of shame.

Distraction strategies can include sex, substance use, or thrill-seeking activities, or things that bring us pride. In an interview with Behavior Online, Nathanson said, “Shame is soluble in alcohol and boiled away by cocaine and the amphetamines.”

Out of the four compass directions, avoidance scripts are thought to be most likely to operate outside of conscious awareness. One of the problems with this strategy is it stops us from learning what shame is trying to tell us.

Attack Others

Attacking others reduces their worth to try to boost our own self-esteem. This can involve blaming or put-downs, and it may go to extremes like physical abuse and sexual sadism.

Nathanson believed that in the latter half of the twentieth century, the dominant culturally expected shame response shifted to avoidance and attacking others. “We have gone from a culture of politeness and deference to a culture of narcissism and violence, all of which must be understood as alterations in scripted reactions to shame affect” (in Behaviour Online).

Compass of Shame Scale

Ellison and colleagues developed a Compass of Shame Scale for measuring tendencies to respond in each of the four ways; there’s a copy of the COSS here, but you have to scroll to the end of the paper to see it.

The scale involves several scenarios and four response options for each consistent with the four styles of shame coping. For example, for the scenario “When an activity makes me feel like my strength or skill is inferior,” the response options are:

  • “I act as if it isn’t so.” (avoidant)
  • “I get mad at myself for not being good enough.” (attack self)
  • “I withdraw from the activity.” (withdrawal)
  • “I get irritated with other people.” (attack others)

Relevance

Adequate self-esteem makes it easier for people to move transiently through the negative and back to the positive. Compass of Shame Scale scores on withdrawal, attack self, and attack others have been found to be negatively correlated with self-esteem, meaning that greater use of these shame responses is associated with lower self-esteem.

Based on the results that come up in a Google search, it looks like this model has been used in a few different contexts, particularly in relation to criminal offending and restorative justice. The restorative justice process allows for the expression of shame and other difficult emotions, leading to a reduction in intensity and allowing for a shift towards more positive emotions.

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

References

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.

Ashley L. Peterson

BScPharm BSN MPN

Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

25 thoughts on “What Is… the Compass of Shame”

  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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