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:
- Attack self
- 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 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).
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 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.
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)
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?
- Behavior Online (2000): A Conversation with Donald Nathanson
- Children of the Code: The Compass of Shame (interview with Donald Nathanson)
- Elison, J., Lennon, R., & Pulos, S. (2006). Investigating the compass of shame: The development of the Compass of Shame Scale. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 34(3), 221-238.
- International Institute for Restorative Practices
- Yelsma, P., Brown, N. M., & Elison, J. (2002). Shame-focused coping styles and their associations with self-esteem. Psychological Reports, 90(3, part 2), 1179-1189.
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.