While viewing other peoples’ stories on the internet and TV from a safe distance fascinates some people, the idea of facing the pain of our own shame presents a very different scenario. The experience of shame "follows a moment of exposure" (Nathanson, 1987, p.4) linked to feelings of failure, self-disdain, and defectiveness. We notice a fear of being seen differently from the way we want to appear, followed by an urge to hide from ourselves and others. The shame we feel about shame creates more complex feelings. Donald L. Nathanson, psychiatrist and noted expert on shame, developed the Compass of Shame, a well known model for our responses to shame:
In a video about the model, Nathanson states:
"When we don't know how to focus where the spotlight of shame tries to aim our attention, there are only four sets of ways people behave, four universal systems of defense against the information shame wants us to consider.
Each response contains reactions and scripts we resort to when shame inflicts pain and we do not know how to respond in an honest manner.
Nathanson considers withdrawal and attacking the self to be ways of living a diminished life.
Withdrawal is a way of hiding ourselves so others will not judge us for the flaws that are exposed. It is related to isolation, mistrust, hiding, and avoidance. Jeff Elison, psychology professor at Adams State College, has conducted empirical studies on the Compass of Shame. He describes withdrawal as the family script where messages about shame are validated and hiding is necessary for limiting shameful exposure.
Attacking the self is a feeling of inferiority and the belief that relationships are only possible when we view ourselves as inferior to others. It is related to our inner critic, perfectionism, masochism, and the feeling that "I am bad." When a child discovers his primary caretakers cannot be relied on to provide a safe emotional bond, feeling ashamed is less scary than seeing caretakers as unable to provide safety. Writing for Couch in The New York Times, Hillary Jacobs Hendel describes a child who unconsciously blames himself for feeling distressed, and concludes there is something wrong with him rather than with his parents; the emotional isolation causing the child's anguish comes from his belief that he is defective.
Avoidance includes an awareness that shame feels terrible, but acts as a way of escaping shame to have the feelings dissipate without attending to them. Minimizing and dissociation are examples of this. Addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, food, and sex, are an indication of shameful avoidance through the denial of feelings and needs. In her blog post, Darlene Lancer, author of Conquering Shame and Codependency, says:
"Most people don't realize how much shame drives their lives-even if they think their self-esteem is pretty good.
In another blog post Lancer states that "for addicts and codependents [shame] hangs around, often beneath consciousness, and leads to other painful feelings and problematic behaviors." She describes shame as the cause of addiction and the core feeling of codependency.
Doll and Beckstead, write in their blog post:"Shame is a catalyst that ignites and reinforces destructive and addictive behavior.” Avoidance and addictive behaviors can seem like a path to relief when shame feels insufferable but, this path to seeking comfort is temporary and only serves to camouflage shame.
On the subject of attacking the other, Donald L. Nathanson states:
"the object is to reduce the self esteem of someone else, to turn the tables and make the other guy feel awful.
Attacking the other occurs when alternative strategies do not work to decrease pain and the threat of vulnerability. People resort to raging and making others feel bad so that we do not feel the badness. This is a common strategy of the narcissistic personality. Blaming the other becomes a means of projecting pain outwardly and attributing thoughts, feelings, and actions to someone else. This unconscious process is an attempt to regulate internal pain. It prevents people from an awareness of the underlying trigger which is bypassed.
Eric Sherman, in an article for Couch in the New York Times, describes a client who resorts to explosive anger. Sherman refers to him as a "tough guy," but sees clearly that the client is defending against feeling inadequate. The man is not able to talk about his own feelings due to fear and shame, but he succeeds in stirring up those same feelings in his therapist. This interaction provides information about what the "tough guy" feels. Sherman explains that clients like this are challenging because "psychotherapy requires them to get in touch with their most vulnerable feelings [and] this is antithetical to the emotionally detached, action-oriented persona they adopt to protect themselves."
Feeling shame about shame creates complex feelings and symptoms as attempts at solutions. This topic is addressed in my blog entitled: The Core of Shame.
Elison, J. (2006). Shame- focused coping: An empirical study of the compass of shame. Social Behavior and Personality. 34(2), 161-168.
Jacobs Hendel, H. (2018). It’s not always depression. Random House: New York.
Lancer, D. (2014). Conquering shame and codependency. Hazelden: Minnesota.
Nathanson, D.L. (1987). The many faces of shame. The Guilford Press: New York.
Nathanson, (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
Sherman, E. (2005). Notes from the margin: the gay analyst’s subjectivity in the treatment setting. The Analytic Press: Hillsdale, NJ.