Having demonstrated that we are fascinated by the stories appearing on the Internet and TV about shame, I would like to address the idea that facing the pain that accompanies our own shame presents a very different scenario. Shame “follows a moment of exposure” (Nathanson, 1987, p.4) linked to feelings of failure, self disdain, and defectiveness. A fear of being seen differently from the way we want to appear is created, followed by an urge to hide, both from ourselves and from others. Therefore, the shame we feel about shame can create even more complex feelings than the initial experience of shame. Donald L. Nathanson, psychiatrist and noted expert on shame, has developed a model called the Compass of Shame. He illustrates what he considers to be the four universal reactions 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.
Nathanson explains that each way of behaving contains the reactions and scripts we resort to when shame inflicts pain and we don’t know how to respond in an honest manner. Here is an explanation of the four ways of responding:
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 who has conducted empirical studies on the Compass of Shame 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 the other person. 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 of him or her self feels less scary than seeing caretakers as unable to provide a safe, secure bond. Writing for Couch in The New York Times, Hillary Jacobs Hendel describes a client who unconsciously blames himself for feeling distressed while growing up, and concludes there is something wrong with him rather than his parents. Hendel explains that the emotional isolation causing her client’s anguish comes from his belief that there is a deflect within him.
Nathanson considers withdrawal and attacking the self to be ways of living a diminished life.
Avoidance includes an awareness that shame feels terrible, but acts as a way of escaping shame in an effort 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) purports:
“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.
Shame can be insufferable and therefore avoidance and addictive behaviors can seem like a path to relief. This path to seeking comfort is temporary and only serves to camouflage shame.
Attacking the other occurs when alternative strategies don’t work to decrease the pain so we move into making others feel bad to reduce their self esteem. In a blog post for Psychology Today, social psychologist Mark Zaslav writes:
“When we blame, a sense of wrongness is being elaborated, attributed and projected in a plausible account.
Zaslav contends that people who experience misfortune as a reflection of themselves resort to accusations and blame. Eric Sherman, in an article for Couch in the New York Times, describes a client who resorts to explosive anger. Sherman refers to him 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 patients 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.”
Returning to Donald L. Nathanson, on the subject of attacking the other he writes:
“the object is to reduce the self esteem of someone else, to turn the tables and make the other guy feel awful.
Now that I have introduced the universal ways in which shame hides from ourselves and others, I would like to explore Nathanson’s “moment of exposure.” How do some people manage these moments while others lead diminished lives, need to dissociate, or develop symptoms?