We have already seen from other articles that I have published on this site that those of us who have experienced significant childhood trauma over a protracted period are at risk of, as adults, having to endure intense, irrational feelings of deep-rooted shame ; this can be extremely painful.
Nathanson (1992) identified four main ways in which an individual may respond to feelings of shame in an attempt (conscious or unconscious) to defend and protect him/herself from the emotional suffering such feelings can evoke.
The Four Defenses Against Shame :
Nathanson proposed that the main four defense mechanisms employed against shame (which he believed to be largely learned in early childhood to protect the self from intolerable feelings) are :
- attack self
- attack others
Nathanson also suggests that whilst individuals may employ more than one of the above defenses against shame (depending upon the particular conditions which have given rise feelings of shame) they tend to have a kind of ‘default mode’ (i.e. a specific main defensive strategy against shame) which they most frequently rely upon.
The Compass Of Shame :
Nathanson referred to the above four defenses against shame (withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, attack others) as making up what he referred to as ‘The Compass Of Shame‘. He further explained that all four defenses were best seen as existing on a continuum running from ‘mild’ to ‘extreme’.
So, for example, a ‘mild’ enactment of withdrawal is the aversion of one’s gaze whereas, at the ‘extreme’ end of the spectrum, one might withdraw from others completely and live in a wooden hut in the forest as a hermit.
The Continuums :
So now let’s briefly look at the four continuums upon which the four shame defenses lie :
1) DEFENSE AGAINST SHAME : WITHDRAWAL
MILD END OF CONTINUUM : slumped shoulders, looking downwards, blushing, covering mouth with hand, staying silent, averted gaze, chronic loneliness
EXTREME END OF CONTINUUM : physical, cognitive and emotional withdrawal, isolation, depression, retreat into ‘own internal world’, chronic loneliness, presentation of only a false and superficial self to the world, hypersensitivity to rejection and criticism (particularly criticism of character)
2) DEFENSE AGAINST SHAME : ATTACK SELF
MILD END OF CONTINUUM : deferential behavior, modesty, shyness, self-deprecating humor
MIDDLE OF CONTINUUM : self-sabotage, self-neglect, self-humiliation, self-effacement, obsequiousness, subservience
3) DEFENSE AGAINST SHAME : AVOIDANCE
MILD END OF CONTINUUM : self-deception, disowned shame, self-deprecating charm, impostor syndrome
MIDDLE OF CONTINUUM : ostentatious behavior / displays of wealth (jewelry, clothes etc.) arrogance, competitiveness, thrill seeking / risk taking, hedonism, perfectionism,
4) DEFENSE AGAINST SHAME : ATTACK OTHERS
MILD END OF CONTINUUM : teasing, put downs, banter
MIDDLE OF CONTINUUM : bullying, humiliated fury, rage
EXTREME END OF CONTINUUM : violence
Whilst some of the above defenses against shame are clearly healthier than others, even these mostly fail to fully alleviate deeply entrenched shameful feelings – in such cases, therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy and compassion-focused therapy can be of significant benefit.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)