The origin of shame is often an awkward, nameless void, when we expect a tuned-in response by the person to whom we’re expressing ourselves. Thus what is most important about the actual experience of shame is that it does not happen inside just one person without another person involved as intended partner. It usually arises when excitement, enjoyment or both in connection with another person or persons are interrupted and temporarily blocked—leaving a void where reciprocal warm feelings have been. What happens during that disruption is not easily identified by the person in this awkward void as shame, because she or he does not want to feel the original pain of shame. Instead there are many feeling states and emotionally driven actions that are often named as substitutes for shame, and they can be categorized as the compass of shame1 and diagrammed below.
The physiological withdrawal with downcast eyes and head reveals our attempt to get away physically and mentally from a shame situation that can lead us further to hide from our community and self-isolate. But the conventional conduct known as politeness also reflects self-imposed inhibitions of spontaneous behavior to protect against others’ potential disapproval of our habits and unique ways.
While withdrawal characterizes our efforts to physically leave the scene where shame was experienced, avoidance aims to replace the negative experience of shame with positive experiences of intensified interest, excitement, pleasure, enjoyment, risk- and adventure seeking, and related habits such as compulsive working, perfectionism, ecstasy, abuse of alcohol and drugs and narcissism.
Thus the vertical dimension of the shame compass maps either leaving a scene of shame or leaving its typically unnamed negative experience for an emotionally more intensely (and potentially addictive) positive experience instead. But the horizontal dimension (our attack-self and attack-other defenses) responds to our great discomfort with the possibility that a painful rupture of close connection that can trigger personal conflict is not only often accidental but also neither intentional nor controllable by us or the other(s) involved. Attributing intentional action or and/or character flaws to the other side (aka projection) can convince us we’re right and the other side is wrong. Ascribing unkind motives or flaws to ourselves (aka introjection) may lead us to wallow in self-pity or self-loathing; but that still allows us to consider ourselves responsible for our plight, and it may motivate us to work on ourselves or seek paths of change.
In emotional terms the horizontal axis replaces the negativity of shame with anger or contempt. Contempt expels our awareness of the pain of shame by secretly and internally pushing the other(s) in a momentarily divided social community into the “less-than-me/us” category. That is Attack-other on the Compass of Shame, and it can erupt in anger if the effect is temporary, or solidify a caste or exploitation/enslavement system if the contempt is enduring. Conversely, Attack-self is Self-contempt, that is “I’m less-than-myself” or inadequate compared to my own long-standing self-image. Both of these defensive moves against shame keep us from realizing that the fault often lies in neither ourselves nor the others in the situation. In fact it may be a temporary fault-line in our missed connection as a community.
This fault-line has tremendous impact on all human communities. So the third blog will consider ways to repair our communal relations and a fourth explores further applications that these emotional dynamics can have to our planet as a whole.2
- Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York, W.W. Norton.
- A fifth blog will present scientific evidence for this underutilized conception of shame that dates back to Tomkins’ first volume of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness in 1962.