Exploring Responses to Shame

By Liz Delaney, MA, MFT-C

Shame is a universal emotion, yet it often remains unspoken and overlooked in our culture. Brené Brown defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” A common misconception is that shame and guilt are the same thing. Guilt can be a constructive emotion, frequently arising from actions or choices that deviate from our values and leading to a sense of unease. Shame, on the other hand, tells us stories about our core identity and who we are, often portraying us in a negative light. Rebecca Codrington (2017) states, “Shame is inherently disconnecting and distressing – we want to hide when shame is evoked and yet also yearn for connection and acceptance.”

Common Shame Responses 

There are four common shame responses: Withdrawal, Attack Self, Avoidance, and Attack Others. These four shame coping styles referred to as Compass of Shame were developed by Dr. Donald Nathanson. Individuals with the withdrawal and attack self response often acknowledge shame’s message as truth (“I’m worthless” or “I am bad”), and internalize these narratives. Those with avoidance and attack others responses typically do not accept shame’s messages. 

Attack Self

While individuals who withdraw distance themselves from others to relieve discomfort, those with the attack-self response often endure shame to preserve relationships with others. Someone with the attack-self tendency accepts shame’s messages as truth and valid, turning anger inward (Elison, 2006). These messages might include sentiments such as “I’m worthless” or “I am unlovable.” An example of this response would be a student performing poorly on a test and subsequently facing their inner critic berating themselves as “stupid.”

Attack Self Response Example: It’s my fault.

Withdrawal

This shame response involves withdrawing in an effort to minimize the impact of shame. Withdrawal might manifest as isolating, fleeing, or severing connections. In Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin’s book “Embracing Shame,” they explain, “Withdrawal means that we leave the situation physically or emotionally. We pull inward and separate from the shaming situation” (p. 49). Although some instances of withdrawal can be beneficial as it provides time for grounding, for some individuals, withdrawal becomes a way of life and their primary response to hard feelings. A student that responds to shame with withdrawal may refrain from engaging in class discussions or even drop out of school (Elison, 2006).

Withdrawal Example: I’m better off alone. 

Avoidance

Avoidance response is also called denial. “Denial can involve disassociation, numbness, and blankness. Denial of shame is a central component in most addictions” (Lyon & Rubin, 2023). When someone uses avoidance to cope, they try to distract themselves from the painful feeling or forget the actual events.

Avoidance Response Example: It didn’t really happen. 

Attack Others

The attack others response deals with shame by blaming or criticizing others to alleviate negative emotions. The sentiment is, “I’m not the problem; someone else must be the problem.” Shame frequently induces a sense of powerlessness, and by shifting the attack to other people, it can give us a sense of power.

 Attack Self Response Example: It’s their fault. 

Reflection Time

Reflect in your journal or notes app on the patterns that emerge when you experience shame, whether it stems from conflicts with your partner or experiences that evoke shame at school or work. Being able to reflect on experiences rather than just be stuck in them can help connect with yourself and others (Codrington, 2017).

References 

Brown, B. (2013, January 15). Shame vs. guilt. https://brenebrown.com/articles/2013/01/15/shame-v-guilt/ 

Codrington, R. (2017). Trauma, dissociation, and chronic shame – reflections for couple and family practice: An interview with Kathy Steele. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 38(4), 669–679. https://doi.org/10.1002/anzf.1275 

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. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2006.34.3.221 

Lyon, B., & Rubin, S. (2023). Embracing shame: How to stop resisting shame & turn it into a powerful ally. Sounds True.

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