Compass (of shame)

M A J E L L A   H I C K E Y

Majella   Compass of shame

Growing up around a very caring, understanding, non-judgemental mother had a positive impact on my decision to go into social work. As a child I observed her deliver meals and cakes to elderly neighbours, tend to sick animals and volunteer on countless committees for disadvantaged groups in my community. I can relate to the pain of significant life experiences. I believe that the journey of resolution and healing helped me to become more aware, empathetic and understanding of my clients’ situations and struggles in overcoming pain and adversity and I believe my wound has become a gift to others.

I started work as a Community Development Worker with homeless people and addictions from 1999 – 2006. I felt a career in social work was a natural progression to the work I was already doing. I have been with the Probation Service in Dublin (the Young People’s Probation Service and in an Adult Supervision Team) ever since qualifying with a Masters in Social Work in 2008. Since qualifying as a practice teacher I have regularly supervised social work students and contribute to the training of future practice teachers at University College Cork.

I have frequently felt perplexed in my attempts to build relationships with clients with challenging behaviours. For me, this has triggered feelings of inadequacy and failure. In seeking support, a supervisor introduced me to the concept of shame. Shame is an inner experience when private aspects of ourselves are unwillingly or unwittingly exposed or uncovered.[1] The compass of shame [2] describes the four scripts which we use to defend against feelings of shame. This compass helped me to make sense of my feelings, reactions and defences. It also helped me to understand my client’s reactions.


I chose a Compass (of shame) because …

 … knowledge and understanding of the compass of shame has helped me to identify and respond to the expression of shame both within myself and others. It has enhanced my relationships with people and enriched my professional career as a social work educator and practitioner.

The compass of shame is a tool used to describe the four ways in which people can experience and react to shame:

  • Those at the attack self point of the compass take over the experience of shame by engaging in self-deprecating behaviours. For example, listening to an internal voice that continues to put them down: “I am flawed”, “I am pathetic”.
  • Those at the attack other point of the compass attempt to distance themselves from the shame by blaming other people, making other people feel small or engaging in destructive behaviours. For example, acts of vandalism or public order.
  • Those at the withdrawal point of the compass retreat into themselves to hide away from the feelings of shame by removing themselves from the eyes of others. This helps avoid perceived judgement or scrutiny. For example, wanting a hole to open up and swallow them.
  • Those at the avoidance point of the compass engage in activities to draw attention away from the shame. For example, substance misuse, denial that the feelings exist.

[1] Loader, P (1998) A Consideration of Shame and Shaming mechanisms in Families, Child Abuse Review 7(1) : 44:57.

[2] Nathanson, D (1992) Shame and Pride : Affect Sex and the Birth of the Self, VW Norton & Company.

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