The Compass Of Shame: A Consideration For Student Conduct Professionals

The Compass of Shame: A Consideration for Student Conduct Professionals 


Compass of Shame, an Overview

In his research on shame, Dr. Donald Nathanson illustrated what he refers to as the “Compass of Shame” which helps explain a person’s emotional response in certain scenarios. The compass of shame has four poles [Withdrawal, Attack Self, Attack Others, Avoidance], which correspond to different behaviors that are exhibited when someone is feeling shame.

For college students moving through the student conduct process, shame can be a particularly relevant emotion present, and it can be difficult to navigate. We all know college is a time when young adults explore their identities and they continually seek ways to exert their independence.

So when a university holds a student’s feet to the fire–a la the educational student conduct process–for making a poor decision, shame might be present. Most important for the conduct practitioner, however, is to appraise the both intensity and directionality of shame, so that you may fulfill and maximize the impact of learning outcomes during the conduct process. 

How Shame Presents During Hearings

We know students can display all sorts of emotions, behaviors, and character as they navigate the student conduct process. It’s why we all have our favorite colloquialism of “meet the student where they are

So much of this display depends on both the severity of the alleged policy violation, as well as their disposition toward the Student Conduct Process. Respondents may exhibit shame as part of their disposition. Here we will explore each reaction in turn and consider how student conduct professionals can best handle each situation.

Withdrawal: When someone is feeling shame, and they know that shame is valid, there may be a tendency to withdraw from the discussion. During the hearing, this could look like a silent or stoic presence, or maybe quick responses when pressed and sharing little detail in an attempt to minimize the action. “It’s just drinking. Everyone does it. No big deal.”

Attack self:  Another way that shame can manifest is by attacking oneself. This is an easily-identifiable form of shame, and a conduct practitioner will hear statements that theme self-criticism, self-doubt, and even self-loathing. Students who display this internalization might try to conform to what they think others want from them. This can come off as ingratiating–a student saying to the hearing officer what they think the hearing officer wants to hear. “I know I need to do better. This coursework is hard and I don’t think I deserve to be in this program. I felt stressed out, which is a bad look, and I’m not smart enough to get through without help from classmates.” 

Attack others: Another way that someone may react when feeling shame is by attempting to shift blame and attacking others. This is often the approach for students who do not immediately take accountability or responsibility for their decisions. They’ll look to external influences in an attempt to shift blame and save face. The student’s goal isn’t necessarily to avoid a finding of responsibility; saving face and maintaining a positive reputation is often at play here. This is an important consideration, particularly from a cultural lens. We can apply Astin’s IEO model [input, experience, output] for the college student experience. We meet students where they are–they bring learned behaviors from their previous communities, where they are influenced by family, friends, and cultural or societal norms. “The conduct process is flawed. The university policy isn’t written fairly. The syllabus was unclear about collaboration.”

Avoidance: When students reject accountability and responsibility for their actions, shame may be present with an avoidant theme. Similar to withdrawal, it is not as easily identifiable as attacking oneself or attacking others may be. This could be the student who delays the hearing process, requests to reschedule meetings, or is late to submit their written statement [if applicable]. During the hearing, respondents may generate a rationale for a decision in an attempt to remove negative perspectives from the narrative. With avoidance, this tactic may be an unconscious effort, unlike attacking others or attacking oneself, which is more explicit. In the world of student conduct, a synonym for avoidance is denial. “My friend got my attention to look at her computer screen with her multiple-choice answers. She was trying to help me, which I understand, but I wouldn’t have looked if she didn’t get my attention. Plus, not all my answers were the same.”

Shame vs. Guilt

Shame and guilt are two very similar emotions, but they are not the same. Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong, while shame is the feeling that we are wrong. Guilt is focused on our actions, while shame is focused on our character.

Brene Brown has done extensive research on shame and she has found that shame is one of the most destructive emotions. It can lead to depression, anxiety, addiction, and violence. Brene Brown champions the notion that we must shift our focus from shame to guilt. Guilt is an appropriate emotion to accept when we know a  decision was counter to who we are or has negatively impacted an individual or community. Feelings of shame should be channeled into guilt, which allows us to take responsibility for our actions and to make amends.

Considerations for Student Conduct Practitioners

Hearing officers should be aware of how shame influences student behavior in the student conduct process. Shame is a powerful, harmful, and complicated emotion that motivates people to position themselves a certain way when their back feels against a wall. Their positioning will be based on their learned behavior from influences within their communities before college, as well as their emotional intelligence and ability to reason through the incident and contextualize it within their collegiate experience.  This will also affect how intensely someone might feel shame. 

For conduct practitioners who manage a high volume of cases, they’ll tell you every case is different, and every student is different, even if the incident and charge(s) are similar. This falls squarely on how the student enters the room [did we mention yet the note about ‘meeting the student where they are?’ oh yes, yes we did!]

This brings us to our final point. Students will enter the hearing with some degree of shame–how intense the shame is will be important for the hearing officer to detect. What’s more, students will likely present plenty of emotions: fear, doubt, accountability, frustration, and concern. They may also feel helplessness, hopelessness, disappointment, grief, resignation. Or perhaps anxiety, dread, desperation, and panic. They may also feel bitterness, argumentative, and exasperation.

So they may be feeling a lot of things as they sit down for the hearing. The point: shame is just one of the many emotions a student can present.

Be careful to not weaponize shame and make them feel worse for what they did–instead, listen to what they have to say, acknowledge their feelings, and encourage them to express how they think of themselves within and outside of the incident and the student conduct process. Help students translate shame into guilt. Position them to think deeply, reflect, and learn from the incident. Create a space of vulnerability, so they may go onward and do great things, remembering that while they will make wrong decisions along the way, they themselves are not wrong.