Blog: The Shame Game

I recently wrote about The Inner Bully, or the tendency for those of us who struggle with anxiety to criticize our perceived shortcomings. Those perceived shortcomings are the result of a sense of shame. Shame is defined as the underlying and pervasive belief that one is somehow defective or unacceptable. For us anxious people, that shame generally comes from three sources: our own inner shaming, perceived (and often fictional) criticisms from family and friends, and from the general cultural stigma of mental illness.

Inner shame often begins with the words “I should….” For instance, “I should be able to handle the same work load that I used to before getting panic attacks” or “I should be able to go out for lunch with friends without sweating through several layers of clothes” or “I should have tried harder to fight that panic attack.” The list goes on. Often times, the shame we feel is misplaced and/or is an exaggeration of reality. For example, you’re walking, trip on a step you didn’t know was there and think: “I should have seen that step, how embarrassing, everyone just saw me almost fall on my face.” However, in reality, no one noticed because they were so busy focusing on themselves and getting to work on time. We usually don’t even realize we are shaming ourselves because it has become such a habit, something we automatically do without consciously thinking about. However, what we say to ourselves defines how we feel, so it’s important to catch this shame game in the act and confront it because if we continue to tell ourselves shameful thoughts, we will continue to feel shameful. We can confront shameful thoughts with the friend method introduced in my earlier blog, The Inner Bully, or simply replace the “I should” part of those thoughts with the phrase “I want to.” By doing this, we remove the harsh judgment associated with the “I should” statement and turn it around into a more positive statement, a statement that is goal-focused rather than victim-focused.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, we are not powerless against the shame we feel from being judged or criticized by family and friends. A typical characteristic among people that struggle with anxiety disorders is emotional sensitivity. In an anxious state, it is easy to misinterpret or project insecurities from within onto family members or friends. For example, we may misinterpret an unanswered text as avoidance or a short e-mail as annoyance, when in reality, the other person is just swamped with other commitments and is completely unaware of our personal struggle with anxiety. To rectify this, openly express what you’re struggling with to close family and friends. You will be surprised that most of them will respond with love and support. However, if you are in a situation where your family or friends are critical of your struggle with anxiety, it may be time to change your entourage because being surrounded by negative people will only hurt your recovery and efforts to move forward. Ask yourself: “Do I really want a person lacking such compassion in my life anyway?” There is a silver lining to anxiety; it has a way of weeding out the negative people in our life and shining a light on the true friends and family members.

While cultural shaming does not affect us directly, the cultural stigma associated with anxiety disorders (and other mental health issues) feeds the shame we place on ourselves. Stigma, by definition, is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. In this day and age, when 1 in 5 people struggle with some form of an anxiety disorder, it is perhaps surprising that there is still a cultural stigma against it; anxiety is NOT an uncommon issue. However, cultural stigmas must be taken with a grain of salt. There are many historical stigmas that have been eliminated and are now seen as ridiculous. For example, left-handed people were forced to write with their right hand because those that wrote with their left were deemed less worthy. Also, the Puritans (and others) that settled New England didn’t allow women and children to speak in the presence of men unless a male spoke to them first. Anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of, and by educating those around you about the experience of anxiety and panic attacks, you can help change the cultural norm. You will also find that by acting as a champion of anxiety, you empower yourself and are less vulnerable to shaming yourself or being shamed by others.