I am increasingly discovering that many experiences that appear to be symptoms of anxiety actually are manifestations of toxic shame. Some research is emerging that is giving support to this observation. So for example, a significant subset of individuals with social anxiety disorder (anxiety and avoidance of social settings and activities such as public speaking) may actually be a manifestation of shame. It only makes sense that people who at their core feel badly about themselves, will feel threatened by situations that risk the possibility of negative social evaluation and judgement.
The experience of shame can also play a big role in other aspects of performance anxiety including test anxiety, since they feel pressure to “prove” their worth. Therefore any situation that can be seen as a test of their worth will promote tremendous anxiety. This anxiety can lead to feelings of being “overwhelmed” which in turn will lead to procrastination of tasks since there will be a tendency to avoid the cues that prompt such uncomfortable feelings. More on procrastination in a future blog post.
In so many ways, shame can produce or be confused with anxiety. So for example, one of my clients recently reported that he feels tremendous anxiety as he lay in bed at night. When asked to focus on this (see emotional surfing blogs), he reported the nightly thought and feeling that he should have accomplished more during the day. He was then asked to focus on this feeling and he described the deep-seated experience of shame in his stomach. This is unfortunately a common theme for so many people who feel defined by their “to do lists”. Certainly it is good to have goals, but all to often the tail winds up “wagging the dog”. There are so many ways in which shame contributes to or directly manifests as anxiety. By identifying and mindfully embracing the shame, we can experience a much wider range of choice and enjoy enhanced emotional freedom.
The more someone tells themselves to not feel this way, the more doomed they are to feel anxious and apprehensive in such contexts and situations. Therefore, the most important first step in breaking the cycle of shame, anxiety and avoidance, is to maintain exposure to the shame provoking situations/settings. Don’t stop doing things that provoke anxiety and/or shame.
Secondly, invite shame and anxiety to come with you. Never get sucked into a control war with shame and never, never ever, get involved in a land war in Asia- Princess Bride quote:) Both are futile endeavors perennially doomed to failure.
Stay mindful of the experience by using emotional labeling. As long as the feeling is recognized, keep calling it out by name (in your head) and keep your mental focus mindfully trained upon the experience.
Employ the Emotional Surfing exercise to more intently focus on the feelings of shame and to help peel the onion (see previous posts)
As always, you are greatly encouraged to contribute your own thoughts, experiences, or objections to help keep this a dynamic experience for all.