- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Is it Anxiety or Shame?
I never knew I was dealing with shame. I knew I had excessive anxiety about the simplest of things like ordering food in a fast food restaurant, waiting my turn to speak or give an announcement, leaving a phone message, getting lost on the way to somewhere, etc. etc. but I never understood the underlying problem was shame.
I even remember a day in therapy when I said, “I really do not think I have a lot of shame.” That statement now makes me shake my head in disbelief, but I understand the shame was internalized deeply and had many structures protecting it. I literally could not see it—but I certainly felt it.
My internalized shame was mostly disguised as anxiety. The closest thing you can get to understanding the sensation of shame is when you make a mistake and you feel your cheeks flush as you wish you could disappear through some trap door in the floor. We call this embarrassment. It is a feeling sensation, which is part of the human condition. It cannot be avoided. If not internalized as shame, it passes and we can probably laugh about what happened later. If internalized it simply brews inside and expresses itself in many debilitating ways.
The problem begins when we, as children had needs—legitimate needs. We expressed these need in many ways. In the book, Shame: The Power of Caring, Gershen Kaufman names six human needs: The need for relationship, touching and holding, identification, differentiation, need to nurture, and for affirmation. While the full discussion of these needs is excellent, the important point is the ways in which the needs are diminished, rebuffed, ignored, outright attacked, or discounted create a feeling of embarrassment about a completely normal human need.
Relationship plays a crucial role in the development of self. The child is completely dependent on adults for relationship. When this connection is broken in some way, the child is left floundering. Repairing this connection is the most important thing a parent could ever do for the child.
Parenting is replete with unfortunate moments when we are busy and a child comes to us with a need that cannot immediately be met. How we address this is essential to helping the child understand it is not the need that is wrong, it is just the timing of the request isn’t working. In very unfortunate situations the children’s needs are continually rejected and the only conclusion they can come to is or there is something horribly wrong with them.
This is how shame begins—not that there is something wrong with what I did, but instead, there is something wrong with me. The sensation of guilt is similar, but its cause is disappointment in self because of a specific action. If helped to understand the action was not appropriate but it wasn’t due to being a ‘bad girl’ the action can be corrected without creating shame.
Internalization is also a natural part of being human. If you had a great mom, you internalized how to be a great mom. This is how we learn to live as a human being. Unfortunately, our psyche doesn’t discriminate between good and bad examples as we are developing a sense of self. If living in a situation where we are constantly rebuffed or ridiculed, we internalize this voice and it becomes part of the inner war inside of us, attacking our every move.
This internalization was exactly what happened to me. I internalized my mother’s very critical and rejecting attitude toward me and my ‘internalized mother’ became my ever-present critic. All the things I was anxious about as a child under her arching eyebrow, created my adult anxiety. Of course, in my case, there was abuse that complicated things, but the overwhelming anxiety was not a direct result of abuse.
My anxiety was really where therapy started. It was the ‘thing’ affecting my life and it took the longest to dissipate because it was all wound up with internalized shame. I was often in despair because I felt so ‘needy.’ When I finally realized my neediness was merely the natural need of a small child who had always had her needs rebuffed or ignored by my mother, it all began to make sense. My sense of neediness was actually shame. It was my internalized sense of being deficient as a human being. I lived my life believing if I weren’t deficient (in some way that I never understood), then I wouldn’t be needy.
The sensation of shame is something every one of us wants to avoid. Even in its mildest form, embarrassment, it is very uncomfortable. It is a feeling of being completely exposed. It shows up symbolically in dreams when everyone can see that we have shown up completely naked. When this shame is internalized, we don’t really need anyone to make us feel shameful. We do it all by ourselves. We begin to create our own shame with the help of our inner critic. We begin to hate ourselves. Then, avoiding shame becomes the most important thing in our life—but it is inside of us. We have to separate our self from our own emotions.
Kaufman’s chapter on defense mechanisms was one of the most fascinating studies on human behavior I have ever read. He proposes that, depending on our family structure, personality, and other variables, the child subconsciously develops a combination of the following to avoid shame: Rage, contempt, striving for power or perfection, the transfer of blame, and internal withdrawal.
The premise that behavior is based in our defenses against shame was informative since I found almost all of those elements as I unwound my story. As I grew older, I settled on perfectionism. It made complete sense that any daily activity threatening to expose me as ‘not perfect’ (which I clearly wasn’t) put me in defensive mode and created unbearable anxiety. When tied to those early experiences in which my childish inadequacy was continually noticed, the list of possible threats was endless. I found and healed them day after day, week after week, and month after month as I began to recognize that my anxiety felt a lot like mini ‘shame attacks.’
Kaufman talks about practicing for mastery. Embarrassment is truly unavoidable and I had to learn to recognize the ‘shame attack’ and walk down another path. The realization that it was completely possible to be embarrassed without falling into a shame attack was very freeing.
The day the TSA officer’s reader couldn’t read my ticket and I had to fumble through my phone and step aside for the long line behind me when I gave him the wrong ticket, had all the potential for a shame attack. I recognized the start of it, thought about it, smiled at the long line behind me, and found the ticket. It wasn’t the last time I had to practice this new skill, but I finally knew it was possible. My traveling/airport anxiety vanished. POOF! Gone! I had mastered the ‘mess up in line’ anxiety/shame attack that had consumed me for over fifty years. It was a very good day.
It astounds me to realize I medicated myself to deal with anxiety, which had a cause based in what happened to me, not who I was. I may have had a predisposition to being anxious, but then again, maybe I just had a generational pattern of anxiety. It is possible because I don’t believe therapy can change genetics—but it did release me from debilitating shame disguised as anxiety. It is worth considering.
The last time I flew, I was so relaxed about going to the airport that I almost couldn’t get packed. The ‘me’ who made lists for weeks, had to arrive EXCESSIVELY early (early is good, excessive is not), often had ‘physical issues’ upon arriving at the airport that prevented checking in, managed to do many awkward things in the TSA check due to overwhelming anxiety, and only relaxed once on the plane, was GONE. Scott and I laughed about it because it was truly a modern-day miracle! I can’t even explain how good it feels!