“Guilt says I’ve MADE a mistake; shame says I AM a mistake. Guilt says what I DID was not good; shame says I AM no good.”John Bradshaw – Healing the Shame that Binds You
This is a tough post to write. It’s very personal, and it goes WAY beyond the scope of driving anxiety. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately, this idea that anxiety and shame are somehow closely related. And I’ve made a startling discovery: much of my lingering issues with anxiety are based on an unconscious, deep-seated core belief that I am a failure. That I am a totally inadequate, unlovable human being. That I can trust nothing and no one, least of all myself. And that I do not have a right to exist on this planet.
The Powerful Link Between Anxiety, Shame, and Feeling Inadequate
People who know me would say this belief is not true, that it’s ridiculous and even borders on self-indulgent melodrama. They’d point to my many accomplishments — my friendships, family, a successful career in the IT industry, even my success as an Internet marketer. They’d probably say something like there’s no way such a thoughtful, kind, intelligent guy like me could possibly be a failure. A few might even tell me to “snap out of it” and to “quit feeling sorry for myself.”
If only it were that easy. Despite my many “successes” in life, I often still feel totally inadequate and like a complete piece of sh*t. No amount of accomplishment can ever make up for the belief that, deep down, I am a failed human being.
Social Anxiety and Shame
In this interesting article, Evelyn Goodman talks about the relationship between anxiety and shame. She says that everyone experiences episodes of shaming during childhood, whether in one’s family or with peers. People who are given adequate emotional support as children can overcome and outgrow negative shaming messages.
But highly sensitive children, or those who receive inadequate emotional support can internalize these messages to mean they’re bad, wrong, guilty and somehow fundamentally flawed. This is what happened to me as a young person, and I still haven’t completely gotten over it. But I’m working on it. 😉
Toxic Shame and Anxiety
In his book How To Lose Control And Gain Emotional Freedom: Embracing the “Dark” Emotions Through Integrative Mindful Exposure, Dr. Jerry Duvinski talks about the concept of “toxic shame.” The idea of shame being toxic is not new, but Duvinski makes an powerful observation that many of the symptoms of what we label as “anxiety disorder” are really instances of toxic shame rearing its ugly head. He argues that it makes sense for people who fundamentally feel bad about themselves to be threatened by social interactions and to see them as “tests” of their innate worth.
This is still unfortunately true in my case. I’ve done away with my fear of driving, but I’m still uncomfortable in most social situations because I’m afraid others will end up seeing what a bad person I really am. I fear that no matter how well I pretend, I’ll end up being unmasked as the unworthy fraud I feel I am.
Really takes the fun out of being with other people, let me tell you. 🙁
Even though it’s painful, I’m grateful I’m seeing more clearly how I took in and believed the anxiety and shame messages I got about “not being good enough.” My triumphs over other forms of anxiety have taught me the fearful thoughts I tend to have are largely false. This gives me hope that my fear of being totally inadequate as a human being is probably also unfounded. I’m going to keep fighting the good fight, and I hope you’ll do the same.
PS – What have you noticed about anxiety and shame in your own life? Any thoughts, triumphs or words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated! Please share them on my Facebook page.
7 thoughts on “Anxiety and Shame: The Fear of Being Totally Inadequate”
Is there a Japanese inherent fear of shame? My wife is Japanese and most everything she does is to avoid failure….Help
Wow i can relate to this so much. I haven’t had it easy…been constant suffering, trauma and abuse since i was really little and its a lot. But i am not what i went through and i hope to overcome all of this!
It happens when I try to study but realize I don’t get anything, so naturally I’ll close the book, then that voice comes again and tells me, ‘See, I’ve told you, you can’t do it, why do you try?’ Then begins depression and I would start crying before I sleep, becausr no matter how much I try, I fail, and always will. Nothing would change that. Like that time I promised the math teacher to be there for the test, and i was confident until the night before, when I tried to open the book and get some studying done, I realize I can’t solve anything and almost all of the questions are wrong. In the end I didn’t go to the test, simply because I was ashamed that all the other students would be solving and getting everything correct, except for me, and I can ALMOST imagine their thoughts and how they would be laughing at me. I try so hard to overcome this fear and shame, and wish so badly to live like everyone else, but I can’t. 🙂
I commend you for writing this post. I have the toxic shame thing. It is the little voice that tells me no matter what my accomplishments, that I am inadequate and ultimately not even worthy to be alive.
Now that I’m middle aged and have worked on my recovery for years, that voice is not as loud and I don’t buy into it as much. It’s still there at times though, when I feel vulnerable for whatever reason.
I have learned to quell the shame with lots and lots of self love, learning to reparent my inner child (who didn’t get the help she needed) and also by learning to see the humanity and goodness in others. In the past, I felt the world was all cold and cruel.
Great points, Jill. Like you said, that voice of shame may never completely go away, but we can learn to not buy into it so readily. Learning self love is also very hard for me because I was never taught I had any value. I’m also having to reparent those little kid parts of me.
Thanks for coming by and commenting. I always get so much out of what you have to say.
Thank you Greg, you have a lot of good insight yourself. All the reparenting stuff I learned from John Bradshaw, he is excellent. Self love comes in dribs and drabs with repeated effort- (I hated myself for years) and I think it is an essential part of the healing process. Once we start treating ourselves with the kindness and compassion we so deserve, things just start to get better.
But how can I learn self love when I’m not worthy of it?:/ I’m not that pretty, dumb, lazy, sleepy, unsuccessful in everything, and I’ve been like this for the past 4 years, how can I change? I so envy confident, maybe because of the environment and people around them, but here I cant help it no matter how much I try:/