You feel deeply ashamed of your anxiety. You are embarrassed and mortified and hope that no one ever finds out—maybe not even your friends, maybe not even your spouse. After all, who gets nervous and shaky at the grocery store? Who feels panicked over giving a presentation at work? Who gets terrified of germs or their loved one’s safety every single time they walk out the door?
You assume it’s just you. You assume there’s something really wrong with you, something inherently wrong with you. You are flawed. And because you believe you should be able to control your anxiety—and you can’t—you feel like a total failure.
But plenty of people get panicked about going to the store, about giving presentations, about coming into contact with germs, about something terrible happening to their loved ones—and plenty of other things. In fact, 18 percent of U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder every year—and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America.
We think we’re alone because people don’t openly discuss their anxiety, said Shonda Moralis, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of anxiety and stress-related disorders in Breinigsville, Pa. Plus, “many who suffer with anxiety show no outward signs, so to others, they appear calm and at ease.”
Countless clients come to Moralis thinking they’re the only ones suffering from crippling anxiety and self-doubt, from stress-induced digestive issues and panic at parties.
Shame creates false, destructive beliefs like: “I am a mess. I can’t handle this. What’s wrong with me?” Moralis said.
Shame thrives because we stay quiet because we’re profoundly embarrassed of (supposedly) being alone in our struggles. And because we don’t say anything to anyone, we don’t seek support or strategies that can actually help, said Moralis, author of the book Breathe, Mama, Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms. And our anxiety and shame remain, sharper than ever.
“Having shame about excessive anxiety is like punishing yourself for having a broken foot. You already have a broken foot, and now you feel bad about yourself too,” said Emily Bilek, Ph.D, an assistant professor of clinical psychology who specializes in anxiety disorders at the University of Michigan.
Shame also is destructive because it leads to avoidance. “Imagine a child who is struggling to learn how to ride her bicycle,” Bilek said. “What would happen if we shamed that child by telling her that all her friends already know how to ride their bikes, and that she must be a loser?”
Naturally, she’d stop riding her bike (and thereby stop practicing) to stop feeling shame, Bilek said. Which is similar to what we do. We avoid situations that are anxiety-provoking, and we don’t face our fears and learn that we can cope in difficult situations, she said. We also avoid activities that are meaningful or enjoyable for us—trying new things, meeting new people, participating in a community choir or attending your child’s baseball game, Bilek said.
Thankfully, you can work through your shame (and your anxiety). The first step, according to Moralis, is to recognize that shame is a universal emotion. “Next, we name it to tame it—or recognize when shame arises.” She noted that nausea, tight chest and a lump in the throat are all common bodily sensations associated with shame. It’s also helpful to take deep breaths to calm our body’s fight-or-flight response. And consider trying the below tips, too. Use kind statements that resonate with you. How we talk to ourselves is so important. Moralis suggested imagining that you’re supporting someone you care about. Experiment with different statements until you find ones that feel soothing and comforting, she said.
For instance, you might tell yourself: “No one is perfect.” “This will pass. This, too, is passing.” “You are not alone. Everyone feels anxious and embarrassed sometimes.” “That’s just your judging voice talking.” Connect to the hardship. For instance, according to Bilek, if you feel anxious at the grocery store, your impulse might be to bash yourself. What’s wrong with me? Everyone else can go to the store without any issue, without having to agonize over it, without feeling so uncomfortable you want to crawl out of your skin. Everyone else doesn’t get anxious about something so minor, so dumb. I’m such a loser.
Instead, she suggested connecting to the difficulty by telling yourself: “Going to the store is so hard for me. It’s tough to do things that seem easy for other people, but the more I do it, the easier it will get. I’m being really brave for doing this anyway.”
You might feel silly saying this to yourself. But it’s the same way we’d treat a little girl who’s learning to ride her bike. We’d tell her learning to do something new is not easy. We’d tell her it’s OK to make mistakes and to keep falling down. And we’d tell her to keep trying and to keep working. We’d tell her that the more she practices, the easier and more natural it’ll become.
And that’s the key: Practice. When we berate ourselves, we discourage trying and taking action. The last thing we want to do is face a situation that only makes us feel terrible about ourselves. But when we’re kind and understanding, it’s easier to approach difficult situations, Bilek said.
Talk about it. Talk openly about your anxiety with people you trust, Moralis said. “This not only lessens your sense of shame and isolation, but offers others permission to be more authentic, real, and vulnerable as well.” You never know who’s struggling, and your conversation just might be a powerful way for you to connect and feel better. See your inner critic as a caricature. Some of Moralis’s clients have named their inner critic everything from Negative Nancy to Obsessive Olivia to Safety Susan. “By picturing those little judgers as self-invented characters, it brings some objectivity, distance, and even a bit of amusement to the busyness of our minds,” Moralis said. How can you use creativity, play and humor to navigate your anxiety?
Shame is universal. And it is destructive. It feeds avoidance, which feeds anxiety. It convinces us that we are defective and wrong.
But we are not. Far from it. We struggle with something that many, many people are struggling with this very second. And that’s hard—but anxiety also is highly treatable, and you’re incredibly strong.
“We are infinitely more resilient and capable than we can imagine,” Moralis said. “So often we rise to the occasion, look back on a challenging situation in awe of how we managed to cope. Sometimes we may need a little extra help to get there. There is no shame in that.”