What Happens When Anxiety and Shame Collide?

When this month’s theme was announced, “shameless,” I knew I wanted to talk about it but I wasn’t sure how I’d do it. How can you talk about being shameless when your entire life’s story points to the opposite reaction?

When I was 8-years old, I used to wake up in a sweat thinking that someone was chasing me. It was always the same dream, I was in a dark backyard and being chased by a black silhouette. In the middle of the yard, there was a blow-up swimming pool. I’d trip over it attempting to turn around to save my mother, father, sister, or brother.

If you asked me when I was 8, I’d have told you about this recurring nightmare in much more vivid detail. But now all I can really recount was waking up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, sweating, and often even crawling up the stairs into my parents’ room.

These are my earliest memories of anxiety.

There’s an incredibly profound link between anxiety and shame - one that we often don’t talk about. In the United States, anxiety is a mental health issue that impacts 40 million people. For women, diagnosis is 2x the rate of men.

Why is that? As women, are we genetically wired to “worry”? Do we simply “care more”? And do we honestly “care too much”?

When it comes to anxiety and shame, it’s all too easy to stereotype. Until recently, embarrassingly, that’s how I was handling it. Fearful of being thought of as “crazy,” a term that let’s be honest is often used to describe women, I told myself my constant need for perfection, order, control, and feelings of inadequacy were just part of “being a woman.”

As it turns out, it’s less about being a woman and more about being shameful. And like a circle, shame feeds into anxiety, anxiety feeds into shame. Anxiety is shame. Shame is anxiety.

Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.
— Brené Brown

Anxiety is self-doubt. Did I lock the door before I left? Did I sound stupid in that meeting this morning?

Anxiety is being unable to turn your own thoughts off. It’s that voice in your head that tells you that you will fail, that you did fail.

Anxiety is overcompensation. It’s trying so hard to exceed expectations that you take on more than you can handle.

Anxiety is a fear of failure. You need to be perfect and one little slip up sends you down a shame spiral.

When you carry around the weight of a desire to be perfect all day, eventually your shoulders start to hurt. And when you filter your mistakes, or lack of perfection, through shame, eventually your heart starts to hurt, too.

Shame is when you feel like you’ve done something so wrong that you’re no longer adequate. Anxiety tells shame she’s right.

As women, we are constantly bombarded with ideas of what it means to be the perfect female. It starts as early as childhood. Little girls are told they can be anything they want and they should try everything they can. Recently, I recounted the story of my breakup with lacrosse. A sport I played for years even though I hated it because I was told it could get me a scholarship, and because everyone else around me played and they loved it so why shouldn’t I love it?

Can you imagine carrying that weight around in middle school? And I know I’m not alone. You have to hustle to “have it all” and once you’ve got it all how dare you admit you’re feeling inadequate or overwhelmed.

“You’re just stressed out.” “Stop worrying so much.” It all sounds the same - society tells women that we should not only be perfect at juggling careers, relationships, families, money, but that we should also look damn good doing it.

How can we really be surprised then to learn that women are faced with an emotional cost higher than they can truly afford? Worse, Glamour reported in 2010 that the average woman waits 9-12 years after experiencing symptoms of anxiety before she is properly diagnosed.

So I’ve learned, only recently, that to be shameless is to stop being fearful of talking about anxiety. When you’re stuck in a shame spiral - letting your feelings of inadequacy feed into anxiety and round and round you go, without talking about it, how do you rise up?

And maybe I’m not shameless yet, but damn I’m trying.