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What Anxiety May Conceal

Anxiety is a term that has been used generically and nonspecifically in our culture, and thus it can lead to confusion. The term may refer to positive or negative emotional states and has many connotations, including nervousness, apprehension, agitation, excitement, anticipation, tension, and worry. Anxiety disorders are generally categorized based on symptoms and behavioral expressions, […]

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Image by Ruanshunyi from Pixabay
Image by Ruanshunyi from Pixabay

Anxiety is a term that has been used generically and nonspecifically in our culture, and thus it can lead to confusion. The term may refer to positive or negative emotional states and has many connotations, including nervousness, apprehension, agitation, excitement, anticipation, tension, and worry. Anxiety disorders are generally categorized based on symptoms and behavioral expressions, such as psychological disorganization, irritability, nonspecific fears, sleep difficulties, panicky feelings, or an inability to concentrate. Any given state of anxiety can be best understood by distinguishing it in terms of the emotions that are involved in the experience. Shame is an emotion that is prominent in states of anxiety and often goes undetected as it hides in the shadow of the experience.  

Shame that is experienced as anxiety is commonly felt as a fear that exposure is imminent and humiliation will soon follow. [1] Anxiety, while shame-fear based, requires thought for its existence. These thoughts involve the anticipated future, which doesn’t look good when it is being motivated by fear of shame. For instance, people often recount feeling anxious that a significant other will leave, betray, or abandon them. Others express anxiety about the exposure of deeper parts of the self that will result in a relationship rupture—that someone important to them, including their therapist, will recognize they are flawed, fraudulent, or not as they portray themselves to be. Anxiety about an upcoming presentation, a performance, a first date, or even a long-term project, for example, is actually experienced as anticipatory shame.

Shame that is experienced as anxiety is commonly felt as a fear that exposure is imminent and humiliation will soon follow. [1] Shame-based anxiety is prominent in everyday life. For instance, people often recount feeling anxious that a significant other will leave, betray, or abandon them. Others express anxiety about exposure of deeper parts of the self that will result in a relationship rupture—that someone important to them, including their therapist, will recognize they are flawed, fraudulent, or not as they portray themselves to be. Anxiety about an upcoming presentation, a performance, a first date, or even a long-term project, for example, are actually experienced as anticipatory shame.

Rarely in the literature has shame been associated with anxiety, regardless of the frequency with which people express anxiety within the context of their fear of experiencing shame. Yet shame is prominent in anxiety about fearing disgrace, to be looked at with contempt for dishonoring oneself, and it is the dominant feeling that is present when people assume they are looked upon with scorn. [2] Defensive responses that follow the activation of shame-anxiety may appear as phobias, agitation, or avoidance behaviors. As a result, shame-based anxiety may be misdiagnosed as an anxiety disorder or treated with anxiety-relieving medications or other treatments that make sufferers worse because they feel shame for having anxiety that cannot be controlled. 

When the emotion of shame co-assembles with fear and distress, the thoughts associated with it often have to do with fearing humiliation, defeat, or failure. This version of shame-anxiety is often described as a “fear of failure.” Nevertheless, this combination of emotions also has a powerful upside as a source of motivation for many successful people. [3] The motivational function of shame can lead people to work harder in the interest of maintaining their self-esteem, even in the face of the negative feelings created by the emotion that can result in avoidance or withdrawalbehaviors such as inaction, inhibition, writer’s block, or stage fright. Rather than focus on shame-anxiety as an impediment to one’s success, or as an obstacle in their lives, people benefit greatly when they can identify what they feel and recognize that it can be a positive motivating force.

[For information about my books, please visit my website, mary lamia.com]

References

[1] Wurmser, L. (1981). The Mask of Shame. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2] Wurmser, L. (2015). Primary shame, mortal wound and tragic circularity: Some new reflections on shame and shame conflicts. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 96, 1615-1634.

[3] Lamia, M. (2017). What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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