Shame and Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is more than just feeling nervous around other people. It’s a problem that often originates in early experiences of shame. That’s why we are talking today with Dr. Jane Rubin about social anxiety and what people can do about it.

How Does Shame Connect With Social Anxiety?

People with social anxiety don’t just feel bad about something they’ve done, such as making an awkward remark in a social situation. They believe something is wrong with them, at the core of their being. They also believe that other people see it, and will reject them because of it.

What is the Root of Social Anxiety?

It often has roots in people’s early experiences, especially experiences in which they felt shamed in a social situation and no one was available to help them understand what happened.  I’ve worked with a number of people over the years who have been very successful at work and in their intimate relationships, but who suffered from severe social anxiety. This made ordinary social situations excruciating for them. I can give you an example that illustrates how social anxiety began for one of these clients. Of course, all identifying information is disguised.

I had a client who suffered from severe social anxiety that kept her from engaging in almost all forms of social activity. My client worked for a company where people were constantly having parties, going on camping trips together, and doing other things that she longed to do. However, she was so convinced that the other people at her company would reject her that she rarely accepted invitations to these events. Pretty soon, no one asked her. This just contributed to her feeling that other people at work thought she was “weird” and that something was wrong with her.

When my client was in middle school, she wrote the name of a boy she liked on a bathroom wall where many other students wrote similar things. A teacher called her out of class and proceeded to humiliate her in front of another group of kids for writing on the wall.

Needless to say, my client felt terrible. She not only felt she’d done something wrong; she felt like a horrible person. The other students didn’t defend her. Her parents didn’t understand why she felt so bad. In fact, every time my client tried to talk to her parents about how bad she felt about herself, they just brushed her off. She came to feel that her feelings were wrong and that she was just too sensitive. This, of course, just exacerbated her feelings that there was something wrong with her and that other people would reject her.

Of course, this one incident didn’t cause my client’s social anxiety. Over time, we recognized that it stood out in her memory because it encapsulated the experience she had growing up that her feelings weren’t valid and that other people would reject her if she made them known. We concluded that, if her parents had taken her feelings of rejection seriously—if they’d helped her to see that it make perfect sense for her to feel as humiliated as she did; that she hadn’t done anything wrong, and that there was nothing wrong with her—social anxiety wouldn’t have become the problem it subsequently became for her.

The crucial point here is that all of us experience situations in which we feel shamed or humiliated. Those situations are just a part of life. But whether those experiences create social anxiety depends upon how the adults in our life respond to them.

We become more resilient over time when parents or other adults are sympathetic and validate how painful these experiences are for us. If our parents dismiss our feelings, we come to feel that we’re wrong for having them. Feeling that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us sets the stage for developing social anxiety. It causes us to feel that other people are right to treat us badly because we’re fundamentally flawed in some way.

So What Do You Do for Your Clients?

The more people see that their feelings of shame don’t mean that they’re bad, the easier it is to get past them. I try to help people understand where their social anxiety came from. The more they see it is rooted in experiences of not being validated, the more they recognize the validity of their feelings, and the more they let go of the idea that there’s something wrong with them. This then frees them to engage socially without worries of rejection.

Click here to learn more about treatment for social anxiety with Dr. Jane Rubin.

Jane Rubin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California.  She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay Area who are struggling with depression and anxiety.  She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.