Shame and Social Anxiety

Woman looking out windowAs humans, we are social animals. One consequence of this is the potential to be uncomfortable or anxious around other people. Some people are born with this tendency and labeled “shy”: these children tend to be more inhibited and fearful around people they don’t know well. If shy children are adequately encouraged and supported when they are young, they often outgrow their shyness.

Adolescence is another difficult time in life for self-consciousness and discomfort with oneself. How well one fits into their peer group is of tantamount importance and affects adolescents’ growing sense of self. If all goes well, the adolescent grows into a self-confident and mature adult.

Early adulthood is the most typical time in life that people develop anxiety. Being an adult presents new stresses that people may lack adequate coping skills to deal with. Severe anxiety states may develop, along with the fear of other people noticing that anxiety. Sometimes this develops into social anxiety, which is characterized by fears of feeling embarrassed or humiliated around other people. Underlying this is the fear of being seen as weak, defective, or somehow not okay in the eyes of other people.  Underlying this fear is shame.

Shame is a feeling of being flawed or unacceptable in some way. Sometimes this feeling is very vague, with people not knowing where their discomfort is coming from. Author John Bradshaw elaborates: “Guilt is the experience that you made a mistake, while shame is the experience that you are a mistake.”

Early in life, shaming experiences happen in one’s family, in school, and among peers. Shame has the adaptive function of guiding us to conform to the ethics, morals, and rules of our environment. However, negative shameful experiences cause us to feel hopeless and inadequate, and sometimes lead to depression. Generally, there are certain areas in which an individual feels lacking or flawed: personal attractiveness, intelligence, competence, and lovability are common themes.

It is almost impossible to get through childhood and adolescence without experiencing at least a few shaming experiences. It is helpful to be aware of one’s areas of shame because shame very much influences how we interact with the world. Avoidance of meeting people is a typical response of someone with social anxiety. Dependence on alcohol and drugs may also be used to numb the anxiety. For others, criticizing or ridiculing others in order to make oneself feel less inferior is another strategy. Clearly, these strategies can have very negative consequences in one’s life.

If you think that shame may influence some of your difficulties, working to transform the underlying beliefs that live inside you may be a good idea. You can continue to read about shame in books like John Bradshaw’s, talk to supportive friends, or see a counselor or therapist.

© Copyright 2010 by By Evelyn Goodman, Psy.D, LMFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gabriel

    May 1st, 2010 at 11:40 AM

    I used to be very low on confidence and would always be thinking that others are watching me and if I do anything wrong or stupid they will notice me.One day I shared this with an older cousin and he asked me just one question-how often do you observe carefully what others around you are up to,say in a mall or in the street? My answer was a straight NEVER. He then went on to explain to me that it was the same with everyone else and that I am not being watched by anyone as much as I think I am…that really opened my eyes and I’m much better when I’m out now.

  • amy

    May 1st, 2010 at 11:43 AM

    Growing up I was very shy and there were those family members who made me feel ashamed of being that way, they thought I should be more outgoing. But that just never felt right to me, you now? Not really my personality. I have come out of my shell a lot as an adult, but there are still times when I feel afraid to interact because I do not know how I will be perceived or if my actions will be looked down upon.

  • Carol

    May 2nd, 2010 at 2:01 AM

    Feelings of inadequacy are sure to breed fear of new situations and this is certain to bring out the very worst in those who experience shyness in a way that hinders their lives and how they live and comingle with others.

  • Sara

    June 5th, 2014 at 9:06 PM

    You said it exactly right. I’ve never seen a better description.

  • nathan

    May 2nd, 2010 at 2:16 AM

    My parents always taught me that you should do what you want to do without being anxious about who is looking…they always shared the notion of ‘dance like no one’s watching’ and this has helped me be a very outgoing person with a lot of confidence. I thank my parents for all this.

  • Kyle

    May 2nd, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    My older brother was a teenage drug addict and petty thief. I was ashamed to tell people my surname. He was notorious in our small town and they would look at me as if I were the same. I never was and never will be anything like him. As soon as I was old enough, I moved halfway across the country to where no-one knew me or judged me by my name. Talk about shame! He humiliated us all.

  • John

    May 3rd, 2010 at 3:01 AM

    Personally I think that it is time to stop feeling so bad about things over which we have no control and get back to going out and living our lives no matter what other people think or say.

    I know that some of you might think that I m being insensitive but come on! How many of you are letting what others think about you control your every move? Sounds like a lot.

    Look, I used to be that person. But I had to make the choice to either live under a rock and be miserable or to really live. I cose to live, and I think that more of you should too.

  • KP

    May 3rd, 2010 at 4:22 AM

    I don’t know how right or wrong I am but I just think shame and social anxiety are two different things and are not synonymous to each other…you see,any person who is not too confident (and sometimes a person with a lot of confidence) will feel anxiety when in a social gathering or at a place where others are watching him/her.This is pretty normal to feel.its like the jitters we feel when we are performing on a stage or something.

    But shame is something very different.It is when a person is concentrating on a flaw or negative aspect about himself/herself and is of the view that others are seeing and observing that aspect.

  • codey

    May 3rd, 2010 at 10:26 AM

    I think it would do a world of good to train the kids at school about how they need to be confident about whatever they do and about others’ perception about them.They would then grow up to be confident adults who will not suffer from shame.

  • Wanderer

    May 3rd, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    “What troubles me is the Internet and the electronic technology revolution. Shyness is fueled in part by so many people spending huge amounts of time alone, isolated on e-mail, in chat rooms, which reduces their face-to-face contact with other people.”- Philip Zimbardo

    I think this is very, very true.

  • Jodie

    May 4th, 2010 at 2:15 PM

    Shyness, what’s that? LOL. Never been a problem for me. I’m super confident and positive all the time! All high achievers are and when I leave college I want to be one of them, larger than life and rich. I’m destined for center stage, not standing on the sidelines!

  • Tabitha

    May 5th, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    My best friend feels shame because she was raised in a poor household. She’s now a successful businesswoman with all the comforts of being middle class and can’t get past that. She hates her childhood being brought up. I don’t know why she can’t just forget it. She had humble beginnings, so what?

  • soldy

    May 5th, 2010 at 7:21 PM

    I was taught that we should never to feel ashamed about our mistakes. Instead we should keep our chin up, accept our failings, learn from that and look to the future. It’s stood me in good stead all my life.

  • anxious guy

    May 11th, 2010 at 1:12 PM

    your story helped me a lot. I can relate to it and I have been truly inspired. Thank you.

  • Anne C. Pratt, Ph.D.

    May 31st, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    I find that many people’s shame has been “transmitted” from the previous generation. In earlier days people felt that shaming a child for a mistake or even for just acting like a child was the best way to guide and discipline. People brought up this way can tend to be critical and shaming toward their own children, not because we believe this as a society now, but out of their own shame and insecurity. Whenever I see adults mocking their children, calling them names, or pointing out their mistakes loudly in public, I worry about that child’s sense of self. It takes determination and strength to overcome a sense of badness and grow into a confident person with a sturdy regard for oneself.

  • Greg Weber

    July 18th, 2013 at 6:47 PM

    It’s becoming more and more clear to me as I get older that all my chronic anxieties boil down to fear that I’m not good enough and that other people will notice and then attack me because of it. I was attacked without mercy as a child and have not yet gotten over the fear of that experience happening again. Thanks for this great reminder about the real cause of chronic anxiety.

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