A few weeks ago, as I was cleaning out our closet, I stumbled upon a stack of papers from my grandmother. Most of the papers were familiar, but one unfamiliar packet literally dropped onto my lap, a stapled report for an adult-education class in psychology that she took in 1963 that I had never read before. The title was, “My Psychograph and Its Evaluation.”

It was like stumbling upon a lost treasure: A window into my past, my history, and my beloved grandmother’s inner world. Here was a twelve-page, carefully crafted essay written on delicate typing paper (this was long before the ease of computers and printers) where she analyzed the results of several different psychological tests. The results of the test in terms of numbers are irrelevant to me, but her interpretation and reflections reverberated inside of me on so many levels. Like many people of her generation, my grandmother rarely discussed her inner world, so to stumble upon these words was stumbling directly into my grandmother’s long-protected psyche.

There were so many fascinating elements to the paper, but what stood out in stark relief over and over again was her inner critic and her voice of shame. Consistent with the profile of my audience (and myself, of course), she described herself as “very conscientious and always able to carry out any assignment, tasks and responsibilities given to me to the best of my ability. However, in doing so, I usually become anxious, especially under pressure.”

These are admirable characteristics, but she viewed them as evidence of brokenness. She wrote, “I am a very tense person with symptoms of hysteria, such as stomach-aches and headaches with no physical reason.” Obviously, she’s describing symptoms of anxiety, which, in 1963, she labeled as “symptoms of hysteria.” At least we’ve evolved since then in terms of how we understand and name anxiety!

One line in particular broke my heart. It was reflecting on a test she took called the “Neymann-Kohlstedt Test of Introversion-Extroversion.” She wrote:

My score on this test is a plus eight, which puts me in the normal range. I am rather surprised at this score and also very pleased. This shows real growth through the years. I was brought up on a farm in upstate New York. We were rather isolated from people and as a result had very few friends. I would usually hide when strangers would come to the house. Becoming a normal human being from the introverted youngster is an accomplishment I am proud of.“

Oh, how many times I’ve heard this exact equation in my work: extroversion means “normal”? How many times clients ask me, “Is it okay that I don’t want to go out and party every weekend? Is it okay if my partner wants to be more social than I do? Does this mean I’m not normal?”

I’ve written extensively about the myth of normal both on my blog and in my Trust Yourself course, and it broke my heart to read this line from my grandmother. I wish I could have sat in front of my her and said, “You know, Grandma, being shy as a child doesn’t mean you’re abnormal. And being extroverted isn’t a sign of mental health; it’s a temperament that you’re born with. Introversion is just as valid, and carries within it many gifts.”

The Voice of Shame
Embedded in the myth of normal is the voice of shame. It’s the voice that I hear every day amongst my clients and course members that says:

I’m not enough.
I’m broken.
Everyone else has it figured out and I don’t.
There’s something wrong with me.
I’m too much. Too sensitive. Too weird. Too different.
It’s this voice that, if you could explode, would allow you to heal your anxiety from the root.

As soon as the shame voice appears, it’s time to press pause on whatever healing practice you were planning to do and attend directly to that voice. Just as anxiety is a messenger, so shame voices carry crucial messages about the blocks that are preventing you from living life with less anxiety and more joy. As I shared on my Instagram feed a couple of weeks ago:

Nothing shuts down the pathways to healing faster than shame. As soon as you hear the voice that says “You’re broken” that’s the time to pause and meet yourself with compassion.

We always heard the phrase growing up, “Grandma is such a worry-wart,” but now I’m wondering if her worry was greatly amplified by her self-doubt and especially her shame. She clearly carried a belief that there was something wrong with her, that she wasn’t “normal”, that she didn’t belong or fit it. If she could have exploded that shame voice, her anxiety would have radically reduced.

Here’s what I would say to my Grandma if I could sit with her today (which is also what I say to my clients in some form every day and what I hope to communicate to you on my blog every week):

My dear, beautiful Grandma: There’s nothing wrong with you. There was nothing wrong with you as a child when you felt shy around strangers. There was nothing wrong with you as an adolescent when you struggled to venture out into the world. There was nothing wrong with you as an adult when you struggled to find meaning and fulfillment. You were a sensitive, shy child, which is a beautiful temperament. You were caring, loving, attentive, and nurturing. Throughout your life, you showed a deep, abiding love and care for everyone around you, especially your grandchildren. This ability to love was your greatest gift, and evidence of your sensitivity. How could there be anything wrong with that? You were a gift, Grandma, and hopefully you know that now.

Every time you year that shame voice see if you can replace it with the truth. See if you can see yourself through clear eyes and know that you’re okay exactly as you are. This is how we heal from anxiety, one voice at a time.

What does your shame voice sound like? Share with us in the comments below, then also share how a wise and loving voice would respond to this voice. Remember: Normalization reduces shame. When you realize that you’re not the only one struggling with these voices of shame, the shame itself reduces.

Author's Bio: 

Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at http://conscious-transitions.com. And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety – whether single, dating, engaged, or married – give yourself the gift of her popular eCourse