Stress And Shame – Part 1: Defining The Problem

Stress can make you feel weak, incapable, even out of control and ashamed of yourself – which leads to further stress. So how can you break the cycle?

Picture the situation: you’re after a new job. You’ve been proactively searching for something new, but nothing’s really ticked all the boxes. One day, you see it – an advert for a job you really want. You research the employer inside and out. You write and re-write your CV to present yourself in the best possible way.

A couple of weeks later, a letter drops onto your doormat. You have been invited to interview! You do your research. You anticipate what they might ask you and you rehearse answers. You have all bases covered. You’re thoroughly prepared and you know you can do the job.

Interview day: You’re sat in the waiting room, going over the material you’ve prepared. You feel nervous, but ready. Then you’re called in for the interview. You take a seat in front of the interview panel ...

... and your mind goes blank. 100% completely, totally, absolutely blank. The first thing they do is ask you your name, and you stutter out the reply. Your head starts swimming. You can’t focus. They are asking you questions and you hear yourself replying, but nothing you say seems to make sense and none of it is what you rehearsed again and again and again. Before the interview, you could trot out your rehearsed soundbites verbatim. Now, you’re just winging it. You can’t remember a single thing you prepared for. Finally, they ask you the age-old interview question, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?” There’s an awkward silence. You can’t think. You can’t put one thought together with another and come up with something halfway coherent. Your mind feels like a washing machine on spin-cycle. One of the panel members seems to cough impatiently, which just makes your head spin faster. After what seems like an unbearably long time, you hear yourself say, “Err ... No”.

You walk out of the room feeling numb. On the journey home, everything you’d prepared comes back to you. As for that final question, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?” Well, there were a series of incisive questions that you’d painstakingly prepared – only you forgot every single one of them. As the journey continues, you find yourself thinking about the interview over and over again. “How could I have screwed up that badly? Why didn’t I think of one single thing that I had intended to say? How could I have been that stupid and incompetent? Well done genius, you’ve done it again! You’ve failed spectacularly!” It all seems like a muddle in your head, but there’s one consistent and familiar emotion: shame. You flunked yet another opportunity and once again, you are deeply ashamed of yourself.

Sure enough, a week or two later a letter drops onto your doormat. “I regret to inform you that your application has not been successful”. Your stomach drops like a stone. Memories of the interview come flooding back and you are reminded once again of how incompetent you feel. “No matter how hard I try, I just screw things up. I really am useless”. Once again you feel the old familiar sense of shame.

You’re not alone. Many people’s minds go blank under pressure. There’s the intelligent and capable student who walks into an exam and can’t remember a single thing, even though he’s spent the previous week revising. He performs poorly and is labelled ‘stupid’. There’s the actress who’s diligently learned her lines, but forgets them the moment she walks out on stage. She’s labelled, ‘incompetent’. How about the game-show contestant who can’t answer even a simple question? He becomes the audience’s laughing stock. None of those people are stupid or incompetent. Neither are you. Ironically, it’s often the sharpest thinkers who are struck by mental blankness at precisely the time when they most need to think clearly. Generally, they feel ashamed of themselves. It’s their abiding sense of shame that makes them even less likely to be able to perform adequately the next time they find themselves in a similar situation. The added cruelty is that others often judge them deprecatingly for what is really a natural, normal reaction to a stressful situation.

The problem isn’t limited to high-pressure situations like interviews or T.V. appearances, either. To varying degrees, it can happen to anyone in everyday situations. For example, think about the last time you had a heated argument with someone. How clearly were you thinking? I would suggest that your thinking is clearer when you’re debating rather than arguing. Do you feel nervous entering a room full of people? Or when answering the phone? Or when talking to your boss? Or even when talking to a shop assistant? Or when asking for directions? Perhaps just saying, “Excuse me please”, when you need to get past someone is enough to raise your heart rate. Perhaps there are situations you face every day which make you feel stressed. May be just the thought of certain activities, like a forthcoming social engagement, or even just going to work, is enough to bring you out in a cold sweat.

So what’s going on? What is normal and natural about going blank at just the wrong moment, or getting stressed-out by everyday situations? Why do you feel so ashamed when it happens to you? And what can you do about it?

The good news is that you probably can do something about it. Unless you are highly traumatised or are facing other serious mental health challenges, it is definitely possible for you to find ways of keeping calming, thinking clearly and performing at your best, right when you need it most. Over the next series of articles I will show you how to do just that: I will explain what’s happening in your brain and body when your mind ‘goes blank’, and I will explain in detail how to recover your composure and perform at your best.

27th June 2016