There’s a reason why we say we’re “dying of embarrassment” — because while we’re in the midst of an embarrassing episode, dying really does seems like the better option.
No human being I know is immune from these moments; however, I seem to have a knack at collecting a large variety. After a recent incident that made me want to hide in a corner of the world without wi-fi, my writing and spiritual mentor gave me great advice. “It’s okay to be embarrassed,” he said. “It’s cleansing. This one has already passed, and passed nicely, like a kidney stone after the first day. You may relax.”
Of course that didn’t stop me from feeling embarrassed some more. So after collecting some nuggets from friends and professionals, I compiled these tips below to really deal with embarrassment in real life. I hope they help you feel better the next time your client, colleague, or date tells you that you’re wearing toilet paper on the sole of your shoe.
1. Keep the right tense.
All embarrassment takes place in the past. Theoretically, if you were able to stay in the moment perfectly, you wouldn’t feel an ounce of embarrassment — because all those messages inside your brain belong to a different time and place. Now I realize being present to the moment is virtually impossible when you are experiencing that twisted knot inside your stomach that says things like, “You can’t be trusted with anything, you idiot!” and are feeling the physiological symptoms of embarrassment (somewhat like the flu), but if you can remember for even a minute here or there to pull your attention to the present, you will be relieved of needless angst.
2. Stop apologizing.
This one is counterintuitive for me. I honestly think that if I apologize, I will return to feeling normal. Even if I have apologized like five minutes prior to that moment. I suppose I am an apology addict. “Just one more apology and I’ll feel okay.” No. You won’t. In fact, you will feel worse. Because, again, your attention is on the past, not on the present, where you don’t need to apologize for anything. So stop it already.
3. Be you. Neurotic you.
St. Francis de Sales had four words of advice for pursuing spiritual excellence: “Be you very well.” That even goes for neurotics, like me, who wear their psychiatric charts on their sleeves, and are so transparent that every thought they have is registered like a bulletin on their faces. I supposed when you are made that way — or, rather, if you choose to live that way — you will experience far more embarrassment than, say, a person who tucks away her emotions for only safe people to see. But if Francis is right, that’s the price I have to pay for being me.
4. Visit humiliations past.
This one will help you keep things in perspective. You know when you thought you really were going to die — or at least you wanted to? In hindsight, not a huge deal, right? As an exercise, you should list your top five embarrassments. Mine are:
- Upon being prompted to tell “the thumb” joke to the Vice President of Doubleday, I proceeded to tell the wrong, very off-color one, which, I feared at the time, would kill our book contract.
- At my first job out of college, I was the only one to dress up for Halloween. I went as the building security guard (borrowed the uniform and all), and only he thought it was funny.
- Published on the front page of the Annapolis paper (on my birthday) was the story about how my 2-year-old pushed another other 2-year-old (the one that I was watching) into the frigid waters of the Chesapeake Bay only to be rescued by a passerby.
- In line to purchase Notre Dame football tickets the first week of college, where a mob pushed their way forward, I was stung by a bee and, without my kit, had to call an ambulance.
- I was almost arrested for sexual harassment my senior year at Saint Mary’s College because the creative but blunt note that I left for the director of the homeless shelter (as instructed by one of his good friends, mind you) was set on top of a set of lingerie some other woman had sent him. Thus he assumed I was the lingerie stalker.
5. Get in the car again.
Now I use that expression because when my twin sister and I were juniors in high school, some punk spray-painted our red car with the nice message, “Dumb-ass blonde.” The great thing about being a twin, though, is that we didn’t know which one of us it was for. So I assumed it was for her, and she assumed the warm and fuzzy note was mine. But neither of us was going to drive that thing. To school? Wasn’t going to happen. And we were late. So my mom said, “For the love of God, it’s not a big deal. I will drive the car.” Later on, we heard stories that my mom would be at an intersection getting honked at, and she waved to them like she were Queen Elizabeth.
She had the right attitude. She got in the car and drove it around town. And that’s what you have to do. So even as I never ever wanted to step foot in that homeless shelter again (where I was almost arrested for sexual harassment), I returned the next week for my duty, praying to God the director was not there. And I walked into work the day after dressing up as the security guard, turned in his uniform, and told him that he was the only one in that building with a sense of humor. And the preschool of moms that had heard about my afternoon with the ducks? Well, I didn’t win any play dates from then on, but I also didn’t pull my son out of the school in fear of their opinions of me. I got back in the car.
6. Laugh about it.
This one is easy in hindsight. I mean, embarrassment stories make great cocktail-party material. I can’t tell you how many times the story about David throwing the kid into the water has worked great as an ice-breaker. Funny stuff, people.
But when you’re in “sensitivity land,” laughing is a tad challenging, which is why you need a good friend to help you with it. A few days ago I pulled up to a gas tank near my kids’ school and discovered I was on the island with a flat tire, which did not help rumors that I was a bad driver.
“Do you think I’m a bad driver?” I asked a friend in tears.
“Hell, yes!” she said. “You drive like a grandma. There’s no way in hell I’d get into your passenger side — but you can drive my kids anywhere you like!”
We laughed and suddenly I wasn’t so afflicted by my driving reputation.
7. Allow some tilting.
Embarrassment belongs to the disorder known as perfectionism. Think about it. You are embarrassed because you didn’t live up to your standards. There is a small (or wide) gap between your expectations of yourself and your performance. As a person who writes a lot about relationships and mental health, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I’m fixed. I dispense the stuff on a daily basis, so obviously I live it. Ahhh. Not. When I land in a messy situation, I think, “How the hell did this happen if I’m the expert?”
My therapist told me the other day that everyone is allowed to tilt. “What we don’t want to do is fall over,” she said. “But if you never allow yourself to tilt, you will fall over. Just be careful tilting.”
8. Learn how to be afraid.
Embarrassment is essentially fear — of being perceived in a way that is less, well, endearing than we’d like. So we if learn how to be afraid, we can handle the embarrassment in a way that is more psychologically and physiologically tolerable. Taylor Clark, author of the book “Nerve,” gave me some simple instructions on how to handle fear in a recent interview I did with him:
While we can’t instantly stop ourselves from getting startled or from feeling fear in response to the things that scare us, we do have the power to change how we relate to these emotions, which is all that counts. The more we learn to welcome our fear and anxiety, work with them, and weave them into the lives we want to lead, the less beholden we are to the whims of the amygdala [the brain's fear control center]. And eventually, with enough effort and patience, the conscious mind gains the power to say, “Hey, amygdala, I have this one under control.”
9. Step away from the looking glass.
I once hear this expression: “I’m not who I think I am. Nor am I who you think I am. But I am who I think you think I am.” I had to repeat it like four times before I got the gist. Most of the time we base our identity on what we think other people think of us. In my case, “Whack-job mother who doesn’t have her crap together and could go postal at any minute.” We assume they are reacting to our embarrassing act in a way that they may or may not be. And so we base our reaction to a faux pas on what we guess is their reaction. That’s a lot of needless guesswork.
10. Solicit other stories.
There’s no doubt that comparing your incident with others will make you feel better, or at least in good company.
Yesterday, when I met a girlfriend for coffee and was telling her I felt like the world’s biggest idiot, she went through her collection of embarrassing moments that had me practically spitting out my beverage. My favorite was this: “On an photographic trip to Antarctica, on a Russian ice breaker, I got my period and clogged up the toilet so badly that no one could use the bathrooms on the entire ship for eight hours! Guess who the most popular girl on the ship was?”
There’s also that time a friend of mine crashed her car into the front of Pick Kwik and the entire fire department couldn’t stop laughing. And I will always feel sorry for the Miss America contestant who slid down the steps like a mermaid in her green sequenced gown when I was in junior high. How embarrassing.
This piece was originally published on Blisstree.com.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Jun 2011
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Borchard, T. (2011). How to Overcome Embarrassment. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 21, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/06/18/how-to-overcome-embarrassment/