The clients that see Brooklyn-based psychotherapist Emmy Kleine, LMHC, tend to feel embarrassed about three things: money, sex and their bodies. And they assume these issues are unique to them. They assume their behavior isn’t normal.
Lena Aburdene Derhally’s clients tend to feel most embarrassed at work or in social situations — where they also tend to feel most judged by others. They feel embarrassed about making mistakes. They ruminate about whether they said the wrong thing at a get-together.
Maybe you get embarrassed about the same things. Or maybe your embarrassment is triggered by tiny things (which feel massive in the moment), like using the wrong word in conversation or in your writing, like tripping over your own feet. Maybe you get embarrassed when you’re put on the spot and don’t know the right answer. Maybe you feel embarrassed about driving an old car or not owning a home.
Kleine believes that embarrassment is a learned response. We learn from society, from our caregivers, from our teachers, from others whether certain behaviors are acceptable or not. Sometimes we learn these lessons because someone shamed us.
Derhally, LPC, believes some people are more easily embarrassed than others because they have a louder, harsher inner critic. “If someone has a strong inner critic, the feelings of embarrassment and shame are quite pervasive and constant. Someone with less of an inner critic can laugh and shrug things off much easier.”
Where the inner critic stems from is more complex. It might be a combination of personality traits—uptight, rigid, perfectionist—and environment, said Derhally, who has a private practice in Washington, D.C. Maybe you had critical or emotionally unavailable caregivers. Maybe you were bullied. Derhally has worked with clients whose inner critics were shaped by their experiences with bullies in junior high and high school. (You can learn more about inner critics on Derhally’s podcast.)
Other deeper issues may underlie our embarrassment, such as work stress, anxiety and a sinking self-esteem, Kleine said. For instance, a toxic environment at work can make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, and making an error can easily become a source of shame. If your self-esteem is especially low, it doesn’t take much to make you feel self-conscious or mortified. In fact, we might even feel embarrassed for simply existing. This is when seeing a therapist is important.
In the meantime, there are some things you can do on your own. Below are four tips to get you started.
Focus on the future. Derhally suggested asking yourself: Will I remember this in 6 months, a year or 5 years? “Oftentimes we don’t even remember the stuff we were embarrassed about and it doesn’t hold any significance in the grand scheme of life.”
Redirect your energies. Instead of dwelling on your embarrassment, refocus your energy on something positive, Derhally said. For instance, instead of replaying the mistake you made at work, refocus on how you can improve. Refocus on what you can learn from your misstep. And if you’re still ruminating about the error hours later, refocus on tasks you’ve been putting off or on reading a book you haven’t had time for, she said.
Calm the body. Derhally’s favorite advice comes from trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk: “Calm the body and then calm the mind.” Which is why she suggested taking deep breaths and centering ourselves first. “[W]e can then deal with the anxious or embarrassing thoughts in our head.” It also might be helpful to listen to a guided meditation, or to stretch your body.
Rethink the situation. Kleine suggested using a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy to address any intrusive negative thoughts about your embarrassing situation. That is, jot down the automatic thoughts and feelings that arose during the situation. Jot down what you did in the moment. Then come up with a healthier perspective.
For instance, you were giving a presentation at work when you completely blanked. Immediately, you started thinking, “Oh no! I’m such an idiot! Of course, I’m messing up. It’s what I always do! I’m going to get fired. I just know it.” You started panicking, and abruptly left the room. Your healthier perspective is that yes, you did mess up—and so does everyone, in different ways, because perfection doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s rare that someone is a great presenter without a lot of practice. Your shaky performance simply means you need more training. You decide to take responsibility for your poor presentation, and apologize to your boss. You also hire a speaking coach to help you.
Getting embarrassed does have some upsides. For starters, all emotions have purpose, Derhally said. Being embarrassed helps us to relate to others. It helps us to self-reflect and correct our mistakes. “It can also help us fit in to social circles, which is part of our survival.”
Ultimately, know that it’s totally OK to feel embarrassed. As Derhally said, this is a universal experience. You are absolutely not alone. And, if after doing some self-reflecting, you realize that another issue might be swimming beneath the surface, don’t hesitate to seek professional support.