Embarrassment is a feeling of self conscious and often awkward discomfort that arises as a result of a socially unacceptable thing associated with us (such as a frowned upon act or behavior or character trait or condition) being witnessed or revealed to others. We feel embarrassment when some aspect of us is (or threatens to be) witnessed by others. It happens when we feel that this something, if revealed will undermine the image that we seek to project to other members of the social group that we believe will deem that aspect unacceptable. The sensation is very close to the feeling of anxious doom.
What we have to see about embarrassment is that it is very externally focused. It is not really about your sense of you. It is about how others see you. It is about wanting to be valued by others. It is all about trying to avoid social consequences. We can be embarrassed of something that we do not think is bad, wrong or morally reprehensible. For example, we may believe it is right to be liberal, but if we wander into a conservative rally, we may feel embarrassment if someone exposes us as a liberal. Embarrassment exists in order to avoid social consequences. This is why it is about how others think of us rather than how we think of ourselves. This is why we may be embarrassed to reveal that we had an addiction to alcohol to our in laws but we may not be embarrassed to reveal that same thing about us when we are at an AA meeting. Embarrassment is highly situational in nature. We can be embarrassed about things that are not necessarily morally wrong or reprehensible, but are simply out of alignment with the way we want others to perceive us.
This is where the line between embarrassment and shame exists. If I feel shame, I do disapprove of that thing within myself. I do think it is bad and wrong. In response to those perceived consequences, I push that thing away from myself. The only way to push part of yourself away from yourself is through fragmentation. For this reason, we could say that shame is the mechanism for fragmentation as well as suppression. And shame creates internal separation. I cannot feel shame and be intact internally at the same time. I can however do that with embarrassment. I can keep something separate from other people without necessarily separating it from myself. I can avoid certain behaviors and actions and keep the truth of myself hidden while staying intact in that I am not pushing that aspect away from myself.
This is the best way to figure out if you are embarrassed or ashamed. If I am embarrassed, I simply do not want others to see something that will undermine the way I want them to perceive me because I do not want the projected social consequences inherent in that. If I am ashamed, I also do not want to see it in myself. I perceive something I did or something about me to imply that I am morally wrong and reprehensible. I do not want those things to be associated with me and I feel that the eradication of them can lead to a sense of goodness, rightness, social closeness and reward. I have to reject, deny and disown something within myself for it to qualify as shame. I do not have to reject and deny and disown anything for it to qualify as embarrassment. I simply have to feel self-conscious about someone else rejecting, denying and pushing that part of me away if they should see it. That being said, we often feel shame about something we are trying to keep others from seeing.
We can be both ashamed and embarrassed. This is the case when we are terrified of or humiliated by other people seeing something about us that we also feel is wrong, bad and reprehensible about us. We can be embarrassed and not be ashamed. This is the case when we don’t want someone to see something about us that we do not have an issue seeing in ourselves. We can be ashamed but not embarrassed. This is often the case when we know there will be absolutely no social consequence for someone seeing something about us but we still feel that thing is bad and wrong about us. We can also be embarrassed for someone else. This is the case if we see something about someone else that we perceive as having social consequences for him or her.
A person can’t be embarrassed until they have a sense of self. A baby can’t be embarrassed that it poops in its diaper. It isn’t until the child becomes aware of itself and that he or she did something others did not do, and that because others saw him or her doing that thing, the child experienced a social consequence.
Embarrassment carries within it the extreme desire/need for social appeasement and social approval. When you were young, you came into a society. In a human society, there are collective social and cultural ideas of what is good and what is bad. As a child, we are completely relationally dependent. As we grow older, that relational dependence does not go away, it merely becomes less extreme. We never loose the need for one another, even if we can feed and bathe ourselves. If we want our needs to be met, survive in society and have a chance at feeling things like love and belonging and contribution and safety, we have one option… To make it so other people perceive us in a way that makes them approve of us and to avoid them perceiving us in a way that makes them disapprove of us.
Let’s say that when you were younger you ran out into the family room naked. And let’s say you were raised in a society that approved of modesty and disapproved of public nudity. The adults in your environment would immediately react by discouraging the behavior. They might get angry or send you back to your room or doll out a consequence. The disapproval would be emotionally and potentially even physically painful enough that you would feel embarrassment. It would register in your mind as a mistake you had made that had consequences. This would be a painful enough experience that you would want to avoid it in the future at all costs and never make that mistake again. Acting embarrassed would also send the message to others that we recognize our error, thereby endearing our self to them. It would act as a subconscious plea to be pulled back in, instead of pushed away.
We want to avoid the threat of conflict and the pain of being pushed away or being seen poorly (along with the plethora of consequences that could come from any of those things). Therefore, we seek to present the image to any person or social group that will enable us to have social rapport with that specific person or social group. Embarrassment is like an emotional alarm bell that goes off when we cross into potential or actual disapproval territory.
The degree that you suffer from embarrassment is the degree you suffered or do suffer from social consequences. If you grow up in an environment were there are very rigid social ideals of badness and wrongness and very big consequences for that perceived badness and wrongness, you will struggle with embarrassment and you will most likely have a core self concept of shame. For people who want to avoid embarrassment at all costs, your nervous system had to perceive social consequences as jarring, serious threats to your sense of survival and wellbeing. And embarrassment stays with you long after it has passed in everyone else’s mind because you perceive it to be such a threat. Embarrassment exists to try to keep you safe from social consequences. And because you want to stay safe from emotional consequences, which you have learned can be devastating, you avoid the feeling of embarrassment like the plague.
If you struggle with embarrassment, notice that you tend to project disapproval where there may be none as well as not believe that empathy and understanding is possible for other people to feel towards you. It is highly likely that you learned this by growing up in environments where when others saw something about you that they disapproved of, the consequences were dire. You have learned that you can’t expect understanding, empathy, compassion and guiding instead of punishing from people. Because of this, you are socially anxious.
Obviously, embarrassment is an oppositional force to expressed authenticity. To express what is authentic is to exhibit what is real about you. And if we are dedicated to avoiding embarrassment, we will only exhibit what is sure to help us to attain social rewards and avoid social consequences.
All this being said, what should you do to cut through the embarrassment?
Immediately imagine the incident from the perspective of an outsider and then imagine another person doing the same thing. You will find that almost everything we feel embarrassed about isn’t as bad when you imagine it this way. For example, if you accidentally tripped over the sidewalk, close your eyes and imagine watching yourself doing it from the outside as if you are an observer. Then, imagine watching someone else trip in the exact same way. What do you think about them? How do you feel towards them? If you imagine that person tripping, chances are you will see it is no big deal and that other people are probably not thinking what you think they are thinking about you.
Embarrassment is all about not wanting and therefore avoiding and not choosing the social consequences. This brings you to a choice point, you either 1. Hide things from others in society to avoid the social consequences. 2. Agree with society and change that thing about yourself that society disapproves of and right your wrongs, or 3. Consciously oppose society’s perspective and change other people’s minds.
The antidote to embarrassment is to consciously choose the potential or actual social consequence or conflict in the name of something greater. For example, there can come a point when choosing to live authentically can provide greater payoff than the payoff of avoiding social disapproval. If you can find a way to actually be proud of whatever may cause you to meet with societal disapproval, you will not feel embarrassment. You have to decide that the thing being seen about you will lead to a greater payoff than societal approval. Or at the very least, that the thing being seen about you will lead to greater social approval in one social sphere, even if it leads you to less social approval in another. If you don’t see that people seeing that thing about you is going to get you something greater than the social approval, the pay off wont be worth it.
An example of how embarrassment can be diminished by consciously choosing social conflict is that if we see that exposing something about our self will help absolve someone else of their shame and sense of isolation, we will most likely feel much less embarrassed for people to see that thing about us. We are inclined to choose a sense of goodness and rightness over our aversion to embarrassment. Which is why often for the sake of what we perceive to be morally right, we will choose to expose something about ourselves that may line us up with social consequences.
Practice self-empathy. If we struggle with embarrassment, we tend to work extremely hard to maintain an acceptable image. We are like prison masters beating ourselves into the perfect way of being and acting. We govern ourselves with very little empathy. If you feel embarrassment for something, can you try to understand yourself and relate to yourself to the degree that you can let yourself off the hook? We develop self-compassion when we are present with the part of us that we perceive made the mistake or exhibited the behavior or character trait; or the part of us that is afflicted with a condition. As if this part of you is a separate person, see if you can look for ways that you relate to his or her pain. How is your pain the same as their pain? Can you identify their pain? See the past belonging to that part of you. Remember when you experienced that pain. Remember what that felt like. Remember what you thought. What did you really need back then when you were in that pain? How can you provide that for yourself and for other people now?
Take immediate responsibility for whatever has been exposed. Then convert the embarrassment into humor and connection. This will not only cause you to feel better about yourself, it will change how other people view you. You will most likely be back in social favor. People love when other people take responsibility and fully own their faux pas. They love it even more when people make fun of themselves. You will have converted something that would normally make you meet with social consequences into something that will make you meet with social approval because of the way they estimate your character if you are able to own things and laugh at yourself. Just make sure this isn’t perceived as a betrayal by one of your parts. To understand more about this, watch my video titled: Fragmentation, The Worldwide Disease.
Also, convert the embarrassment into connection through common embarrassment. It can help immensely if we compare whatever we feel embarrassed about to other people who have experienced similar embarrassments. It will make us feel as if we are not so singled out in the embarrassment. The main pain embarrassment causes is the perception of being pushed away from others because of their diminished perspective of us. If we connect through stories of similar embarrassments, we can restore that sense of being pulled in and included instead of pushed away.
Stop expecting yourself to not care what other people think of you and instead learn how to be afraid. The desire to be close to other people is normal and natural. You are part of a group species. The sensation of embarrassment is telling you that you are at risk. This means you are afraid. You are afraid of social consequences, real or imagined. Don’t make an enemy of your desire to be close to others and valued and loved by them. Just learn how to tolerate and caretake your fear. We have an absolute intolerance for fear. But this makes it so our embarrassment is debilitating and controls our life. For more information about this and about how to overcome the jail that constantly avoiding other people’s opinions of you can be, watch my video titled: How To Stop Caring What Other People Think Of You. Also, pick up a copy of my book, The Anatomy of Loneliness, in which I have an entire section dedicated to Fear.
If you have to change your own mind about something being bad or wrong or reprehensible, then you are in shame. You believe that something you are embarrassed about is wrong or bad and implies something bad or wrong about you as a person. This is why you want no one to see it and are humiliated if someone does. The obvious way to change this is to really examine whether that something you are embarrassed about is actually wrong, bad or worthy of disapproval. The best approach may be to change your perspective about that thing so you no longer see it as wrong and bad or at the very least, no longer see it as something that is wrong or bad for other people to see. Unlike shame, embarrassment is usually the direct result of a specific situation and tends to be situation dependent. Shame tends to be much deeper. It is a judgment of ourselves as being bad instead of doing bad. It implies moral wrongness and reprehensibility. It is the act of pushing a part of ourselves away so as to gain social acceptance. It doesn’t tend to be situation dependent. If we struggle intensely with embarrassment, we may actually suffer from a baseline self concept of shame. If this is the case, I ask you to watch my video titled: How To Overcome Shame and pick up a copy of my book The Anatomy of Loneliness, in which I have an entire section of the book dedicated purely to understanding and overcoming shame.
Visualize yourself handing embarrassing situations. This works especially well if you are already preparing for some socially unacceptable thing associated with you (such as a frowned upon act or behavior or character trait or condition) to be witnessed or revealed to others. Imagine working through that situation before doing it in the external world. And imagine it going well. This may not only reveal the best way to handle the situation, it will also increase your confidence in terms of facing the potential social consequences. You may even discover how to avoid them all together.
- If an embarrassment has happened, do not bother at all with “what if” or “if only” scenarios. It has already happened. Focusing any energy on how something could have gone different is fighting with what is. You have to accept what is. You can make things different in the future, but you cannot change what happened. Embrace whatever has been exposed or any mistake you have made. To accept is to recognize something as valid or correct. Doing this makes your being consent to receiving it and digesting it as truth instead of fighting to not acknowledge it and not take it in. Acceptance has nothing to do with condoning something or condemning something. It has nothing to do with whether you want to change something or not. It is simply about being able to acknowledge something as valid enough to let that acknowledgement in instead of fight to keep it out. When we don’t accept something that led to embarrassment, we will react in ways that lead to more embarrassment and social consequences that we want to avoid.
As people, we are moving into a space of consciousness where we do not behave and act and do things purely to receive social reward and avoid social consequences, but because after becoming aware, we will choose with our free will to live and express our self in a way that is in alignment with our authenticity. We will be living intrinsically instead of molding our self for extrinsic reward. As part of this, society will move away from punishment and reward and let go of the idea that the only way to establish social order is to educate people away from their own nature and into alignment with the collective social values and social ideals. Until then, you always have the choice to consciously choose the potential or actual social consequence in the name of something greater.