After my second year of law school, I became a summer associate at a corporate law firm in London. It was the sort of place where the women wore power suits and the guys rocked pocket squares and everyone walked around with a certain “Ah, why yes, how do you do?” vibe at all times. What the industry calls a white-shoe firm, which I quickly learned did not mean I could wear white shoes at the office. Only the senior partners could get away with that.
So, not exactly my scene. But it was prestigious and exciting, and it was my only real summer offer, given that I’d spent about five minutes thinking about my future career during the previous semester. So I accepted.
I can’t say I knocked it out of the park, but I didn’t burn the place down, either. At the end of the summer, an HR rep and a senior partner invited me in for a final performance review slash exit interview, which I thought was a nice way to wrap things up.
After some general compliments, the HR rep told me that the firm would be giving me an offer for full-time employment. Yee-haw! I thought, nodding appreciatively. I made it through and they wanted me back. Mission accomplished.
Then came the performance review.
The partner explained that I hadn’t managed expectations very well. My attunement to partner needs could have been stronger. My client-facing skills needed work. My passion for the finer points of contract law was less than obvious. As he went down the list, he told me off in that brutal way that only lawyers can, twisting the knife with each criticism.
As he did, my heart sank. My face grew hot. My blood pressure skyrocketed. I felt dumb, irresponsible, unwanted. I felt exposed. Even now, I can still feel that paralyzing sensation working its way through my body: the primal grip of embarrassment.
Given all that, the HR rep explained, I probably wouldn’t be able to work on the cases I was interested in if I returned. There was a decent chance I’d be sent to another office, in another department, which sounded a lot like some hellish backwater of the firm.
“So this might not be exactly what you’re looking for,” she concluded, with a tight smile.
And that’s when I realized that I was being given what’s known as a “cold offer.”
They were giving me a job offer, sure, but it was an offer designed to make me turn it down. That way, they could still claim that they offer 100% of their summer associates a full-time job — excellent bait for future hires — without having to keep the associates they didn’t actually want.
Associates like me.
Over the next couple days, that acute embarrassment settled into a more generalized shame.
I had failed to get an offer, and I wasn’t even respected enough to be openly rejected. I wanted to belong, and I had been dismissed. I thought about the partners silently despising me all summer. I imagined my colleagues at the firm gossiping about my sudden exit. And I thought about my law school peers wondering why I wasn’t employable.
It was alienating and exhausting and, if I’m being totally honest, pretty humiliating.
The feeling followed me around until I decided to talk about it with my parents and my friends, who slowly helped me realize that the firm had actually done me a huge favor. I didn’t want to believe that it wasn’t a good fit, but it was painfully obvious from the start. Knowing that I’d thrive in the right environment, a bunch of my friends rallied to help me land interviews at other places, which ultimately led me to a much better firm after graduation, where I eventually discovered the relationship philosophy that would change my life. And the more I reflected on that humiliation, the more it revealed what truly mattered to me in life.
None of which would have been possible without that traumatizing bout of embarrassment. Looking back, I now see that that experience with shame — and probably dozens more of varying degrees — have actually been powerful teachers.
Over time, I’ve learned to study them in a way that advances rather than paralyzes me. That’s what we’ll be exploring in this piece.
The Roots of Embarrassment
We spend a lot of our time and energy, consciously and unconsciously, avoiding embarrassment. And for good reason: The experience of shame is so uncomfortable, so threatening to our sense of self, that we’d do almost anything to avoid it.
So we tend to shy away from challenging situations, avoid taking risks we don’t absolutely need to take, and stick to familiar rules, all to avoid that awful feeling of humiliation. Many people architect their entire lives around this vulnerability. Some of them actually succeed in never embarrassing themselves at all. From their perspective, a life without humiliation is a life well lived.
Given all that, you might be hoping for an article about how to avoid falling flat on your face. But “10 Awesome Ways to Never Feel Ashamed!” is not a piece I’m interested in writing. For one thing, I don’t believe we should avoid it. For another, embarrassment is impossible to avoid. (I mean, trust me. I’ve tried to do this and failed, much to my, uh… embarrassment.)
Charles Darwin once pointed out that the act of blushing — caused by shyness, and more broadly embarrassment — “makes the blusher to suffer and the beholder uncomfortable … without being of the least service to either of them.”
Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the nature and function of embarrassment. And with all due respect to Papa Darwin, a number of new studies now show that embarrassment actually is of service to human beings.
One remarkable study, for example, found that social emotions like shame developed in response to the rise of cooperative social groups.
As our tribes became more tight-knit and pro-social, we developed moral and legal systems that increased the reproductive success of people who functioned well in those environments. But in order to conform to those systems — and to know who didn’t — we had to be able to reflect certain feelings about them.
The researchers concluded that embarrassment helped us distinguish between “good” people, who were willing to cooperate, and “bad” people, who would take advantage of others. That function still plays out out today: You’re more likely to support the conscientious person who cleans up after herself in the office kitchen, and sideline the egostistical a-hole who expects someone else to do it for him.
In short, our shame about other people’s behavior tells us who is cool and who’s a d*ck — and therefore who deserves the rewards of our society. In that way, embarrassment becomes the glue that holds our system together.
But it’s not just about knowing whom to trust and whom to keep an eye on. It’s also about knowing where we stand in the tribe.
Another team of researchers investigating shame concluded that embarrassment evolved as a defense against being devalued by other people.
Interestingly, this team treated shame as a “neurocomputational program” — a sort of primitive moral software that enabled thought, movement, and behavior that kept us in line.
That program deters humans “from making choices where the prospective costs of devaluation” — that is, a demotion in social standing — exceed the benefits. It also helps prevent “negative information about the self from reaching others,” all in service of “minimizing the adverse effects of devaluation when it occurs.”
In other words, embarrassment evolved to preserve our status within society.
By preventing us from pursuing actions that might put our social standing at risk, shame keeps our reputations intact, minimizing (if not avoiding) the effects of social devaluation.
If shame didn’t check our impulses in that way, we’d probably engage in behavior that compromised our status, survival, and reproductive odds — which explains why participants’ level of shame was calibrated to the magnitude of the potential loss of social status involved. In other words, the more we risk our reputations, the more embarrassed we feel.
These dynamics still apply in the modern world. Every high schooler who’s embarrassed himself in class knows just how powerful the shame mechanism is. The reputational costs of embarrassment in a closed social organization like a school or a friend group are high; the risk of exclusion is dangerous and primal. But even adults feel the evolutionary pull of embarrassment when they make a mistake at work, fumble a speech, or make a scene in a restaurant. The connection between reputation and humiliation follows us throughout our lives.
Still, there are two sides to this evolutionary coin. While shame is designed to cement our social standing, it’s also designed to teach us about ourselves — if we choose to study it consciously.
When we do, we find that our embarrassment actually contains the seeds of growth, and offers a number of unexpected upsides. That process begins with realizing that there is no true escape from embarrassment.
Embarrassment will get you, one way or the other.
Charlie, a listener of the show, recently wrote me to talk about his career frustrations.
He had a number of big goals — to get promoted at his ad agency, to apply to business schools, to host monthly mixers to meet other marketing executives in his field — but felt paralyzed in pursuing any of them. A generalized anxiety and fear kept him stuck in place.
When I asked him what he was afraid of, Charlie pinpointed his fear of failure. The prospect of being denied a promotion, of not getting into business school, of hosting an event that no one attended — these all filled Charlie with dread. So we dug in.
“What would happen, really, if you hosted an event that only a few people attended?” I asked. “Like what would the feeling be?”
After a pause, he said, “I guess I’d feel dumb, and everyone would know.”
“And then what?
“And then I’d feel humiliated.”
“And what would happen if you felt humiliated?” I asked, flashing back to my exit interview.
“Then I’d seem unattractive, I guess, and I’d take a huge hit to my social life, and no one would want to hang with me. Which I know is ridiculous, but that’s how it feels.”
“And how do you feel about that feeling right now?”
He laughed a little, putting the pieces together. “I feel embarrassed. Embarrassed that I’m embarrassed about something so ridiculous.”
Boom. In that moment, we isolated a fear that every single one of us can relate to. Charlie went on to explain that he had the same feeling about his promotion and his b-school applications, which was why he’d been avoiding them.
Charlie was so determined not to be embarrassed, he avoided pursuing any goals that would set him up to experience that unpleasant emotion.
But in the process of inoculating himself against embarrassment, he was experiencing it anyway, and possibly even more. He was embarrassed by the fact that his embarrassment meant so much to him.
We can’t escape shame. And shame about shame is often the most debilitating.
We have to see this phenomenon for what it is. Human beings will go to great lengths to avoid being humiliated, but they’ll conveniently repress their humiliation about working so hard to avoid it. Even if we don’t consciously realize we’re doing it, our bodies and our minds know, deep down, that we’re self-protecting at the expense of our growth. Once we do realize it, it becomes much harder to get away with.
We can’t avoid embarrassment. We can, however, choose how we get to experience it.
We can either experience it by pushing past our comfort zones, taking on ambitious goals and challenges, and putting ourselves in a position to fail, sometimes publicly, sometimes painfully.
Or we can stay within our comfort zones, protecting ourselves from the possibility of embarrassment — but instead feel embarrassed about our desire for safety over growth. Which, in my experience, is a more destructive and longer-lasting type of shame.
So we have a choice.
Knowing that we’ll be embarrassed either way, we get to choose one source of shame over the other. One source moves us closer to what we want, and the price is occasional humiliation. The other source keeps us stuck in place, and the price is meta-humiliation.
We have to actively choose the former if we’re going to grow. When we do, we open ourselves up to capitalize on one of the biggest benefits of embarrassment.
Embarrassment shows you where you need to grow.
After we worked through the layers of Charlie’s embarrassment, we explored another of his beliefs about shame. Instead of thinking about it as an indication of his weakness, we decided to look at it as an indication of where he needed to grow.
Embarrassment — or the threat of it — develops at the outer edge of comfort and experience. That’s where our existing skill sets end, our experience levels off, and the possibility of confusion and doubt and failure sets in.
The point at which you worry about embarrassing yourself is the point at which you grow — and need to grow.
So humiliation can be a powerful north star to follow in life.
We might not always know the best career move, the perfect life path, the ideal learning opportunity. But we generally know where we stand the greatest chance of embarrassment.
And if we know that, then we can be certain we’re confronting precisely that territory that will force us to get better. If you follow that fear, then you turn embarrassment into a powerful guide.
Over the following year, Charlie did exactly that. He reframed his belief about shame, choosing to view it as an indicator of what mattered to him rather than a mortal threat to be avoided.
Interestingly, he said his fear didn’t immediately decrease. In fact, when he finally committed to applying to business school and building his social circle, it actually increased. (For the first time in his life, he was in the game, which, as we all know, can be terrifying.)
But he said the fear was balanced by some new experiences: curiosity (about himself, about his values, about life in general), excitement (about what was possible for him now), and an unfamiliar sense of empowerment.
As it happened, Charlie still experienced his fair share of embarrassment. He was passed over for his first promotion. It took a couple events to build up his new social crew. And he didn’t get into his top two business schools.
But he also landed some huge wins. He ended up carving out his own role at the agency that pushed him to develop as an account manager and strategist. He honed his skills as a host as he learned to build up his mixers. And he ultimately accepted an offer from a terrific business school that offered the mix of marketing and strategy expertise he really needed at that stage in his career.
Through it all, Charlie reminded himself that occasional embarrassment wasn’t just unavoidable, but a continuing indication that he was on the right track. If these goals of his weren’t meaningful, why would it hurt when he fell short of them? Shouldn’t he be more concerned if pursuing his goals didn’t embarrass him from time to time? (All great questions that come from viewing embarrassment as a teacher.)
Charlie also discovered another interesting aspect to embarrassment: the way it changed his relationships with other people.
Embarrassment builds trust, rapport, and deep relationships.
As we’ve seen, embarrassment is a universal experience. It’s something every single person on earth shares, whether or not they want to admit it. Because it’s universal, it bonds us together. When we notice embarrassment in someone else, we connect to it. When someone accepts our own embarrassment, we feel grateful for their recognition.
That recognition of shame, in both directions, is the lifeblood of empathy. Seeing our own struggle with embarrassment in someone else gives us a shared experience. And when we discuss our embarrassment openly with other people, we create two powerful experiences that build strong connection.
First, discussing embarrassment reduces the shame surrounding it.
As we talk about on the podcast, it’s the secrets we all share that cause us the most pain. When we think we’re alone in a particular experience, we feel more isolated, less understood, more ashamed.
The cure for that suffering is vulnerability — the willingness to share those parts of ourselves we find the least attractive. For many of us, embarrassment is at the top of the list.
When we open up about embarrassment, we acknowledge our shame to another person. That experience alone can be transformative. It might be with a therapist, a trusted friend, or a good mentor. It might be in an online forum, a Reddit thread, or a Facebook group. But the effect is the same: it reduces the stigma and shame, and opens a window to release that private struggle.
At least half of suffering is suffering alone. Secrets become burdens that are often heavier than the original trauma, and they create more and more layers of pain. We feel embarrassed, and then we feel embarrassed about being embarrassed. So we hide our embarrassment from other people, which is even more embarrassing. We then anticipate even more embarrassment when people discover just how embarrassed we really are. Which is a whole other layer of embarrassment on top of the original embarrassment!
Before we know it, the costs of owning our shame are just too high, and we start to internalize it, which is a great recipe for inauthenticity, anxiety, and depression.
It took me a long time to realize that we can short-circuit that whole painful process by opening up about our shame. Even if it’s just a little.
That’s why I try to publicize my failures and shortcomings with friends and on the show. I still don’t find it easy, but I do find it therapeutic. When I discuss my embarrassment, I feel more exposed, but I also feel more honest, more understood. Just by owning my embarrassment out loud, I open myself up to more meaningful interactions — which leads to the next benefit.
Second, acknowledging embarrassment invites others to empathize and do the same.
As we’ve discussed, every human being gets embarrassed, and most humans work very hard to hide that fact. So when someone actually acknowledges their embarrassment out loud, we’re wired to empathize with them. They reveal the humanity most of us are too terrified to reveal ourselves.
In many cases, acknowledging embarrassment also gives the other person permission to acknowledge their own. They see that it’s a safe experience to discuss. They understand they’re in the company of someone secure with this difficult emotion. And so they feel more comfortable sharing a piece of themselves in return. That sends the empathy flowing in the other direction, creating trust, rapport, and meaningful connection.
That’s another experience Charlie discovered in his year of exploring embarrassment.
At one of his social events, for example, he decided to tell a couple of his guests how nervous he was about the turnout. To his surprise, they talked about their anxieties about hosting, and told him how grateful they were that someone else had taken the lead on organizing drinks. When he didn’t get into original b-school choices, he decided to talk about his struggle with his friends and family. They shared their own stories of rejection and setback, which gave him some much-needed perspective, empathy, and vulnerability.
Charlie was amazed to find that the more he owned and discussed his embarrassment, the stronger his relationships became. But he also quickly realized that this was no accident. When he avoided embarrassment, he shut down his capacity for vulnerability. When he courted embarrassment, he had more depth and empathy to offer other people.
He used to believe that his relationships only succeeded when he wasn’t a downer. He learned that his relationships actually thrived when he was fully himself.
Contrary to popular belief, embarrassment is actually a powerful networking tool.
And the latest scientific research backs this up.
One fascinating study, for instance, found that embarrassment fosters trust and signals the embarrassed person’s commitment to form social bonds.
When we recognize embarrassment in someone else, we recognize their prosociality. In response, the researchers explain, we send our own signals, “including greater trust and desire to affiliate with the embarrassed individual.”
The study ultimately found that people who are more embarrassable also report greater prosociality, and behaved more generously than their less embarrassable counterparts.
Even more interestingly, observers were more willing to give resources to and affiliate with embarrassable people, because they viewed these people as more positive, helpful, and interested in building relationships.
Wrap your head around that: You can actually build a better network by being willing to be embarrassed!
And that finding was backed up by multiple other studies, including one from the University of California, Berkeley, which found that people who are easily embarrassed are also more trustworthy and more generous.
Fascinating, right? Most of us walk around trying desperately to appear bulletproof and unflappable, especially when we meet new people.
But the science shows that we’re more willing to trust and build relationships with people who display embarrassment — probably because embarrassed people are emotionally available people who have a stake in the world of which we’re all a part.
Embarrassment usually isolates us. But if we own it, embarrassment actually bonds us.
Just as embarrassment can become a great teacher, it can also become a great connector. The difference is in how we respond to it.
If we run from embarrassment, it teaches us very little. If we refuse to acknowledge it, it moves us further away from other people. But if we own it — in the right amounts, with the right people, in the right ways — it can actually be a powerful source of intimacy.
Embarrassment can motivate you into action.
Embarrassment about events in the past is generally unproductive. But embarrassment can be immensely useful when it’s about the future.
Because anticipating your embarrassment in a future scenario — like an upcoming presentation or a bill that needs to be paid — can be a powerful motivator to do the work necessary to avoid an undesirable outcome.
This is another interesting function of embarrassment: its ability to imagine the future and compel us into action.
If we know we’ll look silly presenting material we’re not familiar with, we’re more likely to put in the time to prepare. If we know we’ll be humiliated to miss a deadline or carry a debt, we’re more likely to plan out our work or pay that bill.
It might be a little narcissistic, but avoiding future shame can be an excellent reason to act. But to really capitalize on that motivation, we have to work through our future embarrassment deliberately.
First, imagine how you’ll feel if an undesirable results comes to pass.
Ask yourself a few questions about the scenario at hand. What would happen if you miss that deadline? How will people see you if you flail in front of that audience? How would you view yourself if you compromised your team’s chances of winning that contract?
As you do, parse the different emotions that come up — fear, anxiety, excitement — and follow the specific emotion of embarrassment. Notice how this hypothetical shame feels in your mind and in your body. Take stock of the discomfort of the emotion. Allow it to exist, just for this moment, as you reflect on the task ahead of you.
At this stage, we’re basically engaging in the opposite of positive thinking, which can be a powerful tool. In just a moment, we’ll work our way back to an optimistic scenario. But first, we have to acknowledge the consequences of failing to prepare for the future.
Then, recognize this hypothetical embarrassment as a gift.
Most of the time, we experience future embarrassment as pure fear and anxiety — dread about events that haven’t happened yet.
But by consciously entering the experience, we can choose to look at this future embarrassment as a gift — a message from our future selves about what we need to do right now.
That simple reframe is a powerful way of ratcheting down the anxious response and converting it into something much more productive: raw motivation.
Next, determine the specific course of action to take.
Of course, that raw motivation needs to attach to a specific goal. Without a set of actionable steps, this future embarrassment will convert back into raw anxiety, keeping us stuck in the experience of dread about our own humiliation.
Work backward from the undesirable outcome to the specific actions you need to take to avoid it. What do you need to study to nail that exam? How many practice reps do you need to nail that pitch? What does your team expect of you to help land the contract? Which specific activities, behaviors, mindsets, and responsibilities do you need to take on to avoid embarrassing yourself?
Write these down. If it helps, turn them into a checklist or roadmap. If necessary, break them into smaller activities that you can tackle individually. You can even add dates and incentives to make sure you complete them on time.
The important thing here is to be realistic and pragmatic. Imagining your future embarrassment is only productive if you convert it into action. Otherwise, it’s emotional indulgence — another clever way to suffer unnecessarily.
Finally, pursue your course of action, using embarrassment as fuel.
The most important step, of course, is to actually complete the tasks you’ve set out for yourself.
As you do, periodically check in to remember why you’re preparing so diligently in the first place. Imagine that future self after the big exam, presentation, or pitch. If necessary, picture how you’ll feel if it goes poorly. Resist the urge to overindulge that thought, but use it to recreate the stakes of your action plan, especially when you lose momentum.
This simple process allows you to convert future embarrassment into present action.
If you move through each stage consciously, you’ll find that this common source of pain — reflecting on a future negative outcome — can actually become a powerful tool, if you use it correctly.
Fear and anxiety tend to be unproductive emotions, because they deal in vague (and often absurd) hypotheticals, and usually keep us stuck where we are.
But embarrassment is different. Because it attaches to specific outcomes — and hooks into how we feel about ourselves, as well as how other people see us — it gives us a vivid glimpse of a future scenario we can work to avoid.
If we imagine that future scenario, and then consciously work our way back to the present, we can use our own healthy narcissism as a powerful motivator.
Embarrassment makes you a better person.
As we saw earlier, shame evolved in human beings as a kind of moral operating system — an emotion designed to keep us in check and enable society to function.
While the world has changed dramatically in the last 100,000 years, embarrassment still plays this essential role in our behavior. Without it, we’d probably be significantly worse creatures.
Most of us would like to believe that we’d behave appropriately without the fear of being embarrassed, but the truth is, our narcissism plays a big role in how we act. And that’s not inherently a bad thing.
Just as we can use our embarrassment to motivate ourselves, we can also use our embarrassment to do the right thing.
Anticipating our own shame can keep us on the right path. We can imagine how we’d feel if we cheated on an exam — or if we were caught — and choose to put in the time to study. We can imagine the consequences of playing fast and loose with the rules of a vendor bid, and engage in the selection process fairly.
This might seem painfully obvious — most of us, after all, are respectful people with a healthy interest in protecting our reputations — but embarrassment as a moral check becomes especially useful in ambiguous scenarios.
The early days of entrepreneurship, for example, involve hundreds of decisions that make or break a company’s prospects for success. The temptation to skirt regulations, take risks with data, fight for new customers and beat out the competition is insanely high. The market often rewards people who are not afraid to bend the rules or break convention. The upside to amoral behavior and unfair practices can be huge. And that makes it hard to see the downside, which, as we’ve seen with big tech companies lately, is also considerable.
In those scenarios, having a firm grasp of our own embarrassment can be a powerful barometer.
Would misusing customer data make you look bad later? Would you be able to walk into a room of your peers if they found out that you backstabbed a competitor? How would you tell your partner, family, and friends about a shady decision if it came to light?
The same principle applies in our private lives. The temptation to be cruel, betray a friend, promote your own interests over a family member’s — all of these scenarios require complex ethical choices. Often, the implications of those choices are obscured by privacy or secrecy. But if we imagine them coming to light, we can picture how we’d feel about ourselves — and how other people would feel about us — and use that hypothetical embarrassment to inform our decision in the present.
Reflecting on your future shame will help dictate your behavior in ambiguous and complicated situations.
There’s something powerful and clarifying about embarrassment. While our minds can argue both sides of an issue, and our reptilian brains focus on immediate rewards over long-term risk, reflecting on our own embarrassment will usually lead us to a clear and meaningful insight (whatever that particular insight is).
There’s no ambiguity about our own shame: we’re either ashamed or we’re not. There’s little nuance to embarrassment. We’ve either done something wrong, or we haven’t.
Of course, it’s up to us to decide whether our embarrassment is warranted, whether we can live with it, and whether avoiding it aligns with our values and interests. These are personal choices.
At the very least, envisioning our future embarrassment provides important data to consider in our moral calculations. If we reflect on our embarrassment in that way, it can actually make us better people.
Embarrassment is often unnecessary.
We’ve talked a lot in this piece about how powerful embarrassment is. But it’s also worth recognizing when embarrassment is unnecessary.
Most of us believe that we are constantly being noticed by other people. Because we’re at the center of our own worlds — locked into our own subjective experience, a construct known as egocentric bias — we have a wildly distorted assumption about how much people care about what we do. We experience ourselves as ourselves, constantly obsessing over everything we do, and then assume that everyone else obsesses about us just as much — especially when we do something out of the ordinary.
That phenomenon is called the spotlight effect. A large body of research has developed around the concept, and it all confirms that the spotlight effect distorts our self-perception.
Interestingly, embarrassment in particular seems to play a major role in how intensely we feel the spotlight effect in our lives.
One major study by the original theorists, for example, found that we feel the spotlight effect most acutely when there are perceivably embarrassing factors at play, such as wearing an embarrassing t-shirt. Participants who were asked to wear a flattering or potentially embarrassing t-shirt overestimated the number of observers who would be able to remember what was on the t-shirt — a familiar feeling for most of us.
Participants in the study also overestimated how “prominent” their positive and negative statements were to other people in the group. If you’ve ever felt self-conscious about speaking up in a meeting or asking a question in a big lecture hall, then that should also put your at ease.
As a result, the researchers concluded, people basically lock onto their own inner mental-emotional experiences of themselves when they navigate the world. And even though they try to adjust that view by taking into account other people’s perspectives, they generally fail. What they end up with is a wildly skewed perception of how much people are paying attention to them, because they’re trapped in their own magnified self-experience.
When we feel embarrassed, we’re usually overestimating how much people care (or even notice) what we’ve done.
We feel our embarrassment so acutely because we’re the ones experiencing ourselves, which puts us closest to the action. While we fixate on what other people think of us, they’re similarly locked in their own experience, experiencing the exact same phenomenon themselves — possibly even more embarrassed about their reaction to our embarrassment than they are about us. Talk about a hall of mirrors!
What does this all mean?
Embarrassment is often disproportionate to the cause, and sometimes it’s completely unwarranted.
So when it arises, it’s worth asking a few questions:
- Why am I embarrassed right now?
- How much of my embarrassment is due to other people having seen me?
- Is my egocentric bias making this feel more important than it is?
- Are other people as fixated on me in this moment as I think?
- If I saw myself from another person’s perspective — or a neutral third-party perspective — what would I think?
- Is that experience different from the one I’m having right now?
- If I saw my own behavior in someone else, what would I think?
These questions are designed to shift you out of that subjective experience, even if just for a moment. If you genuinely answer them, you’ll give yourself a ton of new data to calibrate your experience. Usually, this data will reveal that our embarrassment is grounded in a hyper-subjective sense of self, and probably unwarranted.
Sometimes the most useful thing our embarrassment can teach us is that we’re just not as important to other people as we think.
Which, in my experience, is incredibly liberating.
The Gift of Embarrassment
We spend a lot of energy running away from our negative emotions. Fear, envy, anxiety, depression — all of these experiences can be so difficult that we’d do anything to avoid them.
But if we choose to embrace them, we end up discovering that these experiences actually have a great deal to teach us. The pain they create is only one side of the coin. The other side is insight, empathy, and self-knowledge. We can consciously choose to embrace both sides. When we do, we convert a monolithically painful emotion into a surprisingly beneficial one.
Embarrassment is one of the most interesting emotions available to us. While it threatens to compromise our sense of self, it actually moves us closer to that sense of self. It points toward those qualities and goals that truly matter to us. It reveals our growth opportunities and exposes the narcissism standing in our way. It motivates us to prepare for the future and reflects our inner moral compass. In the process, it makes us more responsible, more empathetic, and more available in relationships.
But for all those benefits to kick in, we have to stop running from embarrassment, and start owning it. Only then does embarrassment become a superpower.
[Featured image by Dmitry Ratushny]