We have all felt the harsh, burning glare of embarrassment, a self-conscious emotion that can cause us much pain. I compare it to being pinned like a bug to a specimen board for inspection or pierced by the spotlight of an audience’s intense focus. We feel exposed and our instinct is to hide. To make matters worse, the awkwardness we experience when we are embarrassed drains away all our grace and eloquence, creating a vicious cycle.
Embarrassment is a cousin to shame, differing in its need for an audience – shame can be an entirely private experience while embarrassment is always a public affair. It’s a reaction we have to unwanted attention. In addition, we can feel embarrassed by seemingly positive experiences like receiving praise, recognition or affection. In contrast, shame always involves a sense of inadequacy or self-blame.
Just like the other self-conscious emotions, embarrassment can be socially advantageous. When others detect that we are embarrassed by our blunders and faux pas, we tend to be perceived as more likable. Plus, this sense of concern about how others view us can serve as a powerful motivator of prosocial behavior. We want to be seen as the kind of person we think others would approve of and this impacts our choices and actions.
Knowledge is power. We can explore our own experience of embarrassment by noticing what happens inside us when this emotion arises. What thoughts are associated with this feeling? What body sensations are present? What urges come up and how do we tend to react? What are the consequences of our actions? When you look closely, you will likely discover that there is always an “I, me or mine” attached to the experience of embarrassment.
We can experiment by noticing what happens when we detect the excessive self-referencing thoughts (comparing, self-judging, taking ownership) that tend to occur in our public interactions and set them aside for a moment. How does this play out? Are the thoughts, body sensations and urges any different when we do so? How does this impact our response and the consequences of our actions? We may notice that we are interacting with the world with fewer defenses, allowing us to relate with greater authenticity and ease.
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
– Derek Walcott, Love After Love