Unchecked, embarrassment can lead to feelings of deep shame and guilt. But the feeling is often oversized and likely easier to confront than you think.
We all get embarrassed. Stupid sentences fly out of our mouths. We’re met with the blaring sound of alarms when we open fire doors by mistakes. We do that weird oh-no-after-you dance with strangers on the sidewalk. Someone tells a story about you that makes your face go flush.
Embarrassment is aggravating and humbling, yes. But it can also be insidious. It can cause us to wake up in the middle of the night with the same hot shame we felt when we spoke out of turn, were mocked, or messed up. The feeling can linger for days, years, or even decades. It’s entirely unproductive. Unchecked, it can turn into deep feelings of shame or guilt.
Still, it’s hard to own up to feeling embarrassed or ashamed of our behavior in the moment. For one, it requires a level of emotional vulnerability and accountability for actions that many of us, especially men, find difficult to swallow. Vulnerability is hard enough; being vulnerable enough to admit an uncomfortable emotion, or a screw-up, or something we feel bad about? Even harder.
But it’s certainly not impossible. Every single approach should get at the heart of the matter, which is that without admitting embarrassment or shame, people and relationships cannot grow, change, or heal. Allowing the sensations of embarrassment fester can be disastrous. Worse, it can lead to resentment in relationships or an unwillingness to be open in other areas. Still, expressing emotions the right way is difficult.
So what can you do? Well, it helps to understand the inner-workings of embarrassment and arm yourself with some tools to better respond. And once you know how to better deal with embarrassment, you can help your kids do the same.
Why Do We Feel Embarrassment?
Embarrassment is often a secondary emotion notes Dr. Logan Jones, a New York based psychiatrist. Feelings of embarrassment stem from two baser emotions, guilt and shame, as well as feelings of being hurt, angry, or scared.
The sentiment behind expressing the emotions behind embarrassment is taking accountability for doing a bad thing, or messing up, or saying something off-color. Owning up to that sensation — whether or not it’s your fault or the fault of people around you — helps create intimacy in relationships, gives others guidance on how to deal with their emotions when they are feeling their own embarrassment, and sets a good example for children.
“Emotional energy has to go somewhere,” says Dr. Jones. “So, one way to discharge emotional energy is to name it and speak to it and normalize it.”
If you don’t acknowledge emotions, and you don’t use them in a healthy way, explains Dr. Jones, then they create problems. It’s better to acknowledge, and come out and say, ‘This is an area of weakness for me. This is an insecurity of mine. This is something I need to work on. It makes me self-conscious.’
In other words, owning up to, and speaking out feelings of embarrassment into existence is a great way to stop them from spiraling into darker, deeper emotions. It also creates honesty in personal relationships and helps people get a sense of if they are overthinking “it.”
After all, says Dr. Jones, a lot of times people carry lots of embarrassment about things that might have happened around with them when the other people in the situation don’t think about that moment at all.
“Many people feel embarrassed when they don’t need to be. Because they’re so self-critical, they actually project onto the world, or project onto others, their own self-critique, their own self-hatred. So, that’s kind of another source of embarrassment,” says Dr. Jones.
Dr. Jones also wants people to realize that there are some positives about feeling embarrassed. Self-awareness is one of them. “Sometimes we do slip up. We say something that’s callous. We have a prejudiced thought. There has to be a way to use shame and embarrassment to make amends, and to improve. So, that would be a positive reason to speak up.”
Why Embarrassment Is So Difficult To Admit
Despite the clear positives that come with being open, honest, and willing to take accountability, many struggle to accept — and vocally name — their feelings of embarrassment.
“As a therapist, I see people presenting with a lot of shame around emotions and self loathing and perfectionism and being high-achieving,” says Dr. Jones. With men in particular there’s a great deal of shame around emotional expression and vulnerability. Admitting weakness is hard. So is saying that you feel self-conscious about something.
“Men are prone to embarrassment,” he says, “but they may not use that word very easily, or acknowledge it readily.”
There’s also, of course, the risk that emotional vulnerability won’t work out. Sometimes, we open up to people who are not willing to be good listeners — or who aren’t willing to be kind. But still, the risks inherent in vulnerability are there in any healthy, communicative relationship — friend-to-friend, partner-to-partner, parent-to-child, etc. It’s always better to try to make amends, come clean, and speak honestly than it is to let feelings of embarrassment linger.
What NOT To Say When You Feel Embarrassed
One of the worst things to do when embarrassed is also the most common: to invalidate their own feelings. This nullifies emotions. The more one does this, the harder it becomes to admit failings, feelings, or vulnerabilities in the future. Some examples of ways that we self-undermine are as follows:
- “Oh, well, nevermind.”
- “I’m an idiot.”
- “I don’t know what I was trying to say.”
- “Forget it.” (That’s a great way to stop speaking before you even start.)
- “I shouldn’t feel this way. I should be grateful.” (This undermines your own legitimate feelings of embarrassment.)
- “I shouldn’t feel this way because people have it worse than me.” (This might be true, but it doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t valid.)
The thing about each of these statements is that, even if it might be objectively true that other people have it worse than you, is that it doesn’t make your personal experience any less meaningful. And by undermining yourself, you might be minimizing your own completely reasonable feelings of embarrassment that won’t be able to be aired out if you underplay them.
What To Say When You’re Embarrassed
The conversation about personal feelings of embarrassment, per Dr. Jones, needs to start from within. He suggests being affirming by telling yourself things like: I am allowed to make mistakes, I’m allowed to miss the mark, or I’m growing, too.
Priming the audience of your conversation with a preface, especially with asking them to not interrupt, is very important. That’s because the tendency for a lot of people is to step in and rescue you before you’ve managed to own your feelings and open up. People are likely to say something like: “Oh, it’s totally fine,” or “That’s not a big deal at all, don’t worry.” The importance here is not letting anyone rescue you from your feelings.
Here are a few things to say when you’re feeling embarassed:
- “Hey, I want to share something with you, and before you respond, or before you tell me what to do, if you could just listen, that would help.” (This sets the stage for honestly, and for your partner to listen quietly while you open up.)
- “I’m going to share something. It might sound a little wild.”
- “I’m reluctant to share this, but it seems important.” (This lets your partner know that you are going out on a limb and feeling at risk by opening up, which will help them respond with empathy.)
And here is how to explain your feelings:
- “I was angry, because I felt unsafe, so I lashed out. I’m sorry.” (This describes a secondary emotion.)
- Or, “I was angry, because you hurt my feelings. I’m sorry.” (This explains why you did the bad behavior.)
- “I was angry, because I was scared. I’m sorry.” (This does all of the above.)
Then, after explaining the moment of embarrassment or what you feel embarrassed about, say the following:
- “Thank you for letting me share that. I feel better now.” (This increases intimacy between you and your partner or person you are telling this to.)
What To Remember About Embarrassment
Emotional intimacy is the secret sauce of beautiful, fulfilling relationships, whether they be between parent and child, spouses, friends, or anyone. Feelings of embarrassment can ferment into shame and resentment, which can put a wedge between people and their relationships with others. And a lot of times, the feelings of embarrassment aren’t especially warranted.
Many people will find that when they open up about their feelings, the moment was oversized in their mind or was a way of projecting their own negative self-image. Other times, they’ll find gratefulness in a partner who appreciates the honest sense of self the person owning up to their feelings is displaying. They’ll feel empowered to share their own embarrassing moments or feelings as well. All in all, emotional vulnerability is good for everyone. And that’s why we open up: because we love one another.
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