So it’s not an entirely negative emotion and it does serve an important social function for humankind.
Painful though it is, then, there’s some comfort in knowing that the burning cheeks and cringing humiliation of those dreaded egg-on-face moments can actually be a good thing – in the popularity stakes, at least.
Surely that’s a positive benefit to counteract the discomfort of an awkward moment?
A point worth considering about embarrassment is that it’s closely linked to perfectionism.
When you think about it, it’s actually your failure to live up to your own standards which causes the intensity of feeling.
Your performance hasn’t matched with your – possibly unrealistic – expectations of yourself.
Since we all know that absolutely nobody is perfect, perhaps we need to stop beating ourselves up about failing to meet those impossible self-imposed standards.
Older And (A Little Bit) Wiser
I’ve found that one of the advantages of maturity is the ability to step back a little from the (literal) heat of the moment.
These days, I find I’m often able to see the humor instead of the horror when I’ve done or said something which, in the past, I’d have found mortifying.
When I’m in such situations, I often hear the voice of a dear departed German friend (who did, I’ll admit, have the skin of a rhinoceros).
Her stock response to any situation where other people might have a problem with something she’d done or said was to exclaim: “Bu**er zem!”
She successfully turned the situation around, so that it was the onlookers who had the problem, not herself.
I reckon we could all learn a lot from old Ursula and, even if you’re lucky enough not to be as long in the tooth as I am, her robust attitude may help you to respond more positively in an awkward moment.
Witness? What Witness?
We all have a tendency to put ourselves at the center of the universe, and therefore imagine that we’re subject to constant intense observation and scrutiny by others.
Social psychologists label this phenomenon as the spotlight effect, neatly summarizing our tendency to overestimate how much our appearance and actions are noticed by others.
The reality is that people are way less interested in us than we give them credit for…
…not least because they’re too wrapped up in seeing themselves at the center of their own particular universe.
The ‘witnesses’ as you see them may have barely registered what happened.
You’re cringing with acute embarrassment over something which they’re oblivious to.
What a waste of emotion and what a lot of unnecessary stress you’ve put yourself through.
I’m Not Who I Think I Am…
In this article, Therese J. Borchard flags up this really insightful expression:
I’m not who I think I am. Nor am I who you think I am. But I am who I think you think I am.
You may have to repeat it a few times (I found that saying it out loud helped it to make sense) before you really get what it means.
The key is that we tend to base our identity on what we think other people think of us.
We make massive assumptions that they’re reacting to whatever we’ve done in a particular way.
But our assumptions are probably miles wide of the mark.
So, we’re basing our own reaction to our predicament on what we think their reactions are…
So, if it’s an instinctive response, are there steps you can take to lessen the agony of these awkward moments?
Can you learn to handle them with a little more grace and little less embarrassment?
Here are a few ideas to give you food for thought…
Laughter Is The Best Medicine
It’s not always easy (or even appropriate) to use humor to deflect the embarrassment away from yourself, but it is a great way to recover from an embarrassing situation if you can pull it off.
As mentioned above, just showing that you’re embarrassed is a mechanism for making connections with others…
…and so is laughing together.
So, if you can find a way to see the funny side, you may spark an unexpected conversation or even make new friends.
That would certainly be a way of turning a potentially massive negative into a positive.
In these mortifying situations, it’s so tempting to go into denial mode, but if others did witness the incident, you’ll only look more foolish if you try to pretend it didn’t happen.
You can’t turn back the clock.
The best approach is to fess up and admit that you’re embarrassed.
To err is human, as the old saying goes, and chances are your stock will rise if you’re open and honest about your faux pas.
Who knows, your honesty may encourage others to open up and share their own embarrassing experiences.
There’s no better way of learning that you’re not alone in coping with your chagrin.
Don’t Make A Scene
Turning a drama into a crisis by throwing a full-on fit of screaming or crying in the wake of an embarrassing incident is never the right response.
As much as you may feel the urge to do so, resist it.
The more fuss you make, the more memorable the moment will be for others, and the worse the incident will become.
Hold on to the knowledge that it’s only a moment and, no matter how painful that instant may be, it will pass and life will go on (yes, it will, even if you’ve had the ‘I’d rather die than face this’ thought).
The more you can downplay what’s happened, the less people are likely to make a big deal. And the less likely they’ll be to remember it.
The raised heart rate and blood pressure, the shortness of breath, the rush of blood to the face, the increased perspiration…
..these are all instinctive responses to an embarrassing situation.
They can, with conscious thought and effort, be minimized.
Take some deep breaths and give yourself time to reassess the situation. This will really help to calm you down and lessen those pesky auto-responses.
It’ll also minimize the chances of you doing or saying anything which might add to your embarrassment and risk making the situation even more dire.
Learn From Your Mistakes
This one’s not rocket science.
Simply put, you are not your mistakes.
Those mistakes are crucial to your learning and growing as a human being. They form part of the pantheon of your life’s experiences.
But you do need to make a conscious effort to learn from them.
That’s why it is so invaluable to take a little time to reflect on the whys and wherefores of what happened.
If you’ve embarrassed yourself by completely fluffing a presentation because you hadn’t checked the techy stuff beforehand, make sure you double-check next time.
If you tripped down the stairs and landed in a heap in front of the VP you were trying to impress, be sure to take extra care in the future (and maybe ditch the killer heels?).
A determination to learn from such experiences is another strategy which turns a negative into a positive.
Don’t Assume The Spotlight’s On You
Reflecting back on the spotlight effect I mentioned above, try to get some perspective on the situation.
Recognize that you’re unlikely to have been the main focus of anyone’s attention and, if you were, it was only for a nanosecond.
If you’re able to gloss over the awkward moment with a little humor and minimum fuss, everyone will get back to thinking about themselves soon enough and your embarrassing moment will fade away.
And I Thought You Were My Friend…
Very often, it’s our friends and relatives who make the most capital out of embarrassing incidents that we’d rather forget.
Great humor can be extracted from such moments at your expense: that time when you made a prize chump of yourself.
Hilarious at the time and funnier still with each telling – or so they think – and, boy, how they love to see your discomfort.
Everyone dreads being caught in an awkward moment and looking foolish, so it’s only natural that your nearest and dearest would prefer to focus on your faux pas rather than their own.
Frustrating though the dragging up of such incidents can be, such teasing is only natural. And the more you squirm, the taller the tales will become.
Using humor to show that you’ve moved on and are no longer embarrassed by past events is the best way to diffuse the situation.
If you become defensive, their obvious response will be to continue their attack and revel in your discomfiture.
The Crux Of The Matter…
What we’ve learned from the above is that you have two choices:
let the sense of cringing humiliation affect you.
do your level best to let it go, using some of the strategies above.
The choice is always yours, but my advice is to consider if the incident really merits casting a shadow of negativity over your life.
Are you going to let it impact your self-esteem and your general mood?
You may feel you’re center stage when these awkward moments occur, marooned on your private island of humiliation.
As we’ve learned, though, your capacity to experience embarrassment actually connects you more closely to the rest of humankind.
Surely, then, such incidents should be seen as more positive than negative and embraced accordingly.
Working as a freelance copywriter, Juliana is following a path well-trodden by her family, who seem to have 'wordsmithing' in their DNA. She'll turn her quill to anything from lifestyle and wellness articles to blog posts and SEO articles. All this is underpinned by a lifetime of travel, cultural exchange and her love of the richly expressive medium of the English language.