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How to Handle Embarrassment

Everyone agrees embarrassment can be excruciating. But is the emotion all bad? Discover its surprising upside—and learn how to get over it more easily—with this expert advice for kids and adults.

By Jennifer King Lindley
Family with paper bags over their headsBrian Cronin

An Emotion for All Ages

When does embarrassment first become part of our lives? Earlier than you might think. At about age three, Harris says, kids begin to understand that others have expectations of how they should behave, and so they blush and freeze up when someone judges them negatively. (Think of a mom scowling when her son grabs more than his share of Lego blocks on a playdate.) By school age, kids are anxious to fit in with peers; they begin to get flustered by anything that makes them look different in front of others, from a bad hair day to ripped pants. Kids at this age can be so self-conscious that they may even avoid activities that they love simply because their friends aren’t into them.

But grade school is nothing compared with the teen years, when a perfect storm of factors arises. During this time, one of the parts of the brain that monitors the reactions of others (known as the rostral cingulate zone) grows rapidly. “As your skin is breaking out, thanks to raging hormones, your brain is telling you to worry even more about what people think of you,” says social scientist David Allyn, the author of I Can’t Believe I Just Did That: How Embarrassment Can Wreak Havoc in Your Life and What You Can Do to Conquer It, (amazon.com).

Fortunately most people develop thicker skins and a stronger sense of personal identity as hormones even out, notes mental-health writer Therese J. Borchard, the author of The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Kit, ($10, amazon.com). But not all adults outgrow their tendency to feel embarrassment. “Some people are naturally self-conscious, and this may run in families,” says Kenneth Barish, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Pride & Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems, ($15, amazon.com). Others may hold themselves to unreasonably high standards and feel unnecessarily embarrassed every time they fail to meet their own expectations. In either case, easily embarrassed adults rarely know how to handle their predicament. Many cling to ineffective coping strategies that they relied on when they were younger: “A teenager may decide never to speak in class because he doesn’t want anyone to laugh at him,” says Allyn. “Twenty years later, that same person may be unable to speak up in meetings.” However, there are ways to prevent that fate, as well as tactics for recasting our relationship to embarrassment. “No one can be embarrassment-proof,” says Barish. “But we can learn to be less vulnerable and bounce back better.”

 
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