Nothing to See Here!
You had grand plans to walk gracefully across the floor of the conference center and say hello to your boss. Instead, you tripped over your own feet, slammed into a stranger (whose drink and papers went flying), and landed, gracelessly, on your hands and knees. Everyone is staring, and just like that, the hot flush of embarrassment has taken you hostage. Your face is burning, you’re flustered, and you might even feel immobilized. (The word embarrassment derives from the Portuguese word for noose.)
Horrible for you, but from a social perspective, it’s the beginning of recovery. “Showing embarrassment acts as a sort of physical apology to those around you,” says Christine R. Harris, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the emotion extensively. She adds that it elicits sympathy, “smoothing over goofs and promoting group harmony.” Across cultures, people express embarrassment with the same body language: averted gaze, head tipped down, tight smile, hands touching face. These signs may be a variation of the appeasement gestures that animals use. (Think of a dachshund rolling on his back to greet a looming mastiff.) The display says, “Don’t worry—I mean no harm!”
More science: Because embarrassment is a sign that you care about the way others see you, experiencing it openly can make you more likable. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that subjects were more willing to trust someone who showed embarrassment after being lauded for an accomplishment than someone who reacted with a display of pride, like a confident smile. (This may explain why the world found Jennifer Lawrence’s sheepish 2013 Oscars acceptance speech adorable but Anne Hathaway’s pronouncement—“It came true!”—um, less so.)
However, embarrassment can also work against us. A 2013 study from the National Literacy Trust, in the United Kingdom, measured the daily reading habits of almost 35,000 children, ages 8 to 16, and found that one in five claimed that they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading a book. In a study by Harris published in American Scientist in 2006, half of the study’s adult respondents said that they had hesitated or failed to report a worrisome symptom to a physician for “fear of looking foolish” if it turned out to be trivial.
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.”
Confront incidents head-on. When you walk into a party and discover that your skirt is tucked into your tights, your natural impulse may be to camp out in the bathroom for the rest of the night. But hiding can jump-start an unfortunate chain reaction. “Other people might think that you’re avoiding them, and then they’ll start avoiding you,” says Allyn. The same rule applies for kids. When your child feels that she has embarrassed herself (say, flubbing her monologue in the school play), she may want to cancel Saturday’s slumber party. Gently encourage her to reconsider. To start, suggests Lynne Kenney, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist and a coauthor of Bloom: Helping Children Blossom, ($8, amazon.com), “talk to her about what happened in a caring but not overly emotional way. You want to pour water on the event, not gasoline.” Then focus on some things that went well that day, such as the spelling quiz that she aced. This will help her put things in perspective. Finally, prepare her for what’s next, suggesting something to say if classmates bring up the incident: “Yeah, that was no fun. Want to see my new Super Ball?” If your child can act as if it’s no big deal, others will probably follow suit and lose interest, too.
Stop playing the tape. The worst part of embarrassment is the endless mental loop that reignites the pain over and over again. When a mortifying memory enters your consciousness, pull your attention back to the present—count your breaths or take a walk and concentrate on each step. Or push out the replay with a methodical task, like cleaning. Says Allyn, “Embarrassment leaves us feeling like we have lost control. Cleaning and organizing help us regain it.” Teach kids to sing a song in their heads or to do something silly but challenging, like walking backward in a circle. “You have to recruit different parts of your brain for an exercise like that. It gets your mind unstuck,” says Kenney.
Remember that no one is thinking about you but you. President Obama and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. messed up the oath of office during the 2009 inauguration, and people talked about the gaffe for a day, maybe two. So what are the chances that anyone is obsessing over the typo in your e-mail? “We overestimate the extent to which our actions are noticed by others,” says Mary Lamia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of Emotions: Making Sense of Your Feelings, ($12.50, amazon.com). We may think that the entire restaurant is recoiling in horror when we spill a drink, but the other diners are probably focused on what to have for dessert. Social scientists call this “the spotlight effect.”
Model brave behavior. Allyn says that we can help our kids to be less easily flustered if we exhibit healthy risk-taking ourselves. “A lot of adults won’t go to a movie solo because they would be embarrassed to be seen sitting alone. So do it, then talk to your kids about it,” says Allyn. Along the same lines, if your kids see you laugh when you realize that your shirt has been misbuttoned all morning, maybe they’ll giggle when the same thing happens to them.
Share your story. In a study published in the Journal of Personality, a researcher asked subjects to sing the schmaltzy 70s ballad “Feelings” in his presence. One group was allowed to express their embarrassment to the researcher immediately afterward; the other group had to keep mum. Later on, both groups completed a survey about how embarrassed they felt. Those who had confessed felt significantly less mortified than did those who had to stay quiet. In other words, there’s relief in unloading. Another benefit? “When you share an embarrassment with someone, they often tell you about an even bigger one,” says Lamia. You help two people with one confession.