Dear Lifehacker, Every time I do something embarrassing, I find myself frozen in terror. Sometimes it's warranted, but other times I feel like I'm just dwelling on something that doesn't matter. How can I stop freaking out at every little misstep? Thanks, Embarrassed Evermore
Take a deep breath and relax. While you may not be able to completely shut down the physiological reactions of embarrassing moments, there are plenty of ways to soften their blow and handle them with grace. You may even be able to prevent some embarrassing moments in the future.
Why We Get Embarrassed
Whether we've said something stupid or done something weird, there's an involuntary process that occurs in our bodies that we can't control. Our cheeks blush and our hearts skip a beat. We start to sweat and words -- if any -- come out of our mouths at a slow crawl. If human beings were capable of developing invisibility powers, we would have already, because our brains want nothing more in those moments.
You surely know what embarrassment feels like, but it's important to understand why it happens. While there are a lot of ways to define embarrassment, Andrea Ayres at the Crew Blog aptly explains it as a fear response:
Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion dictated by a disconnect between how we feel we should respond or act in public and how we actually respond or act. We are most likely to be embarrassed when we believe we have not lived up to what society asks of us or when we are on the receiving end of undesired attention.
Essentially, we want to seem as socially acceptable as possible, and when we do something that we think jeopardizes that, we freak out. You're not supposed to spill wine all over your shirt when you take a sip, so when it happens, you're afraid that everyone will reject you as a person in society.
The problem, of course, is we're not perfect -- not even close. Our bodies have evolved to react to social situations in certain ways, and it's important that you accept this as a natural response in social situations. In fact, it's the presence of other people that causes a situation to be embarrassing in the first place. You're not embarrassed when you fall at home alone, only when you do it around others. It's like being tickled. You can't completely shut off embarrassment the same way you can't make yourself embarrassed.
As hard as it is, accept embarrassment. At some point you will do something embarrassing again. But there are still things you can do to soften the initial blow and take things in stride.
Acknowledge Your Embarrassment When It's Obvious
The main factor of embarrassment is the other people involved, but it's important to recognise that different situations require different means of handling them. Are they paying attention to you? Did they see what you did or hear what you said? If not, there's no need to point out what you did. Yes, you'll probably still feel a little embarrassed -- you're still around other people after all -- but you can take a deep breath and be thankful that your embarrassment will be short-lived.
If it's clear that everyone noticed, however, you can reduce the initial shock and noticeable blushing by doing what Mark Tyrrell at Uncommon Help calls "unmasking":
I very rarely blush nowadays; however, for some reason I did blush once when speaking to around thirty people.... I said: "Oh, I don't believe it! Look, I'm blushing!" ...I had 'unmasked' the blushing myself, it had nowhere to run and stopped immediately.
Accept that you're embarrassed and tell the people who witnessed it that you are. If you give in to it, your body will get over the shock a lot faster and you can take control of the situation. Softening that initial shock keeps you from freezing up and wanting to storm out of the room. Unless you're surrounded by some seriously horrible people, they will understand and might even try to make you feel better about the whole thing.
Apologise, But Only When It's Necessary
Not all embarrassing moments are potentially damaging, but sometimes our blunders happen in the worst of situations. When you've offended someone or caused problems for others with your mistake, it's important to apologise.
When you do need to apologise, there are three key factors to making amends after an embarrassing moment:
- Take responsibility for what happened. Don't pawn it off on other people.
- Explain why it happened as gracefully as you can. People find comfort in the "why" of things.
- Don't make it a bigger deal than it is. Your reaction can make it more embarrassing than it already is.
For example, if you called a future business partner the wrong name, that's disrespectful and could damage that relationship. You can address it and apologise, however, by saying something like, "I am so sorry I called you by the wrong name, John. You remind me of somebody else I know and it just slipped out. I feel so embarrassed, so I hope we can please carry on." They will feel like the wrong has been righted, and likely want to move forward just as much as you do.
However, it's also common for most people to feel the need to apologise after they have done something embarrassing, even when it's not required. This can make the situation more embarrassing for you and the other person. Even if you've acknowledged your embarrassment, you want to get past the moment quickly, not circle the moment in red ink so it lasts forever. When you apologise for something that doesn't require an apology, all you're really doing is increasing your overall anxiety for the moment.
Therese Borchard at the PBS blog This Emotional Life puts it like this: all embarrassment takes place in the past, and unnecessary apologies only makes you feel worse.
I honestly think that if I apologise I will return to feeling normal… "Just one more apology and I'll feel OK." No. You won't. In fact, you will feel worse. Because, again, your attention is on the past, not on the present, where you don't need to apologise for anything.
If you made a harmful mistake, apologise. But if you didn't really do anything wrong, don't act like you did. You want to move forward, and mentally place your embarrassing moment in the past. It happened, you acknowledged it, and now it's over. Accept what happened, try to fix things if necessary, and move on.
Laugh With People And You Won't Be Laughed At
For most of us, our biggest fear during embarrassing moments is being laughed at. The truth is, people might laugh at you, because that's a different type of natural reaction that can't be helped. This doesn't mean that the situation is out your control, though.
When you choose to laugh at yourself with people, you aren't being laughed at. You become a part of the fun everyone thought they were having at your expense, and you have the opportunity to show others that you don't take things too seriously. It might seem like advice you'd get in grade school, but it really is effective. You're only the victim of an embarrassing situation if you let yourself be. Steer into the drift and own it.
Of course, laughing at yourself can only go so far sometimes. If you're around people that intend to make you feel bad, a little self-deprecating humour can help take the edge off of someone trying to be hurtful. Saying things like "That's not the first time I've done that" or "what else am I going to mess up today?" can knock the wind out of their sales and reaffirm that you're comfortable with who you are. Even agreeing with the things they're saying about you can help take the fuel from their mean-spirited fires.
Lastly, if it gets to be too much, don't hesitate to excuse yourself from the situation. Everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn't give others the right to make you feel terrible about yourself.
Redirect Your Embarrassment With A Compliment
Even if you own the moment, you probably don't want everyone to linger on it for too long. You can redirect the attention to others to keep things moving and take the heat off of you. Richard Ansman of the Westside Toastmasters suggests a compliment is a graceful way to do that:
For example: "You're always so careful about things like this. You'd never make such an embarrassing mistake and I hope I won't ever make it again, either." The benefit: You're offering two universally appreciated qualities - praise and warmth.
You want the compliment to stay in line with what just happened and you want to make sure it doesn't sound backhanded. Telling someone you like their shirt doesn't take the attention off of you tripping, that just seems awkward and draws more attention. But telling someone you couldn't imagine them being as clumsy as you are might. The beat ends in the situation and now it can go in any direction.
Keep Embarrassment From Becoming Fear
Embarrassment is a pretty harmless side effect as long as it doesn't fester into fear or shame. When you dwell on those moments and let them carve out a home in your mind, the silliest embarrassments become fuel for all kinds of future anxiety. Getting turned down when you ask someone out becomes a fear of rejection. Saying the wrong word in a conversation becomes a fear of socialising. Having an unplanned bathroom emergency becomes a feeling of shame, as if you've done something wrong.
To keep things from getting rooted in your thoughts, you have to change your perspective on what happened. As the video above from the WellCast YouTube channel explains, you have to change the channel in your head. There's a TV sitcom marathon in your head highlighting the same goof over and over, so switch channels to something better. Get your mind focused on something and distract yourself.
If you can't seem to find the remote for your mind, you can look back at the embarrassing moment in a different light. When you look back at your embarrassing moments, you probably focus on how you felt. A recent study from the University of Illinois suggests you should look back and focus on what else was going on that day instead. Think about the people that were there, the weather that day, and any other minute details you can remember that don't stir up emotions. Psychology professor Florin Dolcos, the lead researcher, explains:
...anything else non-emotional that was part of the memory, will rather effortlessly take your mind away from the unwanted emotions associated with that memory. Once you immerse yourself in other details, your mind will wander to something else entirely, and you won't be focused on the negative emotions as much.
When you've gotten over the challenging moments from your past, you can start to see them a little more "glass half full." The more you can look back and change your perspective about embarrassing moments in your past, the more armour you can build for embarrassing moments in the future. You'll be able to remind yourself that you've handled things before and keep fear from moving in.
Embrace Humility to Help Prevent Embarrassment In the Future
To really handle embarrassing moments with grace, you should embrace humility as best you can. Humility is a virtue that keeps you level-headed and humble. It becomes your ultimate shield. Psychologist Karl Albrecht at Psychology Today explains humility best:
Humility is about emotional neutrality. It involves an experience of growth in which you no longer need to put yourself above others, but you don't put yourself below them, either. Everyone is your peer -- from the most "important" person to the least. You're just as valuable as every other human being on the planet, no more and no less. It's about behaving and reacting from purposes, not emotions. You learn to simply disconnect or de-program the competitive reflex in situations where it's not productive.
Embarrassing moments don't shake your foundation because you know you are no better than anyone else, just as no one else is better than you. You know you're not the first person to make a fool of themselves and you know that you aren't the last. Your embarrassing moments are nothing but a good story you can tell in the future.
People don't think about you nearly as much as you think they do. What was a horrifying experience for you, is a minor detail for them; most likely forgotten a few days or weeks later. They have their own embarrassing moments to worry about, their own lives to focus on. Have some humility and you'll know that nothing silly you do matters all that much. What matters is how you handle things. Will you take things in stride, with humility? Or will you blow things up way bigger than they need to be? Let it go, you're human. Life keeps moving forward, so do yourself a favour and try to move with it.
Have a question you want to put to Ask Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.