Embarrassment is one of the most stressful of human experiences, and seems to be hard for people to get over. People slip and fall, stumble on words, forget names and faces, dates and places… make typos and misspell things, make faux pas, miss the ball , use poor timing and take missteps.
The dictionary defines embarrassment as to feel confused uncomfortable, disconcerted. It also encompasses feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation and much more.
One person explained to me, “I felt as though I’d been exposed, stripped of my dignity.”
Another said, “I made a real ass of myself, especially in other people’s eyes. I’ll never live it down!”
“ I was mortified, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me!” said another.
Self blame and condemnation is often another response, i.e. “I should have been more careful” Or, “That was stupid of me!”
The problem with embarrassment is that the stress of being embarrassed recurs every time the person thinks about it; it all comes back to haunt them with a vengeance. People cannot seem to live it down in their own minds.
My research has shown that of all life experiences, relative to their actual seriousness, even small errors result in extreme (undue) inner disturbance, including feelings of regret and self recrimination.
Although they are unintentional, accidental, always unexpected, these encounters with our humanness are construed as falls from grace, loss of face, also have a demeaning impact.
Often the witness to an ungainly act is also embarrassed and assigns him or herself the job of undermining the impact.
When a person is laughed at, or it’s pointed out to someone that their blouse is open or their zipper undone or they trip over their own feet, that person may laugh, albeit in a nervous way, but is not really amused.
Being able to laugh at ourselves is one thing, and a good and healthy trait, however, when we feel we are being laughed at, made a mockery of in any way, or thinking of oneself as an object of ridicule, self-esteem can be threatened. Making a fool of oneself results in a sense of humiliation.
All this for what?
What is it that causes a relatively innocuous event to cause a sense of shame and even guilt? Some of it may be that many people see the world and people in it as unforgiving. often a result of negative childhood experiences. Too many people are too quick to find fault…to judge and hold small imperfections against each other. Another factor is that people are usually harder on themselves than anyone else; their expectations of themselves are unrealistic and put undue pressure on them, which in turn can result in more errors. Stress of any kind reduces our ability to function at our best.
There seems to be a fragile element within many people’s psychology that is vulnerable to incidents that can produce criticism, derision or insensitive responses from others, i.e. where they may be thought less of. To look foolish is a difficult experience to cope with for people because what others think of them is crucial to their sense of self-worth: Too much so, actually.
It’s only natural that people don’t want to be thought of as inept or incompetent in any way. For those who already have poor self-esteem it’s harder still, for their low opinion of themselves feels warranted when they make a mistake. That’s a shame!
The blushing that is an automatic response, in its self is embarrassing for many. People blush, falter… stammer when given a compliment; or when criticized in public. Any attention paid to a person that is unexpected, positive or negative, can result in feelings of uneasiness. Most people are not prepared as they develop into adults to handle these situations well. It’s one of the reasons public speaking is the most common phobia.
However, you can learn to deal with embarrassment and attention more comfortably, and herein I’ll offer some suggestions to help you.
One is to recognize and accept that we are, after all, incapable of being perfect and perfectly correct, right and proper at all times and in all situations, no matter how we try. To err is human, so the saying goes.
In England, there was once a TV program hosted by Wilfred Pickles. He went into the audience to ask individuals, “Have you ever had an embarrassing moment?” What amazed me was how people would tell stories about things that I felt, if they happened to me, I’d rather no one ever know about. People laughed while the story was told, so did the teller, although up close cameras on faces in the audience showed empathy and compassion as people identified with the speaker. I didn’t understand how someone else’s discomfort could be amusing to anyone. I thought it cruel to laugh at someone for any reason. Like most young people I was particularly sensitive to anything that would draw attention to me in a less than complimentary way; and even positive attention was something I had to learn to accept comfortably and graciously.
What I learned later was that in telling the story, revealing the details …being able to laugh and make others laugh with them, not at them, helped them to relieve their discomfort: By turning it into a funny story they had disarmed the embarrassment bomb!
Making others laugh intentionally is such fun, it’s a gift we give others and ourselves too. When we laugh the world laughs with us, right? Laughter is indeed wonderful medicine.
So another suggestion is for you to share some of your embarrassing moments with others, and discover that they too have been there, done that, and need to laugh it off, too.
We are all grateful when an error can be corrected, or an ill-timed or wrong action has little or no effect on people or outcomes; in reality so few errors result in serious consequences, and in truth we are able to recognize the seriousness of the error very quickly if we are being objective.
That’s one of the keys to dealing with it well.
In every day life, life and limbs are not lost by our little errors and missteps, and it’s very rare to have caused a catastrophe for ourselves or others that the degree of embarrassment implies. Usually in cases where we are responsible for another’s safety and well-being, or where accuracy and correctness is crucial, our attention to detail is much more astute and we are much more careful not to make a mistake.
Feeling we have done wrong or been wrong can provoke self punishing effects for those who feel they must be perfect in all things at all times. They need to be reminded that a minor momentary flaw in our functioning isn’t a crime or sin, and self-condemnation is unwarranted.
Herein I’m not addressing genuine deserved guilt where there is actual harm done, per se’.*
Statistically, most every day mistakes are rather inconsequential, merely annoying and no big deal. Although so many errors are made every day by people in the business world that at times I have wondered how so much actually gets done , and I marvel that the end results are not all together disastrous …simply challneging to our patience.
Good questions to ask yourself are,
“How important is it in the whole scheme of things?” “What harm is done, who will suffer? What’s the worst thing that can come of this?” “ Is it correctable?” An objective common sense realistic answer will free you to move on.
I have had my share of embarrassing moments. I, like most people hate making mistakes. The high standards I have set for myself will never change, however I have adjusted my expectations of always being able to live up to them in some aspects of my life. Never in my professional capacity, though. Have I ever forgotten or mispronounced a name? Of course I have.
When our performance of any task is less than our ideal, it’s always wise to consider all the variables, including the time and energy available to us at that time, so doing your best, all things considered is all anyone can do. So a little dust on the furniture one day when visitors stop by isn’t cause for berating yourself self for failure to be the perfect housekeeper, or not being the prefect editor of your own copy if a typo escapes your attention. And forgetting a birthday is the reason for belated birthday greeting cards.
I’ve come to accept that not being perfect is acceptable to me, so if others expect me to be, they will be disappointed for sure! That doesn’t mean I am making easy undue excuses for myself. I always do my best to be my best and do my best. However, respecting and accepting our humanness, we can get over our little faux pas more easily. We can be imperfect without being bad people or unworthy of self-respect or the respect of others. If an error or a slip and fall you have made lowers another’s opinion of you, consider it their problem, not yours.
Treat yourself as kindly and decently as you would another human being. You deserve the same consideration and respect as any other person. The harder you try to be perfect, the harder life gets.
Proof herein: A recent announcement to those on our email list contained a couple of typos. In the effort not to appear careless we quickly did another e blast to correct them and in so doing a different spelling error was made! In spite of the fact that we used spell check twice to be sure of the correctness of the copy! While we were hoping that our readers would understand and find it as amusing as we did, we were looking into how these errors could have got passed us in the first place. Don, after all, was a champion in the Michigan spelling Bee when he was in school, and I won prizes for English composition and grammar in school. An expert typist I am not. I was never trained to be; I learned quickly that the two fingers I use could not go as fast as my thoughts; therefore many typos in my copy need to be corrected. As grateful as I am for software that corrects my grammar and typos etc. I’ve discovered it isn’t perfect either!
Another amusing fact is that those who write to us and point out errors in our copy on my web site or emails, also make errors in their writings to inform us about ours, and often miss other things that need correcting within the same paragraphs! Yes I’m somewhat embarrassed when these mistakes slip past our scrutiny. I am a stickler for accuracy and strive for excellence in all I do. However, I realize perfection, no matter how we strive for it is often beyond our grasp. Accepting this fact and developing and maintaining a sense of humor rescues us from undue psychological pain. And the ability to forgive ourselves for those imperfections is necessary if we are to be at peace within ourselves.
And, by the way, if you’ve been hard on others when they have made mistakes you need to look into yourself and ask yourself if it’s because you are unforgiving of yourself, too critical and judgmental. Or is it that you need to hold yourself on a higher plane than others: Looking down on others enables some people to feel superior, and in some cases pointing out people’s mistakes is to bring them, as one person put it, “down a peg or two.”
I suggest you stop expecting perfection from yourself and others; just do the best you can. Trust that others are doing the same. Laugh with, not at people. There is a saying, ‘He who laughs last laughs longest.’ I think he who laughs first at him or her self laughs longest!
Don, quoting Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist, reminds me often that perfection is the enemy of good. And may I remind you that being embarrassed may not be necessary anyway, it isn’t a shame on you to falter or err on life’s challenging paths. At the very most let it be a fleeting moment of discomfort, best let go of and forgotten quickly with a good hearty laugh to send it on its way.
TTFN and all the best from Elaine Kissel
* Within Part four of my book, The Mind Is Willing, I address the subject of guilt. I’m told it is incredibly helpful to those who have read it.