Getting Over Embarrassment

I have suffered from nagging feelings of embarrassment for most of my young life. I used to consistently worry about my perceived mistakes, be they sartorial, romantic, or social (especially social). If a teacher reprimanded me for talking in class or goofing around, it took me weeks to get over it. If I said the wrong thing to a friend or blurted something out that sounded different than how I intended it to, I would replay the moment for hours and hours, scolding myself for being “so stupid.” In my eyes, I was not allowed to make mistakes, to look foolish, or, you know, to be a human being.

The reality is that embarrassment is as natural as breathing. There are so many rules, both spoken and unspoken, in our weird little world that it’s almost impossible to get through a day without having at least one blush-worthy moment. Part of that comes from being trained, by television and films and books, to note certain things as excruciatingly embarrassing: toilet paper stuck on a shoe, a zit on the tip of the nose, or even falling asleep in the back of a lecture. We’re conditioned to not do these things, especially as for folks that identify as female, because they are perceived as rude or nasty.  

But you know what? Sometimes you do. And when these things happen, a series of events may occur. Perhaps some jerk will hold on to the moment and dangle it in front of you for as long as they can, either because they want your attention or because they’re insecure about their own mistakes. Or maybe your body will react with hot flashes and flushed skin and the kind of nervous sweat that no brand of deodorant can conquer. Or maybe you will pick up the sense that the people around you are embarrassed for you, and you’ll want to crawl in to a hole and live there forever.

These reactions occur because on a social level, we feel embarrassment because we feel empathy. Think of all the times you cover your eyes or cringe when a fictional character on the screen is about to do or say something mortifying, or how you react when you see a friend gets told off. We feel this kind of embarrassment because we know this kind of embarrassment—anyone with half a heart has been there, in some way or another, and we can recognize how icky and painful that can feel for others.

But it’s often hard to show that same kind of empathy to ourselves. Instead of allowing those creepy feelings to run their course and move on, some of us tend to dwell on our embarrassing moments to the point where things spin out of control. Suddenly it’s not just the wrong answer we gave in class that’s embarrassing, but rather our entire being. The anxious part of the brain has a way of taking a singular moment of discomfort and turning it in to an avalanche on Self-Loathing mountain. I stumbled on this terrain for a while before I finally had enough.

When I was a teenager, I worked in a dingy ice cream shop over the summers. The first time I dropped a sundae, I wanted to quit and run right out the front door. But I liked and needed the job, and instead I took a moment to compose myself in the equally dingy bathroom before returning to the floor. One of the older servers, bless her, took me aside and said, “Listen, it happens. It’s no big deal.”

What a magical set of words! “It’s no big deal.” She was right. Even the best of the staff dropped sundaes. Cones broke. Hot fudge spilled. Orders got messed up. Moms would inevitably yell at you when you forgot the extra rainbow sprinkles on her son’s soft serve. But the shift always ends, you collect your tips, and you go home. The world doesn’t stop when you screw up. It’s no big deal.

After being given permission to forgive myself and move on, I started handling my mistakes (and there were several) in my own goofy way. This has been my trick for years now: Own the awkward moment. Make it funny before it drags you down. It is incredibly freeing and gets easier with practice. Eventually you come to realize that these things really aren’t a big deal, and that you are fully capable not only of handling them, but of controlling them in a healthy, positive way by refusing to allow your brain to bully you in to feeling ashamed of common human experiences.

Life is incredibly imperfect, and so are we. Yes, it sucks when embarrassing things happen, and it’s hard making mistakes. But holding on to the moments and punishing yourself repeatedly for something that can’t be undone or erased isn’t going to do you any good. So you screwed up. Guess what? It is part of being real and part of being alive. Some things will be healed by time, which provides perspective, but most things can be healed simply by embracing imperfection as it happens.