Embarrassment makes us human! We’ve all been there. Someone asks you what your most embarrassing moment is, and you likely have two or three go-tos.
But embarrassment can also feel mortifying, right? In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to recognize that embarrassment can actually be a positive human connector.
Fortunately, there are some simple strategies you can use to overcome the embarrassment and use it to connect with others.
In this article, we’ll look at what embarrassment is, what causes it, how it differs from shame, and 14 strategies to overcome it and use it for our social benefit.
What is Embarrassment? (Definition)
Embarrassment is an emotion due to an incident that made you feel uncomfortable or self-conscious in front of others. Embarrassing situations are something you can usually laugh at later and acknowledge could have happened to anyone. (To clarify, embarrassing situations are different than humiliating situations or situations where you may feel shame.)
While embarrassment may feel terrible at the moment, getting embarrassed is what makes you human.
The best part about embarrassment? (Wait, there’s a best part?!) Embarrassment can make for some great stories at your next party and, according to research1https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/11/embarrassment, can even foster connection and strengthen your relationships. Without embarrassing moments, life would be rather dull, wouldn’t it?
Have you ever been in situations like these at work? Here are some common embarassing situations you might have encountered:
Caught in a daydream: You’re in a meeting, and you start to daydream about something else. Then suddenly, someone asks you a question, and you don’t know what they’re talking about. Do you confess that you lost track of the conversation, or do you answer what you think might have been the question and risk the awkward moment?
The video call distraction: You’re working from home and are on a video call with an important client. Suddenly, your two-year-old daughter waltzes behind you to say hi, and you find yourself totally distracted from the conversation. Has anybody been there?!
The fumbled presentation: You’re about to give an important presentation at work when suddenly you realize you brought the wrong notes! You don’t have time to get them, so you wing it. You fumble your words and forget to make an important point, turning five shades of red in the process.
Then, of course, who hasn’t had an embarrassing moment on a date or in a relationship? Whether you went in for a kiss and they decided to hug you instead, called someone by the wrong name, or spat out your drink when you laughed, you’ve likely had your share of embarrassing moments. So many of us have been there!
These social faux pas and awkward situations are not out of the norm. You’re definitely not alone if you’ve ever experienced any of the above or other embarrassing situations.
But why does embarrassment happen? Let’s look at the science behind what causes it.
What Causes Embarrassment? (The Science)
The causes of embarrassment include committing a social faux pas, being the center of attention, and being in awkward situations where you feel unsure of yourself. When you do something embarrassing, it triggers the medial frontal cortext2https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110415083158.htm—the emotional center of your brain responsible for social awareness—which can cause you to blush and your blood pressure to rise.
Fortunately, according to research3http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/102/1/81.html?_ga=2.166519166.1768860577.1677972890-928855248.1672112622, those more prone to embarrassment also tend to be more “prosocial” than others, meaning they tend to be kinder and more generous.
Social faux pas
A social faux pas occurs when you say or do something outside of social norms and is considered either a mistake or not polite. Your social awareness of others’ reactions then makes you realize where you’ve gone wrong and thus causes embarrassment.
For example, a common social faux pas is assuming that someone might be pregnant when they’re not. Another might be calling your partner by your ex’s name. At work, a common faux pas is sending an email to the wrong person.
Center of attention
Being the center of attention can cause embarrassment even when you’re not committing a social faux pas. Simply being in front of people who are paying attention to you can cause you to squirm and be self-conscious. For example, your face might get red when you’re called to share your thoughts during a meeting or when you’re about to give a big presentation.
For some, this form of embarrassment is associated with a social anxiety disorder4https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml. For others, the attention may cause them to be aware of their imperfections and trigger perfectionistic tendencies5https://hbr.org/2019/04/how-to-manage-your-perfectionism that cause them to feel embarrassed.
Much like committing a social faux pas, being in an awkward situation6https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14780887.2010.500357 is a common cause of embarrassment. Awkward situations catch us off guard and make us unsure of what we should do. We look for signals from others but often end up fumbling through them.
For example, let’s say you’re at work and telling a story until you realize no one is actually listening to you. Or maybe you’ve been with a group of people talking about a topic you know nothing about while you smile and nod. How about when you think someone is waving at you but is actually waving to someone standing behind you? Oops!
Even thinking about these awkward situations is enough to make us feel uneasy! Fortunately, embarrassment is a human phenomenon every one of us goes through. According to research6https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14780887.2010.500357, when we avoid our response to awkward situations, we can magnify the awkwardness, whereas if we respond directly, we create a sense of social harmony!
The good news for all our fellow awkward people: With a few tips and strategies to manage it, embarrassment can actually lead to deeper connections with others.
How is Embarrassment Different Than Shame?
The difference between embarrassment and shame, as described by researcher Brené Brown, is that shame is associated with feelings of low self-worth and being “bad.” In contrast, embarrassment is related to discomfort that are often fleeting.
People who feel shame often feel alone. People who feel embarrassed know they’re not alone.
How Do You Get Over Embarrassment? 14 Coping Strategies & Tips
Getting over embarrassment starts with preventative strategies to prepare for the inevitable (you can’t avoid embarrassment altogether—you’re human, after all!). Then when the moment of embarrassment arises, there are additional strategies to help you work through it, as well as post-embarrassment tips to reflect on what you learned.
Remember overcoming past embarrassments
Reflecting on the times when you’ve messed up and recovered can be a helpful exercise to help you realize that you have gone through it and survived. You might look back and think, Wow, I spent so much time ruminating about what others thought about me at that moment, but in the end, it didn’t even matter.
Use this mentality to anticipate future situations where you might be the center of attention, like during your next work presentation or job interview.
Think back and ask yourself these questions:
- What did I think people thought of me, and what did they actually think about me?
- In what ways did the situation bring me and others closer together?
- What can I laugh about from the situation?
- What did I learn about myself from what happened?
- What lesson can I bring to future situations where I might be embarrassed or self-conscious?
Find the humor in the situation
Humor connects people7https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.1962 and can also make you more likable. When you do something embarrassing, rather than move past it and try to ignore it because you might want to crawl into a hole, take a beat, and look for the humor in the situation.
Laugh at yourself! The best that can happen is that your little fumble breaks the ice, relaxes people, and makes them feel more connected to you as a human! If you don’t think you have a sense of humor, you can learn how to develop one.
Try these ideas to develop your sense of humor:
- Consume humor. Watch funny movies and TV shows, and spend time with funny people.
- Make fun of yourself (sometimes). A little self-deprecating humor about your quirks can make you seem more relatable.
- Turn unkind comments into compliments. When someone is teasing you, turn it into a compliment, “My outfit is silly? You must be jealous that I can pull it off!”
- Develop a levity mindset. Notice the humor and joy in awkward situations.
For more ideas, check out our article on how to develop a sense of humor.
Use the embarrassment to connect
When you mess up and find yourself embarrassed, don’t underestimate the power of this moment to connect with others8https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2011-20730-001. When you fumble, others are more likely to find you more relatable and trustworthy.
Try these tips to use your embarrassment to connect with others:
- Call it out directly. Instead of moving past it quickly and ignoring what everyone inevitably saw or experienced and may now be distracted by, call out what happened. “Oh, look at that. My shirt is totally backward!”
- Tell a sidebar story. Use the embarrassment to break the ice. “The power was out this morning, and I got ready in the dark!”
- Tell a sidebar joke. “I hope I don’t have two different shoes on too!”
- Connect the embarrassment to the topic or situation. “Did the weather affect any of you today too?”
Try rejection therapy
In this TED talk, Jia Jiang talks about risking embarrassment after embarrassment to overcome his fear of rejection through what he calls rejection therapy. By facing embarrassment head-on, it can begin to hold less power over you and reduce social anxiety4https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml.
Some of the rejection therapy9https://www.rejectiontherapy.com/100-days-of-rejection-therapy exercises he tries include:
- Asking to borrow $100 from a stranger
- Requesting a burger refill
- Asking for a tour of the grocery store warehouse
- Being a live mannequin at a retail store
- Asking strangers for compliments
Of course, you don’t have to start so extreme.
Here are some small ideas you can try yourself:
- Asking your partner for a foot massage
- Asking a friend you haven’t talked to in years to go out for lunch
- Knocking on your neighbor’s door and asking to borrow something
For more encouragement and ideas, check out Jia Jang’s TED talk!
Overcome your need for perfection
Those who struggle with perfectionism tend to feel more embarrassed than others because they have a greater fear of judgment and disapproval. They often hold back from taking action until they feel like they can do or say something flawlessly or spend more time than necessary on a project until they think it’s reached perfection. Perfection is closely associated with shame10https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.1556-6678.2006.tb00390.x.
If you struggle with perfectionism, the best step might be to talk to a counselor or therapist, as there may be some underlying issues related to it.
There are helpful everyday tips you can try as well, including:
- Giving yourself permission for an uninhibited messy first draft
- Setting time limits on how long you’ll spend on a task
- Celebrating what you learn from your failures
- Allowing yourself to be bad at something you’ve never done and enjoying the journey (like taking up guitar lessons)
- Joining an improv class
Practice mindfulness and self-awareness
When we’re embarrassed, sometimes our reaction is a result of overthinking how we’re being perceived by others. In reality, it may not be as big of a deal as we’re making it out to be in our heads. By gaining self-awareness, you can right-size others’ perceptions and show up in the world with more confidence.
To gain self-awareness, try some of these mindfulness activities:
- Breathing exercises like box breathing: Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, and repeat.
- Body scan meditation: Notice the sensations in your whole body. Start from the bottom of your feet and move up slowly to the top of your head.
- Journaling: Reflect back on the highs and lows of your day and how you felt in different interactions and situations. What worked? What didn’t? What are you celebrating?
- Talking to a trusted friend or therapist: Talking through your emotions and thoughts with someone you trust is a great way to process and see situations from a different angle.
Play out the future scenario
Many people get nervous about being potentially embarrassed before anything has even happened. Their nerves can often get the best of them and make them feel embarrassed when they don’t have anything to be embarrassed about.
Did you know your brain interprets feeling nervous and feeling excited11https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2021/04/07/anxiety-vs-relaxationrelabeling-anxiety-as-excitement/?sh=30982cc27afd very much the same way? The next time you’re nervous, ask yourself, Am I actually excited? Then think about what you have to look forward to on the other side.
Some questions to help you process your nerves include:
- What’s the best that can happen?
- What do I bring to the table that no one else can?
- If I don’t show up authentically human, what do I risk losing?
- What makes the people I’m about to see/present to relatable?
- If I mess up, what can I do to recover?
- If I mess up, what can I do to connect or relate with others?
To prepare for embarrassment, try some preventive training with this helpful body language resource!
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Do a 5-second regroup
Embarrassing moments can often be distracting. You might lose your train of thought and struggle to get back on track. We’ve all been there. Give yourself some grace and five to ten seconds to regroup with these quick steps:
- Laugh. Remember, you’re only human, after all!
- Take a step back for a second. Physically let your body “step out” of the situation, even if it’s just one step back.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath.
- Shake it off. Wiggle your hands, roll your shoulders, or swing your arms.
- Speak a self-affirmation to yourself. “I can do this.”
- Check yourself (or your notes). Where were you? Where were you going?
- Step forward. Physically let your body step back into the situation and start over.
Speak positive affirmations to yourself
When you’re in the moment of embarrassment, your knee-jerk reaction might be to internally beat yourself up and send your mind into a downward spiral. This often leads to distraction and even more awkwardness. Take a beat to speak positive affirmations to yourself in these moments internally.
It’s helpful if you already have positive affirmations as part of your daily routine so that they are ready in your mind when you need them most.
Here are some positive affirmations you can use when you’re embarrassed:
- My mistakes don’t define me.
- I’m enough.
- Embarrassment makes me relatable.
- One step at a time.
- I’m here to be helpful.
- I can make the most of this situation.
Talk it out with a friend
One of the best ways to move past an embarrassing moment is to talk it out with a friend. A trusted friend can help you recognize whether or not what happened was really a big deal and help you right-size how others might have perceived you. They can also help you avoid ruminating or setting your mind on a downward spiral of negative self-talk.
Here are things to talk about with your trusted friend:
- What happened
- How it made you feel
- What you perceived from others
- What you learned from the moment
- In what ways the moment might have built a connection
- What you might do differently in the future
- Their perspective
Don’t be afraid to ask your friend for support and positive affirmation, especially if the situation has made you feel particularly down.
Reflect on what you learned
One of the benefits of an embarrassing moment is the opportunity to learn from it. Whether it was a simple social faux pas, awkward situation, or genuine mistake, there’s bound to be something to learn.
To reflect on your embarrassment or mistake, in addition to the prompts from the tip above on talking it out with a friend, think through these questions in your journal:
- What do you wish happened instead?
- What does the situation say about you and your character?
- Could it have been worse? Why or why not?
- What are the positives outcomes?
Take a walk or get out of your element
If you’re prone to ruminating on your embarrassment, one of the best things you can do is to get out of your element for a little while. Distract your mind to focus on something positive and take a break from thinking about what happened.
Here are some ideas if you’re unsure where to start:
- Take a walk around the block. Put on some headphones and listen to your favorite music, audiobook, or podcast.
- Visit your favorite store. Whether it’s Target, a local book store, or a flower shop, enjoy something that brings you joy.
- Get creative. Take out your art supplies or tools, and work on creating something.
- Visit a friend or family member. There’s a time for discussing what happened, but if you’re getting out of your element, chat about other things instead.
Return to the scene of the crime
Returning to the scene of the crime can be both preventative and therapeutic. This is a valuable step because some people can be triggered by being in certain situations or places that remind them of their past embarrassments.
However, if you can proactively revisit these places and process what you can learn from these experiences, you’ll be able to face future awkward moments more confidently.
For example, let’s say you gave a presentation on stage and messed up what you meant to say. Revisit the stage and reflect on what you learned. Bring a friend with you and talk and try to laugh about it.
If your embarrassing moment happened in a social situation, for example, let’s say you sneezed on someone during a networking event. Go back and say hello to the person you sneezed on. Maybe you can even make light of it by sending them a gift card for dry cleaning.
Returning to the scene of the crime may not work for every situation, but when you can do it, it can be a helpful way to overcome the anxiety that often comes with embarrassment.
Bonus Tip: The tips above are related to strategies to overcome general embarrassment. However, it’s important to note that a deep fear of embarrassment is a real issue that can be socially paralyzing for some people. If you suspect you might have social anxiety, know that the best option for you may be to talk to a therapist.
Takeaways for Coping with Embarrassment
In summary, take note of these tips to help you cope with embarrassment and shame in the future:
Preventative strategies will help you gain self-awareness and prepare for future embarrassing moments. They include:
- Sharing stories with others
- Rejection therapy
- Overcoming your need for perfection
- Remembering how you overcame past embarrassments
- Practicing mindfulness and self-awareness
- Playing out the future scenario
In-the-moment strategies will help you regain confidence when the inevitable embarrassing moment happens. They include:
- Finding the humor in the situation
- Speaking positive affirmations to yourself
- Using the embarrassment to connect with others
- Doing a 5-second regroup
Post-embarrassment strategies will help you keep from ruminating and digging into a hole after you’ve experienced an embarrassing moment. They include:
- Talking it out with a friend
- Reflecting on what you learned
- Taking a walk or getting out of your element
- Returning to the scene of the crime to overcome fear
For more ideas to help you overcome embarrassment, check out our article 13 Effective Tips to (Finally!) Overcome Self-Sabotage.
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