How To Handle Embarrassment
Article By: Angela Bekiaris
So you’ve spilt a drink all over your boss at the Christmas party. You’re not drunk, but no one’s going to believe you. Think about what happens next. Your face is burning and you’ve become a stammering imbecile. That’s horrible for you, but from a social perspective, it’s a good thing, says psychologist Christine Harris.
Wherever you go, people tend to express embarrassment with the same body language: averted gaze, head down, tight smile. It’s a form of apology, explains Harris, eliciting sympathy, saying, in effect, “Don’t worry – I mean no harm!”
By school age, children are anxious to fit in with peers, and begin to get flustered by anything that makes them look different in front of others. The teen years are, of course, the worst. During this time, one of the parts of the brain that monitors the reactions of others (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.
Fortunately, over time, most people develop thicker skins and a stronger sense of personal identity.
“But no one can be embarrassment-proof,” says psychologist Kenneth Barish. We can, however, learn to be less vulnerable to embarrassment and bounce back better. Some coping strategies:
Tough It Out
When you walk into a party and discover your skirt is tucked into your tights, your natural impulse may be to hide in the bathroom for the rest of the night. But that might draw the kind of attention to yourself that has nothing to do with the incident. For example, other people might think you’re avoiding them and start avoiding you, says Allyn. So – grin, fix your skirt and tough it out.
The same rule applies for kids. When your child feels she’s embarrassed herself at school, she may want to cancel Saturday’s sleepover. Gently encourage her to reconsider and focus on things that went well that day. “This will help her put things in perspective,” explains paediatric psychologist Lynne Kenney. Finally, suggest something to say if classmates bring up the incident, such as: “That was no fun! Do you want to see my new bracelet?”
Act as if it’s no big deal and others will probably follow suit and lose interest in the incident. Similarly, if your children see you laugh when you realise your shirt has been misbuttoned all morning, maybe they’ll giggle when the same thing happens to them.
Stop Re-Playing/ Dwelling On It
The worst part of embarrassment is reliving the mortifying incident over and over again in your mind. When that happens, take a walk or do a boring, methodical task like cleaning. Teach kids to sing a song in their heads or 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 Roberts messed up the oath of office during the 2009 US presidential inauguration, and people talked about the gaffe for a day, maybe two, says clinical psychologist Mary Lamia. “So what are the chances that anyone is obsessing over the typo in your e-mail?” she asks. “We over-estimate the extent to which our actions are noticed by others.”