Embarrassing moments are fun to relive (long after the fact), but when you’re in the middle of the situation, it can feel like the entire world is looking at you. Like that time I uncontrollably burped out loud when I met my (now) in-laws. Or the time my husband “pantsed” himself in front of dozens of passengers on a cruise ship, thinking he was wearing swim trunks under his shorts (he wasn’t). At work, such faux pas can threaten to undermine our professionalism.
“Embarrassment is what is called a ‘self-conscious’ emotion; something that we experience in relation to others when we make a mistake or behave in a way that is against social norms or standards,” says Susan David, PhD, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Emotional Agility.
While embarrassment is typically experienced as a ‘negative’ emotion and one that is closely related to both guilt and shame, it actually drives a number of positive outcomes, says David.
Individuals who feel and express embarrassment are more likely to be trusted and more likely to be forgiven than those who don’t, says David.
“When others see that we are embarrassed, it signals via our facial expression and the emotion itself that we care that we have transgressed expectations, that we have made a mistake, and about our actions,” she says. “Others are then more likely to trust and forgive people who care, as opposed to people who act with impunity, or without any concern about their impact on others.”
The anticipation of being embarrassed can help us to better prepare for challenging situations.
“If you’re giving a high-stakes presentation on behalf of your team to a potential client, you’ll both likely think through the content and potential reactions,” says David. “Potential embarrassment leads us to prepare more; we want to be able to answer the questions and to not let down our team.”
Avoiding embarrassment also helps protect society. “Mild embarrassment can be a healthy way of maintaining social order so that no one person overly offends another,” says Leslie Shore, author of Listen to Succeed: How to Identify and Overcome Barriers to Effective Listening.
Embarrassment shines a light on things that are of value to us, such as meeting expectations or not letting others down, adds David. “It can signpost things that we care about,” she says.
Most of us prefer to avoid being embarrassed, but when it does happen, there are a few things you can do to lessen the awkwardness.
Joshua Clegg, assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, has studied embarrassment and calls it “problematic instances of social affiliation.” In his study “The Importance of Feeling Awkward”, published in Qualitative Research in Psychology, Clegg says most of us react in one of two ways: We either avoid it or address it.
The better strategy is confronting it head on, and this can best be done with humor. When you make fun of your situation, you look confident and courageous, he writes. Simply saying, “Awkward!” can minimize the stress.
While the advice to “chill out” sounds figurative, a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds that the suggestion works in literal ways, too.
In an experiment, researchers from Western University in Canada asked participants to recall situations that resulted in a range of emotions. Then they were offered a choice of warm and cold drinks. The people who were feeling shame and embarrassment were more likely to choose the colder drinks, because emotions linked with regret often have a warm physical response in the body, such as blushing.
“While people were in the warm state as a result of feeling self-conscious emotions, they were motivated to cool off,” writes study author Jeff Rotman.
In a second experiment, participants were asked to hypothetically invest in pharmaceutical stock. Some people were told that the stock value increased while others were told it decreased. Next, some participants were shown an advertisement for a Caribbean cruise while others viewed one for an Alaskan cruise. People who had a declining stock value and had viewed the Alaskan cruise ad felt less regret over the stock loss than those who saw the Caribbean footage.
“This provides evidence that emotions and temperature go hand in hand, and we can potentially use this information to regulate emotions,” writes Rotman. “If you are feeling regret or shame, you are more likely to desire a glass of cold water, which could help you feel a little less shame. If you are in a warm environment and do something that you regret, you might feel worse about it than if you were in a colder environment.”
If you find yourself feeling embarrassed often, try to become conscious of those moments and remember to breathe when they occur, says Shore. “Survey the scene and watch the body language of your audience,” she says. “Is anyone smiling, chuckling? If they are, then laugh with them.”
Experiencing embarrassment is normal, says David. “It is the price we pay for being messy, imperfect, normal humans,” she says. “A key part of moving on from embarrassment is to practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness. When you recognize that you are human and imperfect, just like all other humans are imperfect, it gives us permission to let go of the past embarrassment with the knowledge that we did our best.”