“Embarrassemnt is improvement’s biggest enemy.”

– Ryoko Kui, Japanese manga artist

“Why did you stop?” she asked. “Why did you stop singing?”

My granddaughter, Alexis and I had been driving around the city with the music cranked, singing along with a CD in the player. Admittedly, neither of us would have been a contender on America’s Got Talent, but with the music blasting, we delivered an impressive harmony.

When I pulled up at an intersection with several other vehicles, I immediately turned down the music and stopped singing. Perplexed, Alexis looked at me, then reached over and twisted the volume knob. Music blasted, and a couple of people in surrounding vehicles turned to stare. I promptly turned the volume back down and chastised her for touching the dial.

The rest of the drive was quiet, and the joyfulness we had experienced together a few minutes earlier vanished. I felt like a killjoy and cursed by fear of judgment.

I had stopped singing because I felt embarrassed, afraid that others might look at me with disapproval. Despite my efforts to change, I have struggled with this fear all my life.

Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion comfortable in the company of guilt, shame, and regret. Moreover, since embarrassment typically happens in the presence of other people, it can be tremendously debilitating. Negative evaluations, or even the perception of a negative evaluation if none has occurred, can lead to self-conscious behaviour and condemnation.

Individuals with poor self-esteem often feel embarrassment to a heightened degree. Already in the habit of judging themselves harshly, they think others will naturally do the same. A psychological phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” is that most people with poor self-esteem overestimate the extent to which others notice or even care about the embarrassing events unfolding. In addition, such individuals will repeatedly replay the embarrassing incident in their minds as a form of self-punishment.

As the old saying goes, we tend to experience what we think about most of the time. The more we try to avoid embarrassing ourselves, the more likely we will experience embarrassment. The pounding of your heart, the heat and redness in your face, the desire to crawl under a rock: it’s all part and parcel of being embarrassed – an experience to be avoided.  

What good is embarrassment if all it creates is fear and discomfort? Some evidence suggests that people who experience embarrassment for social transgressions are more likely to be forgiven, liked and trusted than those who do not. That said, most of us (I’m sure) would prefer to avoid embarrassing situations or, at least be able to mitigate them.      

Take a few steps back and re-evaluate your last embarrassing situation. Did you replay the event in your mind? If so, have you pondered why you need to do so? What disempowering or self-defeating belief does the replaying support?

If you consider yourself a bumbling fool, re-experiencing the embarrassing event will reinforce that belief. At a subconscious level, we seek congruency between what we think and what we experience. Hanging on embarrassing mistakes only exacerbates the situation and further damages your self-esteem. Let it go. Laugh at it if you like. Learn from it. Accept it as a part of life.  

“Relax, the world’s not watching that closely,” wrote American best-selling author Richelle E. Goodrich. “It’s too busy contemplating itself in the mirror.”

If you’re easily embarrassed, ponder the cause. What beliefs are you harbouring that prompt you to turn down the music and clam up? My granddaughter doesn’t get embarrassed easily, and I think there’s a profound lesson to be learned from her. Perhaps if she and I spend more time together, I can keep the music cranked even at the intersection.

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