Last week’s blog post, My Most Embarrassing Moment, wasn’t actually THE most embarrassing moment. It was more of an A most embarrassing moment, one among many over the years.
BUT, being the social psych nerd that I am, I got curious. And, as promised, I’m back with a little
treatise tome essay on embarrassment.
What is it? What’s the socially redeeming feature of something so painful? What, in social psychology parlance, is the function of embarrassment?
One thing I noticed, as I searched for images for embarrassment is that they all expressed the desire to hide. To flee the moment, to disappear in some way. Yet, as I’ll explain below, there are some very positive benefits in being seen as embarrassed.
Embarrassment is the emotional equivalent of the physical pain we feel when we put our hand on the hot stove. It’s a psychological “ouch.” Because of that pain, we determine it won’t happen again (unless we forget, in which case, ouch again.)
“But that sounds like guilt,” you say.
Good catch. Guilt can also be a motivator to change behavior.
The difference is a matter of time — embarrassment is relatively fleeting, momentary. Guilt is that three-day old fish that hangs around too long — and perspective — guilt can be suffered in private. Embarrassment is, by definition, public.
Embarrassment is just so embarrassing!
When we feel embarrassed, we often want to hide.
Yet, according to some creative social psych research, when we show embarrassment, we are actually perceived as
(1) more altruistic
(2) more trustworthy and even
(3) more monogamous
The blushing that helps us signal our embarrassment tells the world that we know the rules and want to play by them. We “get it.” Social psychology tells us that embarrassment is a social phenomenon that helps to bind the members of a group together.
“But why must it be so painful?” you ask.
Well, I’ve got a theory. A model. A hypothesis.
It has to do with our identity.
And anything that threatens or undermines our identity attacks our sense of security. When we feel embarrassed, we have exposed a private, personal state for all to see. Of course that is painful.
Here’s my hypothesis:
Our level of embarrassment in a given situation is
directly related to the degree to which the particular
identity we have presented publicly has been damaged.
Suddenly, we are not who we think we are. Or who we say we are.
Our mask has come off.
In my story from last week, I had presented myself as having done all the right things to produce the “perfect” self-published book. I set myself as an exemplar, someone to pay attention to as the voice of experience, useful information, and (in a word) perfection. At least when it came to self-published books.
If I hadn’t done that, if I’d just been reading my book as I usually do at these events, I’d have been surprised, maybe mildly irritated at the proofreader or, more likely, at myself for not catching the gaffe. But there would have been no embarrassment. And, certainly, had I been reading that page at home ahead of time, embarrassment would not have been the outcome.
The embarrassment came solely because of how I presented myself to others. I got called on my tragic flaw — perfectionism this time.
Fortunately, I’ve come a long way since the evening I ran from the room and locked myself in the bathroom after making a mistake while playing the piano for a large group of guests. I was eight.
And I’ve come a very long way since the days, the years, I’d do just about anything to keep my stuttering from showing. And that included the time I introduced two men to a room full of board members as “the two Dicks,” because I knew I’d stutter on the Joe portion of Joe Dick and Dick Ruth. And I hadn’t thought about it until the words were out of my mouth. More than embarrassed, I was mortified for weeks. I was 32.
Now I know that it’s actually a good thing for our embarrassment to be seen.
It allows us to show our vulnerability. And that allows us to connect with others on a level not often available to us. Laughter helps.
Perhaps that’s why embarrassment is so painful. For when we are embarrassed we believe, if even for a minute, that we are cut off from others, that we are alone. Of course that’s painful.
But if only I could remember that it’s my mistakes that remind me I’m human.
How about you? Can you see the connection between embarrassment and the masks you wear?
Tomorrow: our next Three Things post.