The Unexpected Gift of Embarrassment: Lessons in Self-Compassion

Three women sitting at a table together. One is embarrassed and being consoled by friends.

“That was so embarrassing!”

Just say the word, “embarrassing,” and everyone has a memory of something that instantly comes to mind. It is a shared human experience. It could be a face-plant in front of a middle-school crush, a remnant of food in one’s teeth discovered hours after  the meal was enjoyed, or spilled coffee at a job interview. Whatever happened, after a little while—and sometimes even in the moment—that awkward moment can make people smile, and even want to share the moment with others. An embarrassing situation can be painfully awkward, but it is not shameful. It does not bring a lingering sense of social isolation, because others at some level can relate, and may have even had it happen to them. The embarrassed person is not left in isolation.

What makes a situation move from embarrassing—awkward, vulnerable, and unexpected—to humiliating?

Two big things: Compassion and shame. Specifically,

  • The way embarrassed people see, talk to, and treat themselves during and after the situation, and
  • The way the observers see, talk to, and treat the embarrassed person during and after the situation.

Embarrassment, Vulnerability, and Automatic Reflexes

Embarrassment is an unexpected moment when someone is publicly thrown into a state of vulnerability. So, the moment an embarrassing situation occurs, people’s mental reflexes kick in. During and after an embarrassing moment, everyone experiencing, observing, or hearing about the situation makes a choice: To respond with compassion, affirming everyone’s shared experience of embarrassment and vulnerability, or to respond with shaming, further isolating the embarrassed person through attacks, mockery, disgust, or shunning.

Compassionate reflexes:

Children and adults who practice self-compassion have developed the habit of talking to themselves kindly, as they would a friend. They may say to themselves, “Wow, this is embarrassing. Everybody is staring at me. I cannot get out of this situation fast enough.” But because they have learned to treat themselves kindly and recognize that everyone has these moments, they label the situation awkward and embarrassing – not themselves (“It could have happened to anybody. I just got ‘lucky’ this time.”).

When observers have learned to practice compassion, they take on the same role as an encourager, but the role is more active and public. They verbally recognize that it is uncomfortable (“Wow, that was awkward!”), but they communicate with words or actions that the person it happened to is not alone: (“That happened to me, too.” or “That could have happened to anybody, don’t worry about it.”).  

Either way, the compassionate response makes sure that the discomfort stays associated with the situation, not isolating the person.

Shame-based reflexes

Embarrassment may cause people who do not practice self-compassion to suddenly be barraged with self-talk that makes an awkward situation a shameful one: “You idiot! How could you let this happen to you? Everybody is staring!” In this case, both the situation and the person merge as one detestable thing. In extreme cases, self-talk can even take on the role of an attacker, heaping unfair and unreasonable accusations upon self in this vulnerable moment. This kind of self-talk labels the person as unlikeable, stupid, disgusting, or even bad, and the humiliating self-talk cites the embarrassing situation as proof. 

Observers who see the embarrassed person and are not practiced in compassion can heap shame upon someone in an already vulnerable moment. They will use the situation to isolate the person, often non-verbally with eyerolls of disgust or despising gestures. In more extreme cases, they may humiliate—mount an undeserved attack— calling names, taunting, yelling, making the embarrassed person out to be the only one on the planet dumb or bad enough to do such a thing.

It’s interesting to think that the same embarrassing experience could have such drastically different outcomes for the person experiencing the embarrassment, based not on the incident itself, but on people’s responses to it. Here’s something to ponder:

Which is the bigger game-changer: the way others respond, or the way people respond internally?

In response, consider the words of Viktor Frankl in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning:  

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

If that’s the case, the greatest gift parents, educators, and other caring adults can give children and youth is the intentional ability to take ownership of that freedom, the freedom to choose their own attitude, and learn how to talk to themselves with compassion. Then, even when the world is cruel in their most vulnerable and awkward moments, their minds can choose to be kind and put the moment in perspective. And maybe tomorrow, that same cringeworthy incident can even make them smile.

Want more? This article by Brené Brown is a great resource to assist educators and parents in helping kids recognize, decipher, and talk about uncomfortable feelings more intentionally. 

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.

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