Growth | Written by: Sam Murray

How to Overcome Embarrassing Situations

It doesn’t matter how cool you might be. You could be Tom-Hardy-riding-a-motorbike-through-the-Arctic-wearing-only-a-scarf cool, and you will still have times in your life when you want the world to open up and swallow you whole.

Embarrassing situations, like taxes and death, are an inevitability of life. And while we can’t stop them from happening, we can overcome them with a few simple techniques.

So whether you’ve fallen over on stage, made an “unwanted noise” in yoga (yes, you know what I’m talking about), or called your current partner by your ex’s name, we’ve got a few tips and tricks to help you get over embarrassing situations.

Why Do We Get Embarrassed?

Before we find out how to get over it, let’s first take a look at why we get embarrassed (and why it might not be such a bad thing after all).

Embarrassment is a natural reaction to a situation that undermines the idea of yourself that you want to project to others. Or to make things simpler, you want to look cool, but you do something that makes you look uncool.

Speaking to business website Fast Company, Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, said although it might feel like a negative emotion, embarrassment can actually have positive outcomes.

That’s because people who tend to feel embarrassed are more likely to be trusted by others than people who don’t.

“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,” 

David continues.

“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.”

Quite apart from that, embarrassment — or more accurately potential embarrassment — may also help you prepare for difficult situations. Why do we focus so much on forgetting our words when we are about to make a big speech? Well, that fear of embarrassment forces us to read our lines more, thus stopping us from forgetting our words.

The Difference Between Embarrassment and Shame

At this point, it’s also worth making a distinction between two feelings that are often used as synonyms but come from a very different place.

Embarrassment is the feeling we get when we do something cringe-inducing that derives from a morally neutral place. For example, singing out of tune on stage is not a morally wrong thing to do (some of my karaoke performances have been criminal, but that’s another matter).

Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling we get when we’ve done something morally wrong. We can feel shame if we steal, lie, or gossip about a friend, for example.

Often the symptoms of both embarrassment and shame overlap. Those butterflies in your stomach or blushing can derive from both, but you need to deal with the issues in different ways. You probably won’t need to apologize for your embarrassment. However, you may need to say sorry for something shameful you have done.

Four Ways to Overcome an Embarrassing Situation

1. Swap Places With Others

When you’ve done something you find embarrassing, your reaction will be along the lines of “oh no, what did I do” or “why did I do that!?” or even “why am I such a klutz!?”.

But can you see the constant in the equation? You’re focusing on yourself. That’s natural of course, but it’s only one version of the event.

The reality is, the people who saw you “make a fool of yourself” will think much less of it than you do. Many will not have given it a second thought, in much the same way as you might not if you saw it happen to someone else.

In understanding that, you will also find a way of getting over your embarrassment. A scientific study by Li Jiang from Carnegie Mellon University found that visualizing the embarrassing situation as an observer, rather than the perpetrator, can significantly reduce the embarrassment felt.

2. Kill the Moment with a Joke

If you go through an embarrassing situation, your friends might tell you to laugh it off which, let’s be honest, is easier said than done. But that advice might not be as terrible as it sounds.

Facing up to the embarrassing moment is much better in the long run than trying to brush it off or ignore it. A study by Joshua Clegg, a John Jay College professor, found awkward or embarrassing situations are best dealt with by facing up to them and, in particular, with humor.

The joke doesn’t need to be a killer, just something to break the tension. Holding your hands up, and admitting that, yes, you did just fall over in front of everyone, is far, far better. Because, hey, you just fell over in front of everyone.

3. Focus on a Different Part of Your Memory

Embarrassing moments can play over in your brain for years. That can actually make it a little bit more difficult to deal with.

It’s not like you can “kill it with a joke” — that moment has long gone. But thankfully there is a way you can overcome it, even if it happened years ago.

Researchers at the University of Illinois found focusing on the extra details of the situation, rather than what a fool you made of yourself, is an excellent way to combat the pain.

For example, let’s say you went to a party and accidentally spilled soda all over yourself. Stop thinking about how you looked or the embarrassment you felt. Instead, think about the friends that were there with you or the music that was playing that night. You will quickly forget your embarrassment and start to drift off into other thoughts.

4. Cool Yourself Off

When something cringe-worthy happens, many of us will get flustered, flush, or overheat. We may even need to “cool off.” Typically that means getting ourselves out of the situation and taking a few deep breaths.

But a scientific study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that physically cooling yourself down can help lower your embarrassment levels. The idea behind it is, as researcher Jess Rotman told Neuroscience News, “that emotions and temperature go hand in hand, and we can potentially use this information to regulate emotions.”

It may not be practical to stick your head in a refrigerator every time you feel embarrassed (in fact, you might just feel sillier) so just consume an ice-cold glass of water.

Embrace Your Embarrassment

An embarrassing moment is cringe-inducing, it’s jaw-achingly awful, and we all wish they never happened. But the issue is they do happen. To everyone.

The worst thing you can do is try to run away from it. Chances are, you will struggle to get over it and will continue to suffer. The only thing left to do is embrace the embarrassment and tackle it head-on.

All the four methods of overcoming an embarrassing situation I have revealed here involve direct action by you. You need to tackle it yourself. Love your goofiness, make light of it, or break it down in your mind. Whatever it is, don’t let it fester.

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