Think about the last time you were embarrassed and ask yourself what was achieved by it. Does fear of embarrassment make you less inclined to speak up at a meeting, sing a song you enjoy or be outgoing at parties?
What would it do for your life if you were to choose to be unembarrassable?
Most people I’ve worked with have never thought about being unembarrassable. They’ve thought that being embarrassed was something that happened to you. ‘Nice idea', some would say, 'but I’d just go red and prickly.'
'So what do I do?'
- Choose to ignore the physical symptoms of embarassment. They'll pass.
- Something really embarassing happens? Move on. It hasn't happened. Fuss will only make it memorable.
- It's only slightly embarassing, but obvious? Don't take yourself too seriously. We're all human. Maybe smile, but move on.
- Prepare a strategy so that if the worst happens you’ll know you can handle it.
Unembarrassability in action
Let’s say you are giving a presentation to 500 people. Your confidence is building to the point where you feel comfortable about leaving the lectern and your notes to step towards the audience a couple of metres. You are sensing the beginnings of a rapport. In the blur of faces you see people nodding, even smiling. They seem to be ignoring your nervousness, or even unaware of it. You are picturing your notes back on the lectern and the words are flowing. You ad-lib a one-liner. They laugh. There’s a pause. Suddenly, you’ve lost it. Five hundred people are waiting for your next point and your mind is blank. How embarrassing is that?
Try this: choose not to be embarrassed and say, as if in a conversation with a friend, ‘Let me just check what I was going to mention next.’ Go calmly to your notes, take a moment to find your place and come back with energy, ‘Ah yes, I wanted to talk about the marketing strategy…’ Embarrassment wouldn’t have changed anything - just made you and your audience feel bad.
Relaxing and recovering with energy will impress them with your confidence and enthusiasm for your message. Liberating isn’t it?
What if you introduce yourself at a party and the other person shows no interest in talking to you? It’s unlikely, but you could plan an exit line so that you leave to find someone more sociable.
What if you were to speak up at a meeting and get no support? You might plan to say in a relaxed way, with a smile, ‘I can see I’m not getting much support on this one, but I just want to make it clear where I stand.’
Reassuring research on embarrassment
The research suggests that most people tend to overestimate the extent to which others even notice our embarrassing moments. If somebody makes unflattering comments about us in public or the security alarm in the library goes off because we forgot to check out a book, it’s natural to assume that everybody is noticing and will remember.
A research team using both those scenarios found that observers are much less focused on the embarrassing event than the person it happens to. Observers also tend to be charitable through empathy or because they’ve done or can imagine doing something similar themselves.[i]
Liberation, not licence
Some people tell me they are uncomfortable about the effect that unembarrassability might have on society generally. They fear that it will become a licence to embarrass other people simply to show how unembarrassable we all are. Drunks do that at parties and it does nothing for their relationships.
Being unembarrassable is simply about liberating ourselves from fear so that we can make the best use of our talents.
Therapists encourage patients who have a high fear of embarrassment to try ‘decentering’ – which involves questioning whether other people really are evaluating them.[ii] Mostly, they're not - and if they are, should we be worried what they think of our clothes, hairstyle, body shape, accent or abilities?
We can choose not to need everyone's acceptance or approval. We can choose not to be concerned if we don’t perform perfectly on every occasion and after all, we’re in control of our lives, not them.
There's still a place for 'sorry'
We can be unembarrassable and still say sorry – maybe often. If we say something hurtful or inconvenience other people, we can apologise, make amends if necessary and decide not to make the same mistake again. But we must move on from any embarrassment, especially that crippling, guilty embarrassment that drags us down weeks and months later. How could that help anyone?
It’s a choice to give into the fear of embarrassment. Choose not to. Avoiding potentially embarrassing situations might ease your fears, but it’s a cop-out. That fear will, at the very least, cost you opportunities to shine.
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[i] Kenneth Savitsky, Nicholas Epley & Thomas Gilovich, ‘Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings and mishaps’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, vol. 81, no.1, pp 44-56
[ii] Richard S. Miller, ‘Embarrassment’, 1996, The Guilford Press
[iii] Kenneth Savitsky, Nicholas Epley & Thomas Gilovich, ‘Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings and mishaps’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, vol. 81, no.1, pp 44-56
[iv] Richard S. Miller, ‘Embarrassment’, 1996, The Guilford Press
Interested in training in emotional intelligence (thriving at work) for your team?