The meeting where you’re afraid to speak up in case you sound silly. The party where you won’t dance for fear of looking ridiculous. Embarrassment, and the fear of it, is hard-wired and can be restrictive if we let it take hold.
A large part of resilience is being able to take on new challenges, but embarrassment, which is defined as a fear of losing standing in others’ eyes, causes us to shrink from these opportunities. “You can’t thrive and grow unless you also make mistakes,” says meQuilibrium chief science officer Dr. Andrew Shatté.
It’s possible to overcome embarrassment in a few key steps. Here’s how:
Step One: Understand Its Origins
Blame your ancestors: Embarrassment is primal. “If you didn’t contribute to the tribe, you were a waste of resources—and you could get ejected, which used to mean death,” Shatté explains. “It was once very handy for us to have an emotion in place that signaled we were losing standing. The problem is, this signal is outdated.” So when you start to feel embarrassment creeping in, recognize it as a primal reaction that isn’t based in our current reality. Why is this important? Understanding the context can help take some of the punch out if it.
Step Two: Check Your Emotion Radar
We all have emotion radars: habitual ways of scanning the world for clues about what’s happening to and around us. Our radars are wired for negative emotions—like embarrassment, anger, or anxiety—and this ramps up our stress. An embarrassment radar develops as we learn about how we should dress, behave, or act in public. This radar scans for situations in which we’ve lost standing. When we go looking for something, we often find it—meaning we end up feeling judged a lot more than warranted. In turn, we’re less resilient, less bold when interacting with others, and afraid to take risks. Next time you feel your embarrassment radar pinging, stop for a moment and check if it’s accurate—nine times out of ten, it won’t be!
Step Three: Envision a Worst-Case Scenario
Often, people say they would die if they became too embarrassed. Newsflash: Nobody has ever died of this emotion. Shatté encourages clients to envision a time of supreme embarrassment and recall the outcome. It wasn’t so bad, right? Next time you feel embarrassed, Shatté says to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” You’ll find that you’re spending too much energy on an outcome that is very unlikely. The result? You don’t feel so embarrassed.
Step Four: Destigmatize the Feeling
Take yourself out of your comfort zone a bit. Act silly with your kids. Sing in the car. Envision yourself as a powerful warrior or a knight in armor before speaking up at a meeting. “These small shifts can generate positive feedback,” he says, which will reinforce more confidence. And more confidence means less embarrassment.
And if worse comes to worst? Think back to your prom, Shatté says. “Remember how nervous you were about your appearance? Well, everyone else was too busy focusing on themselves to worry about how you looked,” says Shatté.
In many ways, life is like that prom. And without embarrassment, we can find our way onto to the dance floor—confidently.