What embarrasses you? Finding spinach in your teeth? Hearing your cell phone ring during a meeting? Sometimes all it takes is forgetting someone's name or being thanked effusively for a simple gift.
Like other emotions, embarrassment is impossible to banish. Yet most of us wish we could avoid it.
This sudden feeling of discomfort is caused by having called unwanted attention to oneself. We learn as early as elementary school that being too conspicuous feels bad, says Rowland Miller, a professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas, and the author of "Embarrassment: Poise and Peril in Everyday Life."
In fact, we should learn to let ourselves off the hook, because embarrassment happens for a good reason; it might even make you a better person.
Many scientists, including Miller, say that embarrassment evolved in order to help people form strong social bonds. The instinctive care we take to avoid embarrassment makes us more considerate and polite, more respectful, charitable, honest, and law-abiding. It encourages us to let someone else take the last piece of pie, to avoid talking too much and too loudly in company, and not to ask nosy questions.
When we do something outside the bounds of accepted behavior, we feel awkward, because we know people recognize the transgression. "Humans seem hardwired to care about what others are thinking about them," Miller says.
Remember, Nobody's Perfect
Scientists say that most of the time, embarrassment actually improves others' opinions of us. It triggers compassion, acceptance, and approval on the part of onlookers, who are only too happy to be reminded that nobody's perfect. Someone who appears impervious to embarrassment, on the other hand, can seem cold or odd.
Research has also found that the physical response to embarrassment is so universal that people around the world recognize it: The eyes shift to the left and downward, blood fills the capillaries in the face, and the mouth forms a sheepish grin. Not everyone blushes when embarrassed, but when blushing does occur, it can lead to further embarrassment. Yet blushing helps other people realize you feel awkward about what has occurred.
Robert Edelmann, a professor of psychology at Roehampton University in London, points out that some scientists have argued that becoming flushed is the way that human beings indicate appeasement, similar to the way some animals roll over.
Keys to Coping
The various ways in which we deal with embarrassment are universal, too. Ignoring an embarrassing incident can work for a minor gaffe such as an unzipped fly, but it can also keep you from making a proper apology. Explaining it away can make matters worse by drawing out the time it takes to put the situation behind you.
Making light of an embarrassment -- laughing along with everyone else -- is probably the best response, the experts say, because doing so lets you acknowledge the situation but still move on quickly. Humor also helps everyone accept the ordinariness of embarrassing episodes.
Don't Let It Stop You
Shy people often fear embarrassment more than others do. And this can be more crippling than embarrassment itself. That fear keeps people from asking for promotions or raises, from having mammograms and other medical tests, and from seeking help for problems such as depression.
Excessive fear of embarrassment may be a sign that we're living under the delusion that our behavior must always be impeccable.
"If you dislike embarrassment, you're not alone," Miller writes. "However, if you're really averse to embarrassment, you're probably making it out to be more fearsome and damaging than it really is. People usually feel there's been greater damage done to their social standing than there has been." Once you realize how ordinary and even useful embarrassment is, you can more easily shake it off with a laugh or a shrug.
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