It’s a nice day, you’re strolling along, music’s queued up, prospects looking good, your sweater’s matching your pants, the person you’re seeing just sent you a cute text, no one you know is actively sick or angry at you, your dreams are, if not on the brink of actualization, not impossibly far from it, and yet here you are, suddenly bowled over by the memory of some dumb thing you said a decade ago.
That’s the power of embarrassment. Doesn’t matter how long it’s been. Doesn’t matter how thoroughly you’ve attempted to remake yourself. Embarrassment doesn’t care that you’ve made amends with who you were; embarrassment doesn’t care about your various retroactive justifications for doing or saying what you did, or for why what you said and did weren’t actually that big of a deal. Embarrassment will get you, even years down the line. For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out why.
Professor, Psychology, UC Berkeley, whose research interests include emotion and social interaction, among other things
Embarrassment taps into dimensions of our core social identity, who we hope others see us as, and how we deviate from those aspirations. People have recurrent themes in what embarrasses them over the life course, such as telling stories and engaging in banter, around friends, engaging in personal disclosures with others, or knowing how to comport oneself at formal events. So we are embarrassed by what happened 10 years ago because those themes are still vital to us today, in terms of our desired social identity.
Professor of Psychology and Director of the Emotion and Self Lab at the University of British Columbia, and the author of PRIDE: The Secret to Success
For emotions that are about the self—including embarrassment, but also pride, shame, and guilt—we can feel them again long after we initially experienced them, even 10 years later, because the elicitor is the self—and it’s still with us. Other emotions aren’t like this. You might feel intense fear from encountering danger, and remember that event years later, and remember how scared you were, but if you are currently safe you won’t feel that fear again. In contrast, if you think back to that time you said that horrible thing in front of your boss or friend, and were completely mortified, you can easily get to that same place of mortification again, because the thing that caused the emotion—YOU—is still there. You are still the person who did that, so remembering that you did that can be almost as bad—or even equally as bad—as the actual doing of it. On the brighter side, think back to a time you did something that made you very proud of yourself, like a major achievement, and you’ll find that you can get back those same feelings of pride you had in that moment, because the you that caused the event is also still with you, and still can be a source of those good-self feelings.
Professor, Psychology, Clemson University
I think we are embarrassed not only by things that happened to us 10 years ago, but also what happened to other people (empathic embarrassment). At the time that we originally feel embarrassed, the situation has created a self-presentational predicament—we are embarrassed because we have failed in our efforts to make a desired impression. This is why the first thing we do when we trip on the stairs is to look around to see if anyone saw us. The visceral feeling that we have and the realization that we can’t undo that situation cause us to feel embarrassed every time we think about it. We feel regret that the situation happened and often reflect on ways that we could have prevented the situation from occurring. Embarrassment is a strong emotion which helps to explain why we continue to feel it even years later.
Distinguished Regents Professor Emeritus, Psychology, Sam Houston State University, whose research focuses on embarrassment and shame, among other things
Even 10 years on, if you merely start to envision the circumstances that caused you to be dramatically embarrassed, you can engender fresh embarrassment—just by remembering what it was like. Embarrassment is a potent emotion, and vivid events do tend to be more memorable (this applies, as well, to anger, and many other emotions).
Embarrassment—the emotion of faux-pas, of social mishap—depends on a concern about what other people think about us. A lot of the things we do in private aren’t embarrassing at all, until the sudden threat of discovery arises. Even when we’re not discovered, just thinking about what others might have thought, had they known, can cause some degree of embarrassment.
It’s a phenomenon that speaks to the social power of embarrassment, which is an intriguing emotion. It probably exists because it provided a reliable signal to others that we recognize our transgression—that we were chagrined by it, that we regret it, and can be expected to behave more appropriately in the future. It reassures others because it serves as an authentic non-verbal apology.
When people can do anything they please and are heedless of the opinion of others—if people can’t be made to feel embarrassed (which can be true of psychopaths)—they’re not trustworthy. The expert advice is that when you screw up in public, it’s good to become embarrassed—the capacity for embarrassment is normal, it’s adaptive. When we screw up and then act embarrassed, people like us better and trust us better than they would have if we’d remained completely unruffled and unperturbed by our misbehavior.
Psychologist, and Professor at the Wright Institute
Some memories carry more emotional intensity and vividness than others, and, as a result, they are more likely to be remembered. Embarrassing moments are generally surprising and highly emotionally arousing.
Embarrassment is a subset of the shame-emotion, often triggered in situations where we feel a wince or jolt to the self and worry that we are diminished in the eyes of others. Shame is felt as exposure to external or internal judgment, or it may arise in the context of a broken bond with another. A shame response tells us that for the moment we have experienced an impediment to the maintenance of that bond. In general, when shame is activated, we feel bad about who we are—our entire self—which makes us want to hide or disappear.
We may not like remembering our embarrassments, but these memories and the uncomfortable emotions attached to them are part of an adaptive process that protects us; that is, memory enables us to apply past experiences and information to present and future possibilities. Experiences of shame (embarrassment) evolved as a helpful response to error. How we deal with our embarrassments is critical to healthy learning and to our abilities to interact socially and intimately.
Repeatedly reliving an embarrassment in our minds can negatively affect how we feel, the way in which we behave publicly, and our general mood. We are not our embarrassing mistakes. Instead, mistakes we experience can help us learn. Thus, it is important to take a look at our responses and be curious about why we responded the way we did. As such, a past embarrassment is somewhat like a person in our lives who gave us important information to use in the present and future.
Self-observation that is often prompted by the shame of an embarrassment and felt as regret provides an opportunity to learn, change, improve, or do something differently the next time around. People who are successful in their endeavors or careers often make use of the emotions they experience. Rather than defensively respond to what they feel, they instead reflect, self-evaluate, and learn.
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