Spotlighting Embarrassment

Your secret crush tells you that you look nice today, and, all of a sudden, your  heart is pounding, your pulse is racing, you start to sweat, and your face becomes crimson for all the world to see. You feel yourself blushing, and that only makes you more embarrassed, which makes your face darken to a deeper shade of red. You’re blushing because you’re embarrassed, and you’re embarrassed because you’re blushing—it’s a vicious, seemingly endless, cycle. 

Relax—we’ve all been there. Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion that’s universal, says Tarrytown-based psychologist Anthony Puliafico, PhD, who specializes in the treatment of OCD and anxiety disorders. “We get embarrassed when we’ve violated social norms or done things that are socially out of bounds.” 

We also get embarrassed when we—or our thoughts, feelings, weaknesses, intentions, mistakes, even our achievements—are exposed in a way that puts an unwanted or unexpected spotlight on us or undermines the image of ourselves we want others to see. Unlike some other self-conscious emotions, such as shame or guilt, which we can feel even when we’re alone, embarrassment requires an audience—even if that audience is just one person. For instance, if you trip on a curb and nobody sees it, you might injure yourself, but you won’t be embarrassed. That same trip in front of a colleague might embarrass you because your pride or dignity is wounded. 

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While we all dread being embarrassed, Puliafico says that this fear “can actually be helpful at times because it keeps us within the boundaries.”

Though it may not seem too “helpful,” the numbing embarrassment you feel the morning after you’ve made a boozy fool of yourself at the office Christmas party may keep you away from the open bar at the next social function.

Embarrassment can range from mild awkwardness as a result of a faux pas to more substantial discomfort to outright painful—and sometimes insurmountable—humiliation, which Puliafico describes as a “more extreme form of embarrassment.” Others, however, have postulated that this is an altogether different animal, one that can be traumatic and have negative—even deadly—outcomes.

As for garden-variety embarrassment—you’ll get over it. By the time the blood that rushed to your cheeks and turned them scarlet moseys back to from whence it came, you’ll be fine. You may even make new friends, since studies show that people who get easily embarrassed are often seen as more vulnerable, trustworthy, and likeable. 

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