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Life 101: Our big fear of embarrassment




You’ve probably heard that the fear of public speaking is greater than that of death. Another top vote getter is being embarrassed—humiliated, to be exact. 

The reason seems to come from our remote past. Early on—when humans had to fight off predators—safety came from being in groups and the fear of being rejected had dire consequences.

Fast forward to present day, this primal fear has morphed into current scenarios in which we crave acceptance and fear rejection, even when there’s not a life-threatening situation. “Nearly 20 million individuals at any one time suffer some form of social anxiety,” said Kip Williams, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University. “They fear being rejected and abandoned.”

Let’s look at how embarrassment manifests in today’s world, with results from a survey by Mindful magazine.

What Embarrasses You the Most?

Ranked by percentage, the major survey results are:

  • 42 – being put on the spot
  • 33 – saying the wrong thing
  • 10 – being clumsy
  •   7 – showing emotion
  •   3 – public displays of affection

Who Has the Greatest Power to Embarrass You?

  •  27 – complete strangers
  •  24 – coworkers
  •  22 – romantic partners
  •  11 – siblings
  •    9 – parents
  •    4 – friends

How Does Embarrassment Show Up?

By percentage the most common responses to being embarrassed are, blushing, 71 percent, breaking into a sweat, 30 percent, laughing inappropriately, 29 percent, queasiness, 18 percent, the urge to urinate, 4 percent and watery eyes, 4 percent.

Getting Over It

Thirty-two percent of respondents said they don’t get over embarrassment. Twenty-nine percent laugh it off, while 9 percent deflect attention to someone else, and another 8 percent slink away.

Tips for getting over embarrassment, from my professional experience and research from therapist, Therese Borchard include:

  1. Stay in the moment – All embarrassment takes place in the past. Theoretically, if you’re able to totally stay in the moment, you won’t feel an ounce of embarrassment because those messages in your brain come from a different time. Easier said than done though when your stomach is tied in knots and you’re berating yourself with phrases such as: “I’m such a klutz,” or “I’m terrible with directions.” 
  • Stop apologizing – You may think you’ll feel better if you atone for your actions again and again, but in reality you’ll actually feel worse. Again, your attention is on the past, not the present.
  • Visit past humiliations – Remember when you thought you were going to die? In hindsight, it wasn’t such a big deal. Borchard, associate editor of Psych Central, shares the following examples:
  • At my first job I was the only one to dress up for Halloween. I went as the building security guard—even borrowed his actual uniform.
  • I was almost arrested for sexual harassment because the creative note I left for the director of the homeless shelter was placed atop a lingerie set sent by someone else. Thus, he assumed I was the lingerie stalker.
  • Upon being prompted to tell “the thumb” joke to the vice president of Doubleday, I proceeded to tell the wrong, very off-color joke—which I feared would kill our book contract.
  • Learn how to be afraid – Embarrassment is essentially fear. “While we can’t instantly stop ourselves from being afraid, we do have the power to change how we relate to situations,” explains Taylor Clark, author of the book, Nerve.
  • Get in the car again – Borchard says someone once spray painted “Dumb-a** blonde” on her car.  When she refused to drive the car to school, her mother said, “Okay, I’ll drive the car.” She heard stories that her mom would be at intersections, getting honked at, and just wave like she was Queen Elizabeth.

Remember, you’re the one in charge. And, while everyone hates being embarrassed, karaoke still exists!

Linda Arnold is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and Founder of a multistate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at  or visit for more information on her books.

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