Shame was an emotion I previously hadn’t put too much thought into. Yeah, I know we all get embarrassed from time to time, but I wasn’t aware of how impactful it is for many people. I’m a pretty outgoing guy, and therefore I naively assumed that most people were less bothered by shame than I was. I realized as time passed by, that shame was one of the primary emotions I was treating in my therapy practice. It turns out that despite popular belief, shame and embarrassment are actually choices. Shame is a state of mind. It’s an emotional response to the conversations going on in our heads at the time of making a mistake in front of those whose opinions we value.
Have you ever seen someone walking down the street wearing the most bizarre clothing? Yet despite feeling embarrassed, this person is walking around in public with their head held high as if they’re in the coolest clothes on the planet. Meanwhile, on the other hand, someone could be wearing something socially acceptable and ends up not wanting to leave the restaurant after finding out there’s the tiniest hardly visible spot of grease on their shirt. What’s the difference between the person wearing the crazy outfit and feeling great, compared to the other person in the fancy clothes but too ashamed to leave the restaurant? The difference is in their mindset.
In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The difference between getting embarrassed and just feeling disappointed is not putting ourselves down during our social mistakes. For example, if you trip and fall in front of a crowd and say to yourself “I’m a stupid idiot and can’t do anything right,” by beating yourself up about it you’re going to make yourself feel ashamed. If you don’t judge yourself for the mistake, you’re going to be mildly disappointed in yourself instead.
Sometimes we awfulize about the slip-ups we make in public. “Oh my God, that’s so awful that I fell in front of everyone at work!” “If people see me stuttering during my presentation it would be terrible if they didn’t think I was smart!” Awfulizing is when we disproportionately skew how bad something is in the grand scheme of things, making the incident out to be disproportionately worse than it actually is. When we overestimate how bad doing something foolish in front of others would be (awfulizing), and make a judgment about our entire selves about it (labeling) — that’s the recipe for shame.
The next time you make a social faux pas, think of the conversation you’re having with yourself about this. What would that mean about you if you made a mistake? What would that say about you if someone were to see you act foolishly? What would you think about someone judging you for being a fallible human being? How you answer these critical questions is crucial to how you’ll feel the next time you say or do something silly in public.