You called your teacher “mom” again. So what?
It happens to everyone. Your date just told you that there’s toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Nobody told you about the food that’s been stuck in your teeth all day. You accidentally sent an intimate text meant for your partner to your boss. You tripped and landed face-first on the ground in front of your crush. You were dancing like nobody was watching, only to come to the horrifying realization that somebody had, in fact, been watching. You finally worked up the courage to confess your love to someone only to have them tell you they really like you as a friend. The list goes on and on.
Our lives are plagued with embarrassing moments that make us want to close our eyes in hopes that if we can’t see the world, the world can’t see us. But we can’t make ourselves disappear, and we can’t undo whatever it is we wish we hadn’t done.
The Spotlight Effect
The spotlight effect is a phenomenon where people tend to overestimate the extent to which their behaviour or the way they appear is noticed and evaluated by others. When we do something embarrassing, we often feel like everyone’s eyes are on us. Psychologically, it’s in our nature to feel like we’re the centre of attention, especially during the times we’d much rather vanish into some dark void to escape any chance of scrutiny by our peers. We forget that, while we’re obviously the centre of the world we’ve created in our minds, we’re not the centre of everyone else’s world.
The realization that people aren’t thinking about you as much as you think they are is honestly pretty comforting. Imagine an A-list celebrity who truly does have the entire world scrutinizing their every move — people who grew up in the public eye, under a microscope. The spotlight effect may work slightly differently in that scenario, but it still applies to everyone. Even if the world is judging your slip-ups, who cares? For the non-famous, the only person worrying about that embarrassing comment you made at work about your irritable stomach is probably you.
As we learned above, perspective is a huge deal when coping with embarrassment. Imagine the following. It’s one in the morning, and you’re washing dishes. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you recall an awkward memory from three years ago. It feels like you’ve been hit by a freight train of embarrassment. Full disclosure, this happened to me last night, and many times before. That’s what inspired this piece.
When you find yourself in a situation like this where you’re recalling the past and causing yourself unnecessary stress and grief, you’ve got to look at the facts. Fact number one: You’re the only person recalling the memory at this exact moment. Fact number two: Whoever shares this memory with you; it’s not their embarrassing moment. They probably aren’t thinking about it three years later. Fact number three: They probably stopped thinking about it after it happened. Fact number four: You’re not the centre of anyone else’s world, why would people waste their time thinking about your embarrassing moments? Those are all the facts I’ve got for now. Some of them overlap, but that’s not cheating. If anything, it emphasizes the point.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we love to make ourselves relive embarrassing moments to appease the sadist that hides deep inside all of us. In reality, we’re not all closeted sadists. We’re just suffering from the spotlight effect. Be rational and understand that most people probably never think about your embarrassing moments. If they do, who cares? It’s in the past, and you’re not the same fool who fell off the stage at their high school graduation anymore. I’d never call you a fool, but you’ve probably called yourself one if that’s happened to you. Don’t be so hard on yourself! If you wouldn’t say it about someone else, don’t say it about yourself.
You Can’t Control What Other People Think
As I’m writing this, I saw a notification from a friend, and it reminded me of this embarrassing moment I had with her mom last year. I was visiting my old school, and I was raving to one of my childhood teachers about how great her daughter is. “Oh! Alisia’s been on my podcast; she’s the best. I can’t believe I haven’t seen her in so long.” I must’ve gone on talking about the podcast episode I recorded with her daughter for five minutes. My former teacher was looking at me with the most confused look on her face the entire time, just nodding along. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t care to talk about her daughter. It seemed like she genuinely had no interest and was uncomfortable with the fact that I’d brought it up.
It was about twenty-minutes that I realized I’d mistaken her for another teacher from the same school, the one who was actually my friend’s mother. The woman I was speaking to had no idea what or who I was talking about, but probably felt it would be too awkward to correct me after I’d gotten so far into my story.
I was just about to suffer through reliving this memory before I realized the irony of me worrying about it while I’m writing this. That teacher definitely isn’t thinking about our awkward conversation, so why should I be worried about it? Even if she is, maybe she thought it was endearing. Unlikely, but who am I to say or care about what’s going on in her mind. I can’t control her thoughts.
Imagine You’re Giving Someone Else Advice
My best trick for taking my own advice is imagining I’m reciting it to someone else. When I start to think of something embarrassing from my past, I think about what I would say and how I would feel if I were explaining to someone else how to deal with it. When we hear about someone else’s embarrassing stories, they may find it genuinely funny in hindsight and expect us to laugh along, or sometimes we’ll feel second-hand embarrassment if it’s really bad.
No matter which way we feel, we’re usually able to have an objective opinion because it didn’t happen to us. If it’s something trivial and we’re trying to help them get over it, it’s easy to say, “Think of it this way, do you think they’re still thinking about it? Probably not. Even if they are, which they’re most likely not, who cares what they think? Move on with your life,” in a friendly manner, of course. We’re not trying to invalidate anybody’s feelings here. We’re only trying to help give them a little perspective and remind them that the spotlight effect is a real thing.
So I tell myself the same. If you’ve done something embarrassing, who cares? You’re most likely the only person worrying about it. Take a deep breath, laugh at yourself, and carry on. It happens to literally everyone, and I don’t usually make such generalizations, so you know I mean it.
Don’t Run Away from Your Fear
Embarrassment is essentially our fear of how other people perceive us. It’s in our nature to want to be likeable. That’s part of how we’ve survived as a species. If you’re afraid of how people see you, refer back to all of the notes above. Remember that most people aren’t thinking about you as much as you think they are. Most of them aren’t thinking about you at all, and that’s a good thing. That’s freedom. There’s nothing better than having the freedom to do what you want without fear of being ridiculed.
Don’t be afraid to take your shot at trying something new. Ask someone out. Apply for that job you don’t think you could land. Go sing in front of a crowd. Follow through with the audition. Even you think it could be an embarrassing experience. You never know until you try. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe it takes an awkward turn, but at least you put yourself out there.
Think About Your Embarrassing Moments
That fear of embarrassment will hold you back and stop you from trying so many things. There’s no good in reliving embarrassing moments just to torture yourself. But thinking back to your awkward moments isn’t always bad. It can be a great way to regulate your emotions by remembering the things that made you say, “I’m dying from embarrassment,” because you can reflect on how you survived those situations. At that moment, dying can really feel like the better option than having to exist for one more minute around the people you’ve just made a fool of yourself in front of. But here you are, in the present, living your life.
Take comfort in the fact that everybody deals with embarrassment. Keep in mind that the world moves on pretty quickly from our blunders — if they even notice them at all. Most importantly, don’t let embarrassment hold you back from doing what you want to do. Face your fear, and don’t let anybody else’s opinion stop you from being you.
Next time you’re washing dishes at one in the morning and an awkward memory comes your way, politely show it to the door.