Just as some people are shy and others brash, some people are easily embarrassed by circumstances that would not trouble anyone else. They have an exaggerated concern about the impression they are making. It is a sensitivity that underlies a number of the anxiety disorders, especially the social phobias.
Probably everyone can imagine some particular situation in which he or she would feel embarrassed—although, strangely, these situations differ from one person to the next. Some individuals seem immune to the kind of embarrassment that would afflict practically everyone else in that situation.
For instance, a New York congressman embarrassed himself by-- I take it back, he did not embarrass himself-- by sending lewd photographs of himself over the internet to women he scarcely knew. This became a scandal and led eventually to his resigning his office. One would think he might, thereafter, walk surreptitiously through the streets of New York City hidden behind sunglasses and a large, floppy hat. But that is not so! He is currently running for the office of the Mayor of New York—and at this writing, he is tied for the lead! He is unabashed.
He was joined today by the former governor of New York, who resigned after being caught up in a prostitution scandal. Neither is he shrinking away into a cubbyhole somewhere; he is running for the office of Comptroller of New York City. Both of these politicians think, with good reason, that if they present themselves humbly as having learned their lesson, the public will not judge them harshly. Indeed, the public will want to be represented by them in public office! It is an example of how someone, convincing himself of his general worthiness, can convince others—or, at least, thinks he can convince others.
There is a long list of clerics and politicians who have resuscitated their careers—inveighing against the moral turpitude of the public—despite having been caught themselves committing some sort (I think every sort) of sexual misdemeanor.
There were two well-known politicians who were reported as doing something which was said at the time to be embarrassing. If I were in the position of the first President Bush, who vomited under the table at a state dinner in a foreign country, I would not have been embarrassed. I think vomiting—like tripping over an object on the floor, or fainting, or getting so upset that one’s hands shake—is an ordinary human failing that happens to everyone sooner or later and says nothing about the person who has committed that faux pas.
But the other politician—Vice-President Dan Quale—undertook when he was running for office to correct (publicly) a twelve year old boy for having misspelled “potato”—which he thought should have an e on the end. My God, here was a grown adult, educated, presumably, who could not spell “potato” and then was so brash as to correct someone else who was spelling it correctly! A child! I would not have been able to show my face anywhere. Why? Because I am a pedant. I may think of myself as clumsy and inclined to trip over myself—that would not embarrass me-- but I take pride in being right about small things, like spelling. To make a mistake publicly would be bad enough, but to be caught correcting someone—and then be wrong—would be intolerable.
So, what embarrasses someone depends on the way that person sees himself/herself. Therefore, it is, to some extent, a learned reaction. In general, those individuals who are comfortable with the way they are, are less likely ever to be embarrassed.
I remember-- when I was a music counselor in camp-- looking up from the piano to see what everyone was laughing at. There were two five-year old boys singing a duet on stage, and one of them had a spreading stain on his pants. He was wetting himself. He kept singing. Afterwards, when I spoke to him, he did not, as far as I could judge, feel embarrassed. Had he been eight years old, he certainly would have been!
Embarrassment differs from shame and from shyness. It is the sense of appearing ridiculous—or inferior. It is a phenomenon that takes place in public. It is a sense of being caught out—the psychological equivalent of blushing. Social phobics do, indeed, feel embarrassed by blushing, which they may think is noticeable to everyone. They imagine other people are observing them, when they are not, and looking down on them—when they are not.
Inherent in a panic disorder is the sense that panicky persons have that they will lose control of themselves and do something embarrassing or dangerous. The embarrassing things are usually that they will faint, or vomit, or soil themselves, or scream.
“Suppose you fall down,” I tell them, “so what?”
“I just don’t want people looking at me.”
“They look at you for a second, and then they look away.”
“I just don’t want them looking at me. I would be embarrassed.”
I saw a woman once who had been on a long line in the motor vehicle bureau. She had left the line. She was afraid of getting panicky and passing out (which does not happen. Phobics who react to blood and injury can pass out, but they are not having a panic attack. Blood pressure goes up in the middle of a panic attack, and prevents passing out.) I told her that nothing would have happened if somehow she had passed out; but she could not believe that.
By coincidence, the following year she was waiting on the same line in the motor vehicle bureau when an elderly man in front of her in line did pass out. I asked her what happened then.
“It was just like you said,” she told me. “No one helped him. They stepped over him on the line. About ten minutes later someone dragged him over to a wall; and after about another ten minutes he got up and left.”
I was at my high school’s tenth reunion when something dramatic happened. There were five or six people sitting at a dais and talking to the audience—approximately 150 graduates, including ten people from my class who were sitting together with me at a big table. Suddenly, one of the men on the dais did something which would have been a nightmare to a phobic patient—his head fell forward into his food and he lay there unconscious.
There were the usual calls for a doctor, and I came forward, along with two other men. We dragged the unconscious man from the room into an adjoining kitchen, where we sat around doing nothing until the ambulance came. (You always hear stories about what to do until the doctor comes—it turns out the doctor can’t do anything either until the ambulance comes.) The man, who had obviously had a heart attack, was taken away finally; and we returned to the auditorium. The remaining men on the dais were telling jokes. I sat down at my table, AND NOBODY ASKED ME WHAT HAPPENED TO THE UNCONSCIOUS MAN!
The world is not full of people waiting to pounce if you make a mistake. There are not hordes of men and women who are examining you for any sign of weakness. Life is not terrible because we live in a hostile world. The tragedy of life is that no one is paying any attention! (c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog