No matter how hard we try, it's almost impossible to avoid embarrassment. The body seems destined to behave in ways, at times, that confounds the mind. Despite the common experience of embarrassment, the suffering from an awkward moment is very real and can make you miserable.
Oops moments come in several forms. The first is what I call "Mutiny of the Body." No matter how hard you try, your mental will fails to suppress your body's normal reactions. I'll keep this at the "PG" level, but you can extrapolate from these examples to a whole range of non-PG situations. One example is sweating. You can wear deodorant and you can dress in clothes that breathe. But these precautions may still not shut off your skin's water pumps if you are the type of person who tends to perspire under stress or while you're exercising. Sweating at the gym is not quite as attention-getting as sweating in a social situation or while at work. Oops! There you are, in an important meeting or job interview, and your autonomic nervous system is driving your forehead, palms, and armpits to go from moist to overflowing.
A variant of the Mutiny of the Body involves not the unwanted emanation of bodily fluids, but the loss of control of your feet or hands. The physical pain is matched, if not exceeded, by the emotional pain you suffer when you trip and fall. Your hands can also conspire against you by causing you to drop something, knock over a glass, or spill your food. Oops! Clumsiness isn't limited to falling or dropping things. Do you remember the famous "Elaine" dance on Seinfeld? If you lack physical grace, even a casual night out with friends can create a year's worth of oops moments, and longer if someone decides to upload a video of your performance.
Your mind can also commit plenty of mischief when it comes to Oops moments. Uncertainty, faulty memory, or anxiety can cause you to say or do exactly the opposite of what you intended. The "Freudian slip" is one particular instance of this type of embarrassment. Essentially, a Freudian slip involves letting, not your underwear, but your unconscious show in a way that you wish it wouldn't. For example, you inadvertently hit "reply all" in an email from someone you don't like with a few choice negative comments that you've added to the message. After you hit "send," you realize that you inadvertently included that person in the list of recipients. Oops!
Now let's turn to another way your mind can embarrass you. The mental brain freeze. Like the brain freeze you get from a DQ slurpee, your memory can turn ice cold at the worst moments. Bumping into a co-worker at the grocery store, out of context, you can't for the life of you remember her name. Or you're giving a presentation or sales pitch and you get stuck mid-sentence with no idea of what you want to say next. All eyes are on you, and all you can do is offer a pathetic grin while the panic builds inside you. Oops! Eventually you get back on track, but not before you feel that you've made a complete fool out of yourself.
Another mental slip-up occurs when you make a mistake. Nothing involving the subconscious or even a memory challenge, but just a simple error. You're just plain wrong. You tell someone the wrong address, an incorrect price, or state a fact incorrectly. Oops! Making a mistake in writing is particularly humiliating because you can't deny it even if you tried.
Surprisingly, there isn't much research on these ordinary sources of embarrassment, but psychology comes to the rescue for two other common awkward situations. One is medical embarrassment: taking off your clothes or explaining your most personal bodily concerns to a health professional (who you may or may not know well). In its most extreme form, as researchers Nathan Consedine and co-workers found, this type of fear may prevent people from seeking the health care they need. If you're a victim of medical embarrassment, you may agree with statements such as "Showing my body to a stranger, even to a doctor, is humiliating," or "waiting in the waiting area with a urine sample is humiliating." Once you're being examined, you cringe with worry that your body will disgust the doctor or nurse. Oops!
Researchers also study the embarrassment that people feel when buying or using condoms. Sarah Moore and her colleagues showed that people feel most awkward at the stage of buying the condom. Young people seem most likely to fall victim to this type of Oops moment-which, technically, isn't an Oops moment at all. Nevertheless, this type of embarrassment is similar to that of medical embarrassment. In both cases, you feel shame about your body or its functions.
Now that we've dissected the Oops moment, it's time to figure out how to prevent or control your unhappiness the next time one happens to you. Here are 5 ways to get started on the process:
1. Accept the fact that you are human. You and everyone else who has ever lived and will live in the future commit potentially embarrassing acts. When it comes to controlling your body, for instance, there are just some physical processes that will occur no matter what you do. If your body does something it shouldn't there is often very little you could have done to prevent it.
2. Put things into perspective. You may feel absolutely horrible and stupid about what you've done, but chances are that very few people (or maybe no one) even notice or care when you commit an Oops moment. In some situations, such as when you're seeing a health professional, he or she is trained not to think twice about your physical foibles. When it comes to your sexual behavior (such as buying condoms) realize that it's much less embarrassing to take health precautions than to suffer the consequences of failing to do so.
3. Realize that you can't change the past. Sure, you'd love to rewind the clock and not have the Oops moment happen, but happen it did. You can only move forward and, depending on the situation, try to keep it from happening in the future. If you're constantly suffering from mental lapses, try learning a few simple memory tricks. Be sure to pay attention to what you're doing-most memory slips are caused by not giving enough thought to the situation. By concentrating on what you're doing, you'll also be less likely to be self-conscious and, as a result, make fewer errors.
4. Let your defenses down. Other people will feel far sympathetic to you if you admit that you've made a mistake, forgotten something, or just plain done something stupid. The situation may not be one in which it's appropriate to laugh such as if you caused someone else to trip and fall. Nine times out of ten, though, a good-natured laugh at yourself will make you look better than even if you'd never had the Oops moment in the first place. Whatever you do, avoid making excuses unless there is truly a reason. Reserve your excuses for the situations that justify them so that you don't look like dishonest or insincere.
5. Try to address the deeper issues. Feelings of intense shame and embarrassment can be the sign that something else is going on other than a simple social faux pas. Consedine, studying bodily embarrassment, found that people who fall prey to this emotion scored high on a measure of judgment concern. In other words, they felt that others were constantly judging them negatively. Identify the negative thoughts about yourself that trigger your unpleasant emotions. Once you identify those thoughts, you can work on changing them.
The Oops moment is such a basic fact of everyone's life that it's no wonder a primary ingredient of comedy is the "Chevy Chase" pratfall. Learn to accept yourself- Oops moments and all. And who knows? You'll be more likely to land on your feet, and not another part of your body, if you learn these simple coping methods.
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Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Consedine, N. S., Krivoshekova, Y. S., & Harris, C. R. (2007). Bodily embarrassment and judgment concern as separable factors in the measurement of medical embarrassment: Psychometric development and links to treatment-seeking outcomes. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12(3), 439-462. doi:10.1348/135910706X118747
Moore, S. G., Dahl, D. W., Gorn, G. J., Weinberg, C. B., Park, J., & Jiang, Y. (2008). Condom embarrassment: Coping and consequences for condom use in three countries. AIDS Care, 20(5), 553-559. doi:10.1080/09540120701867214