Embarrassment feels unpleasant. At least that’s what I always thought until in my clinical psychology training one of my mentors offered an intriguing alternative perspective. “Embarrassment," he mused, "is secret joy.”
Hmm. I’m not so sure. When someone says “Your slip is showing,” or “Your fly is down,” few of us are likely to feel joyful. I sure don’t.
Still, my mentor’s comment came from the TA, Transactional Analysis, perspective. In general their pithy insights were pretty reliable. If someone in a therapy group looked troubled, TA group leaders would ask “Are you sad, mad, glad or scared?” That pretty much covered all the bases. So maybe there is something to the idea of “Embarrassment is secret joy.”
I am trying to recall times when I have felt embarrassed.
When I was ten years old I lived for the summer in Maine. That’s where I had my first job. I babysat for an hour. I was paid forty cents, and I was thrilled. I ran to the beach where my mother was watching my younger brother and sister play on the sparkling white Ogunquit sand. “Look!” I called out to her, reaching toward my mother with my open hand to show her my coins. I recall at the time feeling embarrassed by my excitement. Yes, probably the embarrassment that day had a large chunk of secret joy.
That year in school, 5th grade in a small Massachusetts town, I had a crush on Stuart. Stuart had a kids’ cabin in his back yard where my friend Sally and I used to join Stuart and his friend Peter to play cowboys and Indians. One afternoon when Peter and Sally were on the other side of the yard, leaving just Stuart and me in the cabin, I proposed to Stuart. “Will you marry me?” I felt hugely embarrassed. That was secret joy.
In the many years of my adult life I’m sure I’ve often felt embarrassed, but strangely none of these moments are coming to mind except a recent incident at my husband’s 25th college reunion. My husband and I were curious about how his classmates’ lives had turned out. We were especially interested in how their families had developed as he and I have long been quite family-oriented ourselves. To my surprise, very few of his classmates, though already up in their mid to late 60’s, had any grandchildren. Only two had three or more. Many had had more wives than they had grandkids. No one had more than five grandchildren, and those five were from a classmate who, like us, lives in Denver. Someone then asked us, rather smugly as they were among the lucky folks with three, "How many grandchildren do you have?
I blushed. My husband stammered an answer. “Two basketball teams” he admitted, also blushing.
Now that for sure was secret joy.
Maybe my mentor was right.
At the same time, surely there are horrible feelings that also produce embarrassment, feelings like humiliation and shame. There is zero joy in those feelings.
I still remember the dreadful scene when the boys in my 7th grade class took great pleasure in “depantsing” one of the shorter and stouter boys on the playground. Calling him “Fatty” made the humiliation of the boys running off with his pants all the more degrading.
In another incident one of our junior high school teachers berated a boy, one of the less capable in the class, for having cheated. Shaming him in front of all of us was shameful on the part of the teacher.
If we subtract out of the category of pink-cheeked embarrassment those events that produce the unquestionably negative feelings of humiliation or shame though, I’m beginning to think that my mentor may have been right. Maybe embarrassment often really is an expression of underlying secret joy.
What do you think?
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a Denver clinical psychologist and author, is co-founder with three of her adult children and a friend of the marriage education website PowerOfTwo.
The video below from the PowerOfTwo program illustrates how one couple responds to an embarrassing moment.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.