By Neil Parmar, published on May 1, 2004 - last reviewed on July 6, 2014
Ever get stressed out because you weren't sure what you'd say at that morning meeting? Worried about what you'd look like after squeezing into last year's bathing suit?
The difference between embarrassment and shame is slight but significant, and the distinction is crucial for building a protective armor of self-esteem. When we introduce our friends to a colleague and forget her name, it's an embarrassing blow to our image, because we think others are viewing us in a negative light. If there are enough embarrassing moments that we begin viewing ourselves badly, then our self-image collapses and we feel that heavy weight of shame.
Creating a pillar of success in our lives is one way to end the dreaded trap of embarrassment and shame. Successfully completing a difficult project at work builds confidence and leads to future success. Similarly, a satisfying relationship is a prideful accomplishment and helps motivate us to seek other such connections.
But how do we take that first brave step away from self-consciousness in order to feel like (and ultimately become) a success?
Kill shame-inducing situations before they become a threat, advises David Allyn, Ph.D., a Harvard-trained social scientist and visiting scholar at Columbia University's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. His book, I Can't Believe I Just Did That, includes a few pointers:
If the damage is already done and you find yourself at the tail end of an embarrassing situation, you can still avoid that feeling of shame by recovering gracefully. Don't lash out in defense or lie to cover your tracks—you'll just end up feeling worse and likely complicate a relationship that doesn't need complicating.
Try laughing it off or explaining why you made the mistake. Also, don't leave a social situation simply to avoid the people you made a mishap in front of—avoidance will leave you feeling further ashamed and isolated.
Here's a very important point to remember: People tend to forget others' mistakes and obsess over their own.