Embarrassment is considered one of the self-conscious emotions, quite at ease in the company of guilt, shame, and pride. Given that embarrassment happens in relation to other people, it is a public emotion that makes you feel exposed, awkward, and filled with regret for whatever your wrongdoing happens to be. Potential negative evaluations concerning standards about actions, thoughts, and feelings that govern our behavior are at the core of embarrassment and other self-conscious emotions (Lewis, 2008).
The experience of embarrassment alerts you to your failure to behave according to certain social standards, which threaten the beliefs you hold concerning how others evaluate you as well as the ways in which you evaluate yourself. For example, if in the middle of giving an important presentation you inadvertently belch loudly, embarrassment would be linked to your concern that others, who generally hold a high evaluation of you, might instead think negatively as you would about yourself.
Embarrassments usually result from accidental behaviors that lead you to feel negatively about yourself--even when you had no intention of violating a social standard. According to researchers, most of the embarrassments that are encountered by people include instances of tripping and falling, spilling drinks, ripping pants, stalling cars, having one's private thoughts or feelings disclosed, accidental flatulence or belching, receiving undesired attention, and forgetting the names of others (Keltner & Buswell, 1996; Miller, 1992; Miller & Tangney, 1994; Saltier, 1966). Likely it would not take long for you to remember a unique embarrassing situation, since embarrassments are so commonly experienced, and, unfortunately, so well remembered.
Human signals of embarrassment include a downward gaze, smile controls (such as a smile that is inhibited or one where only the corners of the lips turn upward), head movements that turn away, and face touching (Keltner, 1997, Keltner and Buswell, 1997). Why people touch their face or have a strange smile with flatness in the middle and corners of the lips turned up when they are embarrassed is curious, but that is the facial expression universally associated with embarrassment.
Embarrassment is also associated with blushing, however, not everyone blushes upon being embarrassed. Blushing occurs when an emotional trigger causes your glands to release the hormone adrenalin in your body. Adrenalin has an effect on your nervous system, which in turn causes the capillaries that carry blood to your skin to widen. Since blood is brought closer to the surface of the skin, it causes you to blush. What's interesting about blushing is that receptors in the veins of human necks and cheeks dilate in response to social threat (Drummond, 1997). The sense of exposure that occurs when embarrassment is triggered is indeed experienced as threatening to one's social acceptance.
It's interesting that in specific situations and social circumstances, behavior that would ordinarily be considered embarrassing is embraced as amusing and humorous or it is disregarded as an embarrassment to the perpetrator. For example, you may not be embarrassed to belch when in the company of a sibling, partner, or close friend. However, this same behavior would likely embarrass you while in the company of a stranger or someone who has a certain authority or status, such as an employer, a professor, or your future mother-in-law. Thus, social context is taken into consideration by your brain when embarrassment is triggered.
Situations that trigger embarrassment are usually considered ones that you would dread to have someone witness, so it seems paradoxical that there are some positive circumstances where you might be embarrassed. Suppose, for example, that you are wearing something new that you hope others will find attractive. Yet if an observer points out the attractiveness of your appearance, you may experience embarrassment. Similarly, if an employer recognizes your excellent work and publically presents you with a huge bonus, you might be embarrassed rather than experience pride. Thus, embarrassment can result from an experience where you become self-conscious and feel exposed, even if the situation has to do with something that is positive rather than negative.
So what good is embarrassment if it makes you feel so uncomfortable? Embarrassment likely evolved to maintain social order, since in being embarrassed people communicate to others that they recognize and regret their misbehavior and will try to do better (Miller, 2007). Researchers have found that people who display embarrassment at their social transgressions are more prone to be liked, forgiven, and trusted than those who do not, and, as a result, their embarrassment saves face (Keltner and Anderson, 2000). Even teasing and flirtation, which provoke and evoke embarrassment in the targeted person, are motivated by the desire for increased liking (Keltner & Anderson, 2000). So embarrassment is a good thing, even if at the time you experienced it you wished it never happened.
One more thing about embarrassment to consider is that there are ways in which the experience of embarrassment resembles the emotion of shame. Some emotion researchers have speculated that aspects of embarrassment are a less intense shame that is related to a negative self-evaluation (Lewis, 2010; Tompkins, 1963). Although embarrassment and shame are possibly linked in some way, the behaviors associated with them involve distinct facial expressions and postures that separate them as emotions (Lewis, 2010).
So what do you do about an embarrassment? Well, first of all, let's consider something embarrassing that has happened to you. It's likely that you imagine everyone else became as preoccupied with that embarrassing situation as you are yourself. A phenomenon in social psychology known as the "spotlight effect" has to do with the fact that people overestimate the extent to which their appearance and actions are noticed by others (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000). Thus, people have a tendency to repeatedly replay an embarrassing event in their mind in which they were the main character.
Step back from your embarrassment and imagine how reliving the event over and over again in your mind can affect how you feel, the way in which you behave publically, and your general mood. Likely it won't be a positive effect. Hanging on to your embarrassing mistakes can diminish your self-esteem and how you think of yourself generally. You are not your mistakes, but, instead, your mistakes can help you learn and grow. Granted, there are times when your friends want to remind you of the very amusing instance of when you completely embarrassed yourself. Everyone dreads an embarrassment, and so do your friends which is likely why they would prefer to focus on your social errors rather than their own. The honest response is to smile--even if it comes out as that weird smile of embarrassment--and admit that it was an awful experience. Then let it go because people who display embarrassment at their social wrongdoing are also the most prone to be liked.
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This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.
Gilovich, T.; Medvec, V.; & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one's own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 211-222.
Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. (1997) Embarrassment: Its Distinct Form and Appeasement Functions. Psychological Bulletin, 122:3, 250-270.
Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. (1996). Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment, shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 155-171.
Keltner, D. & Anderson, C. (2000). Saving face for Darwin: The functions and uses of embarrassment. Current directions in psychological science, 9:6, 187-192.
Lewis, M. (2010). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 742-756). New York: Guilford Press.
Miller, R. S. (2006). Is embarrassment a blessing or a curse? In J. Tracy, R. Robins, & J. Tangney (Eds.), The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (pp. 245-262). New York: Gilford Press.
Miller, R. S. (1992). The nature and severity of self-reported embarrassing circumstances. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 190-198.
Miller, R. S., & Tangney, J. P. (1994). Differentiating embarrassment from shame. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13, 273-287.
Sattler, J. M. (1966). Embarrassment and blushing:A theoretical review. Journal of Social Psychology, 69, 117-133.
Tompkins, S. (1963). Affect, imagery, and consciousness: Vol. 2. The negative affects.New York: Springer.