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Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.
Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.

Why the Embarrassment?

Letting go of your imaginary audience this holiday season

It’s time to get ready for your holiday party. Are you running late after changing your outfit four times, because you don’t look stylish or skinny enough? Have you shown up, but are actively avoiding eye contact with the host, because you’re convinced your pimple is being stared at?

With the inherent social nature of the holiday season, you may catch yourself spending a lot of time worrying about the image you’re projecting to others. And if you assume that others are judging you negatively based on some perceived flaw, then you may notice yourself feeling embarrassed or defective in some way.

Do you still believe in the imaginary audience?

When we’re younger, say the tween years, we are convinced that the whole world is scrutinizing how we look and what we’re doing — we just “know” that the cowlick in our hair and the uncool brand of jeans is the talk of the town. Not only is this belief normative, to some degree these concerns are also true in the gossip mill of adolescence. But some of us grow up and continue to believe in the myth of the imaginary audience, despite evidence to the contrary.

Strategies for counteracting your imaginary audience

1. In your sweet vulnerability, you are focusing on your perceived flaws and putting all your attention on them. Remind yourself that this person may be checking and monitoring themselves… not hyper-focusing on you. There is a good chance that the person hasn’t even seen what you’ve imagined they’ve seen — like that pimple — or thought what you’ve assumed they’ve thought — like “Why is s/he wearing that outfit? So not cool enough to pull that look off.”

2. They may have actually noticed. Yes, I said it. They may have noticed the flaw. And then almost certainly moved on after about a nanosecond. When we help our patients with social anxiety feel more comfortable in social situations, we simulate experiments where they have an interaction they’re fearing and then actually get feedback from that person afterward (e.g., “So could you tell that I was blushing?” “Did you think I was really boring?”). The neat thing is that the person often has to push hard to answer — like, “Oh, I guess you were blushing, if I really stop and think about it. I guess I noticed and forgot about it.” So try to remind yourself that what you fixate on may just be a passing thought for someone who isn’t emotionally attached to the observation.

3. Maybe they saw it, and maybe they didn’t. Act as if you look and feel like you want to. How would you act if you didn’t believe yourself to be exuding this flaw? Rather than avoid eye contact, hold eye contact. Rather than keeping quiet in the small circle gathering in the kitchen, share that relevant anecdote. Act as if you have confidence, and you may just get positive feedback about other aspects of yourself, like your sense of humor, understanding of current events, or trendy taste in travel destinations. Have the confidence to be yourself, and you may start to focus on the good qualities that you have to offer.

This holiday season, when it’s time to socialize and you find yourself feeling embarrassed about what the other party guests are surely thinking about you, try to remember that you cannot be reduced to your pimple, your outfit, your job, your relationship status, or your income. You are more than the sum of these parts. And the more you engage with guests about topics that excite and interest you, the less you may find that you’re focusing on that one perceived flaw, and the more you may find that you start to enjoy yourself. Practice letting go of embarrassment by challenging the myth and stronghold of your imaginary audience.

If you liked this post, read on for part 3, Why the Resentment, in this five-part holiday series.

About the Author
Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.

Rachel Hershenberg, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University.

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