Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Fear of Embarrassment

An underdiscussed inhibitor of self-actualization.

Simon Law, Flickr CC 2.0
Source: Simon Law, Flickr CC 2.0

Fear of failure is a widely cited inhibitor of self-actualization. In my experience with clients and myself, that’s often not as villainous as claimed. Irrational fear of failure is a problem: A person is competent to do X and can easily survive failure and learn from it yet nonetheless, in fear of failure, doesn’t do it. But often, task-avoidance for fear of failure is rational: the person estimates that their time would be better spent on something else.

A less discussed, often more problematic and, fortunately, more ameliorable inhibitor of wise action is fear of embarrassment: others will think less of them. A few examples:

  • For fear of seeming like a loser, being unwilling to ask one’s network for job leads.
  • For fear of sounding awkward, not asking someone for a date.
  • For fear of showing vulnerability, being too withholding.

But what to do?

The first step is to recognize that caring too much about what others think hurts your self-efficacy and that you might want to replace that excess concern by asking yourself, “What would the Wise One within me do?”

That’s easier said than done but it may help to rehearse. Just as children play fire-engine and doctor to rehearse and desensitize regarding scary things, rehearse situations in which you’d feel unnecessarily embarrassed. Start with situations that aren’t core to your essence. For example, let’s say you don’t want to spend money on a new outfit for a party but are afraid to show up in something that attendees have previously seen you in. Mentally rehearse what the Wise One within you would think and do. For example, you might think, “If someone thinks less of me because I’m not a clothes horse, then they’re not worth worrying about, let alone spending money to appease.”

Move on to rehearse situations more core to your self-esteem: perhaps intelligence, body image, or altruism. For example, let’s say you pride yourself on your intelligence, and making a presentation in front of some smart people could result in embarrassment. Ask yourself what the Wise One should do. Prepare more to reduce the risk, and if someone correctly assails your ideas, plan to say “Thank you” rather than defend your position? And even if your presentation fails, there may be lessons to be learned from that, if only that you need to change the topic or audience.

Another example. Let’s say you hate your body or some aspect of it. So you feel unsexy and unwilling to put yourself out there to meet a romantic partner. Rehearse in your mind what the Wise One within you would say. Perhaps it’s, “A romantic partner who would be turned off to me because my body doesn’t conform to the standard ideal is shallow. I wouldn’t want them anyway.”

One more example. Let’s say your friends tend to value helping “the least among us.” But deep down, you believe your efforts to do that have yielded insufficient benefit for the effort expended. So the Wise One within you believes you should focus your efforts on people beset by a less challenging constellation of problems. As every battlefield medic knows, it’s wise to use limited resources not necessarily on the sickest but on those most likely to benefit. But if you were to tell your “community” that you wanted to work with middle-class people rather than "the vulnerable," you fear embarrassment: Your friends will think you selfish, elitist, a sell-out. Would the Wise One within you preemptively explain that you believe you’ll make a bigger difference as well as a better income working with a less problemed population? Would you say nothing but work on feeling okay with the Wise One’s considered opinion?

The takeaway

You deny much of yourself by worrying excessively about what others think. If you tend to do that, try asking yourself, “What would the Wise One within me do?”

More from Marty Nemko Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today