Embarrassment: Bad For Me, Bad For Others

I don’t have PhD in Psychology—not anything close. What I do have is a BS in Selling. (No jokes, please.)

But allow me to practice some psychology with this statement:

The #1 reason humans lie and blame is to avoid the incredible power of … EMBARRASSMENT.

Have you ever lied?

And I don’t mean as a child.  

About twenty years ago, I was working hard to make a big management training sale to a premier medical device firm in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, which was my territory. On a Monday morning, my prospective client, the organization’s VP of HR, called me. At first I was excited because I thought he was calling to buy.

Wrong!

He was calling to confront. The conversation:

Prospect: “John, I don’t appreciate being called at home.”

Me: “What? David, no—I didn’t call you at home.”

Prospect: “John, you called me on Saturday at my house. I don’t like that.”

Me: “David, um, I didn’t. I would never … um, really … I …”

Prospect: “John, I have this new thing—‘caller ID.’”

Me: “Um, caller … what?”

Prospect: “Caller ID. It’s where the caller’s name and number show up on my phone. It’s new. I have it. You called me Saturday, at home.”

Gulp.

And I had. I knew it crossed a boundary. I knew I shouldn’t have done it when I did it. But I did it anyway.

And now I’d been caught lying right though my teeth—all to escape the overwhelming emotional pain of … embarrassment.

I’ve sought to avoid embarrassment all my life. But now in my fifties and almost grown up, I better understand its power and how it affects me. This is a good thing, because:

Knowing what drives my negative behavior helps me to avoid engaging in negative behavior.

It’s an intellectual thing, as well as discipline thing. If I know what I am feeling when I do what I do, I am more likely to conquer that feeling.

So when I feel embarrassment kicking in and I want to lie, cover up, blame, point fingers, play victim, and make excuses (more on these behaviors here), I am better able to “suck it up” and practice PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY by speaking emotionally mature words like these:

“I did it. And I’m sorry.”

Those words would’ve nipped a bunch of scandals in the bud, eh!?

Another reason it’s important to understand the incredible power of embarrassment is so I will not embarrass others.

This is critical for those in positions of authority to understand. Managers, parents, mentors, coaches, youth leaders, colleagues with more experience and tenure, and older siblings can—if they want to—learn to avoid making these costly mistakes:

  • Confronting a staff member in a group meeting.

  • Ridiculing a child.

  • Attempting humor at the expense of another in front of others.

  • Comparing siblings with, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

  • Listing last month’s lowest producing salesperson on the office wall.

  • Pointing out an athlete’s on-field mistakes in the post-game team meeting.

  • Commenting flippantly/negatively on a family member’s weight, height, or new hairstyle.

  • Dismissing another’s input because they’re younger, newer, or lack an equivalent title or education.

Embarrassment is a powerful and negative emotion. Let’s each be accountable for understanding its impact on us.

And on those around us.

For Comment:

Describe a time you were embarrassed. How did you respond to the emotion? In what way have you embarrassed another? What will you now do differently by understanding more fully the impact of this strong emotion?

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12 Responses

  1. It’s been more than ten years since it happened, but it still hurts me to think about it. I was working for our town’s newspaper as a typesetter/ad layout person. My supervisor called me out on a fairly minor mistake, in front of everyone in the room. As someone who has mild social anxiety, I was terribly embarrassed and upset. Needless to say, I left that job not long after. Now I work for an excellent company that puts its employees first and makes customer service and servant leadership its top priorities.

    If you respect your employees’ opinions and ideas, there’s no need for the blame game and for shaming them, especially in a public setting.

  2. As always a great post John,
    I know that I’ve played in the embarrassment ‘Gotcha game’. Where someone has embarrassed me so without missing a beat I shoot back with an equally embarrassing comment about them. In the end we both feel bad and no one wins.
    Just because I’m embarrassed doesn’t mean the comment wasn’t valid. When I play the gotcha game, in order to take the eyes off me and center them on someone else, I lose the opportunity to listen to what was being said which may have been valuable.

  3. I am guilty of embarrassing another this weekend and regretted it immediately. I was in a class and I didn’t do as well as I hoped i was just hoping not to come in last. Our scores were revealed and I finished second to last. I thought i was being funny for a split moment and said, Yay I wasn’t the worst! I heard someone else mumble, Oh that was nice. Then it hit me. Stupid me for saying that, it wasn’t funny at all. My curse is it haunts me, the comment I made. Shame on me. I couldn’t even bring myself to apologize, i just shut up and went home.

  4. Not too long ago, when someone at work mentioned “cataracts,” I blurted out, “What about Hondas?” A colleague, who is part Korean, said, “Gary, are you making fun of an Asian accent?” Ugh. I said I was sorry, and I will never make that joke again. But it sure makes me cringe to think I did that.

  5. This article brought tears to my eyes when I reflected on how often I was embarrassed in public in school by teachers and at home by my parents and as I reflected on my behavior now that I am grown I realize that I have been doing the same thing to my 12 year old daughter. I am definitely going to have to watch this tendency I have to air others’ short-comings in public!

  6. Thanks for the great post John. I have an experience that happened over 25 years ago and still serves a good reminder to me to zip my lip; During my junior year in high school I was signing in a four man quartet as part of a musical. While three of us were rather talented and in tune, the fourth fellow (Peter) was not as talented and rarely in tune. Every week I became more and more frustrated at how he was dragging us down. Well two weeks before the show, a photographer from a local newspaper came into rehearsals to take publicity shots of rehearsals in action. During a break she approached me and asked “So, how’s it going?”. I replied “Pretty good, except for Peter in our quartet is just awful. He’s so out of tune and is ruining the sound of our group.” She gave me a stunned look as if she couldn’t speak. I sensed something wasn’t right and asked “Are you OK?” and she replied “I’m Peter’s mother” and walked away. A powerful life lesson to only speak kindly and most importantly, know your audience!

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