Get over yourself: How to beat your fear of embarrassment — and why it's worth it

A scientific perspective that might finally free you to go see your doctor or text your crush.

A scientific perspective that might finally free you to go see your doctor or text your crush

(Credit: Ayo Ogunseinde/unsplash.com)

You know what embarrassment feels like: the burning cheeks, the desire to look away, the awkward half-smile. You can feel every eye that's on you. In fact, there's a good chance just thinking about an embarrassing situation can make you squirm a little. Embarrassment is uncomfortable and nearly everyone tries to avoid it. However, some people go so far out of their way to avoid embarrassment that they wind up making things worse for themselves. Li Jiang of Carnegie Mellon University noticed that fear of embarrassment can cause people to avoid doing important things like asking for advice about mortgages or unplanned pregnancies. He also believes he knows how to help people get over excessive fear of embarrassment. In a recent study, a team led by Jiang found evidence that taking the perspective of an observer rather than an actor can help moderate embarrassment avoidance.

Embarrassment isn't all bad. We're social creatures, meaning that we depend on one another and are emotionally wired to the judgements of others. Embarrassment is a gift from evolution. Fear of it is helps prevent you from making an ass of yourself and losing all your friends. And showing embarrassment signals to others, when there is cause, demonstrates that you are committed to the social norms that you embarrassed yourself by violating. In general (I should hope), you avoid walking in on people in the bathroom. But when you do, your crimson blush and stuttering apologies signal to the person you walked in on that it was an accident, and that you are committed to the norm of respecting bathroom privacy. Other people pick up on this. According to research at the University of Berkeley, people who are easily embarrassed are considered more likeable and trustworthy than people who don't show embarrassment. Truly giving no f***s is either posture or pathology.

That said, some people are so sensitive to embarrassment that they'll do almost anything to avoid it. Li Jiang found that some people rate very high in a trait he called "public self-consciousness" ("HPUBSC" for "high in public self-consciousness"). These people are very aware of being "in the social spotlight" and feel more personal distress when considering an embarrassing situation. They more frequently feel like they are being watched and probably judged. I have a friend who, as a child, cried every time her friends sang "happy birthday" at her parties because the attention was too intense. In their attempts to avoid ever embarrassing themselves, people often forego a lot of opportunities that would actually do them some good. Jiang mentions asking about mortgages and birth control, but it's easy to think of more. Maybe you'd really like singing karaoke. Maybe you'd have really hit it off with that person at the bar you wish you'd approached.

According to Jiang, part of the problem is simply the perspective that people take when considering an action. "Past research demonstrates that actors, as opposed to observers, focus on their own behaviour and tend to assume the worst in terms of interpersonal evaluations… Observers' judgments of actors are consistently kinder than actors generally expect." This is because, when we are in the position of the embarrassed actor, we tend to forget that other people have probably been in the same situation and will empathize with us, and that this will moderate their judgment. Psychologists call this phenomenon "empathy neglect" because we discount the empathy that observers feel. Yes, everyone will probably laugh if you split your pants on the dancefloor. But they probably aren't going to hate you for it, so there's no reason to run away crying, and certainly no reason to avoid dancing altogether.

So Jiang's idea for helping people who are overwhelmed by the fear of embarrassment is to get them to shift from an actor's perspective to an observer's perspective. He and his team set up some hypothetical fart studies to see if this could help. They showed ads for a flatulence-prevention product called Beano to study participants, and asked how likely they would be to buy it. One of the ads depicted a college-aged man at the end of a couch looking embarrassed, while three girls huddled at the other side, with one staring nervously at the man. The ad copy read: "Rip. Accidentally passing gas in front of a crush is one of the most embarrassing experiences. Guaranteed to linger forever." Unsurprisingly, subjects who tested high in public self-consciousness were more likely to buy the product than others. This is because very self-conscious individuals "tend to imagine themselves as an actor in an embarrassing situation and experience more distress... personal distress underlies HPUBSC individuals' exaggerated embarrassment-avoidance."

However, Jiang also tested a second version of the ad that included an additional line designed to induce the subjects to take an observer perspective: "Others will know what it's like. Put yourself in their shoes… would you giggle? Would you be horrified? Would you stare?" In this variation, those with high public self-consciousness were less likely to buy the product than in the first version. That is, when taking an observer perspective, highly self-conscious people are less likely to act to avoid embarrassment. Jiang thinks that considering embarrassing actions from an observer's perspective reminds HPUBSC subjects of the empathetic feelings that most observers would feel in this situation and moderates how harsh they expect their judgements will be. So if your nerves are preventing you from hitting the dancefloor at your cousin's wedding, try thinking about all the awful dancers you've seen in your life. Did you despise them for their clumsiness? Exile them from your social circle? Or did you like seeing them enjoying themselves or not even really notice? People are watching you less than you think. And even when they are, they aren't judging you as harshly as you expect.

However, Jiang also found that this strategy works differently for different people. Taking an observer's perspective can help HPUBSC people reign in their embarrassment-avoiding behaviour, but it may do the opposite for people who are low in public self-consciousness. Some people are relatively oblivious to what others think of them, and really don't see themselves as objects of public attention. For those with low public self-consciousness, taking an observer's perspective can actually increase their tendency to avoid embarrassment. In Jiang's study, LPUBSC were more rather than less likely to buy the fart-prevention treatment when prompted to consider how other people would feel. This suggests that reminding your embarrassing friends that people are watching may be a good way to reign them in.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.