The best way to deal with embarrassment

Like many of the emotions you experience daily, embarrassment is a biological reaction, drilled into our brains by generation after generation of embarrassed ancestors.
That reaction occurs in a boomerang-shaped region right behind the eyes called… get ready for this… the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex. That’s a mouthful, but you can just remember it as the pACC—as in, “pack my belongings, I’m moving to Canada and never returning, I’m so embarrassed.”
Researchers at U.C. Berkeley discovered that the pACC lights up when someone is embarrassed; they did this in an experiment where they forced subjects to sing the Temptations song “My Girl” a capella and then watch a video of their performances. Cruel, right? Activity in the ACC shot up and corresponded with sweaty hands, racing heartbeats, and general expressions of “Oh God, this is horrible.”
The funny thing is: embarrassment isn’t always a bad thing. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who are easily embarrassed are more likely to be generous, social, and even altruistic. So… embarrassment can even be a marker of being a good person!
That said, knowing you’re a good person doesn’t necessarily help the next time you trip on a banana peel. You’ll still feel awful. That’s where we come in. It’s time for our three tips to get over the embarrassment.
Step One: Force yourself to not be the center of the universe. You need to convince yourself that whatever just happened isn’t as big a deal as your mind is rapidly making it—odds are, it isn’t. In fact, there’s a tested scientific principle called “the spotlight effect” that states that other people don’t notice nearly as many of your gaffes as you think they do.
One experiment that tested this had a bunch of college students wear bright yellow Barry Manilow-emblazoned t-shirts to an introductory psych course. Afterward, the students were asked how many of their classmates they thought noticed the ugly t-shirt. Invariably, the guessed number was much, much higher than the actual number.
So, first things first. Take a deep breath, and repeat the mantra: Science says it’s not as big a deal as my brain thinks it is.
Step Two: Don’t apologize. Deal with it. The worst thing you can do after calling a lot of attention to yourself is drawn even more by apologizing a lot. Instead, downplay the moment. If you incessantly apologize after an embarrassing incident, you’re only telling others that this is a big deal and that they should treat it as such.
Step Three: Don’t dwell; change the channel. There’s a big difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is often a natural and unavoidable reaction to an awkward circumstance. But if you continue to fixate on what happened—replaying the moment over and over in your brain—the embarrassment can turn into shame and anxiety. You don’t want to carry that around with you. Instead, imagine your mind as a TV and the embarrassing situation as an obnoxious sitcom that’s forever in syndication. Change the channel, and replace that awful sitcom with something positive—a good memory or a joke or book you read that you liked. Anything to get rid of that junk.
Let’s recap: Embarrassment is a completely healthy reaction to an awkward situation. It happens to everyone and it can even show that you’re a general, social person. But, to combat worse feelings, remember the four steps: Force yourself to remember that this is a big deal in nobody else’s eyes but your own. Don’t apologize, instead, try to downplay the moment. And don’t replay what happened over and over, either; change the channel.
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