Last week, Frank from A Spark Starts, wrote a guest post for Life, For Instance, titled Are You Really Prepared? In the post, Frank shares an embarrassing moment from his professional life and asked his readers to share theirs. I did (you can find my embarrassing story in the comments), and it got me thinking about embarrassment and shame, in general. What exactly is shame? Why do we feel it? And is there something we can do about it?
In what may be turning into a trend, I’m going to offer my own definition of shame:
Shame: the emotion that results from looking at yourself through someone else’s disapproving eyes.
Melody’s Dictionary. On sale soon! Maybe not…
When we are embarrassed or ashamed, it means that we think that someone else has a low opinion of us, and we’ve decided to share that opinion. Don’t you love how all my definitions make us sound kind of insane?
But it’s true. Think about it. Let’s say you’re walking along on a winter’s day. You slip on the ice and fall flat on your ass. What’s the first thing you do, often before you even check if you’re really ok? You look around to see who’s looking. Did anyone see you fall? Are they laughing at you? Even if you are a bit hurt, you quickly get up and pretend that you meant to do that. You might even pretend to be laughing at yourself. “Ha! Aren’t I just the klutz!” But secretly, you’ve just died a little inside. Your face is glowing bright red and you spend the rest of the day berating yourself for being such a dork.
How does the story change if you take the same spill in a place where no one is looking? You’d check to see if you were alright. You’d really make sure, looking for bruises and cuts. Then, you’d dust yourself off and keep walking. You might still beat up on yourself a little, depending on what kind of relationship you have with yourself, but mostly, you’d probably just be really glad that no one was there to see you fall.
The hierarchy of shame
Being ashamed and being embarrassed come from the feeling that you’re being disapproved of. However, shame is more personal, it runs deeper. Embarrassment is like “shame light” (or “diet shame” for Americans).
If one person disapproves of you, it leaves a mark. But if you think that everyone disapproves of you, it will make you quake in your boots. When little Johnny gets caught looking at dirty magazines by his father, he’s embarrassed. But when his sister tells the rest of the school, he’s ready to run off to join the circus. He’s deeply ashamed. They’re both the same emotion, only on a difference scale.
The incredible irony is that we’re much more likely to be embarrassed or ashamed in front of strangers than people we actually care about. What we’re essentially saying is that the opinion of others, and especially the opinion of the group, is much more important than our own, or even than that of the people we care deeply about. We often care more what our neighbors think than what our own family has to say.
Again, I don’t mean to make us all sound bonkers, but a lot of the beliefs we’ve come to hold on to, actually kind of are…
So, how you do go from pretending to laugh at yourself after you’ve fallen, while secretly dying inside, to actually being able to brush off a fall in front of a whole group of people? How do you truly stop caring what others think of you?
Start thinking for yourself
The first step is to stop adopting the opinion of others as your own. Sure, the end goal is to get to the point where what they think of you doesn’t matter at all, but if you’re nowhere near that, you’re going to need to get there incrementally.
So, yes, perhaps what they think of you still matters a bit. You don’t want people to think of you as a klutzy dork. You care if they approve of you. Let’s just leave that alone for a second (not forever, mind you, but just for now).
Caring what others think, in other words, wanting them to think well of you, is not the same as blindly accepting their opinion as your own truth. We often assign incredible power to perfect strangers. “If they disapprove of me, they must be right.” Seriously? These people know nothing about us. Even if they’re not strangers, do they really know us better than we know ourselves? Do we really think that they have a better handle on who we are than we do?
Change your perspective
Imagine that it wasn’t you who fell, but someone else. You saw them fall. And, in all likelihood, you laughed. But then you found out that the person who fell was handicapped. You’d probably stop laughing immediately (you’re not a monster, for God’s sake). In fact, you’d most likely feel sorry for laughing in the first place. This one piece of information would’ve completely changed your reaction to this person’s dilemma.
If we apply the paradigm that our self-worth should be determined by what others think of us, then the guy who fell should feel incredibly embarrassed until everyone found out that he was, in fact, handicapped. At that point, he would have everyone’s permission to stop feeling ashamed and perhaps to even strut away self-righteously. In fact, everyone who laughed, would now have to judge themselves through his eyes and spend the rest of the day feeling like jerks.
But what if one of the onlookers walked away before he could find out that Mr. Fally wasn’t just a klutz? Would he now have to stay slightly embarrassed? After all, there would now be someone out there who still thought of him that way.
This example may sound extreme, but how often have you censored yourself in some way because of what “they” might think, often without even bothering to define who “they” are.
Build a bridge
What others think of you doesn’t matter. However, if that thought seems nice but unattainable to you, you’ll need to build a bridge between where you are right now and where you ultimately want to go. And that bridge looks like this:
You prefer that others think well of you, but from now on you’re going to make up your own damn mind about how to feel about yourself.
So you fell on the ice. So what? If you witnessed someone falling, would you spend the rest of the day obsessing over it? Unless you’re a total jerk, you wouldn’t (and it you are a total jerk, I don’t want you reading my blog. Go on. Shoo). Is it really such a terrible thing? Does it really define who you are as a person? Is this truly the ONE THING which determines your worth?
Yeah… I didn’t think so.
I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again here: A lot of the beliefs we hold aren’t rational or logical. This is one of those. Embarrassment and shame are not indicators that you’ve done something wrong. They result from looking at ourselves through the eyes of others, imagining them as disapproving of us, and then adopting that imagined opinion as our own. That’s not just irrational, it’s completely preposterous. Who would consciously do that? Well, no one. Which is why I’ve just made you conscious of it. I should probably have warned you, but now that you’re aware of just how loony this paradigm is, you’ll never be able to relinquish how you feel to others quite the same way again. You’ll never again be able to feel embarrassment or shame without feeling just a little bit foolish for catering to this irrational belief. And as you have this realization again and again, the hold this belief has on you will begin to loosen. And soon you’ll be falling down all over the place without a care in the world. You’re welcome.
I love you, Melody! That is all. 🙂
That’s more than enough Marjorie! 🙂
Love you too!
Huge smooshy hugs,
That’s really fascinating.
“1.) You did not know it was wrong at the time or
2.) You have a belief or fear which is BIGGER than the fear of feeling ashamed that caused you to react the way you did.”
When I think of the 2nd one I think of Mary Bell the 10yr old girl that killed other children. She probrably knew it was wrong but the greater fear was the fact she was abused herself and the pain from that outweighed right or wrong.
The 1st one-not even knowing is quite odd. Surely all people know right from wrong?
On a much less dramatic scale I’nm involved in statement 2. (nothing illegal!!) The fact that is is causing some emotional distress to someone I love feels shameful to me. But the fear of what will happen if I don’t hold on to a certain situation trumps the guilt and shame. The self-preservation is greater. But shame is a high price. The priorities in someones mind can only be understood by the persom themself or if you blantantly ask them for explanation of the “wrong” action. Most people have a reason.
This is a complex subject.
It is a complex subject. “Right” and “wrong” are totally subjective, and not everyone has the same perspective. So, what you consider wrong may well not be wrong to someone else. I really should’ve said “They did not perceive it as wrong at the time”. That would’ve been more accurate.
Pfft! Those shamed people obviously haven’t listened to Mr.Ts’ advice on recouping. I miss that guy.
Surely there are situations that are truly shameful? Like in the category of stealing candy from a baby? You know the things I’m talking about. Surely there are things that truly are shameful no matter how you spin it. Even if no one is looking or only the one person knows and not “they” YOU know. Your self knows. The universe saw it too.
But if you think it’s wrong (which is the requirement to feel ashamed about it), why did you do anyway? Why did you feel compelled to do something that you KNEW would make you feel horrible about yourself?
1.) You did not know it was wrong at the time or
2.) You have a belief or fear which is BIGGER than the fear of feeling ashamed that caused you to react the way you did.
Shame is a matter of perspective. And nope, I do not accept that there are situations which I cannot view in a way that allows for compassion and understanding. And the Universe will not judge you no matter what. And I’m doing my best not to, either. 🙂
That Frank guy you mentioned earlier in this post sounds like a pretty awesome guy. I know him very personally.
I think it is human nature to allow other opinions base how we fill about ourselves. Although I think it is natural, I do not think it is healthy. So often in my life I have been embarrassed by things that I found out later in life that I should be proud of. Being imperfect is a gift. I am human and I am not going to get everything right. The beautiful thing about being a human is that I have the cognitive ability to learn form my mistakes. This was an outstanding read you put together here. I am glad I was able to read this. 🙂
Considering you (um mean, some Frank guy) inspired it, I’m glad you like it. Tell your friend. 🙂
Thanks for stopping by. Always a pleasure to read your insightful comments!
It’s really interesting how our fear of disapproval can cause us to act in pretty funny ways.
Of course, it’s normal and natural. But at the same time, it helps to not worry so much about what other people are thinking about you.
To start, most people are usually too preoccupied with themselves to really give too much of a hoot about you. I know it sounds a bit shallow, but it can actually be relieving since we truthfully shouldn’t have to care what other people might think (and most of the time we are being way more judgmental on ourselves than other people are).
Thanks for the thoughts!
That’s a great point: We imagine that others are spending way more time focusing upon us than they actually do, as if they had nothing else to worry about. They’re sitting there worried about what we think of them! We’re all so scared of each other, aren’t we? Time to stop that, me thinks… 🙂
Thanks for your wonderful insight.
that’s a great post melody
shame can even result in depression and inferiority feelings
its important that we realize such feelings and learn how to deal with them
thanks for the post 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by! Once we recognize emotions for what they are – indicators of our thoughts, and not something we are at the mercy at, it becomes much easier to let go of these “dark” feelings.
I’ve never had the problem of shame. However, embarrassment is certain situations has happened. I think it has to do with basically liking yourself. Although I always think I need improvement, I believe the basic me is just fine.
I think you’ve made a really important point here – it does come down to liking yourself. We don’t really allow others to judge us, even in our own heads, if we truly like and accept ourselves. Thanks for adding this fantastic insight!
Shame is one of emotions that people have in daily life. Changing perspective and the way we look at the situation is an excellent way to stop feeling ashamed. Also, we have to stop seeking approval of others. If I was walking and I fall, then I go like “Oh well, I’m only human and people realize that too.” Then, I continue on with my daily life. 😉 Simple adjustment in thinking can go a long way. Thanks for sharing Melody
You’re right. It IS all about perspective. Congrats on being at the point where you’re able to brush it off. That’s a wonderful place to be. 🙂
I’m reminded of a book I read about a year ago – “The Four Agreements”, by don Miguel Ruiz. In it, one of the agreements he talks about fits so well with what you’ve discussed here today:
Don’t take anything personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
This has been so good for me to let soak into my soul. And as I have done this more fully, this feeling of shame has been much less. (and that’s a great place to be…)
Big hugs to you!
Thanks for offering such a valuable comment! That’s so true: “Nothing others do is because of you.” And can be applied to so many situations. We never have to be offended by anyone, nor do we have to worry about what they think. Lovely.
Big hugs back atcha!
This was great! I never thought of this before:”When we are embarrassed or ashamed, it means that we think that someone else has a low opinion of us, and we’ve decided to share that opinion.”, particularly the last seven words! It is rather insane, isn’t it? First we care about their opinion and then we accept it! We’re such strange creatures LOL
I didn’t realize that we are more concerned about being shamed in front of strangers. SO strange!
Thanks for the mention. Frank certainly can tell a story well! Do you think he started something? “What’s your most embarrassing moment?” is a great party game – good for laughs. At least we do, at some time, laugh about these things. Or blog about them 😉
You’re so welcome. I loved Frank’s post and your site and felt you guys deserved to be linked to. 🙂
I think embarrassment is one of those things that everyone can relate to. Everyone has a story. But we rarely ever consider that it’s an emotion that just doesn’t serve us…
Thanks for stopping by!
“And soon you’ll be falling down all over the place without a care in the world.” I seriously laughed out loud to this one. Great post, Melody.
I’m happy to say that I learned the art of brushing-off other people’s viewpoints of me in embarrassing situations a while ago. Lets just say I’ve had enough practice. 😉
I was at the cinema a lil’ late, all the lights were off, I tripped on a stair and turned into Humpty Dumpty. I got up, checked if I was okay, popcorn intact, and said to the person sitting down, “God, I hate it when that happens!” And a bunch of people pretty much started agreeing with me saying “Yeah, they should leave the lights on for a lil’ longer” and “I know what you mean, buddy”. So I wasn’t the only victim of ass-damage via some form of stairs. We’re all dorks in the end, what’s there to be embarrassed about? :p
I’m so glad you liked it Derrek.
You’ve made another brilliant point: When other people see you NOT being embarrassed, they kind of root for you. They see that THIS is the way they’d like to react in a situation like this. They understand on some level that it feels better, and it’s like your better-feeling response triggers a recognition in them.
Thanks so much for adding your story and insight.
Oh Melody, embarrassment and shame is a great topic. When I get embarrassed my face turns the color of a red apple, can’t hide it.
Some where in life I was taught or learned to feel shame, which I don’t believe totally serves us if what we are doing or being is not something to be ashamed of in the first place.
I am always mesmerized by people that have no shame at all. It makes me wonder what life would be like without that emotion.
Great post as always. 🙂
Hmm. What WOULD life be without shame? The world would be one big Hollywood. I guess shame and embarrassment is very much needed in some situations. Like when it helps Rossie O’ Donnel keep her damn clothes on. Thank the Lord!!
I submit that I’d rather live in a world where Rosie can strut her stuff all she wants and those who don’t resonate with that image aren’t even aware of it. For example, did she take off her clothes, or something? I wouldn’t know if she had…
Of course, now that you’ve got yourself thinking about a nekkid Rosie, you may not be able to escape that manifestation… Buwahahahaha. 😉
…… oh God, what have I done. 🙁
I know! I think on the one hand, people with no shame can make us uncomfortable (we put ourselves in their place and imagine how embarrassed we’d be if we did what they did). And yet, they also fascinate us, because we recognize how wonderful it must feel to not give a crap what anyone else thinks. We are drawn to that feeling, most of us just won’t allow ourselves to drop all the fear. But that time has come, as the responses to this blog clearly show.
Thanks for your insight!
Melody – along the lines of building a bridge and coming to terms with shame, a technique I have found extremely useful is to laughing at myself. I’ve found it to be a blast to laugh first and loudest and myself and appreciate my own shortcomings or mistakes. When I can laugh at myself, no one else can top that – reducing any shame and feelings of embarrassment.
That’s a fantastic tip! Thanks so much for sharing it. If we can genuinely see the humor in the situation, we’ll already have come a long way towards not caring anymore. 🙂
This was a really entertaining article, I had a lot of fun reading it.
You’re SO right about shame/embarrassment coming as a result of looking through the eyes of others, as if they have it all figured out and you’re not living up to their perfection. Yeah right.
In fact, funny story. I was in vegas this weekend, staying at a big hotel with elevators in every direction. I took one up to my floor and walked off to the left – right towards the dead-end wall. I had to make a 180 in front of the elevator back towards the hallway. All the while, this group of girls was on the elevator watching and… laughing at me! I looked back at them as if to say “Really?!” like, “what, you haven’t also made that mistake 4 times this weekend?”
At some point in my life, I realized that 1) other people don’t know what they’re doing either, they don’t have it all figured out and they make the same mistakes and 2) even if they did, they only learned by making mistakes so there’s no shame in learning through trial and error. Those realizations really worked well at knocking the shame & embarrassment out of me.
Wow Andrew. There’s nothing quite as threatening as the sound of a teenage girl’s judgmental laughter… Well done for not being affected by it.
OMG, I love it! “Other people don’t know what they’re doing, either.” That should be on a bumper sticker! He, he.
Thanks for sharing your experience here.
This was fantastic and so timely too. I’m a daily walker. Not long ago I lost my balance when I stepped on a piece of gravel and fell on my face! This isn’t the first time I’ve fallen and I’m sure it won’t be the last either. The funny thing is that I noticed I didn’t care if anyone saw me or what they might have thought. All I was thinking was – OUCH, that hurt. I got up – checked to make sure I was okay – and kept on going on my walk.
You’re right – when we stop looking through the eyes of others to how we “perceive” they see us – we no longer feel shamed.
Welcome to Deliberate Receiving. Wow, I’m impressed that you were truly able to brush off the fall and not even have to talk yourself out of embarrassment. You’re my hero.
Thank you so much for adding your story here.