The Mental Pattern of Embarrassment

In a sense, we all suffer from a split personality. We all have this aspect of ourselves that we present to others – our ideal-self. And there’s also the part of us that we wish to keep hidden from public eyes – our true-self. It is the part we try so hard to control, teach, and at times, even punish, but for some unknown reason it refuses to behave and keeps causing us unnecessary embarrassment.

We try our best to make others see us as the person that we want and should be, rather than the person we actually are. Hoping that one day we will finally turn into this idealized version of ourselves and could finally be satisfied with who we are. Then we could finally stop feeling embarrassed, and be happy with ourselves.

But as it turns out, we had it all wrong. Once fully understanding the mechanism behind embarrassment, it becomes quite clear that striving for self-improvement is a circular path. It has no end, and it can never make anyone happy.

We cannot change anything unless we accept it

Carl Jung

This article will explore the pattern of embarrassment in depth, in order to find exactly how it works, and how it should be used. By the end of this article, you will understand your embarrassment well enough to finally resolve it.

What is it like to Feel Embarrassed?

“Oh my god, what have I done?!”

It comes as a sudden burst of uncertainty accompanied by a steep drop of confidence. The body goes into high alert and stress rises sharply. All of the sudden, you feel hot and sweaty. Then a certain thought pattern takes place, something like: “I hope no one noticed. They wouldn’t approve of this… This is what I do, this is who I am, how could I mess up like that? I shouldn’t have done that, it’s not like me, I should have known better! Damn, I can’t even do this right.”

On the physical level, the stomach contracts as the diaphragm is pushed up, taking all the air out of your lungs – making it feel like a lump in your throat. Breathing becomes difficult and speaking impossible. They call it choking for a reason.

This is embarrassment. It is the automatic reaction to our own mistakes, and it was meant to stop us in our tracks.

Embarrassment: OMG, What have I done?

Why Do We Feel Embarrassed?

The emotion of embarrassment seems to rise every time we make a mistake, do something wrong, or mess up. But yet, not every mistake we make results in embarrassment, and different people seem to be embarrassed about different things.

Take for example a history teacher. If you were to ask him who was the third president of the United States and he wouldn’t know, he would probably feel pretty embarrassed. Right? But a mechanic, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t feel anywhere as bad.

So, how is it that some mistakes are only embarrassing for certain people?

The Purpose of Embarrassment

It seems that failing at something is not a reliable indication for embarrassment. In order to cause embarrassment, the failure must be significant and important to us. It has to be something that we expect ourselves to be able to do right.

Embarrassment clearly seems to be connected with one’s self-image. It is about who we wish to be, and how we want others to see us. We present ourselves as something, and with that, we make a claim for a certain level of respect, approval, and acknowledgment.

For example, let’s say that I claim to be strong and trustworthy – I got your back, no matter what. With that claim, I can get quite a bit of respect, and quite a bit of good stable friends, Right? But if one of those friends happens to be in trouble and needs my help, I am expected to be there for him. After all, this is who I am!

Now, I’m not really as strong as I claim, and there’s really nothing I can do to help, which inevitably makes this situation a little embarrassing. The exposure of this inconsistency between how I present myself (my ideal-self) and how I actually behave (my true-self), is the true cause of embarrassment.

Embarassment creeps on us when parts of our true-self that we wish to keep hidden are at risk of exposure. When someone can see past our idealized identity and catch a glimpse of the real person underneath. The imperfect person, the one who makes mistakes, the one who messes up, the one who should have known better.

Resolving Embarrassment

We got caught, it is clear that we’re not who we claimed to be. We need a plan, an exit strategy. We need to regain consistency, both in our minds and in our self-image, and there are two ways to do that.

First, is to stay true to ourselves and to the person that we actually are. Express honesty and vulnerability, admit that we’re not as good as we claimed to be and accept the consequences. Others’ opinions of us might change, our status might decrease, and with it, our hard earned respect, but we will remain authentic and true to ourselves.

The second option is to resist the change, keep the respect, cover up for the mistake, and pretend that nothing ever happened. Insist that we are indeed who we claim to be, keep our self-image intact, and manipulate reality to better fit with it. If need be, even physically distance ourselves from the people who witnessed our slip, and push it away from memory, like it never happened at all. Fake it, pretend, and protect the ideal self-image at all cost.

Both have their pros and cons, but before you choose, make sure you are fully aware of the consequences of this decision.


If a person were to choose the second option, and remain true to their projected identity, their respect and status could be kept intact. But even though others might still believe them to be who they claimed, deep inside they will know it isn’t true. Their concepts of ideal-self and real-self will drift further apart, causing a state of greater incongruence. Their self-integrity will suffer, and with it, their sense of self-esteem. In this case, embarrassment won’t actually be resolved, but just transformed into shame.

On the other hand, if a person chooses to remain authentic and express vulnerability, even though their social status might suffer, their opinion of themselves will improve. They will enjoy a higher level of mental consistency, congruence, and self-integrity. Their self-image will remain consistent with their experience, cognitive distortion mechanisms won’t be necessary, and their perception of reality will remain clear. By that, transforming embarrassment into a feeling of wholeness and self-acceptance.

One path will hurt the external, ideal you, the other will hurt the internal, real you. So when making this kind of decisions, remember that both are important and both deserve your consideration.

Preventing Embarrassment with Humility

Embarrassment is the emotion that comes to tell us that what we’re doing doesn’t go hand in hand with our self-expectations. It rises within us when there’s an inconsistency, a mismatch between what we should be doing and what we actually did.

As failing to live up to one’s own standards is the source of embarrassment, a person who makes no status claims and accepts themselves as they truly are, will rid himself of embarrassment and shame altogether.

Making humility the secret weapon which allows us to close the gap between the ideal-self and true-self quickly and easily. Consequently, increasing our sense of self-esteem, allowing for self-trust, and freeing us from our overblown self-expectations.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change

Carl Rogers

Humility is a tool of the wise. Allowing people the freedom to be themselves, while at the same time, allowing others around them to feel more comfortable about their imperfections. So the next time that you feel like claiming some more respect, don’t rush it. And when you fail, don’t hide it. Don’t try to be perfect, try to be human.

Main Image By: Ryokai
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