There was a time there when we millennials all called ourselves Liz Lemon because of our propensity for awkwardness, but we still insulate ourselves from the kind of mortifying embarrassment that really hits home.
Sometimes I feel like my life is just one long embarrassment. I think, actually, that should be the collective term for my life experiences. It’s partly because I spent fifteen years trying to be an actor. Let me tell you, actors have a really high threshold for it. Hold our hands to the flame and we’ll shrug and say, “OK but do you have any feedback for me?”
It’s not that we’re these super-human creatures who don’t feel embarrassed, though my favourite joke is to pretend that it’s a foreign experience like schadenfreude or a stable income. No, it’s that we’ve become accustomed to it.
Because our craft requires us to feel almost constantly embarrassed.
Modern business literature asks us to be these bio-hacked, life-hacked, hijacked people who feel only productivity and rainbows and synergy and puppy dog smiles and whatever other impossible-to-feel emotions will sell a book that month.
But, emotionally speaking, humans are very basic things. We avoid what feels yuck and we go towards what feels nice. And what the aforementioned business-lit pseudo scientists fail to mention is that you can’t completely rid yourself of yuck emotions.
Worse, when you avoid them, they run you from behind. They lurk out of sight like a micromanaging supervisor and before long, without even realising it, you change your behaviour to suit them.
And uncomfortably emotions are useful. Not just as an adaptive thing, but as a tool for working better with others. According to a study from Stanford and Berkley, people who express embarrassment are more likely to be kinder and more generous. And the people around them are more likely to trust them and seek out their company.
Here’s another truth: avoiding the feeling of embarrassment is one of the worst things for creativity.
When an actor avoids it, they turn out a flat and predictable performance. That’s because good acting sits on the knife’s edge of real and stupid. So the actor has to be willing to topple into genuine, A-grade, embarrassing-as-hell failure. It’s thrilling and terrifying and annoying. An actor can’t have an off day, they must do the emotionally exhausting work of constantly navigating that razor thin line of embarrassment and glory.
In business, we often want to feel the things that cement our standing. Perhaps we want our co-workers to think of us as creative or brave or innovative or supportive. Few of us admit to ourselves how much we want our bosses to gasp and say “this is amazing work”. But of course we want that. Because, above all, we want to feel capable.
So it’s no surprise that we avoid embarrassment at work.
But there is power in it. Because if you can learn to tolerate embarrassment an entire world opens up. You let yourself say the thing you’ve been biting back, your relationships deepen, you ask the stupid question, you take the risks, you get better at throwing up ten ideas knowing that nine of them might be stupid.
But, more than that, there’s a sense of ease as you move through the world. You no longer walk around the office on guard to all the silly things that you might do or say. You get a step closer to just being you.
What is the fear of embarrassment about? For me, it’s tied up with rejection. The dark side of embarrassment is shame, and that’s something I’ve felt a lot in my life. I grew up gay in a particularly Catholic enclave of 90s Australia. I was seven before homosexuality was decriminalised in the entire country.
So I spend so much of my life avoiding embarrassment because it’s related to shame and shame reminds me of the trauma of deep rejection, it reminds me of the old belief that I am unworthy and bad. And sometimes, still, I lie awake at night going over the stupid thing I said last month and the reflexsive self-loathing attacks me.
Don’t worry, I’m in therapy. But all of this is to say that I know this isn’t necessarily easy work, and that our aversion to garden-variety embarrassment is a completely natural thing. Perhaps, at one point in our lives, it was a life line.
While I failed as an actor, the skills that I learnt have become something of a superpower. I’ve been navigating being embarrassed in professional settings well before most people my age got their first summer job.
There’s no secret sauce, I’m afraid. You just have to get good at allowing yourself to feel the yuck emotions and continue through them.
I will say this: positive psychology doesn’t always feel positive. The business lit tries to sell us on overt joy at work. But working, and working on yourself at work, can be a real grind. It’s worth the results, but it’s uncomfortable and often extremely boring.
Now I’m going to talk out both sides of my mouth and give you some tools for getting used to feeling embarrassed. You will have heard some of these before because, despite what pulp-science says, getting used to uncomfortable emotions is all just different flavours of the same shit. Sorry.
Feeling your perineum clench reading that? Great! This is for you. And it’s what it says on the box.
But don’t throw yourself into the deep end. Start small. Be kind to yourself.
Maybe begin with something completely outside of work. Start telling dad jokes to the people you live with. Or take a dance class.
Get curious about what makes you feel embarrassed and seek out bite-sized chunks of it. Crucially, reward yourself when you’ve had a bit.
Not enough people see a psychologist. If you can afford it and you’re serious about walking into difficult emotions it can be really helpful.
Also, a therapist is far more qualified to give you advice on embarrassment than some mouthy homosexual copywiter
Maybe you could just start by telling someone you trust some embarrassing stuff. For me, that’s harder than doing the thing that feels embarrassing, but for some it might be a safer way to deal in the emotion.
But you have to actually say real stuff. No “I’m so embarrassed by how hard I work and that time that the boss told me how good I am, did you hear that? Well he did. He said I do great work. It’s the worst.”
A great template I learnt from the director Kim Farrant is this.
First you write it down using these prompts.
- Describe the event using as much sensory detail as you can remember. Try to simply let it flow out in a stream of consciousness.
- Because of this I felt…
- I affected me by…
- The belief that it created is…
- As a result I…
Then read that small piece of writing to someone you trust.
Kim offered it as a tool for accessing truthful emotions on set and I think it would be useful to recall toe-curling embarrasment.
Make it a game
A few years ago there was a story going around the podcasts and opinion pages of a guy who had a crippling fear of rejection. He beat it by making it into a game.
He’d set himself the goal of being rejected a certain amount of times a day.
The man went out into the world looking for rejection and getting used to it. And bit-by-bit his attitude changed. Rejection still felt about as good as toilet paper made of sand, but now he felt more positive about the idea of it.
It became a thing that was just part of his everyday life, something that had positive and negative attributes.
Look, I aspire to be someone who meditates every morning and evening.
But that rarely happens. Partly because meditation is pretty mundane and I’d prefer to do pretty much anything else, and partly because it’s good for me so I avoid it.
The thing about meditation is that it’s a skill.
So, yeah, it’s best if you can do it regularly, but you build the skill whether you do it intermittently or every day.
There’s also heaps of ways to do it. Smiling Mind is a great and free app, Headspace is another app. There are books and YouTube videos and podcasts.
You could try mindfulness, or Bhuddist meditation, or transcendental meditation. Hell, you could go for a nice mindful hardcore set at the gym.
My point is that, as I said, it’s all different flavours of the same shit. Because it’s all about noticing what’s going on and not trying to escape from it.
About the author
Xavier is a copywriter and account manager at Eight Clients. He is also a theatre maker and writer. At 15 he found his first acting agent in a phone book and embarked upon a career as Australia’s least successful child actor. He then had a marginally-less-unsuccessful career as an adult actor. He has produced award-winning site responsive theatre for Gold Satino, and been published in VICE, Reading Victoria and Archer.
Xavier is also a graduate student at Deakin Business School in the Arts and Cultural Management stream. His research interests include diversity in arts governance and managing creativity.