I was just listening to NPR in my car to a show about people’s real life experiences of being embarrassed, including the long-term repercussions from these incidents. I could relate. A central aspect of most, if not all, extremely embarrassing situations is humiliation. I believe actual mistakes that lead to feeling embarrassed are generally forgivable/reparable. But, even when, say, a group of witnesses or even the public has long moved on from judging a person’s perceived mistakes/errors in judgment, the physical/somatic sensations of feeling humiliated remain, triggered forth again by some subtle reminder(s) in one’s environment or even simply by a passing thought.
A lot of us have survived intense embarrassment, often repeated occurrences of this emotional state, including by someone(s) very close to us in childhood, which results in a betrayal of trust. The world can then seem like humiliation lurks around the corner. You never forget because, as trauma specialist Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk states in his well-titled book, “THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE.” Even small embarrassing moments can and often do trigger a mental and physical cascade response to past, old humiliations. Through helpful somatic-oriented psychotherapy, these embedded-in-the-brain and body reactions can be shortened and de-intensified, but I don’t think they ever completely go away. I believe this is evolutionarily important. It is good to hold some memory so one can retain helpful knowledge of these past painful experiences and avoid repeating them as best as possible. Also, empathy for others is deepened, or at least the opportunity for this to happen is presented.
I’ve done all I can to distance myself in proximity and time from those in my past who humiliated me. I know others have also accomplished this for themselves. I’ve created a wonderful, stable life filled with supportive and neutral (such as strangers in my neighborhood) people. I’ve worked on healing myself deeply, including developing a level of self confidence (such as in my competence as an effective psychotherapist) I wasn’t quite sure I’d ever know. But, there is admittedly an edge of caution I still retain. This translates into avoiding more potential embarrassment that could arise in, say, speaking before large groups of people, something I’ve hardly ever done in my life. I remain quite sensitive to the possibility of being humiliated, albeit significantly less so than I used to feel.
If you or someone you know is particularly concerned about being embarrassed and, likely, humiliated, which is not exactly the same as worrying about what others think of you (which I largely could care less about except with a small few who I know well and love), please hold patience and compassion for that individual, including yourself. Sensitivity to embarrassment, especially the sting of humiliation, is a scar on the psyche, a reminder of one’s tender humanity.