September 19, 2013

The Curse (& Humanity) of Embarrassment. ~ Toni Bernhard

I was horribly embarrassed by what I did.

Not recently, but over 40 years ago. Yes, over 40 years ago. My husband was a graduate student and we lived on an apricot ranch near the university. I helped bring in much needed income by working in the drying sheds in the summer. My job was to take an apricot out of a crate, cut it in half, expel the pit and put the apricot on a drying tray. It took me over an hour to finish a crate and for that effort I earned two bucks.

One morning, in excitement, I shared with a co-worker that I’d just found out I was pregnant. After our lunch break, she came up to me with something pretty in the palm of her hand and said, “This is to celebrate your pregnancy.” Thinking it was a rock (she knew I collected them) I took it out of her palm without delicacy.

Suddenly, it started oozing fluid on my fingers. She looked at me in horror and yelled, “What are you doing? That’s a chrysalis!”

A chrysalis is the hard skin that covers a caterpillar as it is metamorphosing into a butterfly. If a chrysalis becomes detached from the silk pad that the caterpillar has spun but is handled very gently, it can be reattached and still become a butterfly.

But this one would not become a butterfly—I’d seen to that.

I was so horribly embarrassed that I spent the rest of the day caught up in painful self-recrimination. And every time I saw my co-worker talking to others, I was convinced she was telling them what I’d done, which only served to intensify my embarrassment and self-blame.

But what crime had I committed? I’d accidently mistaken a chrysalis for a rock.

For over 40 years, whenever I’d recall that incident, I’d suffer embarrassment all over again. I use the word “suffer” on purpose because for decades, conjuring up that memory made me miserable.

What is embarrassment?

In general, embarrassment is an emotional response to an innocent mistake.

The major reason that some of us are embarrassment-prone is that we’ve been conditioned to set unrealistically high expectations for ourselves and to judge ourselves negatively when we can’t possibly meet those standards.

A second reason that makes us susceptible to embarrassment is that we’ve been taught to take our cue in evaluating ourselves from what we assume (often erroneously) to be others’ opinions of us.

The good news is that these are learned, conditioned behaviors and can be changed. The Buddha said that nothing is as soft and pliant as the mind.

Now, 2500 years later, neuroscientists are also finding this to be the case. So, even if we’ve been conditioned to be our own harshest critics—making us embarrassment-prone—we can unlearn that behavior.

It can be eye-opening to think of some of the unrealistic expectations we hold ourselves to.

These are the “shoulds” we set up in our lives which then become the breeding ground for embarrassment. I should never spill a drink, I should never lose my footing, even on slippery pavement, I should never misunderstand another person’s behavior (the latter misunderstanding having constituted my “chrysalis crime”).

For most of my life, I was embarrassed by this kind of innocent behavior on my part—behavior that is common to all humans. The “chrysalis incident” was always the worst in my mind though. If at the time, I’d had compassion for myself instead of being my own harshest critic, I would have said to my co-worker something like, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I thought it was a rock. I wish I’d have seen what it really was.”

Then the momentary discomfort would have passed without lingering in my mind for decades.

Does embarrassment serve a constructive purpose?

Not as far as I can tell. I suppose it could be argued that it contributes to social control. But in my opinion, all it does is cause us to hold ourselves to impossible standards and idoesn’t particularly lead to constructive behavior in the future.

Sure, if someone ever handed me a chrysalis-shaped object again, before taking hold of it, I’d check it out carefully. But what are the odds of that happening in my life?

How I finally shed that embarrassment I held onto for so long.

The change occurred after I became chronically ill. At first, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t recovering from what appeared to be an acute viral infection.

Other people get sick and recover, so what was wrong with me?

And so, there’s that first factor: I was holding myself to an impossible standard (impossible in the sense that I can’t control whether my body recovers from a virus or not) and this led to engaging in negative self-judgment.

The second factor was present too: I was evaluating myself based on what I was afraid others might be thinking about me. I was embarrassed simply by the thought that they might think I was a malingerer and so I’d try to hide from others how sick I was.

If colleagues stopped me in the hallways at work (during the short period I tried to continue working), I’d lean against the wall as we chatted so they couldn’t tell that I was barely able to stand up. I sat in the classroom to teach so students couldn’t tell that I was sick (although some of them figured it out).

Then I had an experience that helped me shed that well-ingrained conditioning of becoming so easily embarrassed: I was in front of my house and a neighbor walked up and started chatting about the gardens on our block. After about 10 minutes, I began to feel as if I were going to keel over if I didn’t sit down, but there wasn’t even a wall to lean against as there’d been in the hallways at work.

This was the usual signal for negative self-judgment to arise, followed quickly by embarrassment.

But instead, there was a turning in my mind and I reached out to myself with compassion. To my surprise, I heard myself saying, “I’m sorry but it’s hard for me to stand up for long periods so I need to sit down.” And, because there was no chair in sight, I sat right down on the cement sidewalk! Sitting on the sidewalk, I continued our chat even though she towered over me.

I wasn’t embarrassed because I recognized that my intention was good—I was trying to take care of myself.

When I returned to the house, I thought about what I’d done. Me, who’d get embarrassed if I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, had been perfectly willing to sit right down on it. I reflected on what would happen if I let go of my focus on what other people might be thinking about me (which is so often an incorrect perception anyway).

To do this, I asked myself whether others do the same things that I’d been judging myself so harshly for all my life:

Do other people spill drinks? Yes.

Do other people trip on sidewalks? Yes.

Do other people misunderstand others sometimes? Yes.

Do other people sometimes engage in unconventional behavior in order to protect their health? Yes.

This helped me put those embarrassments into a larger context of what we as humans are all likely to do and have happen to us. Then I purposefully called the “chrysalis incident” to mind. Might other people have mistaken that chrysalis for a rock? Yes.

Might the very co-worker who gave it to me have made that mistake? Of course. This reflection loosened the tight-fisted grip that the embarrassment had held over me for so long.

For the first time in decades, I saw that, regardless of whether I make a good faith mistake (as I had with that chrysalis) and regardless of whether I act unconventionally (as I had when I sat on the sidewalk).

It didn’t ease my suffering and it didn’t ease that of others. This is always my litmus test for evaluating thoughts and actions: Do they ease or intensify suffering for myself and others?

After 40 years, it’s such a relief to finally be free from embarrassment over that chrysalis.

Now, instead of embarrassment arising when I think of that day in the drying shed, I feel compassion for the excited young woman I was, who did nothing but make an innocent mistake as she stood there ready to receive a gift to celebrate her pregnancy.


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Assistant Ed: Julie Garcia/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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