President Obama went to enter the White House in front of the press and rolling camera’s, only to find himself locked out. President Clinton suffered through the public spectacle of his affair with Monica Lewinsky and President George H.W. Bush vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister.
Embarrassing moments happen to everyone, no matter how important. Most of us are lucky enough not to have our embarrassments broadcast to the general public, but even so, when you’re embarrassed it can feel like you’re in a spotlight with the whole world watching.
What you do and how you can best respond to embarrassment depends on what you’ve done to embarrass yourself. If you’ve found yourself locked out, through no fault of your own, like President Obama, your response is different than if you’re embarrassed by mistakes, poor judgment or otherwise bad behavior.
If you want to move on and leave that embarrassed feeling behind, there are a few key points it’s important to understand. First, every emotion comes with an urge to act. When embarrassed, most of us want to hide. We’d much rather crawl in a hole and avoid all those prying eyes that we feel are judging and criticizing us.
The second point to understand is that you can change how you feel by changing how you act. Hiding will not make you feel less embarrassed. At least not for a very long time. If you hide, you sit with your embarrassment, think about your embarrassment, worry about what other people are thinking about you and saying about you, all of which keeps that feeling going.
If, on the other hand, you act opposite to how you’re feeling—that is to approach the embarrassing situation (or at least not hide from everyone and everything involved) you give yourself the opportunity to change how you feel. Here’s what you have to do:
- In the case of embarrassment, you first have to determine whether you did something egregious to be embarrassed about. President Clinton’s embarrassment (assuming he was embarrassed) was a result of poor behavior (in my opinion). He had good reason to be embarrassed. President H.W. Bush might have felt embarrassed—no one wants to vomit on a foreign leader—but his behavior was a result of being sick, not poor judgment.
- If you’ve acted poorly and are embarrassed about your conduct, rather than hide, approach the situation. When you approach, you’ve got to do it all the way. This means facing anyone you’ve wronged, apologizing and making efforts to repair any damage you’ve done. Painful? Yes. Ultimately the road to getting past embarrassment? Yes.
- Don’t forget that acting opposite all the way means that after sincere apologies and attempts to repair any damage, you also act opposite in your thinking. This means that you stop with self-criticism and forgive yourself your mistakes.
- If, on the other hand, your embarrassment is simply a result of one of those unavoidable mishaps in life, you still approach the situation. This time there is no need to make apologies. A simple acknowledgment of the embarrassing situation and moving on is all that is necessary. When attempting to make a quick exit from an uncomfortable press conference and finding himself in front of a locked door, President George W. Bush turned to the crowd and said with a smile "I was trying to escape. Obviously it didn't work." Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Acting opposite gives you the opportunity to make amends and move on from misconduct. It also let's you put those unavoidable and unforeseeable embarrassing event in perspective and realize that everyone has been there and life goes on.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowsky, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.