Last week, Frank from A Spark Starts, wrote a guest post for Life, For Instance, titled Are You Really Prepared? In the post, Frank shares an embarrassing moment from his professional life and asked his readers to share theirs. I did (you can find my embarrassing story in the comments), and it got me thinking about embarrassment and shame, in general. What exactly is shame? Why do we feel it? And is there something we can do about it?
In what may be turning into a trend, I’m going to offer my own definition of shame:
Shame: the emotion that results from looking at yourself through someone else’s disapproving eyes.
Melody’s Dictionary. On sale soon! Maybe not…
When we are embarrassed or ashamed, it means that we think that someone else has a low opinion of us, and we’ve decided to share that opinion. Don’t you love how all my definitions make us sound kind of insane?
But it’s true. Think about it. Let’s say you’re walking along on a winter’s day. You slip on the ice and fall flat on your ass. What’s the first thing you do, often before you even check if you’re really ok? You look around to see who’s looking. Did anyone see you fall? Are they laughing at you? Even if you are a bit hurt, you quickly get up and pretend that you meant to do that. You might even pretend to be laughing at yourself. “Ha! Aren’t I just the klutz!” But secretly, you’ve just died a little inside. Your face is glowing bright red and you spend the rest of the day berating yourself for being such a dork.
How does the story change if you take the same spill in a place where no one is looking? You’d check to see if you were alright. You’d really make sure, looking for bruises and cuts. Then, you’d dust yourself off and keep walking. You might still beat up on yourself a little, depending on what kind of relationship you have with yourself, but mostly, you’d probably just be really glad that no one was there to see you fall.
The hierarchy of shame
Being ashamed and being embarrassed come from the feeling that you’re being disapproved of. However, shame is more personal, it runs deeper. Embarrassment is like “shame light” (or “diet shame” for Americans).
If one person disapproves of you, it leaves a mark. But if you think that everyone disapproves of you, it will make you quake in your boots. When little Johnny gets caught looking at dirty magazines by his father, he’s embarrassed. But when his sister tells the rest of the school, he’s ready to run off to join the circus. He’s deeply ashamed. They’re both the same emotion, only on a difference scale.
The incredible irony is that we’re much more likely to be embarrassed or ashamed in front of strangers than people we actually care about. What we’re essentially saying is that the opinion of others, and especially the opinion of the group, is much more important than our own, or even than that of the people we care deeply about. We often care more what our neighbors think than what our own family has to say.
Again, I don’t mean to make us all sound bonkers, but a lot of the beliefs we’ve come to hold on to, actually kind of are…
So, how you do go from pretending to laugh at yourself after you’ve fallen, while secretly dying inside, to actually being able to brush off a fall in front of a whole group of people? How do you truly stop caring what others think of you?
Start thinking for yourself
The first step is to stop adopting the opinion of others as your own. Sure, the end goal is to get to the point where what they think of you doesn’t matter at all, but if you’re nowhere near that, you’re going to need to get there incrementally.
So, yes, perhaps what they think of you still matters a bit. You don’t want people to think of you as a klutzy dork. You care if they approve of you. Let’s just leave that alone for a second (not forever, mind you, but just for now).
Caring what others think, in other words, wanting them to think well of you, is not the same as blindly accepting their opinion as your own truth. We often assign incredible power to perfect strangers. “If they disapprove of me, they must be right.” Seriously? These people know nothing about us. Even if they’re not strangers, do they really know us better than we know ourselves? Do we really think that they have a better handle on who we are than we do?
Change your perspective
Imagine that it wasn’t you who fell, but someone else. You saw them fall. And, in all likelihood, you laughed. But then you found out that the person who fell was handicapped. You’d probably stop laughing immediately (you’re not a monster, for God’s sake). In fact, you’d most likely feel sorry for laughing in the first place. This one piece of information would’ve completely changed your reaction to this person’s dilemma.
If we apply the paradigm that our self-worth should be determined by what others think of us, then the guy who fell should feel incredibly embarrassed until everyone found out that he was, in fact, handicapped. At that point, he would have everyone’s permission to stop feeling ashamed and perhaps to even strut away self-righteously. In fact, everyone who laughed, would now have to judge themselves through his eyes and spend the rest of the day feeling like jerks.
But what if one of the onlookers walked away before he could find out that Mr. Fally wasn’t just a klutz? Would he now have to stay slightly embarrassed? After all, there would now be someone out there who still thought of him that way.
This example may sound extreme, but how often have you censored yourself in some way because of what “they” might think, often without even bothering to define who “they” are.
Build a bridge
What others think of you doesn’t matter. However, if that thought seems nice but unattainable to you, you’ll need to build a bridge between where you are right now and where you ultimately want to go. And that bridge looks like this:
You prefer that others think well of you, but from now on you’re going to make up your own damn mind about how to feel about yourself.
So you fell on the ice. So what? If you witnessed someone falling, would you spend the rest of the day obsessing over it? Unless you’re a total jerk, you wouldn’t (and it you are a total jerk, I don’t want you reading my blog. Go on. Shoo). Is it really such a terrible thing? Does it really define who you are as a person? Is this truly the ONE THING which determines your worth?
Yeah… I didn’t think so.
I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again here: A lot of the beliefs we hold aren’t rational or logical. This is one of those. Embarrassment and shame are not indicators that you’ve done something wrong. They result from looking at ourselves through the eyes of others, imagining them as disapproving of us, and then adopting that imagined opinion as our own. That’s not just irrational, it’s completely preposterous. Who would consciously do that? Well, no one. Which is why I’ve just made you conscious of it. I should probably have warned you, but now that you’re aware of just how loony this paradigm is, you’ll never be able to relinquish how you feel to others quite the same way again. You’ll never again be able to feel embarrassment or shame without feeling just a little bit foolish for catering to this irrational belief. And as you have this realization again and again, the hold this belief has on you will begin to loosen. And soon you’ll be falling down all over the place without a care in the world. You’re welcome.