Our great fear is public humiliation. Most people in the public eye stuff up occasionally. The Duke of Edinburgh, for example, is renowned for it. While we may not be in the public eye like the Duke we can still identify with his situation. At some time, we too have been guilty of hurting others with our indiscreet words or simply looking foolish.
Consider the following situations, some of which may be uncomfortably familiar.
- Susie is having lunch with her new workmates. After a glass of wine, everyone is getting along very well. Susie feels sufficiently comfortable to share her views on born-again Christians, who she dislikes intensely. Only later does she find out that her new boss, who’d been sitting opposite her, is a born-again Christian.
- John is a sales representative who is keen to make a good impression on his new client, Michael Cruise. Greeting the client, John shakes his hand and says, “Mr Tom Cruise, nice to meet you.” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he realizes what he has said and turns bright red.
- Marie, a thin woman, is struck by how attractive her large sister-in-law looks all dressed up for dinner. Thinking she is giving a genuine compliment, Marie says, “You look fabulous in that dress, it takes 10 kilos off you.” Upset, the sister-in-law retorts that she knows she should lose weight.
- On several occasions, Peter has been out with his best friend, Bill, and the woman with whom Bill is having an affair. Peter is also friendly with Bill’s wife. When talking to Bill and the wife, Peter recounts an episode from an evening they spent together. Only from the wife’s repeated questioning, does Peter realise that the evening was actually spent with the lover, not the wife. By then, Bill’s wife has caught on and Bill and Peter’s desperate attempts to cover up only make the situation worse.
Many of us, once we have realised what we have done, become obsessed with our slip-ups. We play the scenario over and over in our head; we wish it had never happened; we berate ourselves for being so stupid; we run different possibilities through our mind wondering how we might fix it; and we become agitated and lose sleep. We want to break out of this cycle but often don’t know how.
Eventually, the demands of day to day living take over and the experience fades. Recalled sometime later, however, all the awful feelings of embarrassment surface again.
The secret of resolving the shame of indiscretion is dealing with your feelings rather than thinking about how to fix it. Obsession with remembering and replaying every detail indicates that we are trying to solve a feeling by thinking. Thoughts are different to feelings. We use different parts of our body and psyche when we are feeling in comparison to when we are thinking.
Thinking is our logical part and takes place in our mind. It involves images and internal dialogue. Feeling is physical. It occurs in our body. Emotions, such as embarrassment, are felt rather than thought (although a thought can trigger them).
To stop the cycle of obsessive thinking we need to feel the embarrassment, no matter how uncomfortable. By relaxing and breathing deeply, we allow the feelings to take over our body. Once we have dealt with the feelings, we reach a place of acceptance. We know the situation cannot be undone and we learn to live with it. Apologies and other appropriate action are quickly taken.
You know you have fully resolved your embarrassing indiscretions when you find yourself retelling them, with relish, to an amused audience at a dinner party.
Kathy works in a public service department as a change manager. Before she goes on leave she finishes an important report that is sent to her boss. Reading the report, the boss notices a major inaccuracy, which he corrects. The report is then copied, bound and distributed.
When Kathy returns from leave, boss calls her to chastise her for the inaccuracy. Kathy is sure he is mistaken, as she cannot remember making the error. She is short on the phone with him and hangs up annoyed. She personally checks the report, and seeing no error sends the report around to her boss, circling the area in question in thick red pen to prove her innocence.
Little does Kathy know she is looking at the version her boss has already corrected. A couple of days later when Kathy is still mulling over the incident, she rereads the draft she originally sent to the boss. She is shocked to find the boss was correct after all. Kathy feels distressed and embarrassed. Why didn’t she check the draft immediately? Why was she so defensive? How could she have been so rude? What should she do? Has her career been damaged?
She gets no sleep and calls in sick the next day. Her distress is so great and her head so clouded that she cannot do anything but feel the embarrassment. After weeping, she finds she feels better. She thinks through her alternatives. She decides to go into work where she phones her boss. She unconditionally apologises, resisting the temptation to make excuses. The boss knows Kathy is a talented, reliable worker and accepts her apology.
How to avoid embarrassment
- Think before you speak.
- Keep your emotions under control.
- Never react defensively.
- Take time to respond thoughtfully to criticism.
- Don’t assume others share your views.
- Keep confidences.
- Don’t gossip.
After you’ve slipped up
- Don’t lie or try to cover up.
- Realise what’s done is done.
- Avoid obsessive thinking.
- Work your emotions through.
- Clear the air by taking the rap.
- Don’t make excuses.
- Apologise or express regret.