We’ve all been there. Your face turns tomato red, your hands get clammy, and suddenly your gut feels like it’s home to one thousand butterflies. Or maybe your heart starts beating a mile a minute and when you try to speak, your throat is sandpaper. You wish you could take back what you did or what happened to you. Whatever your symptoms, it boils down to the same concept: embarrassment.
Founder Jeana Anderson Cohen recently recommended an episode of This American Life that highlights this phenomenon. Aptly titled “My Bad,” the podcast episode walks listeners through some truly mortifying experiences. What makes it even more compelling is that each person tells their own story of humiliation.
While listening, I actually gasped and put my hands over my mouth in shock — that’s how appalling some of the accounts are. One woman accidentally made a $25,000 pledge (which she couldn’t afford to pay) and then retracted it. A man’s grandmother called him fat in front of his whole family. For another woman, the embarrassment came in the form of a bathroom blunder while in the middle of taking her GRE online at home due to the pandemic. (I won’t spoil the insanity for you.) The final story in the episode involves a woman who finds herself completely naked in her date’s apartment complex, and unfortunately she can’t remember which apartment he lives in. I highly recommend giving it a listen.
All this talk of embarrassment got us thinking — what actually happens in your brain when you’re embarrassed? We turned to an expert, Dr. Michele Goldman, for the answer.
Goldman, a licensed clinical psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation media advisor, said specific parts of the brain are activated when a neurotypical individual is embarrassed. “Research suggests that the area of the brain that is targeted is related, in part, to the emotion center of the brain,” she stated. More specifically, the regions of the brain responsible for social awareness and self-consciousness are tied to undergoing embarrassment.
In addition to feeling embarrassed yourself, research notes that some people experience “pain empathy,” which Goldman classified as “when you watch someone else go through something embarrassing and because of empathy you feel embarrassed for them.”
These emotions can feel like too much. Wouldn’t life be better off without humiliation and shame?
On the one hand, sure. As Goldman points out, embarrassment-free living would result in “less self-consciousness and more positive self-worth.”
But the answer isn’t so simple. At the end of the This American Life episode, guest host Elna Baker notes that one of the storytellers “lived the experience that’s like a metaphor for embarrassment … and came out better for it.” Baker adds: “I like thinking that’s what embarrassment can do.”
Indeed, we can emerge stronger after extremely embarrassing situations. These instances can teach us something, like how to “curb certain behaviors or learn from mistakes,” Goldman said. Such circumstances can also show us that we value certain things, she noted.
Perhaps we can even reframe the concept of embarrassment altogether. “It might be helpful to think of embarrassment as your body’s way of giving you internal feedback to not repeat a behavior or error,” Goldman concluded.