Four Ways to Deal with Embarrassment

“Man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to.” — Mark Twain

Whatever your political leanings, if you have a compassionate bone in your body, you have to feel (at least a little bit) for Texas Governor Rick Perry and his massive brain fart during a recent political debate when he completely spaced on the name of a government agency he wanted to eliminate. If it were me, I know my heart would have been pounding, the blood rushing to my face and my palms getting sweaty. One could make the case that such a gaffe is unforgiveable for someone who wants to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world. But putting that aside for a moment, it was a distinctly human — and humiliating — moment, and we’ve all been there at one time or another — granted, not in front of television cameras and millions of viewers and potential voters.

In college, while I was still a music major, I had to participate in a piano jury. It is as intimidating as it sounds. I was not judging my peers, no. A panel of music professors was judging me. I had to perform a piece by Haydn in three movements. In the middle of the third movement, I, too, had a shut down of the synapses. Although I had played the piece perfectly many times, the muscle memory in my hands failed me, and I complete blanked. All I could do was apologize, look sheepish, and leave the stage — face flushed, heart pounding. At least I didn’t have to relive my humiliation on national television over and over.

Embarrasing moments can range from the catastrophic to the everyday. There’s the tripping-on-the-sidewalk-and-hoping-no-one-sees scenario. I’ve done that, too, but with an armload of papers. Believe me, when hundreds of sheets of papers go flying, someone sees it. I’ve also, yes–this is true–slipped on a banana peel. What is it about banana peels that are so darned funny? Even in a scene from this week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory sitcom, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler mentions that one of her “test monkeys slipped on a banana peel and broke his neck. It was both tragic and hysterical.” I guess you had to be there. But it’s funny. So back to my banana peel story. It was on my kitchen floor. All my family members deny culpability, and I don’t think the peel was abandoned on purpose. However, the fact remains that I slipped on it and ended up flat on my back. After my family confirmed that I was not physically injured too much, they had a good laugh–somewhat at my expense. And I had to admit (after applying ice to various parts of my body) that the circumstances were funny. Really. Who slips on a banana peel?

I’ve found there are ways not to deal with embarrassing situations (i.e. get upset; dig a hole, crawl in and never come out; sue someone), and there are four strategies that I’ve found helpful:

  1. Laugh about it. It’s important to be able to find humor in awkward circumstances, even our own. It diffuses the discomfort and you become part of a community of people who are all laughing together instead of it being you vs. them.
  2. Own the situation so it doesn’t own you. Working as stage manager at a concert one night, my son was asked to place four music stands on the stage during the concert. He was not given specific directions, so he spaced the stands evenly across the stage. While the audience waited, the orchestra conductor instructed him to push them all together. Again, without clear direction, he grouped the stands together, but not in the location where the conductor wanted them. Finally, on the third try (with clear direction this time), he positioned the stands in the right place. During the awkward silence from the audience, he faced the crowd and took a dramatic bow…and received thunderous applause. He could have sulked off the stage feeling scolded, but instead, he empowered himself to own and enjoy the moment, and the audience ate it up.
  3. Accept it and move on. There are times when the best thing to do is to not make a big deal out of it and move forward…like when you get sick to your stomach in a public place. And chances are, unless you are George Bush, Sr. becoming ill on the Prime Minister of Japan, no one will remember it.
  4. Learn something from it. I learned never to wear stiletto heels while carrying reams of paper and walking on cobblestones.

Governor Perry choose option #2. He chose to own his situation by posting on his website the survey question “What part of the Federal Government would you like to forget about the most?” What are some of your embarrassing moments, and how did you handle them?

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