Embarrassment: A Dreadful and Honest Response


Commonly experienced, and unfortunately well remembered, embarrassments happen in relation

to other people. They result in feelings of exposure, awkwardness, and regret. Embarrassment

usually occurs when we violate a social standard, be it tripping, spilling, flatulence, belching,

forgetting names, undesired attention, or disclosing something personal. 1 Yet people also

experience embarrassment in instances of sexual excitement or when they are in the spotlight of

someone’s attention. Interestingly, the same behavior that would likely embarrass you while in

the company of a stranger or someone who has authority or status—your employer, doctor, or

future mother-in- law—might instead be amusing when you are among close friends or family

members. Thus, social context is taken into consideration by your brain when embarrassment is



Shame is often the core emotion that researchers associate with feelings of embarrassment. 2

When people are embarrassed they look down, turn away, or cover their face. Embarrassment

also involves smile controls, such as a smile that is inhibited or one where only the corners of the

lips turn upward. 3 Exposure experiences may also cause a person to blush because they activate

feelings of shame where you imagine yourself as “caught” in the eyes of others. Blushing is a

signal of regret that conveys to others an acknowledgement of shame about a wrongdoing. Most

commonly blushing occurs in the face, given it is the primary source of communicating emotion.

Physiologically, blushing occurs when an emotional trigger causes your glands to release the

hormone adrenaline in your body. The effect of adrenaline on your nervous system causes the

capillaries that carry blood to your skin to widen. Since blood is then brought closer to the

surface of the skin, it causes you to blush. If you tend to blush, take a deep breath when it

happens and, if appropriate for the situation, simply smile and admit your embarrassment.


Repeatedly reliving an embarrassment in your mind can negatively affect how you feel, the way

in which you behave publically, and your general mood. You are not your mistakes. Instead,

recognize that errors can help you learn. Granted, there are times when your friends want to

remind you of the very amusing instance of when you completely embarrassed yourself.

Everyone dreads an embarrassment, and so do your friends which is likely why they would

prefer to focus on your social errors rather than their own. The honest response is to smile—even

if it comes out as that weird smile of embarrassment—and admit that it was an awful experience.

Then let it go because people who display embarrassment at their social wrongdoing are also the

most prone to be liked.



For information about my books, please see my website: www.marylamia.com.


1 See Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. (1996). Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment,

shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of

emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 155-171; and, Miller, R. S. (1992). The nature and severity

of self-reported embarrassing circumstances. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18,


2 See Tompkins, S. (1963). Affect, imagery, and consciousness: Vol. 2. The negative affects.

New York: Springer.

3 See Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. (1996). Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment,

shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition

and Emotion, 10, 155-171.

About Mary Lamia Ph.D.

Mary Lamia As clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst I work with adults, adolescents, and preteens in my Kentfield, California private practice. I am also a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Teaching the public about the psychology of human behavior has been something I've done for over 35 years. For nearly a decade I hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations, and have provided opinions in many media interviews and discussions. My books include: Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid's Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings; and The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others. Forthcoming books include Procrastinator Or Not: Making the Most of the Motivation That Drives You and The Upside of Shame. For more information, please visit my website, www.marylamia.com.