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.
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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.