We’ve all had it happen. We’ve tripped in front of a large audience, gotten toilet paper stuck to our shoe, or lost control of a bodily function (gulp). These can be excruciating, and there is a reason people say they want to “die of embarrassment”. Sometimes the body actually believes death is imminent so the veins in your neck react to the threat and your face turns red. I remember a time in my past when I was presenting to a large group of important people. I dropped my pen and bent down to retrieve it. My badge, hanging from a lanyard, caught on my nylons and wouldn’t let go. I hopped around in front of the room like a one-legged chicken with a huge hole in my stockings. I was embarrassed, which is nothing more than an emotional state of intense discomfort with oneself. Had I been alone I wouldn’t have felt much except annoyance that I ruined another pair of nylons. It was only embarrassing because I had an audience.
I’ve worked with clients who want coaching with how to deal with professional embarrassment. The first thing I do is explore what body part didn’t behave correctly at work. When they laugh and respond saying that’s not it, I know we are dealing with something deeper like shame, guilt or humiliation.
Unlike shame, guilt is what we feel when we are remorseful for some offense we committed whether real or imagined. Some people feel guilt for just being alive, while others plead “not guilty” when the whole world knows their crimes. Guilt, when effective, motivates us to make things right. However, many hold onto guilt like a badge of honor and allow it to rust self-esteem. Forgiving self is hard, but necessary, especially if we want to be effective in leadership roles.
Last is humiliation – this is a painful emotion felt by a person whose social status has just decreased. Perhaps a leader has gotten a poor performance evaluation, lost a contract, been demoted, or thrown an interception pass in the last few seconds of the Super Bowl (sorry Seattle Seahawks). Professional humiliation may cause layers of shame and embarrassment to surface, but the real issue is humiliation that our pride has taken a hit. How we own our new humble state is critical and the process can deepen our effectiveness and our authentic relationship with others.
These distinctions are critical because a leader’s self-awareness and recovery will vary based on what they define as “embarrassing”. The response can be anything from suggesting a good laugh to an apology to significant changes in behavior. Unless it can be told with a belly laugh, it’s probably not embarrassment; it’s something more profound that warrants exploration. A good coach can partner with a client to tease out the implications and help bring closure to the discomfort.
What have you been calling embarrassment that might actually be something deeper?