What did you look like when you were in high school?
I was very overweight in high school, with enormous frizzy hair I hadn’t learned to tame and for at least three years I also had braces. Winning combo right?
Looking different is a weird blessing though. Every day I had to put on my too small uniform (because they didn’t make them big enough for me), shove a billion bobby pins into my hair so it conformed to the ‘neatly pulled back’ uniform regulations and try to function amongst all the effortlessly tiny girls with straight hair who other people didn’t mind sitting next to on the bus because they didn’t take up half the seat. I was embarrassed walking out of the house every day so I got pretty good at dealing with that mild, daily level of ‘just existing’ embarrassment.
Unfortunately though, when you look different, you also get picked on. A lot. I got my period in year 7 but I never told anyone because for some reason it was an invitation for people to tease you. I was on the bus one day and a tampon fell out of my pocket. One of the girls in the year above me picked it up and loudly asked if it was mine. I shook my head, mortified. She then insisted it was mine and kept trying to give it back to me while everyone else on the bus laughed at me. That turned into 20 full minutes of an entire bus teasing me about having my period. I’ve never been that embarrassed in my life.
I witnessed this girl a few months later, ask a friend if she could borrow a tampon. This floored me. How could she tease me about having my period and be so cavalier about having her period? What weird social injustice is this?
Then it hit me. She wasn’t teasing me about having my period. She teased me because she could get the satisfaction of watching my face go red. Watching me shrink inside myself and wish I’d evaporate into thin air. If I had of just said ‘Yep! That tampon’s mine!’ and grabbed it from her, it would have taken away all her power.
Since that moment, I modelled myself a little on that older girl. Obviously I wasn’t a total dick to year 7s on the bus (seriously she was a horrible person) but her confidence was unshakable. She never got teased because she was un-embarrassible. She’d knock back any attempts other people made to take her down like Roger Bloody Federer (He’s a tennis player right? #sonotintosport). That was when I decided I’d be un-embarrasible.
It’s not really that easy though. You can’t just switch off your embarrassment button. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a process that takes time.
And while I still get embarrassed about some things, I reserve those feelings for big issues. Issues that deserve the attention. For the little things, I won’t waste the energy.
1. Remember that no one can embarrass you without your permission
The older I get, the more I realise how much I actually choose my own feelings. There are times, like when I have PMS that I certainly DO NOT choose my own feelings, but most of the time I can see patterns where I choose to be happy, I choose to be a bit flat or I choose to let something bother me that I usually wouldn’t let bother me.
You know that meme that says ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.’? – it’s the same thing with embarrassment. If someone tries to embarrass you and you don’t show embarrassment, they look like a total loser. If I’ve been sitting there with my undies showing all afternoon and someone says loudly ‘I can see your undies!!!’ I will choose to not be embarrassed by that. Who gives a shit if someone sees my undies and calls me out on it? Are they five years old? I find ‘And?’ to be a perfect a reply to moments like that. It’s an un-answerable question, particularly if the person is just trying to get a rise out of you.
Sometimes embarrassment comes after you’ve fucked up. Maybe you said something unkind about a friend and they found out. Maybe you told a little white lie at work about how much you got done that day and your boss figured it out. Maybe you made a joke about one of your friends in front of a group of people and it hurt her feelings. This is a different level of embarrassment because it’s mixed in with shame. You can brush off accidental embarrassment like farting in public (it happens and it wasn’t intentional) but when you get caught out being a bit of a shit person, that will get you right in the guts.
How to deal with it?
Don’t try to weasel out of it, say you’re sorry and get over it as quickly as possible. I’m ace at this because I write around five blog posts per week, I have two podcasts and I hang out on the internet often. I offend someone every second day – because that’s how life works. I’m not a particularly offensive person but I’m confident and I speak my mind and that invites a lot of people to also speak their mind, which is great. That’s literally what conversations are. I apologise to a minimum of two people every week because of something I’ve written or something I said. I rationialise my responses like this.
1. What I mean and what I say are two totally different things. I can usually resolve this by clarifying what I meant and apologising for communicating it so poorly.
2. What I say and what people hear are two totally different things. I can usually resolve this by pointing out what I ACTUALLY wrote or said and gently confirming that I didn’t say what they thought I said.
I’m lucky (or unlucky) though because I have written and recorded proof of (most of) what I say that I can call on in times like this. In real life, he-said/she-said is a bit more dangerous.
Bottom line – if you fucked up, say sorry.
3. Tell someone the story to stop obsessing over it
You’ve got to get it out of your head. It’s so hard telling embarrassing stories because it spreads the embarrassment further, but telling a trusted person about what happened will lighten your burden and if they’re a good friend, they’ll help you minimise it.
4. Remember that no one is thinking about you
We all spend a lot of time thinking about how much other people hate us but it’s 100% in our heads. Consider how often you think about people who aren’t in your immediate family or you don’t see every day at work. Like high school friends or distant relatives. Unless they text you, call you or pop up on Facebook, I’ll bet good money that you can go a few days without thinking about most of the people in your life. Now reverse that thought and apply it to how often people are thinking about you – almost never. You are the only person replaying that horrible incident in your head. No one else is is thinking about it. Do you recall the most embarrassing moment of any of your friends? From your own memory and not because they told you about it? No? Then no one is thinking about your embarrassing moments. It’s such a wonderful system. I love it.
5. Tell yourself that sometimes, people are jerks
Some people are proper assholes. Having said that there are also some genuinely lovely people who are super insecure and will use embarrassing others as a form of making themselves feel better. This obvious isn’t ideal but there are many reasons why people try to embarrass each other and they’re not always mean spirited. When someone shames you, it’s not always because they’re a bad person. For example if someone messages me very kindly to tell me something I wrote rubbed them up the wrong way, I’ll apologise, we’ll have a chat and everything will be great. However if someone abuses me over something I wrote, and I reach out to make the peace and they ignore me or abuse me further, well they’re a fuck wit and I’ll block their ass on Facebook.
Thankfully, I think we’re more equipped now in the modern world to deal with embarrassment than we ever have been. There’s still this societal expectation of people to be in control of their bodies and speech at all times. You’re not meant to fart loudly in a meeting or say ‘shit’ in front of your boss but people are relaxing more and realising that functioning humans don’t have perfection settings. We’re living, moving creatures and our actions are bound to not go according to the plan sometimes.
If none of this helps, a healthy does of schadenfreude can really help. No matter how embarrassed you are right now, you’re probably not as embarrassed as Sonia Kruger was when she said she’d like to sit on a vibrator on national TV.