There is a specific, gut wrenching feeling that comes along with remembering an embarrassing experience. And it’s one that none of us are exempt from.
You’re out walking around in the world when suddenly that mortifying experience from two weeks ago pops into your mind – and instantly all you want is for the sidewalk to split in half and swallow you whole so you can disappear below it and never be seen again. You are immediately certain that every person who has ever seen you embarrass yourself is thinking about you in that exact moment – reliving what you’ve done in excruciating detail and judging you without remorse. That the people on the street around you, even, can sense something is off – that you have done something deeply shameful and they can see through your flimsy act.
In reality, we remember our own embarrassments with a frequency and amplitude that is absolutely impossible to replicate. Those who witness our embarrassments rarely think any more of it after they’ve had a quick chuckle at our expense, or experienced a twinge of empathy for us. They certainly are not walking around weeks later reliving our embarrassing moment in their minds. They are consumed by their own concerns, their own commitments and their own past embarrassments. They scarcely have the time or energy to focus on ours.
But that doesn’t stop us from reliving our own. Embarrassment has the unique ability to stop us dead in our tracks and make us genuinely consider changing our names, packing a bag for Alaska and never coming home. It makes us yearn for a memory-erasing syrum that we can apply to every person who remembers something shameful we have done. We want our embarrassments to be a world away from us but instead we have to live right inside of them, under the pitiful roof that shame built.
None of us can escape embarrassment in our lives – but what we scarcely consider is the idea that it can be a wholly productive experience. Because here’s the thing about embarrassment – it is born, almost exclusively, from trying too hard. It’s the absolute opposite of apathy. It shows that we went too far, pushed too hard, put ourselves a little too out there and didn’t have it work out as planned. Embarrassment is an undesirable sentiment but it’s also a noble one in its own right. It declares, by definition, “I did not sit back and let the world happen to me.” It’s a product of taking life assuredly by the reigns, even if you did not end up where you meant to go.
It is my formal opinion that a well-lived life would be chock full of tiny embarrassments. Moments where you put your heart and your thoughts and yourself on the line and had them rejected. Times when you drank too much or laughed too loudly or loved too fiercely for other people to understand. Times when you were too much yourself for the world to make sense of. Times when your blood was pumping loudly and quickly enough to let you know, without a doubt, that you were more alive in that moment than some people ever get to be in their lifetimes.
Embarrassment is a product of something gone wrong in the short-term, but something gone right in the bigger scheme. It’s a product of being the kind of person who tries too hard, lives too fully, gives themselves too completely to every task that they undertake. It’s the product of being someone who goes unashamedly for what they want instead of sitting on the sidelines wondering what it would be like to have actually tried.
So much of what we want in life lies on the other side of embarrassment. We want to ask out that person but we don’t want them to reject us. We want to apply for that promotion but we don’t want our colleagues to know we didn’t get it. We want to enjoy our lives as fully and completely as possible but we don’t want to be slapped with the loathsome burden of not fitting in. We want everything to come to us effortlessly and shamelessly, without taking any risks. We forget that life doesn’t work that way. We forget that embarrassment naturally shows up along the path to pursuing any sort of life that actually matters.
Embarrassment is the pesky side effect of the miracle drug that is courage. We don’t want to be humiliated and we don’t want to feel ashamed but we do want the biggest, best lives that are possible for ourselves. And embarrassment is a necessary byproduct of that. It’s the reminder that we’re taking more risks than we’re ready for. That we’re putting ourselves out there in ways we aren’t quite comfortable with. That we’re stretching ourselves beyond our own comfort zones and that it’s working. Embarrassment is a necessary component of a life that’s being lived fully and intensively.
So if you’ve wanted the sidewalk to swallow you whole over the past week or two, congratulations. You’re feeling that way because you’ve done something brave. Because you’ve put yourself out on the line. Because you’ve tried for something and come up short, but at least you tried at all. You’re embarrassed because you went for it. And counter-intuitive as it may seem, that feeling of embarrassment almost always means that you are on the right track. You just have to keep moving on past it – after all, all the best stuff is on the other side.