When I was in my second year of law school, I was out at a bar with friends. I’d had a few drinks and was chatting with the bartender when a classmate I didn’t know very well came over to order a drink. Her name was Michelle Frye, and she was smart, quiet, and overall a lovely human. She stood next to me, and we started chatting. She smiled at me and said, “I love your shoes.”.
And I said….
“Thank you. People say I’m a trendsetter.”
I’m going to be honest, just typing that still makes me cringe a little. It sounds so arrogant, self-important, and just…dumb. It was embarrassing.
I woke up the next morning and it was all I could think about. Why had I said such a silly thing? What must Michelle have thought of me, and what was she thinking of me now? Was she calling up all of our classmates to tell them what I said?
I called my best friend and relayed the conversation word for word. When she stopped laughing she worked to relay my concerns. Michelle had likely been drinking too, so she probably wouldn’t remember. There was nothing wrong with saying I was a trendsetter. Even if she did remember, she wouldn’t think of it for long.
Nothing she said really helped. I was thoroughly embarrassed. From that point on, whenever my best friend and I had done something we considered embarrassing we’d call each other and say “I am Michelle Frye-ing.” And we’d try to persuade the other to stop Michelle Frye-ing. Because we knew that the embarrassment would get in the way of our joy, our fun, and our successes. Embarrassment doesn’t serve us.
It’s important that we recognize the risks of embarrassment because if we don’t we won’t embrace it. And we must embrace it. If we avoid embarrassment we stop using our voices. We stop using our gifts. And we never become all we are meant to be. We have to work to embrace embarrassment if we want to reach our full potential. Below I’ll share some ways to do that.
First, though, let’s get clear on some definitions. There are a host of definitions of embarrassment. Most of them define embarrassment as when we do something that undermines the image we wish to project. It’s different from shame, which is when we do something that is short of our moral standards. We’re not talking about shame here. If you want to learn about shame, Brene Brown is my favorite authority and I’d recommend you go to her work. And there are times that embarrassment and shame overlap like a destructive Venn diagram. But today I’m talking about embracing the embarrassment that happens when we’re not acting in accordance with the image we’re trying to project.
The problem with avoiding embarrassment is that it kills confidence. We think we need confidence and then we’ll risk embarrassment. But the truth is that we need to embrace embarrassment in order to build confidence.
When you’re afraid of being embarrassed you stop believing in yourself. You don’t believe in your ability to handle embarrassment and grow from it. In fact, the root of the word embarrassment is “doubt”. Embarrassment makes you doubt yourself and whether you actually are as good as the image you’re trying to project. And that doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s take the Michelle Frye situation. That short conversation left me feeling embarrassed. That embarrassment led me to doubt my conversation skills, my self-awareness and my likeability. For a while, I became very self-conscious every time I talked with someone at school that I didn’t already know well. I measured my words and my actions very carefully. I didn’t take risks in who I spoke to or what I said. I reduced the size of my circles-who I was willing to talk to and what I was willing to say. And the smaller and smaller circles could have become a cage.
Fortunately, some part of me wouldn’t (couldn’t?) live that small. I had too much enthusiasm for people, words, and actions to control them that feverishly. I’m glad I did. If I were still afraid of “Michelle Freye-ing” I would never have started this podcast, written my books, or started my business. I wouldn’t have left my law job to start my business and would never have become an anchor on the Law and Crime Network.
Avoiding embarrassment would have made my life so much smaller.
We think that we need the confidence to embrace embarrassment, but fear of embarrassment makes confidence almost impossible. Confidence is simply belief in oneself, and in order to build any belief you have to collect and create evidence. If you want to believe you’re a good public speaker, for example, you have to collect evidence of times in the past when you’ve been a good speaker. And you need to create evidence that you’re a good speaker-by speaking. You can’t collect or create much evidence if you’re too embarrassed to begin. Embarrassment kills confidence, but confidence doesn’t kill embarrassment.
Perspective is what overcomes embarrassment.
In my work teaching people to build belief, I share the tools we used to build belief with juries in the courtroom. One of those tools is perspective. And when you can change your perspective and see things differently, you’re on your way to overcoming embarrassment.
Here are 5 ways to shift your perspective around embarrassment.
1-See the situation as a comedy, not a tragedy.
One of my favorite quotes is “When you’re having a bad day, see your life as a comedy and not a tragedy” This shift in perspective is a huge help when it comes to embarrassment.
When I think back on the Michelle Frye story, it makes me laugh. What a tipsy twit I was, and how silly it was to perseverate on it for as long as I did. If I were able to pull back the camera a little and see the scene like it was a movie, I couldn’t help but laugh. The sooner you can find a way to laugh about the things that might embarrass you the sooner you’ll stop letting them hold you back. It just takes a shift in perspective.
2-See it as a little deal, not a big deal.
Things are usually not a big deal as we make them. In the big scheme of things, what if Michelle did think I was arrogant and silly? It wouldn’t be a big deal to her, and it shouldn’t be a big deal to me. In the big picture of my life, it was a very little deal. Most of the things we consider embarrassing are.
Put the risk of embarrassing yourself in context. When you look at things like global warming, the war in Ukraine, illnesses, and traumas, your embarrassment becomes a smaller and smaller deal. Let it. The smaller it is, the easier it is to overcome.
3-See the embarrassing thing as an act of service.
The first time I did television someone said that it would be the most nerve-wracking thing I’d ever do. They were so wrong. Trying cases was much more nerve-wracking. Both were public speaking, but when I tried cases there were other people depending on me to perform. They were depending on me to succeed. And because they were depending on me, I couldn’t let embarrassment stand in the way of being extraordinary.
If you are facing something embarrassing, make it about someone else instead of yourself. Public speaking? Think of the person in the audience you want to serve. Trying a new sport? Think of your teammates. If you practice the skill of shifting perspectives you can usually find a perspective where your act is an act of service.
4-See it from the spectator’s perspective.
Michelle Frye was a nice person. Chances are when I told her I was a trendsetter she either thought it was funny or felt a little bad about the headache I was going to have the next day. She likely had compassion for me. And the people around you likely have compassion for you.
This suggestion is backed up by research which shows it is a good way to overcome embarrassment. When you change perspectives and pretend you’re the one witnessing the embarrassing act, you realize that you’d feel compassion for the person who passed gas in yoga or dropped a tampon. You might even make eye contact and give that person a little smile. It could lead to a moment of connection.
5-See the situation from the future.
This is similar to the big deal/little deal perspective shift. Five years from now are you going to care that you fell down in front of your boss or a client? Will you care that you told a classmate that you were amazing, or that you had a spot on your butt? If you think of it at all, you’ll likely think that it was funny and not deadly.
And that’s the most important thing to remember. Embarrassment isn’t deadly. It’s not going to kill you. But failure to take risks will kill your dreams and your ability to achieve your potential. It will make you less confident and even less successful. Embrace embarrassment a little more and see how much bigger your life will be.
Take it from me and follow my lead. Haven’t you heard? I’m a trendsetter.
If you want to get good at this, you’ll want to join my Building Belief Program which starts on May 1st and runs for 6 weeks. Sign up here to chat with me and see if it’s a good fit!