by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Lately, some of my best conclusions about life occur when I’m near sleep. Quick! Turn on the light, grab a pen, find a blank page in the bedside notebook and scribble madly. And see if the idea holds water in the morning light.
This latest one survived the next-day cold assessment – it’s a question rather than a conclusion. When I remember something stupid, thoughtless, or unkind that I’ve said or done in the past, I shudder internally, with a full inner cringe. What the heck is that?? The stomach clenches, there is a shrinking feeling, and a wish to disappear.
It’s an awful moment – one that deserves attention and figuring out with words.
Some Readers Won’t Relate…
I recognize and tip my hat to those readers who will not find this topic personally relevant. Some friends claim to not experience embarrassment.
What qualities allow such freedom? Perhaps inner confidence, a habit of self-direction, less sensitivity to responses in the social environment, a well-developed practicality that simply sees no point in ever acknowledging embarrassment and exerts self-discipline to dismiss such awkwardness.
For such firm clear fellows, I just say Bravo! I do hope you find yourselves able to extend a modicum of sympathy to those for whom embarrassment can be a bitter companion.
Embarassment, of a Kind
The phenomenon has, for me, a couple of forms.
There is short-term cringe, more punishing for teenagers, if I recall – social embarrassment that transgresses on personal vanity. Embarrassment yes, especially if one has transgressed one’s efforts to be cool, aware, sophisticated enough. A slip showing all night at the school dance, spinach in the teeth, turning up with the all-wrong clothes – ah, such mistakes seem devastating when brought to light but they do stand a good chance of disappearing in time.
Lingering embarrassment – that persists through time – may be of the same genus as social faux pas but it goes beyond a mere violation of one’s desired image among peers. It may still be born of vanity but it’s more a recognition, post event, of having really transgressed a personal value, cherished as part of who one wants to be. By committing that mistake, I violated my identity. I let myself down.
Fine if one can say, “Oops, got it wrong”, and move on. Not always possible.
Letting down a friend, failing in courage, especially in moral courage, acting without honour, lying to protect myself, hurting someone who didn’t deserve it – Ow! It can be as simple as allowing a seriously racist or homophobic comment to go unremarked when opportunity presented itself. These omissions and commissions can haunt far into the future. Wakes one up at night, remembering that moment of failure . And of the shame felt at the time or in remembering it.
It Happens – No One is Perfect
I don’t think there’s a moral in this. Making mistakes, blowing it, puncturing one’s credibility, and feeling bad about it forever – just part of life. But there are a few lessons I’ve plucked out and hope to remember.
Humility Yes, Shame No
Embarrassment, as a companion that humbles, may not be a bad thing. The shaping of one’s identity in the world takes a lifetime: finding a way of being that matches one’s core, one’s comfortable self, can take forever. We make mistakes and some have serious effects.
Every time we experience the inner cringing, check it out. Maybe it’s a signal that the core is not being tended. Maybe too much action, too little quiet? Is the soul longing for some rest, some tranquility?
Or perhaps the social identity isn’t close enough to the true self – when among others, we’re trying too hard to fit.
Whatever, we have a chance to reflect and reshape a little. What I’m convinced of is we are to avoid piling shame on to the embarrassment.
Shame is a natural response to feeling exposed. We’ve been seen in a way too intimate for comfort. We are now out of sorts, in the wrong. But that is something that I can learn to move on from. The main requirement is to not try covering up to myself my own feeling of shame. Once the cringing happens, treat it as a signal that something is wrong.
It may require facing the mistake made, or on occasion, making amends to the person I’ve hurt. Or, to borrow a religious concept, simple repentance, which means that after acknowledging that I violated my own values, I decide to try not to act that again. Self-forgiveness can then happen.
And if I’m part of a religious community that contains the practice of absolution, I must take it there and “give it over”, once and for all.
Shame from others? We fear being treated as someone who has done something shameful. It puts us too far outside the circle of love and friendship that we all need. But healing happens over time. Trust that. But self-blame and shame? Not useful at all. Banish them!!