Why We Get Embarrassed

September 3, 2016

In 2003, I turned in an extra credit project for my high school business law class. I had perfectly interwoven what was essentially the story of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with a gripping contractual law element. It was somewhere around 40 pages long. You can guess what happened next.

Weeks after I turned in the project my teacher pulled me aside before class, presumably to tell me what a genius I was. He began to speak very slowly, “Andrea… I don’t. That was the weirdest, strangest thing I’ve ever read in my life… I mean, I’ve read some pretty strange things but that…” his voice trailed off. “H-Ha-Harry Potter?” I whispered.

Apparently he had never read Harry Potter and was both very confused and a little scared. My embarrassment was complete.

Everyone knows the feeling of embarrassment, for many of us this feeling is coupled with flushing of the face and neck. As someone who is very easily embarrassed, I wanted to find out why we get embarrassed and if there is anything we can do to prevent it.

Embarrassment Is a Fear Response

Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion dictated by a disconnect between how we feel we should respond or act in public and how we actually respond or act. We are most likely to be embarrassed when we believe we have not lived up to what society asks of us or when we are on the receiving end of undesired attention. Context also matters, for instance, you aren’t going to feel embarrassed if you trip in your own house but take that outside and it’s a different story.

Why Do Some People Turn Red?

That’s governed by the all powerful fight-or-flight response. Our minds see embarrassment as a threat, as does our bodies. A unique feature of the veins in your face and neck is that they are equipped to respond to social threats. When we do something embarrassing, these veins dilate thanks to the chemical transmitter adenylyl cyclase. This transmitter allows adrenaline to pump fresh blood and oxygen through the body (including your face and neck). Though embarrassment isn’t the only cause for our face turning red (guilt, shyness, or shame can also trigger this) it is a big part of it.

People Can Make It Worse

You’ve probably come into contact with people like this. As soon as your face begins to turn red they feel a compulsion to tell you your face is indeed turning red. As if you did not know. Studies also show that when people tell you your face is turning red (even if it’s not) you will begin to turn red. When people tell us we are blushing we hear: ‘I’m judging you negatively.’ At least this is what we assume is happening. According to a study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy:

“The belief one is blushing brings about negative beliefs about the judgement of others, and might even enhance the blush response itself.”

Researchers have also found that our fear of blushing in front of others, or their acknowledgment of our blushing, can cause us to alter our behaviors in a way that does result in poorer judgement from others. It’s not the blushing that causes people to judge us negatively but rather the way in which we modify our response. It ends up being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

One study examined the effect staring had on facial flushing and what they found out seriously surprised me. When individuals were singing in front of a group of people (an embarrassing task) their face would turn red wherever the majority of people were directing their gaze. By examining where the blood flow was being directed, the researchers determined that just staring can cause an ipsilateral (meaning affecting the same side of the body) increase in blood flow to the face. What’s the upshot of all of this? If you are doing something you find to be embarrassing and people are staring at you, you will likely flush. That is why I personally always sat in the front of class, I never knew who was staring at me or not.

Can You Prevent It?

Short of surgery that snips the little nerves that cause your face to turn red, no. The blushing response is governed by our sympathetic nervous system and it’s not something we can control. It happens without conscious thought or effort. What you can do, however, is aim for a healthy perspective.

The embarrassment response is influenced by the negative evaluations we presume people will have of us if we mess up. Humans tend to overestimate just how negatively people will view us, we get trapped inside of our own head and lose perspective on just how little people are actually paying attention to us. Therapy can help reestablish a more healthy perspective on just how little people are actually judging us.

Of course knowing this has never personally prevented me from getting embarrassed or turning red, so here are a few other helpful tips I’ve found.

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