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Why embarrassment is holding us back

I’m on a video call with my mum and two sisters.

"Mountain goats" our mum begins, "have legs that are shorter on one side so they don't fall off".

She looks slightly smug at passing on this tit-bit of information as if it's a juicy piece of gossip about the neighbours. There's an almost audible pause as our brains whirr to try and work out if she's being serious. She is. A second later we erupt into laughter. It spills out of us all in loud gulps and she stops looking smug. Once we've wiped the tears from our eyes and straightened up from clenching our stomachs one sister asks what happens if they want to walk around the mountain in the opposite direction. The laughter starts all over again, this time mum joins in.

My mum has something special. Something rare in today's society. I’m not talking about a low IQ (sorry mum!), I’m talking about ‘unembarrassment’. Yes, it’s a word I made up. What I mean is that my mum doesn’t get embarrassed. She doesn’t mind getting things wrong, making mistakes, or being laughed at. Fear of embarrassment doesn’t hold her back.

This got me thinking. How many of us hold back? How many of us don’t do what we want to do, or say what we want to say, for fear of embarrassment?

And then this brilliant video landed in my inbox:

I absolutely love this video! His sheer joy, exuberance and ‘unembarrassment’ are catching. I think we can all be a little more like this guy (or my mum). So, I collated some top tips to help us feel better the next time someone points out we’ve got loo roll hanging out of our trousers:

Embrace who we are!

Years ago I attended a conference. I arrived early and sat in the front row like a ‘keeno’ with my notepad and pen. I was really excited to hear that particular speaker. She introduced herself and then proceeded to say:

“A third of people don’t like you. They don’t like the way you look, your humour, your values, they don’t like anything about you! A third of people dislike you!”

If I could have sneaked out after she said this (without being embarrassed) I would have done! I was horrified. I thought, how bloody dare you, I’m a wonderful human being, I’m likeable.

She then went on to say:

“A third of people feel indifferent about you. They can take you or leave you. They wouldn’t go out of their way to see you and they don’t have any strong feelings about you. They barely register your existence. They’re indifferent.”

This was taking the biscuit! I fidgeted excruciatingly in my seat, the back of my neck burning with rage.

Things started looking up a little after that, as she continued:

“A third of people love you. They love everything about you. They love your personality, your spark, the way you think about life, your passions, your dreams, they love you! They’re your tribe!”

I was still smarting from the sting of thinking two-thirds of the world’s population either despised me or couldn’t care less when she said something that changed my life. Something that I won’t ever forget.

“You have to be yourself. If you’re not yourself, you can end up in the wrong third.”

I realised at that exact moment that many of my friendships were with the wrong third. Exactly because I wasn’t being myself. I was trying to be funnier, wittier, sexier, and less embarrassing. I was putting on a front.

The first step in getting over embarrassment is embracing who we are, exactly as we are. It’s also a hell-of-a-lot less exhausting. Our tribe, the right third, will love us anyway.


Just before the pandemic hit I went to a new yoga class. It was a serene and beautiful space. The yoga instructor spoke in a soft, calming voice, and there was a general hush and peace in the room. I could tell people’s blink rates were ever-so-slightly slower. As I was doing downwards-dog, in total silence, my bottom inadvertently and unexpectedly let out a massive fart! I was mortified and my heart skipped a few beats waiting for the laughter… which didn’t come! This made it all the funnier for me and I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. It was hilarious! And guess what? My laughter gave everyone else permission to laugh.

Things like this happen all that time. Ever asked someone if they’re pregnant and the reply was a stern “No”? Accidentally gotten dressed and then realised a piece of clothing was inside out? Food stuck in the teeth during a presentation? Tick, tick, tick for me.

“During an awkward moment, you might feel intense and uncomfortable focusing of social attention. You're likely to feel anxious and embarrassed, and perhaps even experience sweaty palms and heart palpitations.” Anna Sandford-James, Beingwell Psychologist

Once I start to feel awkward, the chances are that I’ll behave in ways that become even more awkward. Research suggests we can resolve this by laughing (phew). We don’t have to be professional comedians to make light of the situation. Letting out a little laugh or saying “awkward” can do the trick. [1]

Stop the replay

My embarrassing memories have a habit of resurfacing. I’m sitting there binge-watching Netflix and my mind decides to throw the memory in my face for no reason (bloody brain!). And quite often I just want to start shouting “No! No, no, no, no, nooooo!”

Melissa Dahl interviewed a load of people for her book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, and found that old embarrassments have a habit of popping back into our brains. These awful cringe attacks are little humiliations from our pasts that pop back unwelcome, sometimes years after they first occurred. Awkward moments can cause us to see ourselves, if only briefly, from someone else’s point of view. Studies have shown that self-defining memories tend to stay more vivid in our minds across the lifespan (annoying I know). Our emotions also decide what our brain hangs on to. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the memory.

So, how do we stop replaying past embarrassments?

Well, actually we can’t! Sorry! I know the title of this bit gave false hope. But perhaps these cringe attacks could have less of a hold on us.

Firstly, let’s give ourselves a break! We don’t need to have impossibly high standards of perfection. However much it pains me to admit it; I’m not perfect (shocking!) and you’re not either. As human beings we make mistakes, we mess-up, we regret decisions, we learn, and we grow. If we ever meet, ask me about the time I started a new job with a love-bite on my forehead!

If that’s not enough, realising that other people are very unlikely to remember the embarrassing incident can help us to accept it.

Usually, people are too concerned with their own lives to give an eff about the fact that you just fumbled.

A final thought: We all do embarrassing things now and then. Let’s embrace that we’re human, we make mistakes, and sometimes we want the ground to swallow us whole. That’s okay! We’re not alone and we don’t have to let the fear of embarrassment hold us back.

And no mum, mountain goats don’t have legs shorter on one side!

Sam Ntatalika, Beingwell family member


1. The importance of feeling awkward: A dialogical narrative phenomenology of socially awkward situations (2012). Qualitative Research in Psychology.




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