Remember that time you called your GAA coach Dad? Or when you emerged from the bathroom with your skirt tucked into your underwear? So embarrassing. And what about the second-hand embarrassment of seeing the same fate befall someone else and being reminded of your own mortification? How do you recover from these kinds of social slip-ups? Dr Sabina Brennan, psychologist, neuroscientist and author of Beating Brain Fog, joined Claire Byrne to talk about all those times when you feel your cheeks burning. She started by explaining why we feel embarrassment in the first place:
"Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion and this ability to self-evaluate ourselves actually gave us an evolutionary advantage. Now, the thing is, the self-evaluation associated with embarrassment also involves a moral judgement."
This kind of judgement, Dr Brennan explained, starts very young – toddlers will express concern about doing things that are naughty, as well as feeling pride at achieving something:
"So not only have they become self-aware of their own actions, but they've also learned to pass judgement based on whatever kind of social norms they’ve grown up in. So, it’s really a combination of self-evaluation and the moral judgement, based on social norms, that are at the core of our feelings of embarrassment."
So we feel embarrassed when we violate a social norm. And there’s empathy involved in that embarrassment because we can picture it happening to someone else and feeling for them when it does. But there’s another form of embarrassment that we feel and that’s when we violate our own self-imposed negative evaluations. This form of embarrassment doesn’t usually involve empathy and that’s something we can look at introducing to try to lessen the embarrassment effect, according to Dr Brennan:
"Just show a little bit more empathy towards yourself. Or imagine the thing that embarrasses you, imagine your best friend experiencing the same thing and you’ll feel very empathetic towards them. Then mirror that back at yourself and you might lessen the embarrassment."
Cut yourself a little slack, as Claire says. But are there certain types of people or particular professions that are more prone to embarrassment than others, Claire wants to know. Because embarrassment is so wound up in empathy, yes is Dr Brennan’s answer:
"Empathy is good. You know, again, most of these things evolve for a reason. Being able to feel another person’s pain or distress motivates us to respond with compassion and offer assistance. And that means we can provide aid to other people and expect aid in return. And that motivation contributes to our survival as a species."
So being prone to embarrassment is a sign of evolution in action. And going red in the face is a sign of embarrassment. But what causes the cheek-warming and the sweaty palms? Essentially, Dr Brennan says, it’s just the stress response:
"Blushing is a natural bodily response that’s triggered by your sympathetic nervous system and essentially that system activates the flight or fight response. And, you know, it naturally occurs when there’s actually a threat, but it can also be triggered by the onset of a really powerful emotion or stress or embarrassment."
Dr Brennan has good news for you if you’re one of those people who’s prone to blushing as a response to embarrassment:
"Research has actually shown that those who blush are more likely to be forgiven by other people, which can avert conflict and obviously also comes down to empathy."
So blushers of the world rejoice: you are more empathetic and also more likely to get away with the sort of mortifying situations that the non-blushers among us won’t.
You can hear Claire’s full conversation with Dr Sabina Brennan by going here.