Live Through This

Cures for Shame

How to get over long-lasting embarrassment.

Illustration by Kelly

Collage by Kelly

Imagine you just got your period for the first time, and now your mom is announcing it via e-card to your entire extended family. And to the person you have a crush on but have only spoken to twice. Also, don’t look now, but you totally left the house without putting on pants, and there’s spinach in your teeth. Oh, almost forgot to mention: This is all being broadcast on LIVE TELEVISION.

Do you feel that? Do you feel the pure agony of being the most embarrassed person on the planet? That is exactly how I feel for days, weeks, sometimes even years after making a stupid mistake. I have been cursed with this superpower that gives me the ability to recall humiliating moments in extreme detail. I basically let my past humiliations live rent free on my brain’s couch, and the longer I dwell on each horrifying incident, the closer the cool, responsible roommate—aka my self-confidence—gets to moving out. It’s not uncommon for me to have a great time at a party or something, then call someone by the wrong name—and my evening is completely ruined. That one misstep will play over and over in my head, like the blooper reel of my life.

I file my embarrassing moments away by grade, month, and year. For example, I’ve forgotten most of the details of fifth grade, but I remember the farting-while-mapmaking incident like it was yesterday. I was working on a geography group project with two boys and joked, “Where do pencils come from?” (PENNSYLVANIA!). I laughed hysterically at myself; I laughed so hard that I farted. Loudly. I looked away and pretended it didn’t happen, but one of the boys said to me in a serious, quizzical tone, “Did you just fart?” I denied it, but then he said, “Yes you did.” The laughter stopped there, at the point of my deepest fart shame. If you think this is a trivial incident, you’re right—it is. But that farting incident has haunted me for YEARS. I’m a sophomore in college, and I still cannot work on group projects without being reminded of that disaster, and reliving the wave of shame I felt for weeks after. In retrospect, laughing so hard at my own joke that I fart loudly sounds amazing—talk about comedic timing! My classmates probably forgot about the whole thing by the time recess rolled around, but here I am, 19 years old, still thinking about it regularly.

There are probably hundreds of instances in which I have called friends “Mom” instead of their names. Then there was the time, in fifth or sixth grade, when I slept over my friend’s house, left my toothbrush in her bathroom, walked in on her brother peeing, DID NOT IMMEDIATELY REALIZE HE WAS PEEING, and proceeded to look for my toothbrush until I finally realized what was happening a few seconds later. In ninth grade, I was cast in my first (and ONLY) school musical, and there was one scene where I was supposed to act opposite a boy I had never spoken to before. During the first rehearsal, the teacher told me to fall into his arms and ordered everyone else to stop and watch us. I dutifully did what I was told—then I froze. I just stood there awkwardly in this stranger’s arms, not knowing when to break out of the position. When I realized that the teacher wasn’t coming to my rescue any time soon, I just started to move my arms sloooowly away from the guy until we were finally separated. These are some of the terrible, embarrassing moments that I will never let myself forget.

It’s only human to be embarrassed sometimes, but I am pretty sure that there are several factors that have led me (and others who dwell super hard on humiliation like I do) to keep focusing on things well past their expiration date. I think the main reason is that even though I’m an introvert, I really like making friends, and I’m always afraid that I’ll embarrass myself so hugely in the process of getting to know someone that it will stop them from wanting to get to know me back. A lot of my social awkwardness stems from anxiety about my ability to read people. I have no idea if anyone likes me enough that I can finally relax around them, so I constantly beat myself up over tiny misjudgments and mistakes, or any time my behavior betrays the cool customer I am trying to be at any given moment.

It’s annoying when people say, “But everyone makes mistakes!” We are all special snowflakes who want to think our blunders are more intense than everyone else’s, but deep down I know it’s true: Everyone does make mistakes. We all occasionally say, “You too!” when a waitress tells us to enjoy our meal, and then feel like total jerks afterwards. Instead of ruminating over the better thing I could’ve said, or just not saying anything at all out of fear, I’m figuring out how to care less as time goes on. And it’s working, little by little. I recommend this technique: As soon as something embarrassing goes down, remind yourself that this one moment will not define your existence. Tell yourself this until it turns into your gut reaction! Thankfully, most of us aren’t celebrities on live television, so the time you slipped and fell while getting off the bus will not be turned into a viral GIF. No one will tip off a gossip blog to rat you out as a self-absorbed jerk if you call someone the wrong name by accident. If your humiliating moment involved being dickish to another person, just apologize and move on! Let’s say you’ve accidentally hit someone in the boob during an intense round of gym-class dodgeball. Only a monster would not accept a warm “I am so sorry!” If you get into a stressful interaction with someone and can’t think of anything clever to say…until RIGHT AFTER the conversation is over, when you come up with the best, funniest, most cutting comeback of all time, do not beat yourself up. Instead, file that bon mot away in your mental folder called “Witticisms for the Next Time I Make a Fool of Myself.” After any cringe-inducing moment, acknowledge that something embarrassing just happened, and then give yourself permission to stop caring about it. Say it out loud if you have to! But don’t carry it around for longer than the duration of the actual embarrassing episode.

In junior high, one of my teachers hung up a poster with an H.G. Wells quote on it: “If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.” I used to read it and be all, “Ugh, shut up, poster, I am very comfortable here lying on the metaphorical ground!” But as cheesy as it is to admit it, that poster was so right. Let your embarrassing moments be fuel for your productive fire. Write about your most shameful moments until they become funny. Share them with your friends the next time they make fools of themselves. I used to be intensely mortified by that fart incident, but as I started to type it out here, I realized that it was actually kind of wonderful. So you did a stupid thing last week, last month, or maybe even last decade? So did everyone else. We are all in this together. Say it with me now: Everybody farts. ♦

34 Comments

  • intergalactic fork October 8th, 2013 3:07 PM

    so relevant to me right now. thanks rookie!

    http://veesecretstyle.blogspot.com/

  • dreamygirl October 8th, 2013 3:41 PM

    today i forgot something really major, and i was really ashamed, but also REALLY EMBARRASSED. so even though i suck for forgetting… i guess i’m not the only person who has forgotten something important, and i hopefully won’t be the only person who moved one from that. anyway, THANKS GABBY

  • GlitterKitty October 8th, 2013 3:49 PM

    This is basically my life. After I did something embarrassing, I always tried to tell myself because no one except me noticed or will remember in a couple days. But then I would start thinking that if I noticed and remember surely I’m not that different from other people so they must remember too and it just went on and on. I think I’m getting a bit better at letting go but I still remember embarrassing things that happened years ago. Thanks for some better advice!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica October 8th, 2013 3:55 PM

    I was laughing throughout this whole article. Thank you for sharing this – exactly a week ago I farted really loudly in class and everybody heard and I’ve been replaying it in my head and shuddering ever since but this is great advice and I am going to try and forget about that horrible fart now. :)

  • SharkyC October 8th, 2013 3:56 PM

    Me too, me too! I am even still embarrassed about times when people accused me of farting and I actually didn’t fart. I still remember vividly the time when I was 10 and my brother told the boy I liked that I had a crush on him. I don’t think I ever looked directly at him again, lest he think I was pining away. By the way, I am almost 40, and I am not over these incidents and many more.

  • spudzine October 8th, 2013 3:58 PM

    You don’t know how much I needed this. It’s hard to give myself permission to just NOT CARE, but once I truly stop giving a crap, then everything feels so much lighter, it’s amazing.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Emma Dajska October 8th, 2013 4:02 PM

    a memory of a sock from the day before falling out of my pant leg in front of my classmates in sixth grade just came to life once again – but this time that image made me laugh so hard i almost farted! Thank you Gabby for making my day!

  • Emma Mc October 8th, 2013 4:13 PM

    This came at the perfect time! Thanks Gabby!

  • tai October 8th, 2013 4:23 PM

    i really needed this! i hate the fact that sometimes my brain puts my most awkward moments on shuffle and/or on repeat when i’m like, studying or even daydreaming cute things.

  • VB October 8th, 2013 4:40 PM

    this is actually my life :((

  • Alex S. October 8th, 2013 4:46 PM

    At my high school graduation there was a principal that would accidentally call me “Christina” instead of “Christian” (my middle name is alex so he must just junction the two together by accident), thus changing my gender completely.

    So graduation rolls around and I see he was going to announce my row, not thinking at all he’d call me Christina…not here…no way. SPOILER ALERT: he did.

    I was super embarrassed but took it with pride (BECAUSE GRADUATING IS LIKE A BAG DEAL CONGRATS), although still even as a year has passed I bet some confused parent of a peer of mine must still think I’m a female.

    Luckily my senior trip the next day also coincidentally/funnily provided an escape and I joked a lot to people during my trip that I was a runaway for what happened. It turns out though that while I was gone the principal called my house and repeatedly apologized!

    Thinking of all if this makes me laugh now instead of cringe every now and then. Although I tend to feel more embarrassed when it comes to secondhand embarrassment, just because I find myself sympathizing so hard for the victim/embarrassee!!

    • Graciexx October 9th, 2013 7:13 PM

      secondhand embarrassment is the worst! I find embarrassing movies so much harder to watch than scary ones

      great article gabby :)

  • blossom96 October 8th, 2013 4:59 PM

    I love this! I’ve had so many fart stories but most of the time my chair leg or shoe will squeak in class and everyone would turn around and give me accusatory stares and then I’d spend the rest of the lesson trying to make the same sound so I can be like SEE! I DIDN’T FART!

  • apistolairy October 8th, 2013 5:55 PM

    so super relevant. totally just wrote a blog post about how I had to give a speech to my whole speech class with a giant period stain on my pants yesterday.

    http://apistolwritingletters.blogspot.com/2013/10/1072013-open-letterattempt-at-intimacy.html

    • mimsydeux October 10th, 2013 4:25 AM

      I just felt like replying to let you know how much I enjoyed the piece on your blog and the way you write. Particularly the line “The cashier scanned my items, red face and the sweater tied around my waist and smirked.” You should totally send some of your stuff to Rookie if you haven’t already!

      Anyway, keep writing and ‘not giving a single fuck’.

      Congrats from a fellow budding writer, Rookie reader and ‘smidge of an adult’ in Australia :)

  • sempers October 8th, 2013 6:06 PM

    this is so relevant right now. today at school, my uniform skort ripped up the shorts backside when i bent over (it was old, i’ve been wearing it for 4-5 years, time to go!), but i was afraid everyone could see even though it was covered by the skirt part. luckily i had a study hall right after and was able to buy a new one from the school store!!! but i still think about embarrassing things from like, kindergarten even. it’s so bad.

  • wallflower152 October 8th, 2013 6:19 PM

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who remembers embarrassing moments from forever ago. I hate this. I heard in a podcast a good way to stop is whenever you think about a cringe-worthy moment just think of something crazy/funny like …..and then he turned into a goat. And say it and actually picture the person/people turning into goats.

  • Izra October 8th, 2013 6:28 PM

    Story of my life. Thank you for this Gabby! Btw, it was nice meeting you this weekend! (I’m one of the speed pizza eaters)

  • Anya N. October 8th, 2013 6:54 PM

    I do the exact same thing over any slightly embarrassing thing that ever happens to me. This article is really helpful! So what if I said the wrong name when introducing myself to a new teacher yesterday (seriously, HOW. WHY.) that doesnt tell anyone who I am! Well, I guess in the literal sense it did at the time, but you know what I mean..

  • Sister Moon October 8th, 2013 7:00 PM

    I was super embarrassed at the time but now it is a funny story to tell all my girl friends. A girl’s bathroom can get pretty…gross. One time a guy friend of mine needed to use my bathroom and someone else was in the other one. I quickly threw a box of tampons in the cabinet and threw away some garbage. But I had failed to notice something: I had stained a pair of undies with my period blood and left it in the sink to soak it off. Luckily there are two sinks in that bathroom. I had only realized that way later when all my friends had left. I’m not too embarrassed about it partly because I think it’s really funny but also because my friend is not the type of boy to get grossed out by that type of thing. I think that one takes the cake for all my embarrassing moments. Haha

  • camilla October 8th, 2013 7:52 PM

    OMG. I actually felt that I wrote this. I still torture myself over middle school embarrassments and reading this hit waaay too close to home. I still beat myself up over really old situations (hey, I had a fart attack on fifth grade on yoga class!) and new ones, like, if I accidentally say something stupid to someone now, I’ll be beating myself up for saying something stupid for the time being, until I say something else stupid to someone else, creating a cycle of self torture about my own behavior.

    I am also a sophomore in college, but unlike you, I still beat myself up over everything and I wish it was as easy as you made it sound to make it stop. I’m easily the first person to laugh at my own life, but some embarrassments just top that. I think I’ll be printing that H.G. Wells quote, after all.

  • Emily October 8th, 2013 9:46 PM

    Oh sweet lord; I would ask you if you were my lost twin but I think if I did we’d both blush and runaway from each other. I really love people but i have such potent social anxiety/anxiety. For me, it’s like i’m sitting on a beach and the embarrassing memory is a slightly larger wave, lapping up the shore towards me- so i can’t look at the water, i’ve got to keep my eyes straight down at the sand. I’ve been in class and I sort of zone out, and up pops What I Said At The 8th Grade Halloween Costume Contest (this was almost 7 years ago) then i start to feel JUST AS FLUSHED AND EMBARRASSED as the moment it happened and I’ll just blurt out “NO.” I have to literally tell the memory to go away. My system for ignoring these worked for a while, simply to discard it, but then I think my brain started systematically dumping all new information. I can’t remember anything! Homework, Peoples names, Peoples Faces! and now I have 5 lists taped around my dorm room that are telling me to do pretty much the same few things.

    I would almost say ‘if this sounds like you probably get therapy’ but if you’re like me, i know you’d rather die than confide in someone that, like me, you CUT YOUR SALAD with a knife an fork in public to avoid anyone seeing you slap yourself in the face with a stray piece of romaine.

  • traceyisace October 8th, 2013 11:33 PM

    This is amazing. I have to do an act tomorrow in front of my whole theatre class tomorrow and my group is soooooo unprepared. There is no way we will pull it off. This is my first time “standing out” in class because I’ve managed to avoid being the center of attention since I started, but I just know it’s gonna be a train wreck tomorrow. Hopefully, I’ll get over my embarrassment in a quick.

  • whyamidreamingwhenimstillawake October 9th, 2013 2:18 AM

    Wow this is amazing.

    Also, there’s a typo in the second last paragraph; there needs to be quote marks and a full stop at the end of “I am so sorry
    .

  • elliecp October 9th, 2013 4:51 AM

    this is so relevant…it’s so hard to forget the feeling of embarrassment!

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • aela October 9th, 2013 8:24 AM

    Brené Brown is a researcher studying shame and vulnerability, she also has two great TED-talks on these topics if anyone is interested:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html

    http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

  • Aithy Palfreyman October 9th, 2013 12:17 PM

    I feel like the kind of people who’re reading this article will appreciate and sympathise with my triumph over this story: today, in the school canteen, I knocked over a bin (I have a pretty Marilyn Monroe-y walk, so I knock into stuff with my hips more often than should really be possible) which in itself isn’t too bad, until literally everyone in the canteen started applauding. Everyone. APPLAUDING. But somehow, instead of melting into the floor like the socially awkward butterfly I am, I managed to give a graceful bow, and sashayed off, channelling Marilyn to the max. Very proud.

  • damdayy October 9th, 2013 12:59 PM

    Ahhhh, I know this feeling well. I got stupidly drunk last new years and made out with someone who in front of a lot of people, when I really shouldn’t have. The feeling has subdued but I felt like boiling water was poured over me each time I thought about it.

  • AdrienneRumer October 10th, 2013 3:37 PM

    I was waitressing last year at a fancy hotel for fancy people and dropped the tray of drinks I was carrying, obviously it was awful and for months I kept replaying it. The only thing that made me stop was I started to exaggerate the memory, and made the fall much more comical than it was, and it was so ridiculous that it made the actual memory better and now im over it! But I’ll use your advice on getting over it *in* the moment, and not spend months worrying about the damn drinks!

  • Ziggyplaysguitar October 12th, 2013 4:39 AM

    Wonderful article Gabby! You have no idea how much this has helped after reading it. I’m a hoarder of life’s blunders too and it really doesn’t help to carry these around with you over-analysing every minute detail. Ditch them and move on!

  • meels October 13th, 2013 5:28 AM

    Gabby I love your writing! Feels so relatable. I remember doing a super loud fart during silent reading and I don’t think I could ever forget it.

  • abackwardglance December 11th, 2013 1:12 AM

    This is my life like allll the time. Seriously.

  • January 23rd, 2014 11:27 AM

    Nice!! :)