When I was eight years old, I picked the wrong backpack. While school shopping, my mother had pointed out several relatively well-made options. “This will last you through the year,” she said, holding up a black nylon pack with neon green details. “I think maybe you should go with this one.”
I, however, had none of it, and insisted on a red plastic bag with a cartoon cat teaching class on the back. On the first day of school, I proudly swaggered in to my second grade classroom with my brand-new plastic bag slung over my shoulder, but three months later, I found myself staring at my bedroom ceiling, unable to sleep and wiping tears from my eyes, because my mother was right after all: my backpack of choice was kind of gross, it smelled like a shoe, and, worst of all, my much-cooler best friend Kate had chosen a nylon bag like the one my mother recommended, as did all of the other “cool” girls in the second grade.
This memory seems silly now, but it remains vividly planted in my mind because I think it’s the first time I felt ashamed over something so trivial. How could I have chosen the plastic cat bag?! What was I thinking? Little eight-year-old me couldn’t handle the poor choice I’d made only three months earlier. It was the first of many times I’d beat myself up over something that, ultimately, is meaningless. So I picked an inferior backpack! So what, who cares, right? I wish eight-year-old me could have seen it that way. But she cared. A LOT.
Things didn’t change much over time: I consistently agonized over perceived mistakes, be they sartorial, romantic, or social (especially social) for most of my young life. If a teacher reprimanded me for talking in class or goofing around, it took me weeks to get over it. If I said the wrong thing to a friend, or blurted something out that sounded harsher than I wanted it to, I’d replay the moment for hours and hours, scolding myself for being “so stupid.” If, god forbid, I accidentally got food stuck in my teeth or tripped on my shoes or let a large growl escape from my stomach, it was almost impossible for me to forgive myself. I was not allowed—in my eyes, presumably nobody else’s—to make mistakes, to look foolish, or, you know, to be a human being.
Embarrassment is as natural as breathing. There are so many rules, both spoken and unspoken, in our weird little world that it’s almost impossible to get through a day without having at least one blush-worthy moment. Part of that comes from being trained, by television and films and books, to note certain things as excruciatingly embarrassing: toilet paper on a shoe, a zit on the tip of one’s nose, falling asleep in study hall and drooling all over a desk. We’re conditioned to not do these things, especially as girls, because they are “rude,” and “uncouth,” and just plain “nasty.” On a physical level, we are meant to have control over our bodies. When that control slips, it’s like breaking a human code. You’re not supposed to pee your pants, even if you’re scared. You’re not supposed to pass gas in the middle of sociology class, even though your body desperately needs a release. You’re not supposed to say “orgasm,” in biology, when you clearly mean “organism.”
But you know what? Sometimes you do. And when these things happen, a series of events may occur. Maybe some jerk will hold on to the moment and dangle it in front of you for as long as they can, either because they want your attention or because they’re insecure about their own mistakes. Or maybe your body will react with hot flashes and flushed skin and the kind of nervous sweat that no deodorant can conquer. Or maybe—and this is the worst one, for me—you’ll pick up the sense that the people around you are embarrassed for you, and you’ll want to crawl in to your locker, shut the door, and live there forever.
On a social level, we feel embarrassment because we feel empathy. Think of all the times you cover your eyes or cringe when a fictional character on the screen is about to do or say something mortifying, or how you react when you see a friend get yelled at, or when even when someone perfectly nice but not your type asks you out, and you know you’re going to hurt their feelings by rejecting them, even though you’re just being honest and true to yourself? We feel this kind of embarrassment because we know this kind of embarrassment—anyone with half a heart has been there, in some way or another, and we can recognize how icky and painful it feels for others.
But it’s hard, at times, to show that kind of empathy to ourselves. Instead of allowing the creepy feelings to run their course and move on, some of us tend to dwell on our embarrassing moments to the point where things spin out of control. Suddenly it’s not just the wrong answer we gave in class that’s embarrassing—it’s our entire being. “I screwed up in class” becomes “I screw up everything” becomes “I am screwed up and will be forever.” Suddenly the flood of past embarrassments comes rushing in, and your brain, doing its dirtiest work, starts digging up painful memories from the past and adding new, completely unfounded anxieties to the mix:
“Remember when you got dumped in front of everyone?”
Brain says: It’s because you’re ultimately unlovable and deserve to be humiliated.
“Remember when you got a D on that English paper and your best friend saw it and gave you a look of horror?”
Brain says: It’s because all of those As you usually get are flukes, and everyone, just like your friend, is going to see what a total fraud you are.
“Remember when that mean girl called you out for wearing off-brand shoes?”
Brain says: It’s because you’ll never be good enough for anyone.
“Remember when you picked the plastic cat backpack instead of the much nicer nylon one?”
Brain says: It’s because you have no common sense and will never make good decisions.
Yikes, right? The anxious brain has a way of taking a solitary moment of discomfort and turning it in to a runaway train en route to Self-Loathingville Station. I rode this train for a long, long time before I learned how to hit the brakes.
The only way to get out of that kind of spin is to immediately forgive yourself. Start by taking a deep breath, imagining all of the icky feelings leaving your body as you exhale. Then try to put things into perspective: You did something embarrassing, but you still exist. You are still here, you survived. Extend yourself some kindness, and accept that you have two choices: spinning miserably around the incident or moving on, leaving it behind, and opening yourself up to possibility of making better memories to fill that lovely brain of yours.
When I was a teenager, I worked as a server in a mom and pop type restaurant. The first time I dropped a tray—plates crashing to the ground, food spilling everywhere—I wanted to quit and run right out the front door. But I liked and needed the job, and instead I took a moment to compose myself in the bathroom before returning to the floor. One of the older servers, bless her, took me aside and said, “Listen, it happens. It’s no big deal.”
What a magical set of words! “It’s no big deal.” She was right. Even the best servers drop trays. Plates break. Food spills. Orders get messed up. Someone inevitably yells at you for forgetting to refill their sodas every three minutes. But the shift ends, you collect your tips, and you go home. The world doesn’t stop when you screw up. It’s no big deal.
After being given permission to forgive myself and move on, I started handling my mistakes (and there were several) in my own goofy way. Whenever I dropped something, I’d take a bow and yell, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” and everyone would start clapping. Not only did I give myself permission to laugh, I gave everyone else permission to laugh, too. This has been my trick for years now: Own the awkward moment. Make it funny before it drags you down. It is incredibly freeing and gets easier with time and practice. Eventually you come to realize that these things really aren’t a big deal, and that you are fully capable not only of handling them, but of controlling them in a healthy, positive way by refusing to allow your brain to bully you in to feeling ashamed of completely human experiences.
Life is incredibly imperfect, and so are we. Yes, it sucks when embarrassing things happen, and it’s hard making mistakes. But holding on to these moments and punishing yourself over and over again for something that can’t be undone or erased isn’t going to do you any good. So you screwed up. Guess what? So has every single living thing (and probably a few ghosts) on this earth. It is part of being real, part of being alive. The only thing you can do is accept that crappy stuff happens to the best of us, and all we can do is keep moving forward. Some things will be healed by time, which provides perspective, but most things can be healed simply by embracing imperfection as it happens.
And you know what? I wish I still had that backpack. When I think about it now, all I can see is how funny it was. I mean, a cartoon cat! Teaching class! Little eight-year-old me didn’t have terrible taste after all. Now, nine-year-old me, who threw that bag away, is another story altogether. ♦