Friday, April 25, 2014

Shame and Embarrassment

There are a few themes that keep popping up when I write. They are basically the core principles of my worldview, or at least the ones I try to keep in mind.

One of them is that you should try and deal with reality as it is (or as close as you can get to perceiving it that way). We have a lot of biases and flawed tendencies that keep us from doing this, so sometimes it means working a little extra hard. Sometimes that means not trusting yourself 100% when you think or feel something. As the saying goes, you’re only human. This goes for your emotions.

Another principle is that emotional responses should serve you. They exist to motivate you and guide your action. If you recognize that an emotional response is not helping, or that your attitude towards that emotion isn’t helping… you should make effort to change it.

That’s also based on the principle that your emotional responses are not absolutes. Your rational, conscious mind can encourage you to focus on different things, to adjust your attitude. This doesn’t mean you can suddenly, magically banish all emotion and be a living computer whenever you want. But you can make certain shifts by intentionally trying to look at things a different way. This works both in the short term and the long term.

Why would you try to change your emotions? Because of another principle: your emotions are not hard indicators of reality out there. Emotions tell you something about yourself. Two people in the same situation will respond a little differently, because they are different people. An emotional response tells you about your values and attitudes and beliefs and perceptions. It's a flawed system, one with limited capacities.

And that’s where you bring it back to the first one I mentioned. We are only human. Our emotions and attitudes guide our behavior, but they are susceptible to bias. We shouldn’t always trust them, except to tell us a little something about ourselves. So we come to the subject of this post, which is embarrassment.

Situations are not embarrassing. They are not inherently shameful or embarrassing or awkward until we apply the emotion to the situation. Something cannot be embarrassing if you are not embarrassed. Something cannot be shameful unless you are ashamed. The level of embarrassment and shame involved in something is based on you, not the thing.

I mean, sometimes other people are willing to help out and let us know. That they’re ashamed or embarrassed on our behalf and we should feel that way too. Thanks, buddies.

Shame and embarrassment are principally based on what we want other people to think and perceive about us. So when we feel it after a situation or experience, it’s because we are convinced that people now perceive us in a way we don’t want. When we feel it before a situation, it’s because we predict that the situation will have an outcome that makes people think of us a certain way.

There is another side to it, which is sometimes we get embarrassed or ashamed because of what we want to be, or think we should be, and whether the situation reflects that. So it’s not always about other people, though the publicity of our shame and embarrassment (or the possibility of its publicity) usually enhances the feeling.


So what’s the point of addressing all that?

For starters, we want to ask ourselves, what point is there to embarrassment and shame? As emotions and behavior guides, how do they help? They usually seem to just make us feel crappy. They also encourage us to shame and embarrass others for not fitting in line with certain values, performances, or roles. There are many parts of the world that rely heavily on shame, which leads to repression, which--historically--leads to unfortunate results.

It’s a powerful emotion. That makes it a very powerful guide for action. Where the action goes, of course, depends on what embarrasses and shames you. Again, emotions say something about you, not necessarily what’s going on out there. So what embarrasses you? Why does it embarrass you? Where did you obtain this value or attitude?

Shame as a social mechanism is pretty damn strong. It makes everybody want to be perceived a certain way, which means people actively broadcast (or attempt to broadcast) certain traits. Even if you don’t buy into it, you may believe that everybody else does. So you share and contribute to the pool. Failure to match up to those things is what shames us, even when we don’t control the thing that causes the discrepancy.

In fact, when we don’t control it, that can be even worse. Like maybe you are ashamed of an innate trait you are born with that prevents you from meeting standards or expectations that you want to meet. You value X, but because of this thing you were born with, you cannot be X or live up to X. That means that any time you think about it, you are forced to confront a shameful failure, one that's innate to your existence. Welcome to the land of low self-esteem, enjoy your permanent stay.

In the context of competition, a lot of the time we really want to be good at something. And so if we make a really amateur error after years of practice, that might embarrass us. If we get destroyed by a large margin, that might embarrass us. If we lose to somebody we “should have” beaten, that might embarrass us.

Hey, it’s not just what you do. Sometimes you worry about what other people do because you believe that people will associate you with that failure. This is one of the things that causes us to push our values on other people, to try and shame people into falling in line with what we value. And vice-versa, obviously.

So let’s go back to the principles and try to derive some benefit from this situation. How can embarrassment and shame potentially serve us on a personal level? Let’s move away from the scarier, larger scale idea of social control through mutual shaming. How can you take the personal feelings of shame and embarrassment and use them to some kind of advantage from within?

Well, this should be stating the obvious, but the rule is this: if you feel the emotion after the fact, it’s for improvement and learning. It becomes a motivator to do something or approach something differently. If you feel the emotion beforehand, it’s typically a prediction of how you think you will feel depending on certain outcomes. This makes it designed to retool your behavior to get the optimal one. If you predict shame and embarrassment, the goal is to change your approach. The prediction of possible shame will increase stress levels in your body. The stress response will then prime you to escape the potentially shaming situation, or it will gear your body and brain to handle it in a way that leads to success.

Or, as everybody who has ever made an error or done dumb things under pressure and stress knows, it screws us up, compounding the shame and embarrassment. You predict that if you make a mistake or choke or mess up, you will be ashamed and embarrassed. So your brain goes full-throttle on the adrenaline, and it makes you so shaky and jumpy that you can barely function, and then you screw up and now you feel even worse. Maybe because you couldn’t stop thinking about how embarrassing it was/would be to actually focus on what you were doing.

Thanks for helping, brain.

Oh, here is a good one. You are so embarrassed that you start trying to cover up the failure or mistake. Maybe, in the context of a game, you are supposed to be good, you are supposed to have skill, but you lost. So quickly, to avoid being seen as a failure, or to avoid feeling like one internally, you make excuses. You start scrambling to provide everybody with reasons why the failure wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have done anything. Anybody would have failed in your shoes, maybe even worse than you did! Not your problem. Some flaw in reality, some stroke of horrible luck. It’s the game’s fault, perhaps. Maybe so. But apart from the people that support you with die-hard fanaticism, it can leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.

That’s the fun part of shame and embarrassment. Our quick and instinctual attempts to hide it often make us exhibit other traits which people--the ones we’re worried about impressing--also perceive as shameful. Jeez, it’s bad enough to be a screw-up, but one that makes excuses? Just get out, bro. You’re embarrassing yourself.

It’s a messy emotion. When we ask, “how can embarrassment or shame help me deal with reality as it is?” we don’t actually come up with lots of good answers. The first thing we typically do with shameful, embarrassing experiences (or actions or characteristics or whatever) is try to hide them or justify them. That is the pretty frequently the opposite of dealing with things as they are. Avoid thinking about stuff? Avoid letting people know it happened? Try and hide it or make up reasons to feel better? You can’t handle things if you pretend they aren’t there. If it’s there, it’s there, and you must confront it. Well, you don’t have to. But it helps.

It makes me feel like conditioning yourself away from the emotions of shame and embarrassment is a much better response than trying to tame it. It leads to such impulsive and restrictive behaviors that I don’t see many benefits. But let’s say you can’t seem to annihilate your feelings of embarrassment or shame (you know, because you are a human being). How do you use them?

First, shame and embarrassment will tell you what you value, if you listen to them. It tells you what you want to be, or at the very least how you want to be perceived. If you trace the feelings back a bit, they can indicate when you will start feeling different kinds of pressure. It also helps you understand which situations are likely to provoke knee-jerk responses.

In competitive games, sometimes you can try to actively embarrass another person and provoke them into playing impulsively as they try to make up ground. If you understand yourself, it becomes a lot less likely that this kind of thing will happen to you. It can be very rough if somebody uses an advantage to mock you and make you look bad, but it’s even worse if that makes you play poorly and predictably. Being manipulable is not considered a quality of champions for a reason.

Another thing to make sure you are doing is that, at the very least, you are using shame and embarrassment to change your performance rather than your image. People who worry about image and what others say about them, for whom appearance is the basis of embarrassment, will spend more time arguing after a bad performance than reviewing. They will spend more time in public-relations damage-control mode than actually fixing the problems that damaged them. That is the kind of thinking that leads to excuses rather than action. I think, if you’re determined to hang onto your shame, it’s more beneficial if at least you attach it to what you do rather than what people think you do. You’ll probably get a bit more mileage that way.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.


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