Aside from living in our skulls — and firing off motor neurons from the cerebellum that make it possible to move our weird bones — our brain’s second biggest job seems to be churning out old memories that we spend our lives trying to forget. I have embarrassed myself probably thousands of times in my life so far. A few key moments that come to mind include:
1. The time I left New York to move to Olympia and work as the in-house publicist for K Records. Small labels don’t have much money, so I wasn’t paid much money. I was also really bad at managing money so when I ended up spending every last dime I had on an orange futon for my apartment, I didn’t have anything left for stuff like, you know, food.
One day, at the K Records building, I went downstairs to the little kitchen area to make myself coffee and saw multiple loaves of French bread up on the counter. I knew full well that these were for a local food pantry, but all my brain could do at that moment was push the “eat that bread” button. So I tore off a huge chunk and started eating it.
Mouth completely full of bread and holding the yet to be devoured remaining chunk in my hand, I meet the gaze of Captain K Records himself, Calvin Johnson. Next to him was a writer working on a biography about K.
I felt my face turn purple, and quickly flung the chunk of bread in my hand behind me into the sink. My mouth was still full, I muttered “nice to meet you” to the author, while putting out my thieving, ashamed, literally crumby hand to shake his. They walked away, and I went back to my desk.
2. In my freshman year of high school, I was just getting into what would become a decades-long goth phase. But I didn’t have my “look” together just yet. One day, I was in the gym locker room, preparing to pull my gym pants on OVER the jeans I was wearing, because I absolutely refused to change for gym, when a much cooler, much more goth girl walked over.
“Do you know what that means?” She asked me, pointing at the new leather bondage bracelet poking out from the sleeve of my sweatshirt.
“Yeah,” I said, fully confident. “It means sodomy.”
Now, what I was thinking in my head was that sodomy had something to do with “out of the ordinary sex,” which I knew S&M fell under the umbrella of, but I obviously chose the wrong word here, and there was no turning back. The girl chuckled and, my face, as it’s been known to do, betrayed me by turning purple. I shut my locker door, retreating outside to walk laps, or whatever nonsense activity they were having us suffer through that day.
3. A few years ago, on Mardi Gras (I live in New Orleans now) I just straight up peed my pants. On Mardi Gras, it’s pretty customary to start drinking the moment you get up, and boy did I ever. By the time early afternoon rolled around, my wife, my friends, and myself were all hammered beyond capacity and it took one hard laugh for me to fully piss the entirety of my pants.
Since everyone else was either barfing in the street, or dancing around with sticks on their faces, I wasn’t too mortified at the time. I even went up to people, pointing at my crotch, to show them the wet spot. But the next morning, yeah, I didn’t feel too smart about that having happened to me.
What you may be able to pull from these examples is that “embarrassment” can be experienced in levels. There’s the kind of embarrassment where you do something you’re worried about other people seeing as “dumb,” or “wrong,” and then there’s the kind where you are embarrassed of yourself.
I didn’t mind people seeing that I’d peed myself in broad daylight, but I was very embarrassed of myself for eating food pantry bread, and being caught doing it by someone I very much respected. It’s hard to say “never” about something, but I can pretty safely say that I’ll never take food out of the mouths of needy people again. Peeing my pants again? There’s no telling on that one.
Before I advance any further into what is now officially HOT PROBS #3, I just want to put this here: If there’s something you’re grappling with, that you’d like to have me chime in on, you can ask me a question here. Don’t worry, it’s 100 percent anonymous, and there’s no question, big or small, that I’ll look down on. And maybe I’ll help you, or maybe I’ll just give you that laugh you needed to get through the rest of the day.
First of all, I’m so sorry that you’re feeling this way. I know how terrible it feels, because all those old those instances I mentioned? They continue to pop into my head and send me down the path of “why are you like this?” Which also means I know how unhelpful it is for someone to tell you, “Just stop thinking about these things.”
Telling yourself to “just stop” something, no matter what the something is, is not effective. It’s like telling yourself to stop having a headache, or to stop being right or left-handed. I know that things don’t work that way, and that if you could make yourself stop thinking about these things, you would have, so let’s look at this in a different way.
It sounds like your life’s “greatest” hits are taking such a toll that you’re keeping new experiences at an arm’s length, for fear of making new embarrassing moments. But what makes something embarrassing?
In a 2014 Psychology Today article written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, she references a 2012 study conducted by a John Jay College professor Joshua Clegg in which he determined that most people put a lot of pressure on themselves to “fit in.” That, according to Clegg, “leads us to engage in self-regulation, in which we are constantly on the lookout to see what other people think about us. When we think that people are evaluating us negatively, our sense of self takes a huge hit.”
What Clegg and his team found, after asking a bunch of people to describe an instance they thought to be embarrassing, was that people tend to describe something said or done that drew outside attention to them, making them feel negatively separated from the group, or situation, they were hoping to blend into. A lot of us have a desire to be unique, and stand out in a crowd, but not in a “that girl has period blood on her jeans” kind of way. We want to be “different” but not embarrassingly different.
But again, embarrassing means different things to different people.
For a teenager, it might be the first day of school revelation that your folder has a frog on it, and everyone else’s has some sort of reference to a band, TV show, or movie. You think: How can you go on from here, after having shown yourself to be living a completely wrong folder lifestyle?
For someone in their 20s, not having a social media presence that transmits irrefutable evidence of an acrobatically exciting sex life, the world’s coolest job, the most creatively styled clothes, and perfectly DIY crafted dwelling, are, one by one, all churning and escalating balls of anxiety inducing embarrassment.
For people 30+ take all of the above, folders and all, and then add in money. How much money, how little money, how much money is enough, or not enough, how much money do they have over there, and should I also aspire to have that much money? Having laid it all out like this, in terms of what people can feel embarrassed about, at any age, it all kind of looks like anxiety, doesn’t it?
Feeling embarrassed is just another way your brain, and the rest of your body, puts a book cover on anxiety. Whether you’re keeping yourself up at night thinking about that time you farted while waiting in line at PetSmart, or thinking about how your neighbor got a new car, and you can barely afford your mortgage, it kind of all feels the same.
Embarrassment, anxiety, nervousness, shyness, are all ways that our brains throw obstacles at us that we’re then left to try and manage.
In Clegg’s study, he said that there are basically two ways to go about dealing with embarrassment: you can avoid it, or you can face it head on.
Take for instance the story I told earlier about me peeing my pants on Mardi Gras. I could have easily hidden that by wrapping something around my waist and wobbled my drunk ass home. But I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to miss out on the rest of the fun the day had to offer. So what I chose to do instead was call it out before anyone else could. And yes, this example is a bit flawed because I was drunk out of my gourd, but hopefully you get the point.
What I hope for you is that you allow yourself to get to a place where you take all of those embarrassing moments flooding your mind, and either laugh at them, if you can, knowing that almost everyone has had similar, if not worse moments. What usually helps me self-soothe into a different train of thought is to realize that everyone has similarly embarrassing things that plague them. We’re human. And humans are embarrassing.
Or, if you can’t laugh at them, just let them live there in the past, and then move on from there. So okay, you peed your pants in broad daylight and the whole city saw it (talking to myself here), that’s one day out of 365. For 364 days you were out there living your very best non-pee pants life. Go on and live some more.
Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone, and more. Find more of her work here.