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What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you? You probably remember it in vivid detail: The time you threw up in front of the whole class, played a wrong note during your tuba solo, failed miserably at flirting, or said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Your cheeks get red, your ears feel like they are on fire, and you just want to scream “WHYYYYY?!”. Well, I’m here to tell you that there’s actually a good reason for that!
Our feelings of embarrassment aren’t just a trivial emotion, they are a part of who we are on an evolutionary level. Let’s explore one of the most complex human emotions, and learn what it’s trying to teach us.
We’ve been embarrassing ourselves since the caveman days!
Since the very beginning of our existence, humans have relied on each other for survival. So it makes sense that we would try to fit in with the crowd—we literally could not live without one another. We had to make sure the group worked together. So what happened when conflict arose amongst the group? It created social tension and threatened our way of life.
How do you keep a group from splintering, then? This is where scientists believe the human social emotion of embarrassment comes into play: to teach us what not to do again in the future, in order to protect ourselves.
And blushing? Evolution took things a step further when it came to the physical signs of embarrassment and threw blushing into the experience. When we’re embarrassed, our body releases adrenaline, which causes our blood vessels to dilate in an effort to improve flood-flow and oxygen delivery. Because the blood vessels in our cheeks are closer to the surface than other parts of the body, it creates the reddened appearance in our faces that we now commonly refer to as “blushing.” 1
Furthermore, scientists believe that the evolutionary purpose of blushing seems to serve as a non-verbal communication that helps us to bond with others by showing our concern for social rules. 2
For example, if You, ancient human, accidentally picked poisonous berries and someone in your group got ill from eating them, blushing would signal your embarrassment and remorse and perhaps you would be forgiven by the others in your community. This unfortunate turn of events and the accompanying uncomfortable feelings would help you to learn from the mistake instead of repeating it.
But there is also another kind of embarrassment …
If you’ve ever watched someone else flub something up and immediately felt yourself cringing, what you’re feeling is secondhand or “vicarious embarrassment”. This type of humiliation is very common among people with high levels of empathy—which is an incredible and powerful trait to possess… and something we simply can’t get enough of here at the Goodness Exchange.
In this wildly entertaining little video by Be Smart, Dr. Joe Hanson dives into all the different ways one can be embarrassed, and why it’s still such a useful emotion in modern day society. If you pay close attention you’ll even notice a common scenario that gets people of all ages squirming and shaking their heads with embarrassment! (It’s pretty hilarious!)
If you enjoyed that video, you’ll love the rest of Be Smart’s science-related video library. Check them out here.
Did you notice that more than three people in the video mentioned that they were embarrassed to fart in public? I guess there’s just something about the smelly and unexpected unwanted attention that can trigger embarrassment, no matter who you are!
Embarrassment is defined as “a feeling of self-consciousness, shame, or awkwardness in anticipation of other peoples’ negative judgements.” It can teach us about what not to do in social situations, but perhaps the most valuable part of this emotion is that it offers us an opportunity for self-reflection. And it’s in that frame of mind that we have the freedom to become better people for ourselves and others.
Maybe we spend a little too much time worrying about the opinions of others. Is it possible that with this new perspective we can marry our own views on what’s acceptable with what others expect from us? Can we learn from our mistakes and at the same time, be more mindful about what we actually believe is a mistake? Most of the things that make us blush these days are not life and death. Surely dropping something in a public space is less detrimental to survival than accidentally serving poison berries!
What if I can’t stop replaying the embarrassing moment in my head?
If you are constantly kicking yourself for saying the wrong thing, just remember that this is an evolutionary trait meant to help you learn. If you embarrass easily, it’s not that you are constantly making wrong choices, it’s just how the brain is wired to work.
The best way to shrug off a humiliating moment is to simply laugh about it! We all take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes. Laughter is a great way to connect with others and a wonderful remedy for embarrassment. It shows the other person “Hey, I’m kind of a goofball and it’s ok. And you are allowed to be a goofball too!”
Laughing also has a ton of health benefits for the body and mind. You can read more about that in this article:
Laugh More to Live Longer: The Health Benefits of Laughing!
Did you know there’s a secret universal language out there that every human on earth (and many animals too) speak fluently? I’ll give you a few hints… It’s silly. It’s contagious. And, it may hold the key to staying young at heart, regardless of what life throws your way. We’re talking about laughter!Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
We’re all human here…
The next time you’re in a car with others and you accidentally let out a little poot, just roll down the window and laugh it off! It’s perfectly human to be a little embarrassed but it shouldn’t stop us from having fun.
Keep dreaming, and notice the beauty around you!
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- Devrupa Rakshit. “The Science behind Why We Blush.” The Swaddle, The Swaddle, 2 Sept. 2020, theswaddle.com/the-science-behind-why-we-blush/#:~:text=When%20we’re%20embarrassed%2C%20our,body%20%E2%80%94%20creating%20the%20reddened%20appearance. Accessed 14 Apr. 2023. ↩
- Jarrett, Christian. “Does Blushing Have Any Evolutionary Purpose?” Sciencefocus.com, BBC Science Focus Magazine, 21 Jan. 2019, www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/does-blushing-have-any-evolutionary-purpose/. Accessed 14 Apr. 2023. ↩
- Smart, Be. “Why Embarrassment Is Actually GOOD for You.” YouTube, YouTube Video, 20 Dec. 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCucC_r5fXc. Accessed 14 Apr. 2023. ↩