Hugh Hewitt recently shared a story on his Facebook page that is hands-down the most embarrassing story I’ve ever read. It’s the verified tale of an investment banker who learned in the most unfortunate way possible that 1) all night benders on business trips followed by a full breakfast are a solidly bad idea, and 2) not all jets have bathrooms.
That last part, about the bathrooms, should be sounding alarms. No story about the absence of bathrooms on a plane ever ends well. If you’d like to read the entire ordeal (language warning), click here. I’ll hit the highlights: our poor investment banker commits the foulest of bodily functions in the main cabin of a beautifully appointed executive jet that is carrying both coworkers and very important clients.
This is an extreme example of embarrassment made hilarious because its author peppers his very public nightmare with self-deprecating wry humor. It would appear this particular investment banker didn’t have any problems sharing his public shame. He admits to being a fun-loving, social kind of guy, so perhaps it wasn’t too much of a challenge to have a good laugh, and roll right back into the world of high-stakes finance with clients and coworkers your colon just assaulted at 30,000 feet.
But for most of us, recovering from extreme public embarrassment is an ugly, messy process that often requires more than a hardy laugh at one’s own expense. Unfortunately, I know something about this ugly process.
I’m No Stranger to Public Embarrassment
If you’re like me, you carefully construct your life to avoid looking like an idiot. You habituate smart decisions. Wise choices become second nature because you’ve learned the hard way the alternative is dreadful. But try as I might—God help me—every now and then, I do incredibly stupid things. My own personal “investment banker story” didn’t involve loss of bodily function, but it was public, very embarrassing, and every bit a cautionary tale of stupidity.
A year or so ago I was in my home office on a video-conference with about 15 professional colleagues from around the world and a team leader. Some of us were linked up online; some were in the physical conference location. The topic was implementing diversity in the workplace. For most of the meeting I remained quiet, content to listen to my colleagues.
As the meeting wore on, however, I became increasingly more annoyed. It was becoming painfully obvious this discussion on diversity lacked actual diversity. This was meant to be a collaborative effort of competing ideas, but it featured no competing ideas. Not content to leave well enough alone. I decided I had something of value to contribute, at which point I piped up and put in my two cents—which ended up being more like five bucks by the time I actually stopped talking.
In my commentary I challenged some recurring assumptions being taken as fact, and expressed my thoughts on how one might think differently about these assumptions, etc. I was piqued and agitated, but thought that overall I maintained composure and my comments were constructive. My group’s response, however, was less than enthusiastic, I felt. Our team leader was dismissive of my point, in my opinion. I felt very slighted. I’m using emphasis because this was how I perceived the experience, understanding I may be entirely incorrect.
Adding to my irritation was the fact that cool responses to outlier comments were sort of a recurring theme among this group (which might explain why no one was making any outlier comments). Whatever the case, something in me snapped. My psychosocial fail-safe mechanisms were breaking down, and the giant red “core meltdown” light was flashing madly. My mind, not letting a crisis go to waste, seized on the opportunity and started shooting memories at me.
Then My Husband Walked By
Remembering all the times I’d felt slighted, disregarded, dismissed, unappreciated, my enlarged sense of self-importance was now a Texas-size target. This fantastic voyage down memory lane led to what I call “the pile on.” This is where my brain starts dredging the depths of my life story, bringing to mind offenses I’d forgotten about for years, but now feel like astronomical betrayals! This systems fail-all happened in the span of about five seconds. The brain is truly a magnificent efficiency machine.
So I’d had it. I reached a boiling point right about the same time my poor, unsuspecting husband happened to walk by. My mind pounced, thinking, “Someone who has to love me no matter what I say! Perfect!” Moving myself out of view of the computer camera, I hit the mute button, then unloaded. Moderately uncensored thoughts flew from my mouth. I never singled anyone out in particular; rather I was just generally throwing everyone in the meeting under the bus. All of my billowing, blustering head of superheated emotional steam was vented. It was epic.
Feeling a little relieved, I was just about to move back into view of the camera when my cell phone silently rang. The screen lit up. It was one of my colleagues. Why was she calling… during… the… Minutes collapsed into seconds until time suddenly slowed to a gut wrenching, sickening halt. The blood emptied out of my head into my stomach. My stomach and lungs switched places. Reality hit me with all the energy of an atomic blast wave: I had hit the wrong button.
My head exploded. I had muted the audio feed from my group, not my microphone. They could hear me, but I couldn’t hear them. In short: I virtually hijacked 15 people and hurled invective bombs at them for several minutes. I could see the whole terrifying scene unfold in my mind’s eye, playing out like Ripley trapped in the medical bay with two escaped face-huggers hunting her down. My colleagues desperately waving their arms into cameras, pleading with me to see them, unable to stop hearing my outburst, begging me to shut up. All the groundwork I’d laid in an attempt to appear intelligent, articulate, and composed was annihilated. Now I was just some idiot who can’t work a mute button.
I had to think fast. First: MUTE MIC. Next: how bad was what I just said? Last: what now? When you’ve just done something incredibly stupid like thoughtlessly hitting the wrong mute button, the moments after are absolutely critical. You have to have a plan. Mine crystalized quickly: 1) Remain calm; 2) Remain seated; 3) Wait until the meeting starts back up, move back into view of the camera, and (this was the genius part) pretend like the previous two minutes never happened; and 4) Never speak again.
My grand plan was to act like it didn’t happen. My only objective from that point forward was to blend, fading so far into the background I became invisible. I needed to become the human equivalent of beige.
We Care More about Failure Than About Success
So why do we want to crawl into a hole and die when we make fools of ourselves? Why is embarrassment so difficult to overcome? Because our identity takes a direct hit. We worry others will think less of us, and lament that we look like jerks in the eyes of our betters. This is why we place such a high value on avoiding public displays of tomfoolery.
But it’s not just about uncomfortable feelings and awkward looks. There is evidence to suggest that our brains may be hard-wired for embarrassment. According to the authors of “Neural Pathways of Embarrassment and Their Modulation by Social Anxiety,” embarrassment is “a unique combination of (a) one’s failure and related arousal on the one hand, and (b) mentalizing about how this failure will damage the opinion that others have of oneself on the other hand.”
When we fail publicly, the medial prefrontal cortex and precuneus, the mentalizing areas of the brain, are activated. These are the areas involved with formulating the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, allowing us to mentalize how an experience might feel for someone else. These areas also give us the ability to reflect on our lives and daydream.
Our capacity to understand and conceptualize how others perceive us helps us identify when our own social image is threatened, and to avoid those threats. Interesting to note in this study is that the medial prefrontal cortex and precuneus areas of the brain showed a marked increase in activity when participants publicly failed, but less so for those who experienced public achievement. It would suggest we care more about what people think of our failures than what they think of our success.
Now for the Three Tips
Managing one’s image after a major public bungling is a tricky bit of business. As luck would have it, my “act like you didn’t just make a complete (bleep) of yourself” strategy wasn’t completely off the mark. Another study on public embarrassment found that people use “strategic silence” as damage control for their failure fallout. The use of composure and other nonverbal cues may be a way to counteract public embarrassment. Appearing unaffected and composed after a blunder minimizes the severity of the mistake in the eyes of the observer. This works even if you’re faking it. That’s the first tip.
Second: my strategic silence may have saved me in the moment, but my debacle didn’t leave me unscathed, and that was a good thing. I saw my dumb decision as a defining moment. This was an opportunity to put into practice a healthy way to process failure. Instead of feeling humiliated, I chose to be humbled.
The distinction here is important. Feeling humiliated keeps us trapped in the moment, making no room for grace. Humiliation breaks our spirit. It tears us down, and continually reminds us of our mistake, making us live in a constant loop of “Why did I do that?” or “If I’d just done this differently.” Fixating on “what ifs” is the hamster wheel of personal recovery. You spend a lot of energy going nowhere.
Humility, on the other hand, is a positive, productive way to process failure. It restores our spirit, and necessarily reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. Learning to laugh at mistakes helps take the sting, and power, out of failure. Being humbled gives us the freedom to both understand the gravity of our mistake, and receive the grace needed to move on.
But my embarrassment wasn’t just about me. There was also the matter of my colleagues. They probably had some things to say about my rant (some did). Apologies were in order. In order to repair the professional rupture, a heavy dose of contrition was in order, the third action to take after quieting down and embracing humility. This meant listening without any pretense of defensiveness. After all, I was the one in error, and the benefactors of my mistake deserved better than a bevy of self-serving excuses designed to minimize their experience.
Humility and contrition are a constructive way to positively process and own up to our mistakes, while at the same time validating and acknowledging how our behavior may have affected others. Embarrassment is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to destroy us, or those poor souls who witness it.