Falling Down and Owning Up: The Psychology of Embarrassment

This morning, 6:00 a.m., I parked my car in the grungy pigeon-poop peppered parking garage of the train station, gathered my heavy purse, lunch bag, and travel coffee mug, and began my amble to the platform.

Of course, just then, the intercom announced that my train was approaching. So I ran for it, as fast as I could wearing cute suede low-heeled booties and laden with all my stuff. I maneuvered past and around people, perhaps even jostling someone in my haste.

I am usually a fanatic about taking the stairs, but in this case, I hypothesized that if I combined the escalator with running, I might get to the platform even faster.

So I tried to sprint up the escalator two steps at a time. But my toe caught the step, and I went SPLAT, hard. My right knee hit the metal corner with stunning pain.

There I was, splayed out on the dirty metal, coffee still in hand and miraculously upright, bags still on my arm, as the conveyer kept rolling.

I had a vague awareness that there were people behind me. I popped up, rearranged my stuff, and took a test step with my right leg. Though it was painful, and I could feel blood trickling down, and my dress slacks were sticking to whatever gash was underneath, I just kept moving, mortified. I even limped/trotted the rest of the way to the platform, and caught the damn train.

I never turned around to see if anyone had noticed. And no one asked me if I was okay. I just got on the train, no seats left (of course) so I stood against the wall, and thankfully pulled out my phone. Thankful because I didn’t have to risk making eye contact with my fellow commuters.

My knee throbbed, and I was sure I had a tear in my favorite black work pants, but I was too embarrassed to openly acknowledge these facts by, say, examining my leg and rubbing my knee.

Now that I’m at the office and well into my clinic, I can ponder the psychology behind my ridiculous reaction. I mean, I was standing on the train in pain and with blood dripping down my leg, pretending to casually scroll through Facebook posts. As if by ignoring the fall and its consequences, I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and anyone who saw my gaffe (who didn’t even ask if I was okay or offer to help me up) would be less inclined to feel sorry for me.

Now, I know I’m not the only fool who does stupid things like this, because I’m a doctor, and patients tell me about this stuff all the time. I have a patient who flipped over the handlebars of their bike and knocked loose several teeth, but instead of accepting assistance, hurriedly got back on the bike and rode the hell out of there.

Another was hit by a car while crossing the street– HIT BY A DAMN CAR– got up, brushed herself and the shocked driver off, and scurried away in shame. They both ended up in my office with injuries to be evaluated, and I was like, What is wrong with you people?

What is wrong with us?

We were embarrassed. Which is, essentially, when our image of ourselves is challenged. Or rather, when our image of what we imagine other people’s image of ourselves is challenged.

Confused? There’s a great quote that gets to the heart of this: “I am not who you think I am. I am not who I think I am. I am who I think you think I am.”

If we think that other people think we’ve done something foolish, that can cause a temporary drop in our self-esteem. And the more insecure one is, the bigger the drop.

I guess I haven’t made much progress since high school, because I managed to ride all the way from the suburbs to the city without evaluating my own injury. And man, was it sore!

Once at my stop, I exited and crossed the street to my building. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun coming up (this actual photo was from a few weeks ago, but you get the gist):



Sunrise after exiting the Charles/ MGH T stop, along Cambridge street, Boston, MA

Beautiful, right? And I kind of laughed at myself for being such an ass.

When I had some time, I read up on the psychology of embarrassment. There is a ton of good reading on this topic! One helpful article is in Psychology Today, by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, titled “The Best Way To Deal With Embarassment“. She explains the social science behind this ubiquitous yet unpleasant emotion, and general strategies for managing it.

The first strategy is what I and my patients did: Ignore. Deny. Pretend it didn’t happen. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it go away.

A much better apporach, she explains, is to confront it directly. Own up to it. This can mean explaining and sincerely apologizing if the act was confusing or hurtful to anyone (ever sent an email or text to the wrong person?). It can also mean using humor. People appreciate when we share our embarrassing stories; it’s therapeutic, a win-win.

Hence, today’s post. Enjoy!

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