The Different Types of Embarrassment and How They Affect Us

December 22, 2019
Did you know that there are several different types of embarrassment? Read on to find out what they are.

There are several types of embarrassment. Although they mostly have the same physiological consequences, they tend to differ in terms of cognitive processing and the circumstances that produce it. Stay with us as we talk about why we often feel embarrassed!

Recently, an acclaimed American psychoanalyst named Joseph Burgo classified four types of embarrassment that he considered to be fundamental. He says that, these days, people are more prepared to talk about what they’re embarrassed and ashamed about. At the same time, he explains how he thinks each of these variants can affect us.

In his book from 2018, Burgo presents four perspectives that we can use to study this phenomenon. However, before we begin to look at the differences, we’re going to point out what these perspectives have in common:

  • Flushing of the face, neck, or chest.
  • Wanting to escape or avoid situations.
  • Wanting to disappear or change places.
  • Not being able to look at the other person in the eye.
  • Transient mental confusion.

However, what experts in the study of this psychophysical state think seems to differ from the conception that most people have of it.

A woman covering her face.

Is embarrassment always negative?

Many people have a very negative view of embarrassment. However, those in charge of studying it conceive it as more varied in nature and with more moderate and less drastic consequences.

In one way or another, embarrassment is a relatively common aspect of our daily lives that’s difficult to avoid. However, it may not be as toxic or negative as you tend to think. Burgo made some interesting proposals in his book. Based on more than 35 years of clinical observations, he pointed out the relationship that exists between embarrassment and self-esteem.

In this way, he considers that the positive lessons you can learn from interacting with the different states of embarrassment can actually override the negative effect of the inhibitions that it causes. The message this author offers us is both optimistic and demystifying.

We don’t often stop to listen and consider all the different aspects of our states of embarrassment. We frequently tend to disguise our embarrassment because we find it so uncomfortable. This can manifest itself in many ways:

  • Addictions.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Self-pity.
  • Promiscuity.
  • Narcissism.

Types of embarrassment and their influence

One of the reasons why it’s easier to touch on the subject nowadays is that people tend to be less fearful of talking about what embarrasses them. People are, in general, far less reluctant to talk about it than before.

Embarrassment has an impact on countless personality traits and psychological defense mechanisms.

In today’s society, we’re encouraged to show our true image. We listen to advice that tells us to live in harmony with our qualities and our minds. That’s why people are more ready to look inside themselves and share what embarrasses them. Positive psychology, so prevalent these days, encourages you to accept your less desirable traits with optimism.

For Burgo, dealing with embarrassment, in any of its forms, is a daily occupation. It’s a psychological process that, as with so many others, manifests itself during people’s daily chores. For that reason, dealing with it is a natural and acceptable phenomenon.

As we mentioned above, the author proposes that we can differentiate four types of embarrassment.

1. Unrequited love

Maybe you have loved someone, but that love wasn’t reciprocated or the person you loved rejected you. Maybe you feel that they abandoned you. In many of these situations, embarrassment turns into humiliation.

We know that children can start to experience this type of embarrassment early on in their lives. When babies don’t receive the love they need from their mothers, after making frequent attempts to get their attention, they experience something very similar to embarrassment. The common name is “one-sided love”.

In psychological practice, experts have observed that people who have been raised in this way – with mothers who haven’t expressed enough empathy in the relationship with their child – show evident hurt as a result of this “one-sided love”. This, as a result, negatively conditions the person’s normal development.

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

-Oscar Wilde-

A sad woman showing different types of embarrassment.

2. Unwanted exposure

This isn’t such a frequent predicament. It happens when people belittle others in public or when someone, for example, enters a room and finds you naked.

Generally, this type of embarrassment is – due to its frequency and relative lack of seriousness – transitory and not very relevant to the individual’s psychological well-being. However, depending on the predisposition of the person, and the intensity of the emotion experienced, in certain cases it could adversely affect someone or cause them some sort of trauma.

3. Non-fulfillment of expectations or disappointment

Here, we’re talking about the type of embarrassment that arises when, after trying to achieve a goal, you don’t succeed. You feel embarrassed due to the expectation you had created in yourself or that other people had imposed on you.

In terms of severity and potential repercussions, it’s similar to the previous type. Some everyday examples that might generate this feeling of embarrassment are:

  • Not being able to keep up with your expected progress at work.
  • The erosion of a friendly relationship.
  • The failure of a romantic relationship.

4. Exclusion or marginalization

As a social being, it’s quite normal for you to want to fit in a group and feel that you belong there. This principle applies to almost all areas of your life: work, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. However, there are times when this sense of belonging can be threatened…

In these cases, high self-esteem and the ability to make valid assumptions would serve as a defense against the negative influence of this type of embarrassment. A good attitude would be the following one: “My friends haven’t invited me to the barbecue today because, knowing how much I work, they probably think I’m far too busy and don’t want to bother me, not because they don’t want to be with me”.

A man feeling excluded.

Conclusion

Embarrassment can be exhausting and exasperating. So much so, that, in some cases, it can be a determining element in your emotional balance and in how your personality develops. In fact, some negative personality traits, such as narcissism or self-harm, are typically associated with a lack of resources in how people are able to confront their embarrassment.

Saying “no” to a child may create a very mild form of embarrassment, as it tends to interrupt the child’s natural impulse to explore. However, this type of embarrassment doesn’t usually last very long, nor does it have long-term repercussions.

“It’s more shameful to distrust friends than to be deceived by them.”

-François de La Rochefoucauld-

Therefore, unless we’re dealing with a person whose childhood has been plagued by abuse, abandonment, or trauma, the small amounts of embarrassment that may have accumulated shouldn’t imply a permanent negative effect. For this reason, every parent should know that it’s OK to refuse a child’s requests from time to time.

However, there are those who have been severely impacted by embarrassment or shame. If they decide to seek psychological assistance – something we strongly recommend – then the therapist will have to delve carefully into their past and gradually discover the person’s personal defenses after first having gained their trust.

Building bonds of trust requires time and effort. This is the case of people who harbor deep feelings of embarrassment, shame, and humiliation. It can be very disturbing for them when other people judge them. They can even be afraid of the therapist judging them.

We hope you’ve found this article on the different types of embarrassment interesting!

  • Burgo, J. (2018). Shame : Free yourself, find joy and build true self-esteem. Londres: Watkins Media.
  • Gilbert, P. (2002). Body Shame: Conceptualisation, research and treatment. Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Hutchinson, P. (2008). Shame and philosophy. Londres: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Marina, A. (2017). Vergüenza, orgullo y humillación: contrapuntos emocionales en la experiencia de la migración laboral femenina. Estudios Sociológicos35(103), 65-89.