On Embarrassment

This is not the tone of my usual posts (if a “usual” can be established after three posts), and it is difficult to write, but I believe it will be therapeutic to do so.

I spent two hours this morning crying alone in a parking lot. I was embarrassed. If I tell you why I was embarrassed, I’m not sure it will make sense, but I’ll explain anyway because I think it demonstrates the extent of my affliction. I was embarrassed because I went to my husband’s work to make a Sunday pancake brunch for him and some of his coworkers, and found that another member of his squadron also had planned to make brunch food. I was mortified. Before the squadron member had a chance to clear space for us to prep our dishes side by side, I was fighting to hold back my tears in front of all these tough military men and had rushed out the door with all my cooking supplies.

This is not the first time I’ve cried over a small and inconsequential miscommunication. My earliest memory of public tears is from my first day of kindergarten. A boy named Justin exclaimed “Hi Rachel!” and waved in my direction. I waved back. I then realized that I was not the only member of my class to bear my moniker, and his greeting had actually been directed at Rachel Gootherts, who sat behind me. Again, I was mortified that I had waved awkwardly at a stranger, and I cried. “Mortified” may seem like a melodramatic word, but it accurately captures the incapacitating strength of the emotions I experienced when making an honest mistake. I cried at least once a day for 7 of the 9 years I attended Petaluma Christian Academy. In many ways it was a self perpetuating cycle – I was easily embarrassed, so I cried, which is in and of itself embarrassing, so people mocked me for it, and then I cried some more, and so on and so forth. I yearned to be invisible, because every interaction put me at risk of further embarrassment. Crying became my defining trait, such that one parent from the school refused to invite me to her daughter’s social gatherings, and told my mother that she didn’t want the presence of the weird crying girl to “interfere with her daughter’s chances of being popular”. That parent is nonetheless one of my favorite people I knew during my childhood, which shows you how poorly everyone else treated me. My mom attended several parent teacher conferences on the subject of my crying, until in 6th grade, my teacher gave her an ultimatum – if I could not get my outbursts under control, I would need to find an alternative educational situation.

I am still impossibly shy, but people can’t tell because as I worked to combat my crying habit, I developed an alternative coping mechanism of rambling when I’m uncomfortable.  This makes me appear outgoing, but since I’m uncomfortable most of the time, all this talking can also make me look self-absorbed, which again, perpetuates my embarrassment. This coping mechanism may have kept me from getting kicked out of middle school, but it has also turned off many acquaintances. In high school I was nominated for the yearbook’s “Never Stops Talking” Senior Standout award. I was so embarrassed I didn’t approve having my picture included in the yearbook, nor did I purchase a yearbook for myself, so no one has any photographic record of my being a member of my graduating class.

This habit also caused me trouble in the earlier part of my career, as I would sometimes blurt things out in stressful moments that would have been better off kept to myself. I once had a colleague pull me aside and candidly tell me “Everyone here hates you”.   Ouch. I needed a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism. I’ve tried several alternative reactions to embarrassment – on good days I retreat to a quiet place until it blows over, on worse days I eat French fries, and on the worst days I, succumb to one of my old habits of babbling or crying. Mostly, I try to avoid opportunities to be embarrassed. I’ve internalized the notion that “Everyone hates you”, so I assume that when I meet new people, they don’t want to be bothered by me. As a result, I am afraid to reach out to people, extend invitations; I even second-guess myself when I simply respond to a social media post. This has limited my ability to make friends.  The irony of failure avoidance is that it necessitates avoidance of success as well. I’ve skipped job interviews and missed grad school application deadlines to avoid rejection. I’ve quit every sport I ever enjoyed as soon as it became clear I couldn’t be “the best” at it. I had chances at coaching, writing, podcasting, and broadcasting for the sport I love, and I let each one pass me by. I’ve rationalized why these opportunities weren’t right for me, but if I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t pursue them out of fear that I might be exposed as not good enough.

Fortunately, a perk of being a military wife has been that it takes some control out of my hands, and thus minimizes my capacity to sabotage myself. Because of Shawn and his career, I’ve had to leave my comfort zone – whether or not I was ready. I’ve found the strength to apply to grad school, change careers, and have a wonderful baby, without being certain how these decisions would end. I’m happy with where God has steered my life path, however, on days like today, when I let my morning crumble due to a miscommunication, I see that growth is still needed. As a pathological perfectionist, I wish I could end this post with a clear, actionable plan to overcome this affliction, or at least a poignant platitude (Pause for a moment and appreciate the alliteration in this sentence, because it makes me a tiny bit proud). Yet the healthiest thing I can probably do for myself is to post this admitting that despite my rich educational background in psychology, I don’t have an easy solution. But if God can give me grace in my humanity, who I am I to deny myself that same grace? And though I already know I will fail to meet the standard of His perfect grace, I have to try, and then try, try again.

Anyone else struggle with embarrassment? What strategies do you use to combat this issue?



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kathy says:

    Don’t know if this will help, but I cry at the drop of a hat from overwhelming emotion (perceived beauty in art & music, happiness, empathy, tender memories, etc.), I feel your embarrassment. And people do tend to avoid me because I’m “too emotional”. Or they dismiss me as “silly”. I cry during the National Anthem at sporting events. I still cry when I see a brindle boxer, because my dog, who passed when I was twelve, was such a love. I’m tearing up right now for you! And this used to cause me embarrassment which only made me cry harder. Vicious cycle.
    The older I get, I realize that’s how God made me. And so I push through. The love of my life helped me to forgive myself and not really care what others thought. He understood, and that’s all that mattered, he said.
    For what it’s worth, I love you just the way you are. Handle it or not, you are a beautiful, unique person and those who will take the time to get to know you will understand and support you, too. What you think is embarrassing is just another thing to love about you.
    Please don’t be hard on yourself. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. You have what many people lack: heart and compassion. Your schedule conflict moment came because you cared, not for yourself, but for another person and their feelings. ♥


  2. From one over-internal processor, who appears to be outgoing but is also terrified of rejection to another I ❤ this post and I ❤ you 8th grade buddy… My mom used to have similar meetings at PCA for me- I honestly just think they probably didn't have the social psychology education to deal with sensitive children. Growing up and going to therapy and just adulting have taught me that PCA while a nice little community really wasn't a great school lol. This was an awesome post.


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