The One Thing Worse Than Being Embarrassed (And How to Avoid It)

We orchestrate most of our lives around avoiding embarrassment. But what if, in doing so, we orchestrate the only thing ultimately worse than embarrassment?


Photo Credit: lincolnblues via Compfight cc

I bit into a sandwich and a large part of my top front tooth broke off. My tongue found the new gap in my teeth, and then I found a mirror to survey the damage. I looked like I had just played in the Stanley Cup. And lost.

It was a Friday evening and I promptly cancelled all my weekend plans except a meeting with a small group of friends on Sunday. I thought it would be embarrassing to see anyone else. Yet, as the Sunday gathering approached, my fear of embarrassment began to grow anyway:

What will they think of me?

What will they say about me?

I felt like I was in middle school, hiding my first pimple.

Sunday came and the group came together and, as time passed and no one mentioned the gap in my teeth, I became increasingly anxious. Finally, I blurted out, “Yeah, so my tooth fell off this weekend.” They looked at me and collectively responded with, “Oh, we hadn’t even noticed.”

I think they did notice. They were one of the nicest groups of people I’ve ever known, and I think they were trying to save me from the very embarrassment I feared. Yet, although that weekend was six years ago, I still recall the moment in which no one noticed.

Because the only thing worse than being noticed and embarrassed is not being noticed at all.

Why Kids Want to be Famous

Every year, formal surveys are conducted in which young people are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For decades, the top two responses were teacher and doctor. However, in the last several years, those vocations have been replaced at the top by a new answer:


Many people lament the narcissism of Generation YouTube, but the truth is, what appears narcissistic on the surface always arises from a secret sense of lacking—what looks like grandiosity is always bubbling up from a deep well of self-doubt. So, when young people primarily desire fame, they are indirectly expressing their fear of not being noticed or known by anyone.

And young people aren’t alone, are they? For the most part, teenagers have fled Facebook for SnapChat and Tinder because their parents have hijacked Facebook. Of course, adults don’t share as many selfies as young people, but isn’t the content we share simply a more cleverly disguised self-portrait? And when we post something to Facebook, and no one seems to care, don’t we feel it deep in our hearts? Don’t we feel unnoticed? Don’t we feel unseen?

Don’t we, too, feel like a chipped tooth no one is paying attention to?

The Gift of Being Embarrassed

Six years after my tooth cracked, I felt like my immune system had cracked. I had endured three consecutive weeks of illness: strep throat followed by influenza. I’d gotten sick, in part, because life is messy and sick happens. But, deep down, I also knew my immune system had been compromised by long hours of work and short hours of sleep.

Laying in bed, I texted a friend to let him know how slowly my recovery was going. I think I was hoping for sympathy and encouragement, but I got something completely unexpected.

I got embarrassed.

My friend knew my wife and I had tried to ignore our illness and go on spring break anyway. He knew we had finally succumbed to fatigue and turned the car around. He knew I was being stubborn and refusing to learn the lesson this suffering was trying to teach me.

Eyes half-closed, I heard the chirp of an incoming text message. I reached for the phone and read his reply. It went something like this: Is there a pill you can take to reduce your achievement drive by 50%? You need to slow down, because I love you and want you to not be dead from a heart attack at age 50.

He called me out. He saw through my tireless work ethic and saw it for what it was: an overactive achievement drive arising out of a tireless sense of insecurity. He let me know: I notice you enough to see the chips on who you are.

I suddenly felt embarrassed. And, at the same time, I suddenly felt less alone.

What If We UnCreated Our Loneliness?

We lament a world in which true personal connection is increasingly difficult. But what if the power to connect is always in our hands and in our hearts? And what if we are sabotaging ourselves? What if, in our effort to orchestrate completely unembarrassed lives, we hide ourselves away until we go unnoticed altogether?

What if we create our own loneliness?

And what if we can uncreate it?

By allowing ourselves to be truly seen. By bravely smiling wide and allowing the world to see our cracks and our fault lines. By stepping into embarrassment instead of running away from it.

And what would happen if we took those first steps with a trusted friend—a friend or lover or spouse or sibling or parent or therapist? A friend who will not see us for our mess but through our mess, who will see our actual goodness in the gaps between all of our broken attempts to prove ourselves good, who will see us for the lovely person we are—chipped and cracked but coming together again.

What would happen? We’d feel a little embarrassed. And we’d feel deeply noticed and blessedly connected.

We’re all worthy of being famous.

In at least one person’s eyes.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “The One Thing Worse Than Being Embarrassed (And How to Avoid It)

  1. I love this message– you have the knack for being right on topic —my friends and I were just discussing the lack of feedback on Facebook and that new viral video “Look Up” that is going around. Thank you for this blog.

  2. My email drives me crazy. I saw your email this morning, thought ‘why on earth did I sign up for one more thing?!’, and opened the email prepared to unsubscribe. Then I read and remembered why I subscribed… good stuff! Thanks!

    • Rhonda, that’s about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my blog! I sure can relate to the overwhelming email inbox and every week I try to make sure the content is worth your time. Thank you for affirming that!

  3. This is so very timely (mostly because it’s validating that someone else has observed the same thing). I find myself terribly lonely and searching facebook for someone to connect with — through a funny post, a picture, etc. I can be “cryptic” on FB (because it is still public and I prefer to connect in person), but I can post things that range from deeply important to me to just plain fluff and get…nothing. I know I’m lonely. I know I need connection and that FB doesn’t work for that, but I keep going back.

    • Honestly, Rebecca, there is so much stuff going into news feeds right now, your posts could be buried in minutes and people never see what you have to say. A kitchen table is still the most surefire way to connect. I hope you can find a way to connect in a more reliable way!

  4. This is so very true! Do you follow Brene Brown and her work on shame and vulnerability?

    • Jean, when I told my wife what I was writing about, she said, “So, it’s a Brene Brown post?” My response was, “Hey, she doesn’t have a trademark on writing about vulnerability and courage.” Or maybe she does. Ha! I love Brene’s work.

  5. It is ironic that we can be online with millions of people and still feel very alone. And we can be with one person, a few feet away from each other, and feel equally alone.

    • You got it, Cindy. Connection isn’t about numbers and it isn’t about proximity. It’s about vulnerability and openness.

  6. Love this article. It highlights the current struggle I’m bogged down with at the moment. As I wrestle with blessing/curse of self awareness and work on trying to be the best me I can be, its nice to hear the calming whisper of reason and simplicity. What stands out most for me are those last two lines. I often forget that ‘one person’s eyes’ are the real reason I get out of bed every day.

    Much gratitude,
    Peter P & Tammy L

    • Peter, I trust Tammy is that one person. Blessings to the both of you as you keep each other famous. : )

  7. This is a great article. Perfectly describes the roller coaster of adult psyche. Thanks for a greater reminder! Faults and cracks are part of the lovely landscape of our lives!

  8. This just happened with my teenage daughter, she has been overlooked and ignored by her coaches after an amazing year and a personal state championship. Tonight was the meeting for the new team and my daughter sat with me at a table away from her teammates, it was heartbreaking!!!
    I actually started crying in the hall after the meeting when I thanked one of the girls for stepping up and being a friend. Right now it feels crazy! The decision the coaches made was to not put her on Leadership with her friends who had also been on the team for two years already! Most of her friends have been awkward and even ignore her. I will say, I am more proud of my daughter today because she has been an amazing sport about it!!!

  9. Today the my walls of protection won. I had therapy but cancelled. I couldn’t bring myself to be vulnerable enough to go and deal with my increasing lack of desire to live. I appreciate your article and the reminder that I long to be seen and heard – for hope that isn’t an empty promise based in someone’s fear of losing me. You are a constant source of hope and inspiration. A champion for vulnerability – the real source of connection. Thank you for helping me open a window of isolation and let a part of myself be seen.

    • Marsha, you are worth it! Please talk to someone who cares soon! Who knows, there may be someone out there that needs you and relies on you whether you know it or not!

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  11. Life is often embarrassing, occasionally even mortifying, when we have shown up only to have our vulnerability hanging out like a slip showing beneath a mistucked skirt. It’s not the worst thing in the world, though. It’s not even as bad as being embarrassed and having no one notice; the worst thing is when we prevent ourselves from living because we are so afraid that we might be ridiculous for a moment. Between ridiculous and stunted, I’ll take ridiculous every time. Burning cheeks and all.
    And if no one notices, I imagine I’ve pulled off the coup of the century.

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