by Daron Larson
A good friend moved away several years ago. We mostly talk over the phone now, but we're able to easily jump back into the thick of our lives, regardless of the time between conversations. Even so, it felt like a luxury to catch up in person recently.
I was filling her in on the pressing details of my life when she stopped me to ask if I knew that I constantly pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose when I talked.
I didn’t, but suddenly did. The revised perspective and the related embarrassment arrived together.
The gesture went from being completely unconscious to awkwardly obvious in the handful of seconds it took her to imitate it and recommend a quick visit to an optical shop to address it.
But it was difficult to find my way back to the story I was telling. It was suddenly so much less gripping than the sensation of my glasses slipping, the strong impulse to adjust them, and the raw, exposed feeling of discovering something obvious that I’d been blind to a few minutes before.
I wouldn’t let just anyone check me for tics, of course, but I do feel fortunate to have people in my life who would rather that I feel a little immediate embarrassment to spare me from suffering a greater embarrassment down the road.
I also feel lucky to have cultivated a fascination with embarrassment over the years which provides a similar kind of inoculative protection.
One of the things I’ve found so remarkable about the approach to mindfulness I practice and teach, is the way it has gradually, yet significantly changed the way I relate to the physicality of my emotions—including the unpleasant ones like embarrassment.
It doesn’t make any of them less pleasant, which is what we all hope will happen, but consistent practice over time makes it possible to get better at identifying your feelings while identifying with them less. You can develop the ability to observe your natural capacity for feeling embarrassment in your body, for example, instead of reinforcing the story about being an embarrassed or embarrassing person that plays out in your mind.
How? By investigating its physical aspects.
Try to suspend the need to be free from the emotion and literally feel your way around and through it. Try to drop the assumption that there is one right way that everyone should experience embarrassment and get fascinated by how you experience embarrassment in your body.
Explore one or more of the following physical aspects directly for about three-to-five seconds at a time. Each brief observations is the equivalent of one repetition of a physical exercise. Remember that one push up or bicep curl may be easy, but several in a row are likely to become more challenging. The same is true with mindfulness exercises.
When your attention inevitably wanders, it doesn’t mean you’re doing the exercise wrong. It means that it's as challenging to strengthen the skills of attention as it is to develop strength and flexibility in the body.
When you realize that your awareness has drifted completely away from the physicality of emotion, just steer it gently back. Realizing that it has wandered is actually an indication that you are developing the attentional skill of clarity. Returning to the intended focus is improving your concentration power.
- Are you able to detect the emotion in your body at all? Even vaguely? Not being able to is normal. Emphasize the inquiry and give it time.
- If you are able to detect it, where does it seem to be located? The cheeks? Face? Chest? Stomach?
- Does it have a shape? Can you find your way to its edges, even if they are blurry?
- How big is it? How much area does it seem to cover?
Sometimes people have trouble locating the physical aspect of an emotion because it covers the whole body. It can even feel bigger than the whole body, like a fog that surrounds you.
- What is the flavor of embarrassment?
- Does the flavor vary in different locations?
- Can you detect other flavors that are intensifying the embarrassment?
Anger, fear, and sadness tend to travel together and escalate each other. Detecting the presence of pleasant emotional flavors can also be interesting. Staying curious about the possibility of multiple—even contradictory—flavors contributes to translating the abstract complexity of human emotion into tangible sensory perceptions.
You don’t have to try to put every flavor into words. It's more important to get acquainted with how it “tastes” in the body. When you give up trying to describe how emotions feel, it’s not unusual to be able to describe them more accurately after you’ve really felt them more completely. This is a skill that poets and writers develop with practice.
Is the sensation mild, moderate, or intense?
You can alternatively rank the intensity on a scale from 1-to-5 or 1-to-10. If your scale includes zero at the low end, you can monitor when the feeling diminishes and fades away. It can be fascinating to notice the emotional rest—the absence of activation—where the emotion was recently active.
Intensity levels will vary based on personality and situation. When you include less intense levels in your ongoing experiment, it can lead to not needing emotions to run high in order for you to be in touch with them.
Don't discount your experience of milder levels of activation. It doesn't need to be intense in order to count.
- Does the sensation feel solid? Wavy? Solid in places and wavy in others?
- Does the intensity stay the same? Does it subside or increase?
- Does the emotional flavor stay the same or does it change?
- What does it feel like to try to accept either the stability or the fluctuations as they are?
Work towards being able to observe the embarrassment as it appears, peaks, and dissipates.
The trickiest part of exploring the physical aspects of emotion is trying not turn your observations into judgments or evaluations of how they should feel. Working in this way also develops the ability to notice that certain types of thoughts are fueled by emotions you're barely aware of—if you're aware of them at all.
This is why short repetitions of direct awareness is so important. It only takes a few seconds for the mind to try to solve the implied problem of even barely perceived emotional discomforts. Work toward stringing together several micro-observations with the goal being to get better acquainted with the emotion rather than trying to be free of it.
The opportunities to get better acquainted with embarrassment are endless. Here is a very incomplete list of situations that are likely to trigger its appearance as an emotional activation in your body. Consider devoting a few seconds or minutes to getting better acquainted with it before trying to get rid of it.
- Not wanting to get out of bed
- Going to the bathroom
- Looking at yourself in the mirror
- Taking a shower
- Getting dressed
- Arriving to work late
- Arriving to work on time
- Arriving to work early
- Forgetting your password
- Being happy
- Being unhappy
- Playing along with the way things are done
- Speaking out against the way things are done
- Delivering a presentation
- Watching someone deliver a presentation
- Giving praise or criticism
- Receiving praise or criticism
- Noticing all the people compulsively checking their phones
- Checking your phone compulsively
- Following orders
- Giving orders
- Caring about a project
- Not caring about a project
- Having a strong opinion
- Not having an opinion
- Making a mistake
- Calling out a mistake
- Overlooking a mistake
- Yielding to a habit you want to change
- Forgetting an appointment
- Waiting at the doctor’s office
- Weighing in at the doctor's office
- Telling the nurse what aches, itches, or concerns you
- Waiting in your underwear under a paper blanket for the doctor (while compulsively checking your phone)
- Being sick
- Being told there is nothing to be concerned about
Being hospitable to unpleasant emotions can neutralize their negative influence and reveal unexpected benefits.
It seems counterintuitive to allow myself to give vulnerability permission to be expressed in my body, and yet vulnerability is an important part of what makes me human. It also helps me nurture compassion toward myself and others.
It's definitely an acquired taste. Like the objective perspective of a trusted friend, it's not always comfortable. But literally feeling emotional discomfort for a few seconds at a time contributes to not always needing to feel comfortable in order to feel at home in my life.