Fear of embarrassment is a like the coin Two-Face flips to determine his victim’s fate. On the side, a proper sense of self-restraint can help you maintain the kind of life you want: good friendships and being a respectable member of a community. (That sounds like something Emma Woodhouse would say….) On the other side, being afraid can lead to a kind of death: one where you are so worried about making a fool of yourself or having people think badly of you that you “kill” the uniqueness of you and blend into the background, so you aren’t labeled as odd or stupid.
Overcoming embarrassment is something I have struggled with for most of my life. Though I have definitely had my share of moments where I could have used a proper dose of being afraid of embarrassment (I’ve said and done plenty of very stupid things), most of the time I’ve been terrified of being considered silly, childish, weak, you name it.
My time in theatre has definitely helped with that. Spending a month doing raw Meisner exercises with a group of people I was still getting to know last year helped a lot with it. But I found the other week that I can still be inhibited by embarrassment.
After my exciting (and rather embarrassing to be truthful) adventure in boxing back in February, I found a new studio to train at which was a better fit for me and involved no hospitalizations. A few weeks ago, I started working with a personal trainer. The first session wasn’t too bad, but the second session, my instructor had me shadow box. (Imagine swinging your arms and legs at the air, trying to look cool.)
I stalled a little, being terrified that my swinging of arms and legs would be far from cool. I did try it–sort of. But I held back. While I was hitting air, the ways I encourage my theatre kids to handle themselves on stage ran through me head: don’t worry about looking silly, let go of self-consciousness and focus on your task, you actually look sillier when you are stuck in your head, etc.
In order to be able to keep pushing my kids to give up embarrassment on stage, I knew I had to work to give up embarrassment in the ring. So I pushed through. Kind of. I kept finding excuses to stop and ask questions or trip myself up, or whatever. Eventually, my trainer had pity on me and we moved on to something else.
We had a drama camp happening that week. The day after that class, I confessed to the students about how I can still get stuck in my head and get paralyzed by fear. I get how hard it is to let go of the fear of looking silly.
But I forgot to mention another realization I had while I was wildly swinging at air, thinking way too much about whether I was doing any of it right: fear of embarrassment makes it so much harder to accomplish your task, be it theatrical or some other kind.
My fear of looking silly made me uptight. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t focus on breathing or on performing the technique of the punches or kicks correctly. All I thought about was whether I was being ridiculous or not.
If I could have let go of that and thrown myself into what the instructor had asked, I probably would have done it completely wrong (I am a beginner after all), but I would have been able to actual mistakes that could be corrected instead of him having to spend the time reminding me not to worry about looking silly.
As unappealing as mess up feels to my ego, (for some reason I need to be perfect at everything, even things I am clearly a beginner at…) it really is better than not making mistakes because of being cautious and reserved. All an instructor can do then is try to push you to loosen up instead of helping you grow in your technique.
I haven’t figured out the secret to giving up all fear of embarrassment, but I am hoping that my awareness of how it held me back in that lesson will help me in future lessons and also in other areas of my life. I like to tell my kids that mistakes are opportunities. Now I might start adding that being willing to make bold mistakes is more beneficial than up-tightly trying to get everything right to avoid the need for correction.