A new study suggests that personal embarrassment can be mitigated by identifying with observers, rather than the subject themselves.
In a study entitled “Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer’s perspective” published to Motivation and Emotion, researchers assert that while “past research… shows that a heavy focus on oneself can intensify negative emotions,” putting yourself in the position of the other people present at the embarrassing event has just the opposite effect.
According to research, people tend to judge themselves much more harshly than the people around them for all manner of humiliation. Whether it is farting or showing up to a birthday party without a present, most people simply do not care as much as the one experiencing embarrassment. In turn, by focusing on how they would perceive someone else being embarrassed, people may be able to train themselves to lessen the effect.
To test this, researchers put subjects in front of an ad for Beano about passing gas in front of peers. Other participants saw versions where a young man farted in front of his crush or people spoke to unfamiliar physicians about a sexually-transmitted disease. In all cases, those who empathized with the subject of the embarrassment were significantly more uncomfortable. Those who instead placed themselves in the shoes of people surrounding the humiliated individual, much less so.
Individuals scoring higher for self-consciousness on a personality test were not only more likely to feel distressed but inclined to buy the product being advertised as well. And, of course, stepping outside yourself in a moment of social vulnerability is very counter-intuitive. Still, if you find yourself flatulent and unprepared in front of a group, putting yourself in their position might be the best way to regain your own composure.