Building Confidence with Constructive Embarrassment

Embarrassment is not a pleasant emotion. From minor social faux-pas to those mistakes that result in public humiliation, nobody likes to be embarrassed. Jerry Seinfeld has a routine he does where he points out that in a list of top fears, public speaking was rated worse than death. His punch line is when he infers that this means more people would rather be dead than standing where he is right now. Although this is just a joke, most people would have to agree that embarrassment, rejection, humiliation and anything that makes us look foolish is something to be avoided at all costs… Right?

Surprisingly, one of the most effective ways you can push down your own barriers to growth is by engaging in a practice I am going to refer to from now on as ‘constructive embarrassment’. By consciously deciding to partake in activities that you find socially uncomfortable and fearful you can break down many of the fears you have. More important then just building courage, breaking these barriers can sometimes vastly change your perception of reality. By doing things that you previously expected a very negative result you may be surprised to find the exact opposite. Constructive embarrassment is an excellent practice for finding those inaccurate beliefs about reality and dispelling them in one blow.

Constructive embarrassment is not an easy practice. Every fiber of your body is designed to avoid pain. Since humiliation, rejection and embarrassment are linked as immense pain in most people, it takes immense willpower to consciously steer towards something that may result in even mild pain. But if you commit yourself to this practice and use some of the techniques I’ll describe later you can overcome a lot of negative force and take advantage of the immense benefits of this habit.

Let me start off by saying that I have not always been confident, courageous and outgoing. As a child I had always been more shy and reserved in my social interactions. I always had trouble breaking through many of my fears to get ahead in social situations. This limitation had a severe impact on my effectiveness and overall enjoyment of life. Although I was able to communicate effectively, this would often be hampered by my own strict boundaries for social conduct that were reinforced by my fears. I bring this up because I feel many people may have had equally strong or even stronger fears and aversions in social situations.

Now I have little nervousness speaking in front of an audience and am able to approach people and start conversations fairly easily. Being able to speak enthusiastically and with confidence in a variety of situations is an incredibly powerful ability. I still have a lot of work to reach the highest levels of communication, approachability and effectiveness, but even in my short time using this practice I have been amazed at the amount of growth I have achieved. Of all the techniques I have used to build up my confidence, extroversion and courage, the most effective would have to be constructive embarrassment.

How can you start to use constructive embarrassment to build your own confidence and courage? You can start by going through three steps. These three steps will help you identify what areas you need to tackle with this technique. Next they will tell you how to build up the motivation briefly so that you can finally take the action necessary to utilize this process. This process may seem illogical when countering your fears and disempowering beliefs, but you need to trust it. Ineffective beliefs are the root of your fears, and by going against them directly you have to challenge your rational mind. Just have faith in the process and you will sometimes radically shift your beliefs to become a more empowered and successful individual. Here are the steps:

Step One: Identify an Opportunity for Embarrassment

You first have to look for an opportunity to embarrass yourself. The key here is to find a situation that you are fearful or nervous of. For some this may be public speaking, others may find dancing in public while others are incredibly nervous asking someone on a date. It doesn’t matter how simple or grandiose the situation is. There are usually tons of opportunities for you to practice this technique.

Look for the non-emotional downside as well. Just because you find jumping out of a plane without a parachute embarrassing, doesn’t mean it is advisable for this practice. Telling your boss he is a fat jerk may be satisfying and fearful but unless you plan on losing your job it may not be a good idea. The key is to look for ideas where the consequence of the embarrassment other than your emotional reaction is minimal. Asking someone on a date has very little negative downside that isn’t emotionally based. Sucker punching a police officer in broad daylight does. I won’t go more into this because I assume my readers are intelligent.

The key with this technique is not to think of how embarrassed/rejected/nervous you will feel doing the activity. Again, the whole point of the activity is to embarrass yourself, so you simply need to accept that fact. Although you can sometimes successfully accomplish this task and find out that the situation wasn’t actually embarrassing at all, we are going to approach it as if you are certain you will look like a fool.

Lets take Bob. Bob never dances. A little out of shape and with no coordination, Bob prefers to stand cooly by the side while other people dance. He believes that he would be so inept and bad at dancing that others would stare and think less of him. He believes that the best way to look good is to watch from the sidelines with an air of calmness. He can enjoy the music standing, he rationalizes.

Bob, was recently invited to a large wedding with a dinner and dance afterwards. Being a pursuer of personal development, Bob figures he’ll give this conscious embarrassment a chance. Although he doesn’t like it, Bob knows he will be embarrassed when he decides to go dancing. He is certain that the other people will laugh at him and he isn’t too comfortable with the situation. But he just accepts that some odd looks and being the subject of later stories about, “That Guy Who Couldn’t Dance…” is just a price of his own growth.

As you can see, the point of this exercise is to know you are going to be embarrassed. Many authors say the best way to challenge beliefs is to try and convince yourself you won’t be embarrassed. I think that is ineffective. I think it is far better to tackle ideas that you are certain will cause you some embarrassment, rejection or nervousness and not to try and argue your subconscious over the fact.

Step Two: Prepare for Impact!

Knowing that you are going to look like a total idiot is rarely most peoples idea of a fun time, but neither is going to the dentist and most people find a way to get themselves to go there when they need to. In order to move past our original opportunity assessment and take action we are going to have to motivate ourselves. The underlying assumption of this exercise is that you are going to look like a fool, so we aren’t going to motivate ourselves by vainly trying to challenge that.

The first key to motivating yourself is to accept that you are going to be embarrassed. Don’t try to avoid it, just accept it. Even though the purpose of this exercise is that it quite often points out to you that many things you think are embarrassing, really aren’t, that can’t be changed until we actually test reality. Your disempowering beliefs can only be contradicted through experience and reference. Unless you have had an experience when public speaking went well, you can’t convince your subconscious mind that public speaking won’t result in embarrassment if it already believes that. So, first accept that you will feel some pain and embarrassment after this practice and push that thought out of your mind. People can face pain more easily when they know it is coming, so brace yourself for it.

The next key is to put yourself into the right mental and emotional state. My favorite mental state for using this practice is what I call the “enthusiastic fool”. Put yourself into a state where you are enthusiastic, happy and excited. If you need help doing this, try reading my post on enthusiasm first.

The distinction between the enthusiastic fool and just being enthusiastic is a second element I am going to emphasize here. Put yourself into a state where you don’t give a damn what people think of you, one where your ego is completely removed from the picture. You see, it isn’t your physical body and reputation that suffers from embarrassment, it is your ego. When you become the enthusiastic fool, you retreat into a state where you don’t focus your mind on your ego at all, it is focused completely externally into taking action and the current moment.

Achieving this state is actually easier that it may sound, even if only temporarily. You must have had experiences in your past when you were in a carefree state where you didn’t give a single thought to others perception of your ego and yourself. Think of times when you were in a social situation and your mind was focused completely on your actions, not on others perceptions. By thinking back to this time, begin to adopt the posture, physiology and movements that you had then.

My own pattern when I am using this “enthusiastic fool” mindset is fairly specific. I usually begin by getting a big grin on my face and I start to move myself more quickly. I usually get myself in a humorous state as well when I laugh a lot more. I hold myself tall and I laugh off any comments about my bizarre amount of enthusiasm and cheerfulness. Although it is impossible to consciously manage this state permanently, you can usually hold it long enough to take action.

Managing your state is my favorite method but it isn’t the only one. There are many techniques to get yourself to take action. Visualization, goal setting, or even Anthony Robbins Pain/Pleasure Principle would all do the trick. I find that state management is the easiest way, but experiment if you find yourself having trouble.

Once again, we will get back to Bob. Bob has accepted that dancing in the crowd is going to be painful, rather than try to trick his subconscious, he just accepts it as a fact. Next Bob manages his state to put himself in an enthusiastic state with little regard for his ego. He starts moving more quickly, he stands tall and he makes exaggerated gestures. He smiles and speaks a little louder. Further more he laughs as if he were having the best time in the world. After only a few minutes of being in this state, Bob feels ready to go ahead with his plan.

Step Three: Embarrass Yourself!

This one needs no explanation. Once you have chosen your opportunity and entered the appropriate state, the next step is to embarrass yourself. This could be delivering a speech, wearing funny clothes or asking a date from someone you think is far more attractive than yourself. With the certainty that you are going to be embarrassed, you don’t resist it, but run towards it. Go ahead and take action.

Bob has started dancing. Although he has managed his state well he still feels nervous. He starts dancing. He moves to the edge and starts moving a bit and tapping his feet. Nobody even notices him, so he goes a little further. Bob starts to move his whole body now to the music. Still nobody notices him. In disbelief that he wasn’t embarrassed, Bob pushes it further and starts to dance a little crazily. Moving his body in a way that would certainly result in a horrified expression from any professional dancer he even involves a dance move which involves grabbing his own ankle. Now a few people look over to him and give him a little cheer. An hour or two passes and Bob is suddenly the life of the party. Using his tie as a makeshift bandana, he is up dancing with everyone having the time of his life…

The real secret of this technique is surprising. Bracing for an embarrassing backlash you are often amazed to discover that none occurs. If it does occur it is usually far easier to swallow than you previously thought. Taking on these challenges can often radically shift your belief structure with just one event. When you discover that events that terrified you have no real impact you begin to move to living more consciously.

Let me remind you that this is not a fun technique to use (at least not in the first two steps). Like going to the dentist, your subconscious will resist you moving to step three at every turn. But just as missing the dentist can leave you with oral hygiene problems, leaving out this practice leaves your ability to break through fears in shambles. Some techniques in personal development don’t seem to have an obvious immediate reward. This is one of them. Embarrassing yourself seems like a lot of pain for nothing. But use it consistently and you will discover it has the power to radically improve and modify your beliefs, fears and ultimate destiny. Besides, until you actually use this technique a fair bit you have no idea of how good it feels to finally break through one of your old fears. Trust me it is definitely worth the initial discomfort.

So your homework for today is simple. First, identify an opportunity to embarrass yourself that has a small non-emotional downside. Second, put yourself into an appropriate state and motivate yourself to take action. Finally take action and notice the results. I’d say that most of my attempts using this process result in no embarrassment at all and of the rest, most of them have far less backlash then I expected. Take time to embarrass yourself to get the most out of your life.