Why Embarrassment Can Be A Good Thing at Work

It might feel stressful at the time, but there are surprising benefits to those cringeworthy moments.

Catherine Ledner/ Getty Images
Catherine Ledner/ Getty Images

That “reply all” message you didn’t mean to send. The cringe-worthy story about your weekend that you told a colleague during a T.M.I. moment. The major slip-up during a presentation that left you red-faced (or even in tears) in front of your boss. When you try your best to put your best foot forward at work, saying or doing something embarrassing can make you want to crawl under your desk and call out sick for the rest of your week — or life. 

There’s no doubt that embarrassment can be a source of stress, but it’s important to remember that you’re human — and these flubs happen to everyone. What’s more, “despite the initial pain it inflicts, embarrassment has an upside,” explains Mary Lamia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. Translation: You don’t have to go incognito after you’re in the throes of it. Here are some surprising benefits to help you keep things in perspective. 

A burst of creativity

You don’t need to put “tell embarrassing story during lunch” on your to-do list, but if it happens, don’t be surprised if you feel a rush of creativity afterward. New research found that people who went out of their way to share cringe-worthy moments actually felt more creative after opening up. The theory: What often holds us back from innovation is the fear or anticipation of embarrassment, so “owning” an embarrassing story tells your fear who’s boss so you can be your most creative self. 

Increased self-compassion

Sometimes you recover from a red-in-the-face moment pretty quickly, and other times, the feeling lingers all day, and even causes your inner critic to make you feel bad. According to Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Prescriptions Without Pills, everytime you feel embarrassment, you have an opportunity to up self-compassion game. “Listen for negative comments you tell yourself, like ‘I shouldn’t have said that,’” she suggests. “You might be making things worse by the way you talk to yourself.” Go easier on yourself, she suggests. And remember that while you’re replaying the situation in your head, “most likely, everyone else has already forgotten about it.”

Closer bonds with your colleagues

Ever watched a colleague fumble and get embarrassed, and then wanted to give them a hug and share your “I’ve been there, too” moment to help them feel less ashamed? Experts say embarrassment can help cultivate bonds that go deeper than the typical workplace chit-chat. In Brene Brown’s research, she found that being open about our imperfections can increase our sense of belonging with the people around us. Heitler says these true connections can make people happier and healthier overall, which can translate into better work performance. 

Greater sense of self-awareness

If you constantly find that you’re embarrassed by one specific behavior or topic of conversation, honing in on that emotion can help you grow by prompting you to face the insecurity head-on. According to Lamia, that growth is one of the most valuable benefits of embarrassment: “The upside of embarrassment is the fact that it focuses us inward,” she explains. “We have an opportunity to look within ourselves and learn.” She says it’s common to try to forget the situation ever happened, but “our avoidance of the lessons we can learn from shame-related experiences are missed opportunities,” she adds. “We can avoid — or we can learn.”

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