Confronting Your Intimate FOE: Transforming Fear of Exposure into the Fun of Embarrassment

As a speaker and workshop leader, I’m always designing and experimenting with small group exercises that, hopefully, generate positive energy, emotional give and take and some knowing, if not hearty, laughter. Such group interaction becomes a dynamic springboard for fulfilling my mission as a “Motivational Psychohumorist” ™, that is, helping participants achieve a deeper appreciation for and an ability to engage their own and others’: a) workplace demands and overall life challenges, b) psychological strengths and vulnerabilities, and c) communicational processes and patterns. In addition, a personal goal: having this mutual sharing, problem-solving and understanding occur within a learning context of considerable merriment and mirth.

Why the importance of humor and laughter for meeting program objectives? For now, let’s just say good-natured fun and laughter seem to break down social and cultural barriers thereby fostering empathy and compassion. People more readily acknowledge common imperfections while gently laughing at their differences, no small feat in an increasingly diverse world. And time and again my experience as a therapist, educator and organizational motivator reveals that people are often more open to a serious message when it’s gift-wrapped with humor!

The FOE Exercise

To illustrate both social bonding and barrier busting, here’s a recently designed exercise that has been field tested about a half dozen times in both national conference and organizational retreat settings with a variety of state and federal government professionals, including members of the International Personnel Management Association (IPMA), Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC), Federally Employed Women (FEW), Blacks In Government (BIG) and a division of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The exercise has become a staple of my High Performance, Team Synergy and Jolt of CPR – “Creativity, Passion and Risk-Taking” – Programs. I introduce the exercise after the audience has already participated in a couple of group problem-solving or role play-like interactions. So people are pretty warmed up. (Hmm…I wonder if the exercise might work as a provocative program opener.) The exercise is disarmingly simple to execute yet invariably startling in its effect. And it starts with a four-word directive: “Share an embarrassing moment.”

Initially, the groups of four or five are surprised; at times, an uncomfortable silence accompanied by a variety of pained or puzzled looks weaves its way about the room. Clearly, the tension reflects the generalized feeling of potential intimacy and personal vulnerability. Yet, invariably, someone in each group breaks the ice. And soon thereafter, the previous frowns are being replaced by rapt attention and nodding smiles…and then frequently by bursts of full-throated laughter. And with each story, the cycle of thawing, sharing and laughter moves at a faster and more spontaneous pace. Within minutes, the heightened group energy is palpable. And shortly thereafter the room is crackling with communal buzz!

After about ten minutes, story time is over. Now begins the group feedback which focuses on some key questions: 1) why did we do the exercise? And 2) what happened or what does it mean that so much energy and laughter was released? (Actually, before the questions and depending on time constraints, participants may have the opportunity to share one or two memorable moments. Moments have ranged from tripping, falling on one’s derriere and sliding down the wedding aisle to unknowingly driving off with someone else’s car for a late night pizza run and being apprehended by campus police upon your return. And how your keys opened the car and started the engine still remains a mystery.)

Exercising and Exorcizing Embarrassment

Let’s examine several key dynamics underlying “The Purpose, Playfulness and Power of the ‘Embarrassing Moment’ Exercise”:

1. Highlights the Role of Cultural Diversity and Mutual Humanity. Clearly, cultural diversity is increasingly coloring – sometimes complicating, mostly enriching -- all aspects of American life. And while its positive contributions to society are deservedly celebrated, we may be overlooking an equally important reality: “People are more human than otherwise.” While a particular embarrassing activity or action may reflect an aspect of multiculturalism, having embarrassing moments is a universal phenomenon, something with which all can identify. Revealing your imperfect self by lowering a “having it all together” mask frequently calls out an “I can relate” connection. This can be especially valuable when an authority figure wants to be seen as a leader who is not afraid to loosen status distinctions or who chooses to be one of the team. Such openness emboldens others to let down their guard or it just may motivate an “I can top that” or “If you think that was bad” story. And finally, converting past embarrassment into a playfully poignant present with fellow “sufferers” facilitates a “we are all in this together” consciousness and commonality. Remember, research shows that misery doesn’t just like company…it really prefers miserable company!

2. Recognizes Misery, Mastery and Mirth Connection. An important realization of this public storytelling is that a once painful experience, whether brought on by clumsiness, carelessness or cluelessness, no longer has you in its emotional grip. Memory is less a source of shame or regret and more an opportunity to embellish if not exaggerate past behaviors and events. You are not simply a victim of experience; you have a chance to relive the past as well as redesign and redefine it. Once closeted memories are exposed to common light and lightness, they can more readily risk coming out of the semantic shadows. Now memories are more open to interpretation and translation, and they may seem less painful or demeaning; it becomes easier to perceive yourself in a more confident or competent light. And with a little ego boost, mortification may eventually morph into merriment.

A student of the psychology of humor, the psychiatrist, Ernst Kris, captured a potentially powerful link between the poignant and the playful: “What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at.” That is, the enhanced self-esteem from a sense of mastery in the present allows us to acknowledge if not embrace past anxieties, indignities and albatrosses. In addition, my inverse observation has relevance: “What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master.” When you can laugh at an intimidating figure (even if but quietly and privately) you often can cut that person down to manageable size. For example, to deflate an arrogant antagonist, consider the words of the 20th century French novelist, Andre Gide, from The Immoralist: “One must allow others to be right…It consoles them for not being anything else.”

Finally, even if mastery is derived mostly through transformative memory or simply by being in the company of fellow clods and clucks (hence reducing a singularly pathetic or pitiable status) it’s easier to laugh at flaws and foibles and not feel so browbeaten by them. So remember, share your story with people who have walked in your shoes…especially if they can feel your bunions!

3. Differentiates Embarrassment from Humiliation. In one of my CPR sessions, a participant, perhaps showing a touch of irony, speculated that the purpose of the “Embarrassing Moment” Exercise was “to have people experience humiliation.” Ironically, this answer was closer to the truth than I suspect he realized. My intention is not to demean but, in actuality, to help people grapple with new meaning: to realize that there is a fundamental difference between natural embarrassment and neurotic humiliation. Do you recall dynamic #1 – “Cultural Diversity and Mutual Humanity”? In contrast to humiliation which is often colored by one’s unique self-berating inner voices and sometimes too by rigidly righteous or over controlling family or cultural values and norms, embarrassment is a universal part of human drama and absurdity. To better illustrate the difference, let’s turn to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary:

a) Embarrassment comes from the French, embarras, connoting “obstacle, trouble, and to hinder.” Embarrass means “to place in doubt, perplexity or difficulties.” Worth noting, there is not an obvious critical value judgment. Webster’s continues: Embarrass “likely implicates an agency or influence checking and hampering free choice or action, often with accompanying chagrin, confusion and loss of face.” While there may be some diminished pride, with embarrassment problems can be attributed to outside forces or hampering factors as much as to personal inadequacy or insignificance.

b) Humiliate is derived from the Latin humilis, that is, “to be low or humble” and according to Webster’s means “to reduce to a lower position in one’s eyes or the eyes of others: injure the self respect of.” And “humiliating” involves “lowering one’s position or dignity.” And for “humiliation,” Roget’s International Thesaurus provides a powerful “double d” combo punch – “demotion and disgrace.”

Alas, as too many can attest all forms of physical abuse and emotional abandonment still rear their ugly and potentially humiliating heads. However, this sobering reality does not negate another psychological vérité: too often an embarrassing moment turns into a humiliating experience because of critical, dysfunctional and/or outmoded voices and values still weighing heavily on a mind. For example, not being able to better apportion personality and situational factors for one’s missteps leads to “attributional bias,” that is, assigning personal blame while not being able to place actions and events in a larger historical, environmental and, even, multicultural context. By way of example, if a colleague arrives late to work a couple of times in a week, the typical observer begins to suspect personal laziness or disorganization. In contrast, arriving similarly late your explanation is likely situational and mitigates personal responsibility – an accident on the highway, your child feeling ill on the way to daycare, etc. However, a state of depression (or, I suspect, long-standing feelings of shame) may predispose an observer to a more “black or white” and overly critical evaluation of his or her own motives and actions. And a common instigator of such bias is the unrealistic expectation surrounding the degree to which one is objectively “in control.” To repeat, such irrational, personalized processing can fuel both harsh self-judgments and negative evaluations of others.

Conversely, a capacity for normal and natural embarrassment just may enable you to reframe more benignly a once, or future, painful encounter and transmute any vestiges of humiliation into a capacity for “humility”: “the quality or state of being humble in spirit: freedom from [false] pride or arrogance” (Webster’s). And if not able to completely perceive a past humiliation as merely an embarrassing episode, perhaps with this semantic distinction you can view former demeaning or degrading experiences through a less biased, more understanding and forgiving, lens.

4. Illustrates a Method for Engaging Change and Managing Criticism. The final “purpose and power” exercise dynamic comes from the interactive process itself. Worth noting is how quickly the groups overcome their initial reticence; members are willing to share more intimate and seemingly vulnerable self-portraits. Perhaps one person takes the lead, but soon all are ready if not clamoring to follow. People fairly quickly seem less self-conscious; in short order, meaningful sharing and a degree of transparency becomes the norm. Clearly, the group process undergoes rapid and significant transformation. Might this phenomenon have some implications for helping people in general grapple with significant and scary change? How often are we reluctant to engage in new practices or procedures or to break out of a comfort zone for fear of being judged by self and significant others? Once again, a process that enables you to defang humiliation, to laugh with embarrassment while sharing common imperfection and humanity just might be a formula for being a more brave beginner or a resilient risk-taker. Most important, whether a novice or an “old dog,” you’re generating a learning curve by challenging the “Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure.”

Finally, wearing a capacity for embarrassment with purposeful and playful pride is not just a life jacket for keeping your head above water while negotiating a stormy sea change; it’s also a protective vest for blunting hostile slings and arrows. Remember, an ability to laugh at your own flaws and foibles means beating those biased, judgmental, “know it all” critics to the punch line: “Believe me; I can poke fun of myself a lot better than you ever can!” And these antagonists have lost their favorite target – an oversensitive ego.

In conclusion, an analysis of the “Share an embarrassing moment” Exercise reveals four powerful outcomes: 1) Highlights the Role of Cultural Diversity and Mutual Humanity, 2) Recognizes Misery, Mastery and Mirth Connection, 3) Differentiates Embarrassment from Humiliation and 4) Illustrates a Method for Engaging Change and Managing Criticism. For both the individual and the group, concepts and tools have been outlined for enhancing mutual understanding and camaraderie and for making an unexpected friend out of a long-standing FOE – by turning a “Fear of Exposure” into the “Fun of Embarrassment.”

Author's Bio: 

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both major corporations and government agencies. Currently the Doc is leading Stress, Team Building and Humor programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.