The Humbling Benefits Of 'Healthy Embarrassments' & How They Teach Resilience

Many of us live our lives trying so hard not to embarrass ourselves. Sometimes, even secondhand embarrassment is too much for us to handle. But can sitting in this feeling actually be good for us? Zen teacher and Jungian psychotherapist Koshin Paley Ellison believes so. On the podcast, Ten Percent Happier, host Dan Harris talks to Paley Ellison about the concept of healthy embarrassment and how being shameful of our past mistakes and baggage can only makes us feel worse. When we're more forgiving of ourselves, we realize that our mistakes are not who we are. They're just parts of life to learn from.

Paley Ellison practices Buddhism and is heavily inspired by The Eightfold Path, specifically the first path called Right View. He explains that this practice teaches us that we all suffer, and we often add to our own suffering when our actions don't match our words. It's easy to talk the talk, but it's a lot harder to walk the walk. For instance, we want to be more active, but we find ourselves hitting the snooze button and not the gym. We want to read more books but we find ourselves scrolling on our phones. Then, we feel like we failed ourselves or like something is wrong with us. But instead of beating ourselves up when we fall short, we can embrace the feeling of embarrassment rather than committing ourselves to shame. 

Healthy embarrassment versus shame

But aren't embarrassment and shame the same? Not exactly. You might feel embarrassed when someone watches you trip and fall, but that feeling soon dissipates as you get back up and go about your day. Shame, on the other hand, is something you carry with you for a long time. It might be caused by others around you who have put you down, and it hits deeper because it feels like an attack against your character. "In shame, it's almost like it becomes so personal as if there is something wrong with me personally," Paley Ellison says via Ten Percent Happier. Many of us revert to feelings of shame when we aren't living up to the standards we set for ourselves. It often feels like we're failing as people.

Instead, reframing feelings of shame into healthy embarrassment allows us to be more compassionate with ourselves. "The embarrassment is delightful and humbling to realize we are all going to fall down and get up," says Paley Ellison. This practice allows us to sit with the feeling of unease and then decide how we want to change it. Instead of saying, "I'm a bad person because I messed up," you can tell yourself, "I don't feel good about my mistake, but I'm human. I'll learn from it." It may help to feel embarrassed about an unhealthy habit because it can be the catalyst for change, but you shouldn't shame yourself into hopelessness.

Building resilience

Changing the narrative from shame to healthy embarrassment can allow you to become more resilient, equipping you for life's stressors. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as "the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands." The way we view ourselves and the world around us can play a role in this. When we're too hard on ourselves in general, it can be especially difficult to cope when experiencing significant life changes and stressful situations. Therefore, using healthy embarrassment is one way to show yourself compassion and build yourself up for whatever comes your way. 

Believe it or not, embarrassment can be a tool. Some people even seek it out in order to get comfortable with life's uncomfortable moments. This is known as rejection therapy, but if you're not quite ready for that, Paley Ellison's healthy embarrassment perspective may help bridge the gap between your values and what you actually do. After all, we can better people out of love and humility for ourselves, not out of shame.