How to recover from embarrassing moments

Shellyx asks: Today in science we had to heat up magnesium under a Bunsen burner. Me and my friend were working in a pair, and I went first. I hadn’t seen anyone else do it, so I was worried. Anyways I put it on the Bunsen burner, holding it with tongs, and it caught fire, with a white flame. I started screaming, “OMG! aghhhh someone blow it out quick, help! Is it meant to do this?!” Everyone (including my crush) was staring at me. The flame went out and my teacher came over, saying, “yes it’s meant to go like that.” My friend was in hysterics. I was so scared, since I’m already petrified of fire! It’s sooo embarrassing! What do I do?

Hi Shellyx –


Oh Wow!  Oh that must have been AWFUL!!!  I can just bet you were as embarrassed as anyone ever has been!!

But I don’t think this is a bad thing at all.  In fact, I think it’s kind of great.

Why?  Two reasons:

First, Embarrassment is simply a very mild version of a much harsher thing called Shame.  Embarrassment is when you feel totally absurd about a particular moment (like jumping up and screaming when the chemistry assignment worked correctly!).  Shame is when that bad feeling extends to your entire self-image (as if, say, you said “I jumped up and yelled, and that proves that I’m a complete idiot and no one’s ever going to like me, and they shouldn’t.”).  So to me, the good news is that you were embarrassed.  Sure, the moment was wacky.  But you’re not writing me saying that you’re awful (which is good; I hate Shame!).  You’re saying you’re still embarrassed about that moment.  So you’re going to be fine.

And second, I’ll bet you were adorable!  The friend you were partnered with might never have felt as much love for you before as she did when you erupted like that.  And that crush, who might never have noticed you before, or only did so slightly, will now never forget you.

And don’t kid yourself – every other student in that room, and even the teacher, know very well that it could have been them who had that reaction!  So that’s even more of a reason for them to like you.  For all I know, your popularity at school might have  quintupled the moment you screamed.

I’ve got three stories going through my head, that I want to toss at you, to put this into perspective.  The first is the exact opposite of your tale.  When Handsome was in his high school chemistry class, the teacher did a chemical reaction in a glass case to avoid bad fumes affecting people.  But he used a bit too much of one of the ingredients, and when the chemicals mixed, they exploded and blew the case up, shooting glass all over the room!  He looked up in shock, checked that no students had been injured, and then calmly commented, “Hmm.  A bit too much entropy there.”  Decades later, everyone who was in that room remembers that as if it were yesterday, and remembers that teacher with great fondness for that moment.  It might be the one part of that whole course all the students recall.  Sure beats being one of the teachers they dislike.

Second, you’ve heard of a famous man who lived in the United States when it was first founded, named Benjamin Franklin.  He was famous the world over for his brilliant wit, his inventiveness, his fine writings, and his wisdom about people.  But do you know how he and his wife met?  Not through any of his strengths.  No, it was because he had needed to buy a number of large loaves of bread, and was carrying them down a street, clumsily trying to carry them as best he could.  And a young woman saw him and burst out laughing at this goofy guy’s struggle.  Sure enough, that turned into a marriage.

And third, about 20 years ago, there was a very pretty young actress who had a great deal of talent, and was starting to get some good movie roles.  But she wasn’t a really big star or anything.  She got cast in a movie as a poor girl who falls in love with a rich man, and there was a scene when he gives her some jewelry.  When they were filming it, it wasn’t interesting enough, so the director whispered something into the male actor’s ear, and the next time they shot it, something wonderful happened.  She reached to touch the jewelry, and the man snapped the case shut, just missing her fingers, and she broke out laughing.  And while she was, as I said, a very pretty young actress, she also had an oddly wide mouth, and a huge guffaw of a laugh.  And when “Pretty Woman” broke international boxoffice records, and made Julia Roberts the most popular movie star in the world, everyone said it was because of that moment.  Not because of how beautiful she looked in designer clothes, or because she played her part so well (both of which were totally true).  But because, when Richard Gere snapped that jewel case shut on her, her reaction was ungainly, goofy, uncontrolled… and, what was the word I said above about you?  Adorable.   Both women and men around the world fell in love with her, not because she was perfect, but because she was imperfect.

Now I would suggest that, before your next chemistry class, you study up on what’s supposed to happen in the lab.  But at the same time, I think you should rest assured that that extremely embarrassing moment, that everyone will remember, might well be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.



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