On embarrassment


The pre-teen years are a bitch.

My daughter has recently crashed into this world of unpredictable mood swings, melodramatic apologies and promises, abrupt changes to her body and friendship drama. Do you remember your pre-teen years? I think they're almost harder to witness than they were to endure. Handling  my daughter's behavior triggers all the confusing feelings I had as a pre-teen, when I was hormonal and moody and generally impossible to be around. At thirteen I had perfected the art of the perfect door slam, the kind that rattles windows and makes you jump and ends with a satisfyingly boom. I wondered why my body was sprouting hair in places hair has never been. I suddenly needed to wear a bra. It pinched and made me feel like I was being strangled. I whined and complained and moped and OH MY GOD IF YOU DON'T BUY ME GUESS JEANS I AM GOING TO DIE, LIKE SERIOUSLY DIE, AND THEN IT WILL BE ALL YOUR FAULT WAAH WAAH WAAH I HATE YOU.

I remember my mom was angry at me. A lot. We fought and cried and apologized and fought again. I was her little girl and her snarly teenage daughter all at the same time. And now my own daughter is the same, saving her allowance for stuffed animals one moment and wearing deodorant and hiding in her room the next.

Last month she came home from school crying, inconsolable and withdrawn. I asked her what had happened.

"Maddie isn't my friend anymore," she wept.
"What happened?"
"She said I was bossy and told EVERYONE, Mom. So now I have no friends."
"Wow," I replied. "That's awful."

We were silent. I didn't know what to say.

"I'm so embarrassed," she confessed, in a small, quiet voice. She looked down, studying her feet.

I might not be an expert on the wild ways of pre-teen behavior, but embarrassment I get. I've felt embarrassed over bad haircuts, early outfit photos on this blog, bad decisions I've made and even worse behavior I tolerated from people. And I especially feel embarrassed now that my marriage has fallen apart. I've developed this weird habit of telling close friends and family the truth of why we're splitting up. I don't know why I do this. The messy details and terrible mistakes I've made certainly aren't anyone else's business. But I share them anyway. And then I feel embarrassed afterwards.

I read an article in Psychology Today about embarrassment. According to recent research, revealing embarrassment is nothing to be ashamed of, and in certain ways it might even benefit us. Part of what makes embarrassment so embarrassing is the fact that it’s a dead giveaway of a private internal state. Feelings we would rather not display for all to see become obvious. But being transparent isn't such a bad thing. Sociologists argue that embarrassment reveals that a person cares about others and values relationships. In other words, it's a way of saying, "I feel bad for messing up, and I want to do better next time because this relationship matters to me." Furthermore, people who feel and display more embarrassment will not only behave in a more trustworthy and pro-social manner, but will also elicit more trust and cooperation from others.

So embarrassment? Not so bad. Being embarrassed about the dissolution of my marriage just means I care about my relationship with my husband and want to do better, despite the fact that we're getting divorced. My daughter's embarrassment with friends proves her regret for her behavior and sadness for letting her friend down. Of course, as a pre-teen, she's not yet able to understand that. But I do.

And I won't feel embarrassed for being embarrassed anymore.


  1. Wow Elissa, I never thought about embarrassment in this way before! You always know how to get my mind going.

  2. Hi! I love this article because I also have a pre-teen daughter (age 12). She's frightfully well-adjusted (we're very different that way, ha) but occasionally has hormonal outbursts like the time she dissolved into a pool of tears because she could not find her itouch.

    My marriage also ended almost three years ago now and I commend you on keeping a civil relationship with your ex. As parents, we don't really have a choice. I have "turned the other cheek" (like Jesus suggested - I'm a Christian) on nearly all matters with my ex and it's helped create an amazingly friendly relationship. I don't go for dinner with him or anything but we are good to one another and that's what our children need to see.

    I have to say I apologized for my part in the failure of our marriage and that was very healing for both of us. It was incredibly humbling to do that and totally worth it.

  3. This was great reading. You put it in such an interesting way! Thank you.

  4. I really respect people who are honest. I love your honesty in this post. Being open about your daughter and marriage is hard. I'm sure there's a little bit of embarrassment there. Thank you for sharing.


  5. What a wonderful way to look at embarassment. Owning our embarassment allows others to own theirs too.

  6. Oh lord, my mother took every action of my teen years so personally -- as if it had anything to do with her!


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