I’m what you call a quiet person, mostly an introvert. I’m not very good at volunteering information about myself, but if you ask me what I think I’ll tell you. In a crowded room I will seek out that one person I can engage with instead of participating in group conversation. I will ask lots of questions and listen intently. Someone once summed me up as reticent (which I had to go look up). This is a good word for me.
Yet in spite of my quiet nature I can be outgoing. I can converse and smile, put on my extrovert overcoat. However, I can only do this if I have a platform or a role to fill. Like teaching yoga, for instance: I try to talk with every student in my class if possible, some of them regulars but many of them new faces that come and go. I can stand in front of the class and teach without a lick of nervousness. It’s important for me to be this way—to make people feel welcome and create connections, to be a leader—and therefore I can fill the role because the stage is set. Or when I used to work at a coffee shop: I had no problem being talkative and engaging with customers, but again it was expected of me, not only by my employer but by the customers; they needed a chipper barista. Transitioning into this talkative, engaging persona is like flipping a switch or playing a part. I know how to do it, but I have to consciously make it happen, otherwise I will stay more or less reserved.
The other night I was listening in on one of the conference calls required for my Holy Yoga training. It is a guided meditation, but at the end the moderator asks questions for anyone to respond to. Now, I don’t do well in group conversations; I just get too nervous. Whenever you do those ice breakers in new social settings and everyone has to go around the room and say a little about themselves, I hate those situations. I get all sweaty and my heart races and I stress over every word I say. Likewise for the conference calls for my training: even though no one can see me, I still have the same physical reaction when I participate in the conversation.
So back to the other night: at the end of the call she asked a question, and it took a while for one person to finally share something. And then she asked another question, one that I felt I could contribute to, so I decided to share. Well, after I started talking for a little bit —say two minutes?—she ended up cutting me off mid sentence. She was very gentle and diplomatic about it, but it was awkward, for her and for me, and probably for everyone else listening in. Did I say something wrong? Was I rambling? Was it just for the sake of time?
Needless to say, I was so embarrassed. For days I was embarrassed. I replayed the dialogue, regretted ever saying anything, analyzed the conversation inside out. Don’t you know? I’m the reticent one—the one tentative to reveal my thoughts and emotions because I don’t want to share them unless I know you want to hear them, and I didn’t even want to talk in the first place but I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and work towards being more open and vulnerable and bam! I got shut down. Big time.
It’s been a long time since I experienced this intensity of embarrassment. On my list of unbearable emotions, embarrassment ranks second to deep loss in terms of just how uncomfortable an inescapable the feeling is—which may seem a little dramatic. I know it probably depends a lot on context (this was not a farted-in-front-of-a-stranger kind of experience), and likely has much to do with my personality (wanting to be perfect and please everyone). For someone else this unbearable emotion might be anger or envy, and they could easily let go of an embarrassing moment.
Several years ago I read a memoir called A Year by the Sea, which introduced me to the idea of acknowledging and embracing emotions, even if they are uncomfortable; of being aware of the way something feels instead of always trying to escape it or make it better. As a way of implementing this practice, I once stood outside in the cold while pumping gas instead of waiting in the car. I felt the wind and chill seep through my clothes and begin to stiffen my bones. Relax, feel, stop fighting it. I realize this may seem strange or quite stupid, but it was amazing how challenging it was to endure those few minutes of discomfort. Even now when my pores start to open and melt in the hot Texas sun, my first inclination is to get inside, but I make myself embrace the heat and the sweat, to sort of marinate in the discomfort until it passes.
So what about embarrassment? Can I embrace this squirming, flush-faced feeling in all of its awful glory? Sadness I can do—anger, stress; I can breathe into them and just let go, let it be. But this one will take some time. I will have to learn to cope with and embrace the awkwardness of embarrassment, especially if I’m going to continue my efforts to be more transparent and vulnerable, because this won’t be the last time I get shut down. I will say things or write things that people won’t like; I will not always be eloquent or articulate when I express myself; I will probably say too much or lack clarity.
Ultimately, I have to let go of caring so much about what other people think, and I mustn’t retreat from vulnerability. I’d rather be brave. Because the world—rather, my small “world” of people, relationships, and places—needs me to be willing to share my thoughts, even if no one’s asked me to speak them. And for that matter, we all need to do this—to be more open and vulnerable and brave. Imagine the depth of connection and authenticity this would create in our lives! This takes courage and practice. Lots of practice. My hope is that one day I will be able to flip a switch, to step onto the platform of transparency and share my thoughts without a hint of hesitation—because it’s needed.