This is what I heard when I listened back to the recording of me playing my guitar in the year 7 yard, surrounded by my students. It's true, I don't often play guitar in the school yard ... so the child was entitled to ask about the unusual occurrence ... but the teacher's response gave me pause to think: how does embarrassment work?

It seems to me that someone gets embarrassed when they feel ashamed. Both embarrassment and shame are negative emotions, uncomfortable feelings that people don’t want to have. Yet here’s the difference: shame is an internally-generated feeling, whereas embarrassment is often externally-generated – by the people watching on and imagining themselves in that situation.

People often feel embarrassed by what somebody else is doing – embarrassed for that person, and embarrassed to be associated with that person. The onlooker thus exposes what they would feel uncomfortable doing, and projects that feeling of discomfort onto the person in the spotlight, the one ‘drawing attention to themselves’ (a phrase which also has negative connotations, like it’s not socially-acceptable or -desired to be demonstrative in any way).

So what happens when the person doing the action does not feel shame, and is quite content with what they’re doing? Even to the extent of it being part of their overall personality? Does embarrassment even fit within this scenario: “If I don’t feel embarrassed, why should others feel embarrassed on my behalf?”

An artist who has come across my radar (again) recently is P!NK: I’ve surprised myself by really getting into her music: the lyrics because they resonate with me, the chords because they’re easy to play and loop in a predictable pattern, and the video clips because they are intriguing – especially the live versions where she does her gravity-defying acrobatics over hundreds of thousands of people.

P!NK’s songs mention dark times and people who are often downtrodden or unseen, which is no doubt why her songs are popular: they’re relatable. Her video clip actions can definitely be classed as wild, even confrontational or brassy (another negative connotation) … yet she herself is polite and gracious and full of gratitude for what she has, which comes through in her interviews. She credits her greatest success as ‘surrounding [her]self with beautiful people’ – which is something everyone could say, no matter who they are, where they’re from and what situation they find themselves in. Such a statement has no direct relationship to P!NK’s work or fame. Rather, it demonstrates her integrity.

I look at P!NK’s acrobatics and know I would make a right fool of myself trying to do the same thing – I wouldn’t even be able to achieve the jump-off, let alone the zip-line swooshing above the audience. That’s something that I would feel highly reticent to do because I associate it with failure. (I did try a standing-bungee-jump thing at a fairground once because I wanted to flip with the freedom I saw others use: I couldn’t bounce more than a metre upwards, and I definitely couldn’t somersault!) Am I embarrassed for P!NK, though? Embarrassed for me, that I witness P!NK do something that I feel humiliated by? Quite the contrary – I am in awe of her skill!

So I posit the question:

What – if anything – makes you feel embarrassed?

Is it something you’re doing or something somebody else is doing, onto which you’re transferring your own emotions, from your own outlook and position?

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