Embarrassing yourself is bad. Embarrassing someone you care about is worse.

If a person you love or respect is ashamed of you, a kind of emotional math gets factored in whereby the misery you create is not only doubled, but also multiplied exponentially — and into eternity. It’s one of the reasons embarrassing moments are tough to forget.

There are trivial examples, of course, that turn into legend. My brother was in third-grade when, walking back with his pals from school, he witnessed my poor beleaguered mother screaming “Gina!” as she chased me through the streets of Brooklyn.

A little over age 2, I’d apparently not only learned to run, but also learned how to take off my clothes. According to my grandmother and aunts, I’d thrown off whatever romper suit was being placed over my head and made a dash for the door, scrambling down the stoop and onto the sidewalk, laughing uproariously and fleeing as fast I could on my chubby toddler legs. My mother, getting a late start, needed to catch up, which led to the scene witnessed by my brother and his friends.

It’s one of my earliest memories, shaped, no doubt, by multiple versions wrought by ostensibly horrified relatives. But what I remember is that my modest and thoughtful brother wasn’t proud of me. Sure, the adults laughed, but he didn’t. I sensed, even then, the weight of his shock and disappointment.

That was only the beginning of my embarrassing others — and my brother dismissed the incident. Part of what’s emotionally devastating about realizing you’ve damaged your dignity or wrecked somebody’s respect for you is understanding that the recollection of it is a burden you’ll be carrying after the other person has shrugged it off.


I’ve done too many ridiculous and foolish things to recount. I’ve ruined tablecloths, broken glasses and dismantled at least three elaborate salt mills because I couldn’t figure out how they worked. (One was electric and I nearly took off a finger.) Even more clumsily and on a different scale, I’ve spent years being too needy, too greedy and too teary with people because I was emotionally incontinent. I phoned friends in the middle of the night, extorted declarations of loyalty and howled with weeping.

Yet during many of those times, I’ve been in company of friends who have forgiven me even before I could begin to accept blame. Nothing I did irrevocably changed our relationships. Their generosity, empathy and understanding were so profound that the shame — like a stain — didn’t have time to set.

Not everyone is as fortunate.

A young and independent friend, Krystle, explained that when she was told to dress differently, act differently and to be “less loud, less obnoxious,” she realized that was she was being “asked, basically, to be less me.” She made a choice to exit a situation that was trying to make her not merely question occasional choices but to double-think her very self.

If those around you make you feel inherently defective, treating you as an embarrassment by default, it’s time to change your circumstances and your clan.

Kathleen Delano, too, learned the hard way that feeling accepted for who you are is essential. When she went to visit her child at college — ironically enough, making the trip to attend a “welcome dinner” for the families of athletes — her sophomore was so embarrassed to sit with his Mom that he instead went to sit at a table with his buddies, leaving her on her own when most of the other parents who’d made the journey were sitting with their kids. Kathleen “wasn’t welcome at the welcome dinner,” and she let her son know.


Discovering in the process how deeply it matters to her to feel welcome, Kathleen found that most people are eager to offer her exactly that — especially once she’s made clear its importance to her.

The moments that embarrass me most now are the ones where I became too swiftly and thoroughly ashamed of those I loved and to whom I can no longer offer apology. Thinking back, I cringe at my own responses, not at their actions.

Let’s hope others will forgive us for making a spectacle of ourselves, and if we blush, let it be at our own lack of patience and perspective.

Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and a columnist at The Hartford Courant. 

©2019 The Hartford Courant
Visit The Hartford Courant at www.courant.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.