Have you ever done something so embarrassing you cringe every time you think about it?

Last month I took a phone meeting with someone influential despite a feeling of dread from the moment I scheduled the call to the day of. Five minutes into it I knew it was a bad move. My heart sped up, my mind raced thinking of what I’d say, and I rambled off-topic using “straight up” far too many times. At one point I let out a deep exhale for no reason at all. An incredible forty minutes later, we hung up, and I tailspun into judgement. “Am I a hack?” “Is my confidence a fluke? “Did I just do that?”

Not a fun moment.

Because deconstructing my experiences helps me learn, I took my experience, broke it down, and pulled out what I thought were useful lessons to avoid a situation in the future where you risk looking like a nutcase. Here’s how to properly handle feeling mortified.

1.) Soak in the embarrassment. Get all the nerves and embarrassing energy out of your body and let yourself bask in it for a while, because it is there. This is necessary. After I got off the phone I was a jumble of nerves – shaky voice, jelly legs. All I could do was laugh and shout into my pillow “I cannot believe I just did that” for twenty minutes straight.

2.) Calm down. After the jittery seeps out of your system, try to relax and do something that calms you down. For me, making a hot cup of tea is most likely the answer as it works wonders for my nerves, but your “thing” might be different. Whatever you do, try to relax. And if you still need to wiggle out the nerves, go ahead.

3.) Call a friend, but only strategically. I called my friend who’s an entrepreneur on the same path as I am, and who knows me well. After talking, he helped shift my perspective on the whole experience and I felt so much better. Don’t call your folks, judgmental friends, or someone who doesn’t have experience with the same situation.

4.) Admit the hard stuff. After talking to my friend, I realized I still had a lot to learn about communication, which annoyed me since I communicate, coach, and write for a living(!) Admitting we have to improve exposes our own limitations and brings up shame because we don’t like knowing we need to improve. Shame is particularly hard to work with because we associate ourselves with this feeling of needing to improve. While embarrassment is external, something we can fix and control, something outside of us, shame is internal, inside our core, something we can’t change. Embarrassment is always better than shame, because it’s situational, but because we internalize shame (our natural tendency is definitely to do this) it feels lasting + more painful than embarrassment, but it doesn’t have to.

Once we see we’re not dumb, we just act that way sometimes, we can analyze the external elements that contributed to our bad feelings and see that we can control them next time. When I thought about what led up to my feeling embarrassed, I came across some valid, legit reasons:

  • I knew this person had expectations of me coming into the conversation and that they wanted to work with me.
  • I didn’t know how to say “No” comfortably because it was a cool project.
  • I knew they perceived me in a certain light because of my track record and peers. I wanted to be myself but felt I couldn’t.
  • I had moved out of the industry they wanted me to move back into with this new project. That made me uncomfortable.
  • I wasn’t clear on exactly why we were talking, but had some idea.

5.) Use your feelings as signals. Had I used my dread as a signal to cancel the call or change my behavior, I would have felt much better. Dread, anger, etc. are indicators that something needs to change, situationally or behaviorally, and intense emotions tie directly into things we want to change about ourselves. For example when you want to say “No” but instead say “Yes” and then feel angry about it. This means you have to change your behavior so you don’t feel angry next time.

I knew from past experience that not setting boundaries for a meeting makes me feel terrible. But I took the call anyway and then felt uncomfortable. This was a reminder that I want and need to change certain behaviors. Now I won’t overlook setting an outcome for a meeting because it makes me feel so much clearer about my goals. Follow your feelings because when the right conditions are present, dread isn’t.

6.) Run the conversation. This doesn’t mean run a power trip and take control. It means setting the right boundaries by saying, “I’d love to hear what you’re up to with X. I think this conversation is about what you think I know about it, and I’d be happy to give you my opinion.” Instead of letting tangental things intrude, bring it back to your perspective and your point of view. Chances are, if someone is talking to you there’s a reason for it – they want your opinion. So help them see what they can get from you. “Here’s how I can help.” “Here’s how I see it” “Here’s what I think is going on.”

And if you’re asked something you don’t know, just admit it. Instead of being honest, I pretended to know things and that did NOT work out well. We can’t know everything and shouldn’t pretend to. Say, “I don’t know. That’s not a topic I’m familiar with and I’d be happy to hear about it from you, but I can’t offer as much input into it as you need” or “That’s not an area I’ve researched.”

7.) Know what you want. One reason I wasn’t honest or comfortable on the call was because I hadn’t made up my mind if I wanted to work on the project or not. Internal tension is a total killer, because you’re swayed by anything and sound wishy washy. Once you know what you want or what a good outcome looks like for you, you have something to focus on and can show up so much stronger.

8.) After doing all of the above, know you’ve done your best to address your feelings and behavior. Now go out and live your life. This happens to everyone and instead of feeling icky, write a post, make a list of lessons, do something, but don’t dwell on it. An hour after my phone call, I hopped the subway, took my nephew to French class, ate dinner with him, and forgot about the whole thing. Time to move on.

Go forth with all your Annie Hall moments, because it’s okay. If you’re doing big things and pushing for your dreams, you will encounter embarrassing situations. So what. Go big, make mistakes, learn from them, and move on.


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