We’ve all been there. That heat in the cheeks, a feeling of pure idiocy, and the wish for sudden and complete invisibility. A wish that the earth would swallow you up and that you could unsay whatever fool thing just fell out of your mouth.
It’s not fun to feel embarrassed.
But embarrassment serves a purpose. Really.
That horrible feeling is a check on social behavior. It’s sort of like a social gag reflex. As in: Wait a minute, that wasn’t the right thing to do to blend in with the group/tribe/social unit, so ZAP! Now you’ll never do that again, will you?
And we usually don’t. Just thinking about it can cause agony.
However, when a socially challenged person comes along, that sense of embarrassment – which has a social function, remember – can misfire. Since understanding socially appropriate vs. not socially appropriate is what embarrassment is all about, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
All the same, it surprised me.
My son lacked a sense of embarrassment. Whenever he made a huge gaffe and was not frozen or tortured by embarrassment, I felt happy for him – at first. How wonderful to be free of that awful feeling.
And then the consequences sank in.
There was nothing preventing him from doing that same action again. And then again after he knew it was inappropriate. Unless I was there – or someone else who understood – to remind him not to burp loudly and then say “barge coming through.” Or to dance in the produce aisle. Or burst into song in the middle of class. Or strike silly poses and cartoonish faces.
So, while I loved this uninhibited expressionism and creativity (which is cute in a two-year-old, but an older child starts to suffer from the ‘weird kid’ label), I had to recognize the inherent problem.
He lacked the embarrassment-as-a-social-check emotion.
When I mentioned this problem to a behavior analyst, she had a surprising answer for me. Instill it into him, she said. Give him a sense of embarrassment.
I didn’t even know such a thing was possible, much less consider inflicting the agony of it on anyone. And yet (visions of dancing and singing and burping and jumping and cartoonish faces), the idea was intriguing…
What she did, she told me, was suggest a sense of embarrassment. For example, she had an Asperger little girl who kept flipping up her dress. At first, she told the girl not to do that (yeah, right). Then she started suggesting how embarrassed she must feel. I mean, everyone saw her underwear! How embarrassing.
Eventually, the girl actually blushed and felt embarrassed. And stopped doing that. There was improvement in social behavior (what was recognized) across the board.
Now, we’re obviously talking dangerous stuff here. Nobody wants to overdo it and cripple a child with an over-active sense of embarrassment.
But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about kids who lack any sort of semblance to a sense of embarrassment. Children who’ve never been embarrassed in their lives, because they just don’t feel that emotion.
After a while – I had to think it over, and consider it from all angles – I gave it a try. And it has worked for us.
However, it’s not fun. Because, of course, embarrassment is Not Fun. There were tears and hugs and comforting. All the same, I was proud of my son for feeling an emotion he hadn’t felt before. Even if it wasn’t a comfortable or fun feeling.
Of course, my child is only one example; there are many other people out there like him. And there are people on the extreme other end, who have learned to be extremely sensitive. I’ve met Asperger children like this, as well, because it all ties into that understanding of social acceptance and what is ‘appropriate’, and some kids are more anxious about their mistakes than others.