Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Say Goodbye to Embarrassment

I’ve decided to stop being embarrassed. I’m saying goodbye to the whole thing: that growing suspicion as the moment approaches, that sense of realization when it comes, that rush of blood reddening your cheeks, that brief but powerful desire to jump out of your own skin, and then finally that attempt big fake smile trying to cover it all. Sure, it was fun for a while, but I think it’s outlived its usefulness. It’s time for embarrassment to go.

Turning off an emotion is always a tough decision. I remember how a couple years ago I decided to say goodbye to anger. Sure, anger has its bright moments — you haven’t really lived until you’ve known that special joy of hurling a chair across the room — but it’s also quite time-consuming. Every time someone comes up and hits you, you have to run around chasing after them. And once you start getting angry it’s hard to stop — an angry person doesn’t really want to calm down, it sort of enjoys being angry. So I finally decided to get rid of the whole thing. And you know what? I haven’t regretted the decision one bit.

Regret — that’s another interesting emotion. I mean, what purpose does it really serve? “There’s no use crying over spilled milk,” my mom once told me when I started sobbing after I got milk all over the floor while trying to make cereal. “I suppose that’s true,” I replied between sobs. “Although maybe my tears will dilute the milk and make it stick to the floor less.” But I was wrong — the milk stayed just as sticky. So maybe regret should be the next one to go.

But actually, I think it’s going to be frustration. It’s not discussed much, but frustration is really quite distracting. You’re trying to solve some difficult problem but it’s just not working. Instead of taking a moment to try and think of the solution, you just keep getting more and more frustrated until you start jumping up and down and smashing various things. So not only do you waste time jumping, but you also have to pay to replace the stuff you smashed. It’s really a net loss.

But that’s a decision for another time. Today it’s time for embarrassment to join anger in the wastebasket of deactivated emotions. It might take some getting used to at first — when friends try to tease me about something I’ll probably start to react before realizing there’s just no need for it anymore — but before long I’m sure it will seem normal. Even if I’m a less normal person for it.

You should follow me on twitter here.

January 8, 2006


Well, another way to put ‘turning off embarassment’ is ‘having more self-esteem’, just as ‘turning off anger’ is ‘being collected’—both compulsions are pretty smart ones to follow—so you’re probably as normal as you started off being, despite the wastebasket-filling.

posted by Firas on January 8, 2006 #

Regarding “an angry person doesn’t really want to calm down”, I think you’re mixing up the physiological response to an adrenaline rush versus a desire for an emotion. You know all about the fight-or-flight response, right? It’s not something that’s a fully conscious matter, though of course you can make efforts about it.

In many cases, I’d say the trick is properly focusing anger.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on January 8, 2006 #

To be mad at someone – that is easy. To be mad at the right person, for the right reason, at the right time and at the right degree – that is not easy. —Aristotle

posted by Aristotle Pagaltzis on January 8, 2006 #

Good for you, Giving up emotions even negative ones is a very hard prospect. Reading you post made me think about if there are any negative emotions that I need to shut out of my life.

Good Luck

posted by Daniel on January 8, 2006 #

Have you ever studied Zen? Zen practitioners are good at eliminating emotional static.

posted by awt on January 8, 2006 #

Every now and then there is a post here that makes me say, “No wonder I love Aaron’s writing.” He may be a (talented) programmer, and he may be young, but he is definitely a man after my own heart. I’ve done away with anger in much the same way he describes - and I’ve banished regret… that one’s not so hard, actually. Frustration is a great idea! It’s now next on my list. Meanwhile, I think Aaron will have his hands full with embarrassment… it seems so visceral and involuntary… but I suppose some would say the same thing of anger.

posted by Mark Wagner on January 9, 2006 #

Funny, I have come to realize that I have a false sense of security on that account. I tend to embarrass myself without noticing it at the time.

Only to relize it some time afterwards. The approach of that realization is always a doozie! LoL


posted by Amr on January 9, 2006 #

Does that mean you’re now up for a dare or two? ;)

posted by J. on January 9, 2006 #

You don’t have to do away with the emotion of embarrassment to not be embarrassed.

All you have to do is to know that you did what you thought was best at the time and be comfortable enough with yourself to be alright with that (and the consequences of whatever you did).

  • ask

posted by Ask Bjørn Hansen on January 9, 2006 #

“Instead of taking a moment to try and think of the solution, you just keep getting more and more frustrated until you start jumping up and down and smashing various things.”

Try sarcasm. If you’ve repeatedly taken a moment to rethink the problem, and tried every sane thing you can think of, and nothing is working, that’s the time to call on sarcastic troubleshooting. Try something stupid and pointless.

Example: communication between a computer and a new VTR is not working? Try scanning for channels. Don’t let not wanting or needing TV channels, nor having any kind of aerial, nor protests about intelligent design or the utter pointlessness of the exercise stop you. Get sarcastic. (I wasted a full day on this before stooping to sarcasm. And yes, it was designed in such a way that it would not function without tuning the channels. Just like your car won’t start if the clock is not set ;-)

posted by Mobius Trip on January 9, 2006 #

Good decision. The more emotions you turn off, the more time you have left for a sense of humor. ;>

posted by rosh on January 9, 2006 #

“Are you being sarcastic, dude?”

“I don’t even know anymore.”


posted by Jamie McCarthy on January 9, 2006 #

Embarassment over an incident? Emotions at the time can be difficult to reconstruct. If the original incident involved anger, the lack of anger during the reconstruction may result in embarassment (as in I wouldn’t have done it if I felt like I do now).

Anger during the original incident can be a positive, and someone found out the level of concern that you have.

Yes, give up embarassment and give support to your real emotions.

posted by Ray on January 9, 2006 #

Perhaps you would share with us how you turn off emotions, Spock. If one could trun off emotions by a “decision”, then the world would be a different place.

posted by Seth Russell on January 9, 2006 #


If person expressing a tantrum had a gun placed at his temple and told that if he doesn’t stop, he will be shot.

A decision will be then be made. The decision will be based on the level of consequence.

posted by Ray on January 9, 2006 #

erying to turn off your anger will prove to be an impossibility. much the same as trying to turn off your hunger, or thirst.

all humans are hardwired to deal with anger - even gandhi and the dalai lama.

buddha teaches through simple mindfulness you can transform your anger into happiness - a much more realistic alternative to trying to disable your emotions.

posted by greg on January 9, 2006 #


It is the consequences which change the behavior, not the decision. Learn some behaviorism.

posted by Seth Russell on January 9, 2006 #


I wish I had the courage to banish embarrassment …or at least the fear or being embarrassed, which prevents me from doing/saying a great deal of things that I probably should do/say anyway, never mind the consequences.

I think regret does serve a useful purpose. It’s a metric to gauge your mistakes and to judge whether a risk is worth taking when you face a similar situation again. But it should be controlled regret — you should develop the will to turn it off when you realize that you’re beating yourself up for no reason.

Thanks for blogging about this decision.


posted by Kaushik on January 11, 2006 #

Hey, I think its amazing to be able to have control over your feelings; more importantly over your reactions to the feelings. I was wondering if this is in any way similar to mind control for phyical feelings (as opposed to emotions) like feeling warm or cold, etc. I know people who claim they decide not to feel cold, and manage brilliantly. Wish the world had more people like you! :) -Farah

posted by Farah on January 11, 2006 #

I am not convinced that you can actually turn off emotions but I think this may just be an exercize in semantics. I might call it transforming embarassment.

Something happens and then we have a thought about it. It’s not what happens that upsets us, it’s the thought about what happened that upsets us.

Eckhart Tolle says that emotion is the body’s response to a thought. In the same way that animals have a physical response to a threat, our bodies can react to a threat by increasing heart rate, constricting muscles, etc.. These are instictive responses and emotions are also instictive responses but the difference is that while instinctive responses are the body’s direct response to some external situation, an emotion is the body’s response to a thought.

An emotion can be a response to an actual situation or event as well, however it is first filtered by our mental interpretation.

So, the good news is, if you change your thought about what happens, you can change your emotion about what happens.

He gives an example which I will paraphrase: I don’t have a huge reaction when I hear on the news that someone’s car is stolen, but if “my” car is stolen, I would likely feel upset. The word “my” makes all the difference.

The body is very intelligent but it cannot tell the difference between an actual situation and a thought. It reacts to every thought as if it is reality.

Anyway, I loved your post. Way to put yourself out there.

My next one to eliminate/transform is going to be resentment. Because think it’s so harmful. I don’t know who to credit for this quote but I love it. “Resentment is like taking poison in the hopes that the other person will die.”

posted by Herb on January 12, 2006 #

Where’ s L. Ron Hubbard when we need him?

posted by davidwat on January 13, 2006 #

I’m with you on keeping anger and emberassment from taking over. But I prefer to think of it not as killing the emotion, but channelling it.

Sometimes anger can be a source of motivation. So can fear. Of the two, I prefer anger.

posted by Ben Atkin on January 18, 2006 #


I don’t think that you need to worry about being “a less normal person for it.” I think you need to worry about being less of a person for it.

Without going into a long philosophical discussion, the point is to let your emotions inform your thoughts and actions, not control them. Being a better person is measured by how you respond to your emotions, not whether or not you have them.

Be well.

posted by Ric on January 16, 2006 #

First anger and then embarassment. If we take this to its logical conclusion, then one day you’ll be like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock with no emotions at all. Then you will have given up your humanity, and be only a biochemical computer. An interesting life objective. As for me, I prefer to rejoice in my humanity — all of it.

posted by Russ Schwartz on January 20, 2006 #

Perhaps you should also consider giving up intellectual arrogance—simply making an intellectual decision to “stop being embarrassed” presumes that you won’t ever be making any mistakes that you would ever or should be embarrassed about.

As you grow older, and hopefully wiser, you’ll understand that simply deciding to “deactivate” a troubling emotion, under certain circumstances, is both inappropriate and dysfunctional. And inhuman. For example, suppose a serial killer murdered your parents. Or some bully sadistically slapped your face a few times and spit on you in front of your girl or friends. Would you think it “distracting” or “time-consuming” to become either frustrated or angry? Do you think you’d have the time for “taking a moment to try and think of the solution” when there really was no “solution”? You’re talking about repressing emotions, which could be quite unhealthy.

And when you say “an angry person doesn’t really want to calm down, it sort of enjoys being angry”, what do you mean by “it”? Is this merely a Freudian slip? Emotions are the consequence, largely, of evolutionary self- protective and defensive mechanisms, part of the autonomic nervous system that responds to threat, whether real or just perceived, faster than you can think. They serve a purpose.

You are obviously a very intelligent young man, and I think you show great promise. But don’t try to “deactivate” or say a final goodbye to certain emotions—you may find at some point that life will throw you a real curve ball, and your emotions, especially if you have practiced a form of repressing them, will come out anyway and perhaps in a way that really ends up hurting you or others around you. I think Seth Finkelstein above has a fairly good take on the matter your comment refers to: the best thing to do is to better understand your emotional reactions and to control or channel them better, rather than think you can simply stop or eliminate them—reality doesn’t work that way, nor do humans with emotional and intellectual depth and true humanity. The recommendation above to consider studying Zen is also a good one.

posted by Older and Wiser on March 6, 2006 #

Aaron, I liked very much your saing that angry people do not want to be calmed down and I completely agree with you. But I have another opinion about embarassment. It’s a feeling that shows the sincerity of a person, it’s a pure and positive feeling,that really expresses human’s state of mind. Emotions and feelings can not be “turned off” because our world will be full of insensible and reserved people. It is possible to control our feelings, to restrain them, but not to remove them.

posted by Daniel Osis on September 22, 2006 #

aaron, i applaud you. when i was growing up, my father made us suppress our emotions for our own good. that is to say, to react in an emotional manner to things would bring swift punishment. i became an adult with no real experience at handling emotion. it was foreign to me.

then at 21 i landed in the hospital (psych floor) and suddenly was told that perhaps i should try “being human.” it’s the worst advice i ever followed. i have spent the past few years vacillating between wanting to carry on as “human” or as someone else said, an organic computer (paraphrasing as i am too lazy to scroll up). i think now that the answer is to return to my childhood ways. ambarrassment and anger are two of the most visceral emotions a person can feel, and they are hard to overcome. embarrassment doesn’t hit me so much. as my mom says, “once your shame goes, your pride is next.”

after 10 years and a lot of slaps in the face from life, i don’t want to feel anything any more. i don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. if anything, being able to live rationally and not at the whim of some random chemical reaction is liberating, less stressful, and ultimately better than human.

posted by silentpyjamas on December 12, 2006 #

I am 16 years old. Whenever a teacher asks me to speak out in front of class i get very embarassed for some reason. my face blushes up and i sometimes even get swetty. It also occurs in other things to like speaking in public or explaining a situation to my friends e.g telling them a past story. Could you please tell me hope to cope with this?

posted by john on January 30, 2007 #

I’m not trying to argue with you, Wiser and Older, I’m simply trying to describe the senses I experience; necessarily the basis for any sort of investigation into these things.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 5, 2006 #

Aaron, I liked very much your saing that angry people do not want to be calmed down and I completely agree with you. But I have another opinion about embarassment. It’s a feeling that shows the sincerity of a person, it’s a pure and positive feeling,that really expresses human’s state of mind. Emotions and feelings can not be “turned off” because our world will be full of insensible and reserved people. It is possible to control our feelings, to restrain them, but not to remove them

posted by Erotikbilder on February 26, 2007 #

when ever a teacher asks me to talk in front of the class my cheeks go bright red and i cant stop it, and when people say certain things to me it happens as well, can you help me?

posted by matt on November 13, 2007 #

John do you think your peers are judging what you are saying or do you feel that what you are saying is senseless?or are you ashamed of your accent? if so, why? as we all have different voices and accents? When you feel embarassed for any reason, ask yourself why you are feeling that way as nobody is perfect(as this is a relative word) and everyone makes mistakes.

posted by pink on April 1, 2008 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.