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

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

That was fun.

Because deconstructing my experiences helps me learn from them, I took some useful lessons that can help you avoid this situation (or any) when you risk embarrassment or looking like a nutcase.

8 Lessons in How to Properly Handle Feeling Mortified

1. Soak in the Embarrassment

The nerves and embarrassing energy are in your body, so let yourself bask in it for a while. 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. This ultimately helps push the energy out.

2. Calm Down

After the jittery energy is out, make a cup of tea (hot things work wonders for nerves) and try to relax. Try. If you still need to wiggle out the embarrassment, go ahead.

3. Call a Friend, but Do This Strategically

I called my friend Al Pittampalli, 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 or judgmental friends.

4. Admit the Hard Stuff

After talking to Al, I recognized I still had a lot to learn about communication, which annoyed me since I communicate and coach people 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 closely with it. While embarrassment is external, something we can fix and control, and is outside of us, shame is internal, inside our core, something we can’t change.

Because we internalize shame (and the natural tendency is definitely to do this) it feels lasting and more painful than embarrassment. But it doesn’t have to. Once we see we’re not dumb, we just act that way sometimes, analyze the external elements that contributed to your bad feelings and see that you can control them next time. When I thought about what led up to my feeling embarrassed, I came across some valid, legitimate reasons:

  • I knew this person had expectations of me coming into the conversation and that he wanted to work with me.
  • I didn’t know how to say “no” comfortably because it was a cool project.
  • I knew he 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 he 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 on it, 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, if you want to say “no” but instead say “yes” and then feel angry, 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, so I should just do it already! 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. Also, not ALL meetings need to be had, by the way. In fact, most shouldn’t be, as Al writes in his book Read This Before Our Next Meeting.

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 and what I’ve learned.” Instead of letting tangential things intrude, bring it back to your perspective, your questions, 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 we do. 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” or “I’m really not interested in it.”

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 meeting killer, because you’re swayed by anything said on the call 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.

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.

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


Ishita Gupta is the publisher of fear.less magazine. She worked at The Domino Project, runs the Potential Project, and helps people overcome fear and design their best lives. She also consults for authors and businesses on marketing and publishing. For more on Ishita please visit her website or Facebook or Twitter.

*Photo by twenty_questions.