Although we may not always admit it, most of us experience it in one way or another. What I am referring to is the feeling of embarrassment, or even shame, while watching a loved one in public: it could be a family member (especially parents), a partner or even a close friend.
In retrospect, and sometimes even in real time, we feel guilty and disappointed at ourselves for having those feelings, but it is hard to stop them. Those moments of embarrassment do not come as a surprise, usually there are triggers, and we dread their arrival. They could occur at a holiday dinner, an outing, a party with friends etc. Typically they appear when we are outside our immediate circle, in cases when we do not have full control of the action and the outcomes.
In those instances we experience our loved ones in a different setting, often in a different role and thus we view them through, what we perceive to be, someone else’s critical eyes. Somehow under such scrutiny a previously fine person becomes full of faults.
It is not as though we were blind to those flaws before hand, but while prior to the occasion we condoned them, now suddenly they become as noticeable as out of tune notes.
I remember with regret an instance when at the age of twenty two my husband and I were invited with my parents to dinner at the home of new British friends. After the meal when everyone had coffee my mother dared asking for tea. And I thought why does she have to be different? it was the first time that I was embarrassed of my mother and knew that those feelings, which stemmed from my insecurities, reflected badly on me. No one else cared, and the hosts were happy to give my mother what she had asked for. I hope that she didn’t notice, at least I was smart enough not to say anything.
While My mother only embarrassed me that one time, my poor father kept challenging my sensibility for years, until at thirty I finally realized that by finding faults with his etiquette I was the one who lacked manners.
I had a chance to meet an extreme version of myself as a young woman when we went out for dinner with a friend, her daughter and her son in law. The mother (free spirited and delightful) was constantly berated by her embarrassed daughter (sulky and uptight). Those attributes in parentheses are mine, of course, the young woman and her husband probably viewed the occasion quite differently. I empathized with the mother and felt some shame remembering my own behavior. In order to ease the tension, I tried to make a supportive comment to the mother, but I noticed that she preferred to think that no one had noticed, so I stayed out of it.
In gatherings we sometimes see couples where the wife just knows that when her husband opens his mouth he would make a complete fool of himself. Thus she intervenes trying to ameliorate the situation. Obviously for her every inappropriate comment is grating on her ears.
I do not believe that this public performance is a sign that the relationship is in trouble; it is very possible that the mother and her daughter are close and that privately those couples get along fine. Issues that we tend to discuss in public such as politics, sport, or religion are a breeding ground to stock arguments and rigid opinions and therefore could be especially hard to take.
I feel that women who are generally sensitive to their surroundings tend to feel embarrassment and shame more strongly. I don’t think that many men kick their wives under the table to make them stop talking, but I have yet to meet the man who has not been kicked. Naturally we cannot kick our parents, friends and children.
But why can’t we just let it be? How come we are so worried that our loved ones’ imperfections will reflect badly on us? Are we flawless in public?
I can only speak for myself, perhaps when it happens I regress back to that insecure girl who found faults with her mother, all those years ago.
A good friend told me “my daughter’s inadequate behavior in public teaches me humility.” This is a great attitude which I am trying to adopt.