Why We’re Embarrassed By The Gross Things We Do (And Why We Should Cut Ourselves Some Slack)

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Don’t feel bad if you’ve done it. A lot of people have.

After making an especially fruitful deposit at the toilet, you take a moment to look back and make a visual survey of what you’ve just produced, maybe taking a whiff or two while you’re at it. Just to get a full accounting of the situation.

If you actually don’t mind what you’re smelling…well, science backs you up. A 2005 study found that people tend to tolerate their odors over others’ for evolutionary reasons: Your pathogens and disease-causing agents are your own; it’s the ones coming from strangers that are really a threat to you.

… part of what we feel embarrassed about is our animal selves.

But if you’re embarrassed about the impulse to look in the first place, try to remember that it’s a natural process, and no amount of ignoring that is going to change it.

“We all fart sometimes, and part of what we feel embarrassed about is our animal selves,” says June Tangney, professor of psychology at George Mason University. “There’s a real push to not get in touch with that: to be clean, to not smell like an animal, sound like an animal. To be somehow away from our animal roots.”


For the most part, we can’t help doing those strange bodily habits that remind us of our evolutionary past and make us feel a little embarrassed when we let that side out.

At least the toilet example happens in private, though. When these habits go public, that’s a whole different story.

Public Displays of Awkwardness

In her research on the intersection of embarrassment, guilt, and shame, Tangney found a constant presence in 98 percent of the cases in which subjects reported embarrassment: other people.


“It was almost never that you do something silly in the living room by yourself and just feel kind of embarrassed,” Tangney says. “It’s the presence of an audience that seems to be part of the embarrassment experience, but it’s not an audience that is looking at you as a defective, lesser human being. It’s an audience that caught you doing something kind of silly, untoward, and that’s it.”

It’s the sort of thing where your zipper is down and you didn’t realize it. Or your belt malfunctions and your pants fall down. Not so embarrassing when it’s just you and your cat in the living room. Extremely embarrassing when you’re in a conference room full of people.

iStock.com / BONDART

This sense of embarrassment even extends to seemingly pleasant experiences. This, Tangney says, refers to the “dramaturgical” model of embarrassment. Or the “Happy Birthday” problem.

It’s your special day. You’re the one with the pointy hat on your head and the cake in front of you and everybody starts singing “Happy Birthday” to you. Yes, you.

Should be a happy occasion, right? Not entirely.

“You haven’t done anything wrong, but almost everybody is embarrassed when a bunch of people start singing ‘Happy Birthday,’” Tangney says. “It’s the rare person who’s comfortable sitting there. Part of it is that we’re not used to being the center of attention and we’re not sure how to behave in that situation. It only happens once a year. Maybe less, if you’re lucky.”


Public embarrassment basically stems from stumbling into situations in which you don’t have a script at your disposal for how they should go. Some of us are good at improvisation, and some of us just sit there stammering as our face turns red. Some of us think we’re awesome shower singers or private dancers, but when one person unexpectedly walks into the room, we’re suddenly untalented messes.

There are still habits that can cause you some consternation when it’s just you that you have to answer to. They tend to fall into the “animal self” spectrum Tangney referenced—the things we wish we didn’t do, but just can’t seem to stop.

By now, you know, in an evolutionary sense, why it’s natural to beat yourself up over these behaviors. But here’s why maybe you shouldn’t.

Grossing Ourselves Out

Your nose is blocked. It feels dry and irritating in there, and you know a tissue just isn’t going to get the job done. So where do you turn?

How about your finger? It’s not as uncommon as you might think. A 1995 study found that 91 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative when asked whether they engaged in “the insertion of a finger (or other object) into the nose with the intention of removing dried nasal secretions,” and 75 percent said they felt as if “almost everyone does it.”

iStock.com / VikaValter

It’s a logical response to a common problem. The finger seems perfectly suited for nose “insertion,” and the results speak for themselves… but people tend to turn their nose up at the habit.

Here’s where we’ll hawk a product or two, for your status’ sake: If you want to stop this problem before it starts, you can always invest in something like the ToiletTree Professional Nose Trimmer. It’s water-resistant, battery-operated, and has an LED light to help you cut down those nostril trees that catch all the detritus you breathe in and convert it into hardened snot. People on Amazon adore it.

You could also go the more scientific route to cut down on those green goblins. Air humidifiers can treat air that you breathe in and cut down on irritants. Of course, you can’t bring a unit with you everywhere you go, so sprayable nasal gel can accomplish the same effect by keeping your nose area moisturized and soothed.

Now, if you are going to persist with picking, what are you going to do with the evidence?

A common answer: Eat it. But that’s also a common cause of unease for us, since who among us wants to be known as a booger eater?

Here’s a way to justify it to yourself. Or, you know, someone who catches you in an unguarded public moment: You’re doing it for your health. A 2015 study noted that “mucins”—the structural components of naturally occurring mucus in the body—serve as protectors against certain pathogens.

The earwax miner knows the nose picker’s dilemma. Like its nasal neighbor, that orange, flaky stuff hanging out in your ear serves a very crucial health purpose—in this case, eliminating potentially harmful foreign bodies that enter the ear canal—but it can also be irritating and so, so tempting to clear up with just a swoop of your pointer finger.

iStock.com / batuhan toker

And, like nose picking, ear picking is generally frowned upon in polite company.

So what’s the remedy? Not a Q-tip, that’s for sure. Those cotton-ended batons are good for a plethora of things but, when used in the ears, can pack the substance even further back into the canal—or, in more extreme cases, puncture the eardrum with overzealous swabbing.

If you want to go the digging route, invest in a curette. It’s a long, thin tool with a small hook, scoop, or chisel on the end that can break up and remove the material without packing it in. You can get a 50-pack here.


If you’re looking for a heavier-duty, longer-term solution, there are all sorts of home earwax removal and dispersal kits. You squirt a peroxide solution into your ear with an eyedropper, which breaks up the colony in your head—don’t be freaked out by the light foaming…that’s natural—then you flush out the pieces with water.

Of course, none of that addresses the root problem of why a certain school of psychology believes we’re so skeeved out by our various fluids and odors.

“They’re especially interested in death anxiety, and they think one of the ways we try to get away from our fears of mortality is ignoring or pretending that we’re not going to die,” Tangney says, “because we’re these special creatures that don’t poop and fart and make funny noises and burp, and have bodies that are vulnerable.”

The Perils of Body-focused Behaviors

None of these potentially embarrassing behaviors are harmful in and of themselves. They can cause you to shake your head at yourself momentarily, or make for an uncomfortable moment at the office picnic, but nobody’s going to give you too much of a hassle if they catch you absentmindedly sucking your thumb.


The danger starts to come in when these behaviors become excessive and debilitating, and when the shame of performing them combines with the original anxiety-laden root of the behavior in a person’s mind.

Kieron O’Connor, a professor of psychology and researcher at the Mental Health Institute at Montreal University, has done extensive research on the psychological underpinnings of such “body-focused repetitive behaviors” as nail biting, skin picking, and hair pulling when taken to pathological extremes.

“If somebody pulls their hair 10 times a day for half an hour each time, it’s pathological. It interferes with what they’re doing,” O’Connor says. “Some people bite their nails for five to 10 minutes a day; that’s not so bad. But if you bite your nails down to the cuticles several times a day, that’s a problem.”

iStock.com / AHPhotoswpg

O’Connor says these behaviors are often lumped in with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but his research has found they have more in common with Tourette syndrome-like tics physically and with elements of perfectionism mentally.

So they come from a place of emotional distress. And the very act of doing them—and seeing the physical and societal implications of them—can cause even more.

“A lot of people that do these habits do it to regulate emotion,” O’Connor says. “It’s when people can’t meet their own standards and don’t perform as they should be performing. People feel shame when they do it, but they also feel shame afterward. Somebody who pulls their hair, after they pull their hair a number of times, they’re likely to go bald. So they wear a wig and hide it. We’re talking about people with extreme habits. They’re not just everyday things.”

iStock.com/Thiago Santos

The most effective approach to tackling these behaviors once they become a problem is a mixture of cognitive and behavioral remedies. On the cognitive end, for example, a perfectionist who plans to do five things in a day and gets frustrated that only three get completed can start planning to do fewer things. On the behavioral side, a compulsive hair puller can try to implement the “incompatible response” of sitting with their hands on their knees.

O’Connor has written extensively on the subject, and you can see his body of work on cognitive-behavioral therapy and tic disorders on Amazon here.

Those with less debilitating body-focused behavior patterns can turn to readily available products to aid them in cutting back. Clear, brush-on nail polish with a bitter taste—but one that won’t harm you—are all over the place. Here’s some specifically designed to stop nail biting.


Those who have issues with hair pulling can come at the problem from a couple of ways.

One, make access to the hair more difficult. Try to wear bandanas, hoodies, or other head coverings as much as possible. Two, give your hands something else to do. Take up knitting or always have a fidget buddy handy—if you’re not one for a fidget spinner, Silly Putty or a stress ball can do the trick.

If you don’t care, then we don’t care.

Embarrassment is a largely public emotion, unlike the private gnawing we feel from guilt and shame. And, unlike guilt and shame, it’s something we can pretty easily get over.

In the moment, it feels weird. But we can shrug it off. And our sense of it is evolutionarily advantageous, according to Tangney. It lets other people know we’re all on the same team.


“If I look embarrassed when I do something, I’m acknowledging that I’m not following the program, and that I believe in the program and that I’ll probably do better next time because of this uncomfortable feeling,” Tangney says. “Just acknowledging to other people that this is not okay.”

For some, though, an overactive sense of embarrassment could be harmful. Overly sensitive people have the tendency to put too much stock into how others view them and develop crippling self-consciousness. Tangney says these sorts of personality differences start to make themselves known early in childhood, through behaviors such as shyness, discomfort with eye contact, and aversion to new situations. That feeling can be helped or exacerbated by the environment in which the child is raised, as well as his or her formative experiences.

iStock.com / Vladimir Vladimirov

Go through a particularly harrowing public speaking experience in front of your fourth-grade class, though, and they probably won’t get over that oversensitivity for a while.

The good news, Tangney says, is that it tends to get better with age.


“As we get older, we get less embarrassed,” Tangney says. “You don’t sweat the little things that you did when you were in adolescence.”

Don’t want to wait that long? Well, there’s always Mark Manson’s 2016 bestselling self-help guide The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.

You can get Manson’s book on Amazon here.

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