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How to Recover From Embarrassment at Work


Even if you’re a pretty mellow person, you probably still have that cache of “ugh” moments stored in the back of your brain. Since most of us spend the bulk of our waking moments at work, it’s not a surprise if a lot of them feature TPS reports and accidental CCs. No matter what it feels like, however, embarrassment isn’t forever – or at least, it doesn’t have to be.


(Photo Credit: traveling.lunas/Flickr)

Here’s how to get back on your feet:

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1. Be accountable … but not for things you haven’t done.

If you’ve made a mistake, don’t try to hide it. These things have a way of coming out, and you’ll be in a less powerful position if you’re being accused rather than owning up to what you’ve done.

In situations where you haven’t made a mistake, exactly, but just sort feel like you put your foot in it socially or came off as less skilled or professional than you might have wanted (group presentations spring to mind, as an example) it may be a case of least said, soonest mended. Don’t jump to conclusions if no one has called you on anything, and whatever you do…

2. Be sparing with those apologies.

“I’m sorry” – two of the most powerful words in the English language, and potentially two of the most dangerous, at least in terms of your career.

I’m not saying that you should avoid accountability or give one of those fake apologies beloved by celebrities who’ve messed up in public, but you should get out of the habit of apologizing before you’re sure you’ve done anything wrong. Also: if you do apologize, do it once, and move on. Being responsible is good; being abject is not.

3. Fix the problem.

People love to point the finger, but resolving the issue is much more important than assigning blame. As a bonus, if you approach your boss or colleague with a resolution instead of merely an apology, you’re more likely to defuse the situation.

In cases where you’re not so much wrong as behind on the learning curve, the solution is to assess your skills and figure out how to fill any gaps. The simple act of signing up for a class or seminar will go a long way toward resolving your feelings of embarrassment.

4. Identify any negative patterns, and break them.

Maybe you tend to email first and ask questions later, or you’re terrified of public speaking (or math, or the latest technology) and you frequently feel exposed by what you perceive to be your incompetence. Whatever the problem, don’t let it become a pattern. Practice new behaviors; pick up new knowledge. Know that you don’t have to keep doing what you’ve always done.

5. Move on.

At the end of the day, this might be the most important part: once you’ve figured out the problem, taken responsibility for fixing it, and prevented yourself from falling into a negative pattern, it’s time to let it go.

Of course, moving on is often easier said than done. If you’re having trouble, try this:

1. Remember that everyone makes mistakes.

Seriously, everyone: every pro athlete, great humanitarian, billionaire entrepreneur, or world-changing inventor has made a huge mistake at some point in their lives, and a bunch of smaller ones, too. For many people, some days, it seems like it’s hard to get from breakfast to lunch without screwing up. You are in an entire world of good company.

2. Understand that everyone is far too busy thinking about their own mistakes to think about yours.

Think about the last time you saw someone in a public place and thought, “Ugh, what a loser.” If you’re older than 12, the answer is probably, “Huh, I don’t remember.” That’s because you were way too busy thinking about your own problems and concerns to notice anyone else. Chances are, you’re harder on yourself than anyone else would be.

3. Use cognitive-behavioral psychology.

“Cognitive restructuring is a core part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT),” writes Alice Boyes, PhD, at Psychology Today. “CBT is one of the most effective psychological treatments for common problems like depression, anxiety disorders, and binge eating.”

It can also help you stop ruminating on your mistakes and socially awkward moments. Boyes’ tips include noticing when you’re experiencing a cognitive distortion, tracking the accuracy of your thoughts, and practicing mindfulness meditation.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you at work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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Marja Lee Freeman
Marja Lee Freeman

Hi Pattie, I’m so sorry to hear about your plight. I hope it’s gotten better since your post. I’ve been in this same position, so I hope my insight will be of benefit. I’m almost sure that someone like this who ‘flipped out’ on you has probably flipped out on others as well. What I would suggest is to wait for an opportunity when you’re having a casual conversation to throw in a question as: Mike, can I ask you… Read more »

Marja Lee Freeman
Marja Lee Freeman

Hi Alex, Since you’re their superior it can actually work to your advantage. First, it shows you have a human side. and Second, if you use this as an opportunity to laugh at yourself, it can bring you closer to your colleagues. Example: The next time there is an office meeting, start with: ‘Okay, I promise I won’t be sliding off of my chair for your amusement this time . . . . Or I was reaching for my drink… Read more »


A co-worker yelled at me about mistakes I’ve been making. He previously told me I was doing good and we were a good team. He flipped out on me one day and said he had to fix 10,000 mistakes I’ve made. I tried to calmly ask for a specific example and he said there were 10,000. I feel he over-exagerated and he was in a bad mood from something else. I just happen to ask him if everything was ok.… Read more »


Alex – the solution is to sit up and have a quick wash. It always works for for our cat when she falls off the sofa or something.


I have the habit of sliding down my chair, almost getting below desk. Please don’t mistake it by sleeping :). I am actually working like this. Unfortunately, one day the chair slid right off below me and I felt in front of my colleagues. The worst part is that I am their superior. How can you recover from this?

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