Learning to Laugh at Myself

By Cecilia Kennedy

a drawing from my sketchbook

At the age of four, my worst fear was arriving late to preschool. Being late meant attention, and at that time in my life, there was nothing more unbearably mortifying than having all eyes on me. I vividly remember standing outside the doorway to my classroom, butterflies swarming my stomach, attempting to build up the confidence to walk into the room. A teacher or fellow student would usually find me before I mustered up the courage to enter, leaving me with no choice but to confront the discomfort of being in the spotlight. When the door finally opened, and all heads turned, I wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and disappear. I would regularly beat myself up about my lack of courage and consequently had trouble motivating myself to grow my small bud of confidence.

I can’t count the number of times I have turned down opportunities out of fear since my years in preschool. My parents, who constantly radiate positivity, encouragement, and support, would regularly present me with new opportunities throughout my years in school, excited for me to try them out—things like work and community service opportunities, classes, extracurriculars, and other ways to get involved in the community. I would turn down these opportunities most of the time with a heavy heart, full of guilt and self-hatred, even when a part of me wanted to pursue them. To this day, I regret not taking those chances, and have trouble forgiving myself for turning them down. I can’t help but wonder how different my life would be if I had accepted those challenges rather than hiding from them.

For a long time, there was some inherent fear that existed inside of me, like a bright red stop sign that showed up out of nowhere every time I was presented with the opportunity to take a risk. I was so afraid of embarrassing myself or being judged that I avoided every situation that had the potential to make me feel bad about myself—in other words, every social situation, ever. But, somehow, here I am today, thousands of miles away from home, speaking a different language, living a completely different life, and embarrassing myself countless times on the daily. I still wonder: how on earth did I make that jump? 

My shyness has been on a steady decline since preschool, but greatly dampened my confidence all the way through my sophomore year in high school. Until then, I absolutely dreaded public speaking and avoided conversing with people all costs. I had a very hard time getting over my mistakes, especially those related to embarrassment. Any time I stuttered, answered a question wrong, or had an awkward conversation, I would play the moment over and over again in my head, lingering in the embarrassment, and would shame myself for not doing something differently. At a certain point, something shifted; I was tired of spending so much time regretting my actions and feeling disappointed in myself, and decided it wasn’t worth it. 

While ordering coffee at a café a couple of years back, I decided to put into practice the method that I believed would be the most effective in recovering from embarrassment: laughter. After I placed my order, the barista asked, “How are you today?” Due to a combination of my subpar hearing and the background noise, I couldn’t make out what he had said, so I assumed he had asked for a name for the order. I responded confidently but immediately knew I had done something wrong when the barista answered with a curious and slightly judgmental look and the words, “Um… I actually asked how you are doing today. But okay, hi, Cece. Nice to meet you, I’m José.” A hot flash of embarrassment immediately flooded my body, but instead of shutting down, I began to laugh. When I thought about the situation and ignored the fact that I was involved in it, it was simply funny to me. The tension immediately lightened, and the barista responded with a smile. I teased myself, apologizing for my bad hearing, and moved on with my day. It was that simple. 

My world grew enormously once I learned how to laugh at myself. I have been able to spend less time worrying and more time living. There is no purpose in lingering in our moments of discomfort—they will all be forgotten within a matter of time. Failure is such a regular occurrence, but in our society, the open discussion of it is taboo. From a young age, we are taught to hide our failures, and only disclose our successes. What we don’t recognize is that failure has such a tight relationship with growth—in fact, it isn’t possible to grow without failing—so why should we hide our mistakes?

By embracing the fact that failure is inevitable, I have been able to involve myself in various activities here in Cuenca that I have always had an interest in but have been too afraid to pursue. I have been attending kickboxing classes two or three times a week, and yoga once or twice a week. I’m learning sign language online, spending more time drawing, getting more involved in music—specifically violin and guitar—and learning more about Buddhism. These are all interests that I have been wanting to pursue for years. 

The boxing gym I have been taking classes at

Sure, I can think of plenty of times I have embarrassed myself, not only in the practice of these activities but in my everyday life here in Cuenca as well. I’ve had innumerable awkward encounters with the cheek-kiss greeting, have managed to create many uncomfortable situations through various forms of miscommunication, and often have to repeat “¿Mande?” an embarrassing number of times when I don’t understand somebody—just to name a few. I even accidentally kicked my kickboxing coach in the face once and have mistakenly punched him as well. In these moments it feels like nothing could get any worse, but when I take a step back and review what happened, I ask myself, “Who really cares?” Nobody should care more than I do, so if I choose not to care, there should be no reason for me to hang onto the embarrassment. 

Through the practice of laughing at myself, I’ve learned that every chance I take is worth something; it either results in a success or a learning experience, which both have their own benefits. By embracing the possibility of failure, I can freely pursue my interests rather than hide from them in fear of discomfort. I am no longer hesitant to allow my confidence to blossom; I’m choosing to grow risk by risk and failure by failure, because I refuse to go through the rest of my life regretting the chances I never took.