How to stop blushing when coworkers talk about sex
December 13, 2011 4:01 PM   Subscribe

Help me stop blushing when people at work talk about sex.

I'm a youngish gay woman working in a professional environment. I often blush when coworkers and supervisors talk about sex or even just mention words that have sexual meanings. I also blush when people at work talk about sexual orientation and sometimes even when they talk about dating. All this comes up both with coworkers talking about our own lives and when we're talking about our client's lives, as we're a social services organization where it's relevant for us to know basics about our clients' sexual activity.

I try not to beat myself up about it, since obviously I can't control it, and I try not to take it too seriously, but I really wish I could stop doing it. I worry that it makes me seem very young and also that it makes me seem like I'm embarrassed by sex/sexuality/dating. Outside of work, I have no problem talking about sex and have far more explicit conversations with my friends and partners.

It seems like at this point my reaction is reinforced in my body and brain. Though I've certainly had my share of shame over the course of my life about my sexual orientation, I don't feel ashamed of it now. I'm out to everyone and have had wonderful, loving relationships and can picture myself having a happy marriage to another woman. Those things were not as true when I started my job several years ago. So I suppose this is maybe a residual shame thing. I remember feeling basically a whole-body blush when I was 20 and coming out to my best friend, and coming out to other people has often involved me feeling like I'm physically shaking. But it hasn't been that hard at all in the past few years. Most of the time now, I feel totally casual about it. So why do I still feel so exposed at work?

I blush when a coworker says someone "gets a hard-on" over something or uses the word "penetration" or even describes how one of our clients kissed another little boy in his class. There's no need for me to be embarrassed about any of this. My coworkers are all totally accepting of me in every way and completely lovely people.

Besides thinking that this is a residual effect of having been ashamed about my sexual orientation and feeling that I needed to hide it, I also think this might be related to my first real boss, a jerk who would exploit and sexually harass his staff. I remember feeling incredibly unsafe at the prospect that he might find out that I was gay. But, again, I'm out at work now and it's a really queer-friendly environment, so there's no reason for me to feel unsafe.

I would love any ideas about how I could think about this and approach trying to change it. I was in therapy for two years a while back and it was wonderful and made me a far happier, less ashamed person. I don't really feel like I need therapy now, as I'm happy in every other way in my life, but I would think about it if it would help with this. The thing that I usually do when I feel myself blushing is give myself an internal pep talk along the lines of "everyone here accepts you. You're totally safe. It's okay to blush, but you don't need to feel embarrassed or uneasy. Breathe." I've been thinking it might be useful to come up with some affirmations I could say to myself every day along those lines. I'm into mindfulness meditation, so maybe I could find meditation practices that would help.

I've also thought about addressing it directly with people at work by saying something like, "I know I'm blushing right now and I'm sorry that's kind of awkward. I just do that sometimes when people talk about sex, but it doesn't mean anything. I just blush really easily. It's kind of funny, but you don't need to worry about it." I think that might help me defuse it, but of course it also seems like a really embarrassing thing to say. Maybe it isn't.

Thanks for any help! Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Interestingly uncommon work environment? If it be that type of place, then your current attitude is perfectly fine. They are understanding coworkers, right?

Just explain yourself as you did in your last paragraph (just shorter and to the point).

Your friends and coworkers are at different degrees of comfort. Your reactions are far from unusual.
posted by Bodrik at 4:38 PM on December 13, 2011

Are you sure that other people notice you blushing? My bet is it is way more of a big deal to you than anyone else. I would really (personally) think it was weird if you were appologise for it. By drawing attention to it you are not only possibly making a bigger deal out of something they may not have noticed but you are guaranteeing they notice the next time.
As far as stopping it from happening, I don't have much advice.
posted by Pork n Beans at 4:41 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

One possibility to consider is that they actually aren't even noticing your blushing; I blush constantly, for no reason at all, and nobody has commented on it in years, so either it isn't that obvious or people don't care. I would just try to relax and accept this as part of yourself.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 4:41 PM on December 13, 2011

Mod note: Folks, the OP has made clear that the sex talk itself is not the problem.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:43 PM on December 13, 2011

I worked at an advocacy center where a big part of my day was spent listening to what were often graphic descriptions of various sex acts/sexual abuse.

One of the interns had a similar problem and she handled it by saying, "Yikes! You're making me blush!" when we were away from clients. It acknowledged what was happening so she didn't feel as awkward and then people could tell she was a little more sensitive about the graphic discussions and so tended to take it a little easy when she was in the room out of respect.
posted by Saminal at 4:45 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

In your mind, when you hear one set of words, say sexual words, replace them with another set of words that are non-sexual. Reconceptualizing takes some practice at first, but it can help with situations that cause anxiety.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:48 PM on December 13, 2011

I wonder worry about it unless someone says, "wow, you seem embarrassed or uncomfortable," at which point you can laugh and say your little spiel.

How long have you been working there? maybe you're just not quite used to the environment yet?
posted by sm1tten at 5:05 PM on December 13, 2011

As part of my work, I often have to review allegations of sexual conduct in the workplace, sexual battery, harassment, coerced sex between co-workers, sexual material accessed on people's company computers, sexually-charged e-mails, and all manner of stuff like that. I've seen stuff you wouldn't believe - and that I didn't believe, either, until it turned out to be true.

I completely understand how that sort of thing - as part of your job - can make you uncomfortable but not in a way that would really justify a complaint. It's the job, after all. As far as that goes, and the blushing the comes with it, I can only echo those who have already pointed out that people probably don't notice the blushing and that it's not as big a deal as you're assuming. Sexual discussions make lots of people uncomfortable. Hopefully, you have respectful co-workers who will not harass you because of your probably-not-noticeable reaction to their entirely appropriate work-based discussion about relevant issues of their clients.

On the other hand, you are also experiencing another kind of exposure to sexual discussions and sexual banter, because your co-workers are engaging in inappropriate sexual banter about their own private lives, making comments about people getting a hard-on about something, and that sort of thing. I realize that you have not stated expressly that you find that banter to be a problem. But inherent in your question is the subtext that, yes, it is inappropriate and no, you're not comfortable with it. If you were comfortable with it, you would not be blushing.

More important, however, is the fact that sexual banter in the workplace is inappropriate regardless of how you feel about it, and it presents significant ethical and legal problems for you, your co-workers, and your employer, whether they all want to admit it or not. Your co-workers are engaging in sexual banter unrelated to their duties that is making their co-worker uncomfortable. In the United States, that is a huge - HUGE - problem. I see this all the time. I work with it. And it is often the precursor or the justification for bigger problems - problems like quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile work environment sexual harassment (which this may already be), and often more severe and, frankly, shocking conduct by supervisors and co-workers. So, in addition to figuring out how to feel less uncomfortable with it, you should realize that you have no obligation to accommodate the inappropriate conduct of your co-workers and that any HR representative worth their salt needs to know about this.

Years ago, a colleague worked on a case where workplace sexual harassment plaintiff produced a "sexual harassment journal" that recorded every incident of inappropriate sexual banter in the workplace over a period of years. All the lawyers were amazed. And so, to this day, I and many of my colleagues have adopted a simple, sarcastic statement whenever someone makes an inappropriate joke in the workplace. We just sort of jokingly say "I guess this is going in my sexual harassment journal."
posted by The World Famous at 5:16 PM on December 13, 2011

There's a person at your job that farts a lot. There's one with bad breath. There's one that was seen to be browsing taters on the web. There's one that always has a huge pee spot when they come out of the bathroom.

You're the one that blushes? Oh, you're gonna have to work a lot harder than that to be the weird one to an extent that anyone notices.
posted by ftm at 5:44 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

So much empathy! I am a sex educator and work for a sex toy company, and pretty much spend all day talking about sex sex sex both professionally and personally. I love talking about sex. I am comfortable talking about sex. However, I blush quite often when I'm talking about sex, or someone else is. Which is embarrassing, given that I'm supposed to be all comfortable and matter-of-fact about it--and that makes me blush even more!

I haven't found any magical solutions, though I've been searching for awhile. It has helped me to realize that there's a pattern: I tend to blush more and more intensely when I feel like I'm the focus of the conversation, even when I'm not. Quickly reframing it in my head as an abstract conversation, or doing something to distract or distance myself, often helps. I sometimes take an antacid before a big public presentation, which according to some is supposed to suppress blushing, and it often seems to work, though I'm perfectly willing to accept that it may be mostly due to the placebo effect. And sometimes I just roll with it! It's a great teaching/modeling moment for teenagers and adults, too. "Yep, you caught me, I'm blushing! This can be an awkward topic, can't it? It's okay to feel a little weird talking about it--even I do sometimes, and I talk about it for a living."

So I don't know if any of that is actually helpful, but you can at least know you're not alone.
posted by rhiannonstone at 5:49 PM on December 13, 2011

I've also thought about addressing it directly with people at work by saying something like ... I think that might help me defuse it, but of course it also seems like a really embarrassing thing to say. Maybe it isn't.

Full disclosure: I am also a horrible blusher. Even so, if someone gave me this type of preemptive spiel about their blushing I would think they were crazily self-conscious. Are people actually commenting on your blushing so that there is something to "defuse?" If so, they are the ones making things awkward, not you. If someone mentions your blush, then just say something handwavey like "meh, I blush at the drop of a hat," and move on. People who point out my blushing are only slightly less loathsome than the morons who tell me to smile, so don't give them any thought.

If no one is commenting on your blush, keep in mind that it might be because no one has noticed. The only time anyone comments to me about my blushing is if I'm wearing a v-neck top since the blush spreads into a very noticeable blotchy rash-like mess all over my chest. If that's the case with you, maybe avoid v-necks just as a practical matter. Unless you are quite pale its probably not particularly noticeable on your face. One thing I've leaned as I've gotten older is that people are usually paying far less attention to me than I imagine. If you're obsessing over your red face, chances are that your coworkers are oblivious and are instead obsessing over the fact they just mispronounced a word or burped or whatever.
posted by gatorae at 6:00 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have never, ever noticed someone blushing.

I do notice fidgeting, staring at their shoes, communicating discomfort by bodily language, not taking part in a conversation suddenly when the topic gets a bit ribald, etc. But I have never, ever noticed anyone blushing. I'm someone who makes an honest attempt to be aware of things like that, too.

Has anyone ever said anything to you without you mentioning it first? We're all the lead actor in our own personal plays. Chances are good that nobody thinks one hundredth as much about it as you do. A thousandth, even! It might be small consolation, but do try to keep that in mind.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:13 PM on December 13, 2011

Ordinarily I'm all about mindfulness, but for involuntary reflexes like blushing and gagging, I think CBT and attending to your feelings makes it all that much worse. Denial! Next time you feel yourself blush, just power through, paying it as little mind as you can and carrying on your conversation as normally as possible.

Most kind, sensitive people who notice that you are matter-of-factly ignoring your flushing will also pick up on the fact you don't want or need to discuss it, that you don't want to communicate any sort of embarrassment or anger - that you are a pinkable sort of person and that it's not intended to make a statement.

(Developing this ability now will serve you well during your perimenopause.)
posted by gingerest at 10:11 PM on December 13, 2011

I also have a blushing problem. Like you, I blush at sexual references, and I also blush at the sight of particular people, when I get excited about anything, when I am the center of attention, and sometimes, just when my brain realizes that it would be really embarrassing if I were to start blushing at the moment. (I think that this last issue is the heart of it--the trigger for blushing for me seems to be a desire to appear calm or indifferent when I am not, to which my ever-contrary body reacts by saying "I want to appear calm, cool and collected, so instead I'm going to do EVERYTHING IN MY POWER to broadcast otherwise."

About blushing I have three thoughts:

1. Like The NewWazoo stated (along with many others) it may not be as obvious as you think. I have a hyper-awareness for things like that, especially since I'm a fellow sufferer, and yet I almost never notice someone else blush. There have been a few times where I've seen coworkers in somewhat embarrassing moments and noticed "huh, so-and-so's face is really red at the moment. They must be embarrassed, but I really can't imagine why. They didn't do anything wrong." It's very clinical when you see it happen to someone else. For me, at least, the primary emotions I feel upon seeing a fellow blusher are either very mild curiosity or sympathy.

2. Despite this knowledge, I continue to be plagued with embarrassment about my blushing, particularly when I'm engaged in a one-on-one conversation with someone that requires us to look at each others' faces, and there is no means of escape, and this person brings up one of my trigger subjects such as sex or dating or what-the-fuck-ever. In these situations I absolutely freak out, because there is no way for me to dodge that feeling of cause-effect: they bring up a risque topic, and I turn scarlet-purple, therefore I must be a prude or weird and am making the person I'm talking to feel uncomfortable as well. These situations just plain suck. I've had a lot of practice experiencing them, and the only thing I can do now is to inwardly groan, try not to beat myself up over it, and muscle on through the conversation paying as much attention to it as possible despite the massive distraction that blushing is. I do have some hope for another possible strategy, which is:

3. Focusing on a calm spot at my center. I've done some meditation, and practiced focusing on my breath as it comes and goes in my core. In addition to being a blusher I'm also painfully shy, and one thing that has helped me a little in stressful social situations is to think: "ok, my priority at this moment is to make myself feel comfortable on the inside--if I am not comfortable in myself, I can't relate to others in a non-dysfunctional way." So I focus on my breathing in that tiny, peaceful spot in my abdomen. I'm encouraged that sometimes this strategy has worked really well, and I've calmed down and gone on to have positive interactions with people who were initially stressing me out. It has also, once or twice, worked to help me sidestep that awful cascade of sensations and embarrassment that comprise blushing. Maybe I am still blushing, I don't know, but I am not feeling the associated shame and I really think that is the key component to blushing.

Finally (I guess I have four thoughts), I've heard that going on prescription medication, be it SSRIs or anti-anxiety meds or beta blockers such as propranolol, can really help.
posted by indognito at 5:49 AM on December 14, 2011

Oh, and I forgot to mention a couple of other things:

Try not to beat yourself up after the fact. I used to spend several hours following a blushing incident having flashbacks and excoriating myself, but the truth is that it is a physiological response that I have no conscious control over, so beating myself up over it is pointless. (I like what gingerest said--I'm "pinkable.")

Caffeine and sugar really amp up my whole system. I'm much more likely to blush when I've just had a big frou-frou coffee drink.
posted by indognito at 6:14 AM on December 14, 2011

I'm a big-time blusher, too, and I think the best thing you can do is radiate non-uncomfortableness (um, comfortableness, I guess) in any way you can control. Once in a great while someone will call me out and say "made you blush!" (asshole!) or whatever, in which case I will usually say something like "it doesn't take much!"

Try to not feel embarrassed about the blushing itself because, as you've probably already figured out, that only makes it worse *and* if you're sending out any other embarrassment signals that will only make your blush more obvious.
posted by mskyle at 8:29 AM on December 14, 2011

Probably almost nobody notices. And the reality is, it's an involuntary response, there's no reason for it to reflect on you. I'd let it go unless it's commented on; if someone says "Whoa, are you BLUSHING?" you can toss off some line like "Yeah, it's a thing, I blush when I walk past the bananas at the grocery store practically" and leave it be.
posted by KathrynT at 9:49 AM on December 14, 2011

If it happens often enough, maybe you just come across as generally "ruddy".

I blush a lot; so what? It's just what my body does's part of the package deal of being super pale and hypersensitive. I only notice people blushing because I do it so often myself, but when I do, it makes me think positively about them. A cut above the average, jaded, insensible clod, you know?
posted by aquafortis at 9:55 AM on December 14, 2011

Coworkers who are relaxed enough to joke about hard-ons and penetration (oh my!) and who are "totally accepting of [you] in every way and completely lovely people" aren't going to think less of you for blushing, even if they notice—and they probably won't.

On the off chance that someone does notice, and kindly says "Hey, Anon, we're not making you uncomfortable, are we?", then and only then would I say "Nah, I blush like this all the time, don't sweat it." It's only as big a deal as you make it, you know?

Your internal pep talk sounds great. Keep that up. Remember, untangling this kind of cognitive knot is a process. Next month will be easier than this month. The month after that will be even easier. A year from now you'll be amazed at how far you've come.
posted by Zozo at 10:26 AM on December 14, 2011

I blush terribly when embarrassed or at the center of attention in a group, ears and chest and all, like indognito. I am the only woman in my department at work, and my coworkers are frequently crude; I blush often. People do notice, and my sensitivity is a running gentle/friendly joke now, but it has proven to be a helpful rebuke for them. I turn red, and they check themselves.

Some friends have told me they appreciate my blushing, because it's such an honest response. And some people think it's cute.

It sounds like you blush at things you'd really rather not, though. (I do too, and it's a pain.) Especially if it's a professional hindrance for you (visible discomfort can undermine authority), try Toastmasters or frequent musical performance or some other way of hardening yourself to the effects of an audience/your surroundings/uncomfortable topics. Discussing your personal life more openly with your coworkers might help, too, if it's appropriate in your workplace. It took me AGES to come out to my boss, and I'm sure I was red from head to toe, but eventually I was able to bring my girlfriend to a company party, and now I can mention dating women in a room full of conservative dudes and (usually) keep my cool.

Good luck! The better you know these lovely people, and the better they know you, the easier it will be.
posted by l8erm8 at 10:29 PM on December 29, 2011

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