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Chapter 3: relationships: Sex

On Blushing

One of the odd – but not particularly uncommon – things that can happen when we feel aroused and excited by the idea of getting together with someone is that we start to blush. Maybe we’ve been having dinner with a new friend. We’re getting more and more turned on. But instead of this making us feel confident and sure of ourselves – instead of easing into a polished, playful response – we find ourselves growing increasingly quiet and reserved, awkward and uncertain. The blood starts to pump into the little capillary veins of our cheeks and to our horror we realise that we are starting to blush; a deeply embarrassing crimson flush, which the lovely person sitting opposite surely can’t fail to notice.

We may think we are turning off our partner but for some very good reasons, blushing can be a highly gratifying phenomenon to witness and to have provoked.

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Our tendency to blush speaks of how aware we are that we might be bothering someone with our presence. It is a thrill at the possibility of acceptance mingled with shame at the danger of rejection. To know we might be bothering someone, to hold open the possibility that our advances might be unwelcome is a high ethical achievement. It is based upon an acute interest in the minds of others combined with a deep respect for the ways they could be dissatisfied by us. The shy person is touchingly alive to the dangers of being a nuisance.

Someone with no capacity to blush is, for that reason, a scary possibility; for they must implicitly operate with a dismaying attitude of entitlement. They can be so composed and sure only because they hadn’t taken on board a crucial possibility: that the other person might rightly have a disenchanted view of them.

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Excessive self-doubt and timidity can of course blight our lives. But it seems on the edge of something properly worth celebrating: an awareness of how inconvenient we can be for others – an imaginative exercise that helps to keep our unappealing sides usefully in check. The more we understand ourselves – and are honest about our pockets of inadequacy, our capacity to get stumped by small difficulties or enraged by apparently minor irritants, our weirder enthusiasms, our oddities and points of raw sensitivity – the bigger a deal it should seem to be to be embraced by another person. The better we know ourselves, the more amazing it must seem that anyone could ever want to take us on. Shyness is evidence of self-knowledge.

Instead of being put out by the fumbling partner across the table or the person sitting primly on the sofa beside us we should therefore keep open the thought that they may be filled with longing and yearning for intimacy while simply too self-aware to assume as a right that we might be genuinely interested in their existence. The capacity to blush is – in its own way – a sign of a deeply evolved and ethical personality. No wonder it can be such a turn on.

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