How to Handle Getting Called Out

W hen we get called out, we feel confused. Many of us learned early on that we can never be wrong. When our fear of being wrong becomes a reality, we retreat within to reflect. That reflection can result in one of two emotions: shame or guilt. And what you do after the self-reflection is most important. This is a guide on how to handle getting “called out”. We’ll talk about the difference between shame and guilt, how they play into getting called out, and what you can do when it happens.

Of the two, only guilt is socially productive. According to research, guilt often motivates individuals to make a change (Tangney, 2011, p. 4). The self-conscious emotion of guilt encourages us to be empathetic to the world and society around us. On the other hand, shame causes people to retreat within without taking action–they want to hide. I believe that when we experience being called out, we go through stages of shame or guilt. It’s worth examining how each stage brings out the worst or the best in us when we get called out.

Stages of shame

What happens when someone gets called out and experiences shame? First, their pride is hurt. They’re wrong and and it feels damaging to their reputation. They feel ashamed and engage in self-reflection and decide that as a person, they did a bad thing. Our society does a poor job of differentiating between shame and guilt. Many people who get called out and feel shame jump into, “I did x, which is a bad thing, so I’m a bad person.”

Unfortunately, those feelings can quickly escalate depending on the individual. Rather than retreating further into self-judgement, a shamed person may become aggressive. They place blame and retaliate. For example, a person might say “maybe I would listen if you said it more nicely”. Or they might avoid the person who called them out and instead talk about them behind their back.

After aggression, they’ll feign ignorance. A shamed person harms many on their war path for self-redemption, but they won’t admit their outburst. Instead, they believe they’ve done nothing wrong. When they’re shamed again, the cycle continues.

Stages of guilt

The behavior is quite different when someone gets called out and experiences guilt. The stages of guilt are like that of shame’s, but with one big difference. One feels guilty about an action they’ve taken and doesn’t believe themselves to be a bad person. While reflecting, they realize the behavior they were called out for was harmful.

This is a self-awareness that comes with empathy. It’s a skill to understand how one’s actions affects others. At this point, an individual is open to conversation. They’re willing to learn from the conflict and to grow, not only for themselves, but for the good of the community.

What can you do?…

Knowing what you know now, what can you do when you get called out for your behavior? You can do five things: step back, ask, listen, recognize and strive.

Step back

It’s okay to step away from the situation in order to better understand your emotions and how your ego play into them. We’re human and we have permission to experience a range of emotions. Take a break and give yourself time to reflect.


Ask yourself, “Am I being called out because of who I am or because of my behavior?” One focuses on you as a person and the other focuses on your actions. The former is accusatory, while the latter has the potential to be conciliatory. It’s important to know the difference.


Sometimes we don’t want to hear it when our behavior gets called out. Perhaps the delivery isn’t “nice” enough for you or you don’t like the way you’re being spoken to. That’s the ego speaking, especially when you know you’re in the wrong.

It’s worth defining “nice”. The dictionary defines “nice” as “pleasing” or “agreeable”. It’s also defined as “socially-acceptable.” The definitions show us how the plausibility of using niceties to deliver information quickly falls apart. If niceties vary by person, how can we have meaningful conversation with someone “different”? We can’t. Instead, we must be open to listening regardless of niceties. If there is no abusive intent, have a chat with your ego. Examine why you desire everyone conform to your idea of pleasantries.


Recognize the privilege of indulging in defensiveness, when you become defensive about your actions. Peggy McIntosh touches on this in her article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. She outlines twenty-six ways white privilege affords her a luxury others don’t have. She notes, “I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life.” If you’re a member of a privileged group, you can work on this, too. Recognize how the effects of white/male/cisgender/straight/etc privilege(s) provide you with social capital. And recognize that until you work to address it, it’ll be hard change your behaviors.


Strive to do better. Every second you don’t work on yourself, you’re implicit in a system of oppression. People who call others out often don’t do it because it feels good. They do it because it leads to progress and change. We all make mistakes, we all mess up. Regardless of binary labels lacking nuance, we can be better and wiser than we were yesterday.

There isn’t a magical solution for handling emotions when you get called out. But I hope this short guide was informative and helpful. You have the choice to learn a lot more about yourself and how you engage with others. Life has the capacity to be open and joyful, full of abundant learnings that we can share with each other. How you choose to use those learnings can change your life and the lives of those around you. But only you can make the choice to to be receptive and to make a change.


Tangney, June Price, and Jessica Tracy. “Self-Conscious Emotions.” 2011.