Second-hand embarrassment, and how to get over it
We have all been there. A brazen comment from a parent during their casual conversation with another person or a friend falling face first in front of their crush — certain misfortunes of their people often make us feel ashamed on their behalf.
Aptly called "second-hand embarrassment", this phenomenon is common in all demographics of people even though, at the end of the day, it serves no one at all. In fact, in many cases, it can be detrimental to our mental health and social lives.
Psychotherapists believe that the capability of feeling second-hand embarrassment reflects a person's empathy, which is the ability to internalise and understand other people's emotions. Empathy is believed to be one of the most important traits of human nature because being able to appreciate others' feelings is what makes humans social creatures and allows us to live harmoniously in communities.
While this may sound good, too much empathy is also associated with higher risks of depression, anxiety, anger issues, and emotional burnouts. According to Psychology Today, this is because people who are too empathetic often feel the enormous burden to relieve everyone else's emotional wounds. In other words, their ability to compartmentalise their own feelings from others' falters to an unhealthy level.
Feeling second-hand embarrassment too often or too intensely can make people more anxious to be around others. They can also become controlling to try and minimise the occurrence of potentially cringe-worthy incidents. Not only does assuming responsibility for other people's mishaps add unnecessary stress to their mental health and relationships, but it can also indicate a shaky sense of self.
A good way to combat overburdening oneself needlessly with the embarrassment for others is to focus on one's own feelings. It may sound simple but overly empathetic folks often ignore their own feelings to an extent that they forget to register their own emotional reaction to events.
Therefore, it is always a good idea to look within when you feel too embarrassed for others. It is important to ask yourself, "How do I actually feel about this? Is there even a need to feel something?" If the shame is persistent, think about whether you can translate this useless embarrassment into pure compassion and understanding of the idea that you are not responsible for what has happened.
Another piece of advice for getting over excessive second-hand embarrassment is to set boundaries on your emotional body. This includes silencing the boisterous voice in your head that keeps on reminding you how awful someone must be feeling for a silly mistake on their part. In fact, even if their "mistake" was fully intentional, there is no need to distress yourself by entertaining reminders of the incident.
It is a beautiful gift to be able to connect with others emotionally but, like most things in life, moderation is key for indulging in connections without unnecessarily adding burdens.
1. Refinery29 (May 13, 2021). Secondhand Cringe Makes Me Want To Die Inside
2. Psychology Today (April 15, 2017). Can You Have Too Much Empathy?
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