Secondhand embarrassment, or vicarious embarrassment, can suck the fun and joy right out of things. Here is a little about what causes it, and how we can manage the in-the-moment cringe.
Why do I cringe when someone else does something? Why am I embarrassed for them, even if they don’t seem to be embarrassed by it? Even fictional characters?!
Seemingly appropriately, it is people who are more empathetic that experience the highest levels of second hand embarrassment. According to research, the parts of our brain that light up when we see people do things we consider embarrassing are the same parts that process pain.
It is likely that mirror neurons are also at play. Mirror neurons fire in our brains when we see someone do something. For example, research has shown that watching people exercise fires some of the same neurons as if we were to actually exercise ourselves (just in smaller amounts). Watching someone do something embarrassing, then, likely releases some of those cringe-inducing chemicals.
So what can I do to survive a cringe session?
- Stop and notice you are having the experience.
- Acknowledge that your cringe-reaction makes sense biologically.
- Pause and remember this is about someone else. Though you are experiencing the secondhand embarrassment, it’s not about you.
- If you notice a thought with it, instead of saying something judgmental about the person, like, “Wow, they’re making a fool of themselves. How embarrassing. Please stop talking,” try immediately replacing it with something else that doesn’t include a negative judgment. “Wow, they are being brave by asking that question.” “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.” “It looks like they have friends with them who can support them.” “Everybody is different.” Whatever works for that situation.
- Since this is acting on our pain centers, it is likely that our bodies are producing cortisol, a stress hormone. There is some research that says we can combat cortisol with oxytocin. You can help your body pump out some oxytocin and kick the embarrassment in a few ways:
- You can put your hand over your heart (skin on skin), and recall a memory with someone else (or a pet) where you felt loved, cherished, accepted, and warm, and hold that memory in your mind and body for about 30-60 seconds.
- You can ask someone for a 20 second hug (chest to chest is best).
- You can engage in imagery where you are sending kind and loving light or energy toward the person who is inducing your cringe (or toward yourself).
- You can take 10 consecutive deep breaths (in for four seconds, out for seven seconds) to engage your Vagus nervous system and promote calmness.
- And, the thing that helps me a lot when it’s fictional character cringe, hearkens back to an episode of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Pooh Oughta Be in Pictures) that I watched over and over as a kid. Pooh and his pals go to a scary movie, and Pooh repeats to himself, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie!” I just say that to myself and know that what I’m watching is scripted, supposed to be embarrassing, and that the actors were probably laughing while filming. No need to feel bad for them!
It might only take one of these things, or it might take all of these things, to manage your cringe. Good self-care can put you in the position to feel more resilient and be able to handle these types of situations a little easier, and without the emotional burnout.