A few weeks ago, at the urging of quite literally everyone around me, I decided to watch the first episode of Netflix’s Love Is Blind.
For the uninitiated, Love Is Blind is a dating reality show in which singles “who want to be loved for who they are, rather than what they look like, have signed up for a less conventional approach to modern dating where they hope to meet the person they want to spend the rest of their lives with...without ever having seen them.” (That’s how the streaming service describes it.) The gist is that 30 men and women get to know each other in “pods” where they can’t see each other. If they make a meaningful connection, they get engaged and eventually—ideally (?)—get married and live happily ever after.
Armed with a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, I settled into a comfy spot in my apartment, hit play and… lasted 11 minutes.
During those 11 minutes, my face was affixed in a permanent cringe and I was half covering my eyes with a blanket. Between the forced baby voices and awkward pauses in conversations between total strangers who would soon be married, I saw no other option than to immediately turn off the program and switch to a palate cleanser that would wash my mouth of the taste of overwhelming discomfort. (It was Derry Girls, thank you so much for asking.)
Now, I’m very familiar with the feeling I got while watching strangers try to woo each other across an opaque wall; it’s secondhand embarrassment (or vicarious embarrassment), and I’ve dealt with it for as long as I can remember. It’s kept me from enjoying a host of benign activities, from TV shows (cough—any Bachelor or Bachelo
But why? Let’s dig in.
To understand secondhand embarrassment, we have to understand regular embarrassment. Here’s how psychiatrist Neel Burton, M.D., defines it: “Embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort experienced when some aspect of ourselves is, or threatens to be, witnessed by or otherwise revealed to others, and we think that this revelation is likely to undermine the image of ourselves that we seek to project to those others.” In short: It’s when we do something we think will make others see us differently than we want to be seen.
So why do we experience it? While the phenomenon hasn’t been studied super extensively, there are some potential explanations for why we cringe at others’ misfortunes. The first is empathy. In 2011, researchers at Germany’s Lübeck University asked students to rank various embarrassing scenarios—like burping in a fancy restaurant or tripping in mud—in terms of how they would feel if it happened to them. Then, they asked people how they would feel if they saw someone else in any of those situations. Finally, they asked the students to take a survey to get a sense of how much empathy they felt for others on a regular basis. The researchers found that the study participants felt embarrassed for others in more scenarios than they felt embarrassed for themselves. From there, they deduced that those who generally feel more empathy tend to feel even more secondhand embarrassment. Another theory is that secondhand embarrassment is a form of self-projection. Meaning, when you witness another person experience an undesirable emotion, you project what you feel is the appropriate response onto yourself.
That’s all well and good, but if you, like me, are someone who experiences secondhand embarrassment on a regular basis, what can you do to combat it? Here are a few things that have worked for me:
- I validate how I’m feeling and acknowledge that it’s OK that I’m uncomfortable.
- I try to remind myself that it’s not about me; it’s about someone else. (It’s not always about you, Sarah, is something of a mantra for me.)
- In terms of combating the self-projection part, I try to change the dialogue. For example, if I’m at a stand-up show and the comic stumbles over a punch line, instead of thinking, I am so uncomfortable I wish I had an invisibility cloak, I think, I would be way too scared to get up there; it’s awesome that they’re brave enough.
I’ll be honest: The above tactics don’t always work (I still haven’t gone back to Love Is Blind, despite choking on my iced coffee upon hearing my coworker’s Jessica impression), but I have found that understanding the mechanisms behind secondhand embarrassment have helped me contextualize—and accept—the way I’m feeling. Full-body cringes can be involuntary—and that’s OK.