Why Does Secondhand Embarrassment Make Me Want To Claw My Eyes Out?

I suffer from a uniquely irritating affliction which constantly ruins movie nights. Whenever somebody on screen does something even slightly embarrassing, my stomach feels like it’s trying to evacuate my body and all my muscles tense up like I’ve been electrocuted. I just can’t handle the secondhand embarrassment (also known as vicarious embarrassment). I refuse to go to open-mic comedy in case the poor soul on stage forgets their set and I end up chewing my fingers off. If I'm watching a film on my own, I can skip past the painful moments but if I’m watching with friends or in the cinema, that’s just not possible.
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It has become the bane of my life, especially during the pandemic: a period of time when there’s not much else to do except lie on the sofa, watching films and eating crisps. My flatmates and I recently settled in for our weekly dose of RuPaul’s Drag Race and I saw that it was the dreaded roast episode. Immediately, my skin started to itch. I knew what was coming. In a scene that will go down in pop culture history, Utica Queen bombed so hard that the judges started roasting her back. I had to sit with my hands over my ears, tapping my fingers on the back of my skull to drown out the excruciating attempts at comedy, squinting through my eyelashes at the TV to check whether it was over. 

Studies have shown that the same parts of the brain are activated when watching someone sustain a physical injury as when watching someone make a fool of themselves.

I’m not the only one who feels this way when watching someone fail. I spoke to 24-year-old Natalie, a student from Manchester, about her vicarious suffering and how it makes her feel.
"One Valentine’s Day at uni, I was sat in a lecture with 100 other people and this girl struts into the middle of it with a rose in her mouth," Natalie told me, cringing at the thought. "She tried to give some speech at the front of the lecture hall to her girlfriend, who was sat somewhere in the crowd. Glaring at her, the lecturer just opened the door and gestured her out without a word, and she left with her tail between her legs. I’ve never felt more embarrassed and it wasn’t even me looking like a total idiot in front of my whole year."
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This is clearly a phenomenon which can have a huge effect on people, sometimes to the extent that it causes physical symptoms like sweating or blushing. So what actually is secondhand embarrassment, psychologically speaking, and why is it so excruciating an experience? 
I spoke to Emma Azzopardi, a psychotherapist and developing clinical psych, about what is happening in our brains when we feel embarrassed for someone else.
"Our experience of secondhand embarrassment is related to our ability to empathise with the embarrassment or shame that another might feel," she explained. "As social animals, empathy is a key trait that evolved to help us to be part of a community and to live harmoniously within it. We recognise embarrassing situations for others through neural pathways activated in the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula regions of the brain. These are regions implicated in the experiencing of 'social pain' related to the situations that others, rather than us, find themselves in. It is these same cortical structures that are involved in the mental responses we would have if we witness the physical pain of another person."
So, secondhand embarrassment is a real physiological response to witnessing other people’s pain. Studies have shown that the same parts of the brain are activated when watching someone sustain a physical injury as when watching someone make a fool of themselves. Some people label themselves 'empaths' to explain why they feel other people's emotions so strongly. Empathy is highly related to secondhand embarrassment as it drives the feeling of stepping into someone else’s shoes and feeling the same things they do, especially when it’s humiliating.
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"It is clear that our level of vicarious embarrassment is correlated to our level of empathy," said Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist. "The ability to feel others' embarrassment requires us to imagine how they think and feel. It also requires us to be aware of the social norms that are being broken. An empath will have intense empathy for others and lack the usual filters that protect us from absorbing the environment around us. They are likely to be sensitive to environmental stressors and overstimulated easily from a sensory perspective. Because the empathetic process is amplified, vicarious embarrassment will also be felt more deeply, as empathy is fundamental to feeling vicarious embarrassment."

It is clear that our level of vicarious embarrassment is correlated to our level of empathy.

Lee Chambers
Not everyone feels sorry on behalf of others. Twenty-two-year-old Greg, a consultant from London, doesn’t feel the need to run away every time they witness someone else’s misfortunes. On the contrary: they revel in it.
"I love watching cringe comedy. I regularly feel embarrassed in my day-to-day life by the stupid things I do and say, so to sit down and watch someone else do something infinitely more humiliating is almost validating, and makes me realise that maybe I’m not so bad," they explained.
Clearly not everyone suffers from secondhand embarrassment to the same degree as myself, as popular culture demonstrates time and time again. The X Factor was one of the most watched TV shows at its peak, with millions of people tuning in every week to watch competitors embarrass themselves on national television. Could schadenfreude have something to do with the show's success?
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Psychotherapist James Hartley explained why some people (like me) have to leave the room when something cringe happens, while others grab the popcorn.
"It’s best to look at secondhand embarrassment and empathy as on a spectrum. Some people, when watching cringe comedy based on making the viewer feel uncomfortable, don’t feel uncomfortable at all," he said. "It could be that they are on the other end of the spectrum genetically or their environment didn’t develop their empathy in childhood much, but it could also be that they have learned how to have boundaries with their sense of self. Cringe comedy takes its value from socially awkward moments and there are several reasons why individuals may not be triggered by the circumstances designed to make us laugh. We need to be able to place ourselves in a similar scenario to appreciate the humour and if we are low on the empathy scale, we are unlikely to feel for the character."
It seems that secondhand embarrassment is a phenomenon that affects everyone to a different degree and is linked to how strongly you feel the emotions of others in general. Being lower on the empathy scale doesn’t make you heartless or unable to sympathise with others – it just means that you don’t feel their pain as if it were your own, for better or worse. I would quite like to be less overwhelmed with stress during comedy films or embarrassing moments at parties but it lets me feel the joy of other people, too. As with all quirks of personality, it doesn’t define you but it can be a blessing and a curse. Either way, we can all agree: Utica should never do a roast ever again.

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