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The Power of Second-Hand Embarrassment
Second-hand embarrassment is the reaction of the brain and body to cringe or feel embarrassed when a person witnesses a friend, loved one, or stranger do or say something that may damage their reputation or social standing. Known professionally as vicarious embarrassment, this tends to be a trait of empathetic people, or people who are easily able to place themselves in the shoes of others. When a person feels this embarrassment for another person who may be damaging their social integrity, they may feel ashamed, fearful, anxious, or even like they need to fix it for another person.
Our Social Tendency to Care
Humans, at their core, tend to want what’s best for others and want to see them thrive or at least fit in with their social groups. According to an article in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, most human ties are affected by the group a person is living in. This means that social ties and standings would reflect the norms and customs of local society. When a person ignores these social norms and customs, it may damage the integrity of the person with the group.
Acknowledgment or silent disapproval of a person’s decisions beyond the social norms can create a culture of shame and embarrassment for the person who “broke” the rules. Upon hearing about the group’s reaction and what happened, those that care about the person who broke the rules may often feel vicarious embarrassment as their own individual pain.
Even when someone tells an embarrassing story, it is a natural reaction for empathetic people to say to them, “I’m sorry.” They may even play it off as if the circumstance is beyond the person’s control. They may even say there is a reason for the stoop of integrity, such as a rough childhood, the influence of people who do not exercise the same social norms, substance use, etc. An empathetic ear to an embarrassing story will bend over backward to reframe the situation and protect the integrity of the person who acted out the embarrassing act.
It’s Okay to Care
It is okay to have a sympathetic ear for people who experience embarrassment. Many people will laugh off embarrassment or a perceived drop in integrity, while others will experience deep emotional reactions. For example, if a person accidentally loses an article of clothing and exposes parts of themselves when they did not want to, they may experience pain, anxiety, and embarrassment for a long time. A witness to the situation may fix it by handing them a covering or removing the person from the situation. Caring can be helpful and remedy embarrassing situations.
Families and Vicarious Embarrassment
Parents are a common example of those who will try to fix situations of second-hand embarrassment. When a parent witnesses the child they love doing something that may be socially compromising, a parent’s reaction may often be immediately speaking out and correct the behavior, covering it up, or excusing it completely. Many parents feel that their child’s behavior is a reflection of their parenting, making vicarious embarrassment extremely personal.
Children are meant to explore, and it is the parent’s job to keep them feeling safe and loved. A parent can explain to children and why certain situations are embarrassing, but they do not need to carry the burden of embarrassment for their child’s decisions. Children are easy to forgive for social faux pas and they do not need their parents to take on embarrassment for their decisions.
Children can also feel vicarious embarrassment for their parents, siblings, spouses, etc. Children’s embarrassment may stem from the thought process “I love my parents, but what if my friends think I’m like that?” This is common in teens and young adults.
Other vicarious embarrassment issues may stem from family trauma, differing views on politics or religion, different groups’ apathy for social standing, or pain from past family experiences. Children’s second-hand embarrassment should not be ignored, but it can be talked through as a family or with a therapist. Children also do not need to feel responsible for a parent’s perceived bad behaviors.
The Brain’s Reaction to Vicarious Embarrassment
In the aforementioned article, researchers noticed that, as soon as the embarrassing act is witnessed, certain sections of the brain light up in reaction. The anterior insula and the anterior cortex are stimulated as soon as a person witnesses the act. The medial prefrontal cortex and temporal poles will help a person shape their perception of the situation and social engagement.
This will also help a person shape the sympathy for the person who did or said something embarrassing. Lastly, a person’s decision-making parts of the brain, their prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, will be stimulated as one thinks of what to do next.
Second-hand embarrassment, or vicarious embarrassment, can be a powerful reaction to another’s perceived loss of integrity or social standing. However, those who are empathetic do not have to carry the weight of others’ decisions or react strongly to them. For those who may struggle with shame and embarrassment on behalf of a loved one’s substance abuse issues or mental health, there is no need for humiliation or stigma. There are ways to cope without shame or embarrassment, and there are solutions to help your loved one. If you need help with addiction or mental health issues, see us at RECO Intensive. At RECO Intensive, we understand that pain, embarrassment, and stigma can cause a lot of strain. Our professional staff and experienced alumni want to help you free yourself of vicarious embarrassment and whatever other perceived social problems you or a loved one may face. Through therapy and treatment, we can help you. Call (561) 464-6533 today.
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