The Reason Secondhand Embarrassment Is So Uncomfortable, According To An Expert

Think of the last time you witnessed an embarrassing moment that made your stomach tighten. You suddenly felt horribly uncomfortable, even though you weren't involved in the situation at all. This is what's referred to as secondhand embarrassment, and we experience it all the time. For example, you're out at a restaurant and the man at the table next to you gets down on one knee and proposes to his girlfriend. It's a sweet moment... until she turns him down. This poor man just got rejected in front of a bunch of strangers, and you were one of them.


You feel bad for the guy, but you feel embarrassed even more. You may notice yourself holding your breath or literally cringing, trying to look away. The question is: why? What makes us feel so uneasy when we see other people humiliated? Kerry Lauders, mental health officer at Startups Anonymous, explains the reason secondhand embarrassment (SHE) makes us so uncomfortable.

It's a result of our evolved social instincts

One of the main causes of SHE is how our social instincts have changed over time. What differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the fact that we can understand other people's emotions and use that knowledge to adjust how we interact with one another. "When we see someone being embarrassed, it can be interpreted as a sign that they are socially awkward or inept. This can make us feel uncomfortable or even judgmental, as we may be seen as being better than the person who is being embarrassed," Lauders explains. Essentially, the uncomfortable feeling may stem from our brains telling us that we know better than to do something so dumb and embarrassing. In our minds, we can't understand why someone would do something so humiliating.


When someone puts themselves in a situation like that, we might easily assume they're awkward and don't understand social cues, or have the ability to read people's emotions. Let's go back to our earlier example about the rejected marriage proposal. When you witnessed that interaction, you may have subconsciously felt superior to him, thinking, "If I proposed to someone, there's no way they would turn me down." 

It's how our brains process information

On the other hand, the reason SHE makes us so uncomfortable can stem from how our brains soak up and retain information. "When we see someone being embarrassed, it triggers the same areas of the brain that are activated when we experience embarrassment ourselves. This can create an empathetic response in us, which makes us feel the same emotions that the person we are watching is feeling," Lauder tells Glam. In other words, we subconsciously absorb someone else's feelings (otherwise known as empathy). This is common among empaths, who are more susceptible to taking on others' pain.


Empathy can be learned, but the majority of empaths experience a person's emotions involuntarily, which can be both good and bad. In a case where someone is embarrassed, an empath unintentionally takes on that same feeling, which can put them in a bad headspace too. People who don't have this same natural ability are more so the type we discussed earlier; rather than taking on the other person's embarrassment as if it were their own, they instead are unable to relate to the reasoning behind that person's embarrassing actions and may subconsciously experience secondhand embarrassment due to feeling uncomfortable or judgmental, rather than empathetic.