I was walking with a family member, and he bumped into a colleague of his. He tried to have a short chat with him but didn’t get much feedback. When he held his fist up for a fist bump, he was left hanging. He patted him on the shoulder, and we walked away, him smiling and telling me how he knew the guy. I felt so awkward. In my eyes, the guy clearly didn’t really want to talk to him and was kind of trying to ignore him. But when we walked on, he didn’t really seem to care. He was just proud to show me that he knew him. When I got home, I reflected on the awkward feeling I experienced. It felt useless but very uncomfortable. These days, I try to identify the uncomfortable feelings I get and try to find out why I got them and then simply google it. And of course, there was someone that described this feeling perfectly. The article on Cleveland Clinic told me more about ‘What is second-hand embarrassment and how can you stop it’.
I’ll try to put it in my own words and apply it to this scenario.
Living vicariously through others
Did you ever feel happy by looking at happy people? Or feel love when you see a couple sharing a lovely moment? You would classify this as a positive feeling. In short, it’s empathy. A lovely and very useful feeling in relation to others. If a person you love tells you something that made them sad, it’s great for the relationship to feel with them and show them empathy. The thing is, this empathy also shows itself with embarrassed feelings. A less useful feeling and for most people an uncomfortable feeling. Brene Brown explains in her books that the feeling of shame literally hurts. Where love makes you feel warm inside, shame and embarrassment make you feel pain. And of course, it doesn’t help that you can feel shame ‘for’ someone even without the person themselves feeling shame.
All feelings are useful
Like other negative feelings like sadness, anger, frustration, etc., shame is a feeling that makes you fully human. It gives you a signal that can generate action. Which is a positive thing. For example, if a person is blowing up at a waiter because they didn’t get ketchup with their burger, it’s perfectly fine to stand up to the person and protect the waiter. Or when people’s indifference toward climate change frustrates you, you can choose to dedicate some time to the cause and make a positive change. Feelings are there to feel and act. Or let go. Shame or embarrassment is one of those feelings you can often just let go. This is because shame is often based on learned behavior. You ‘should’ not do this or this is ‘weird’ behavior. If you see a person with a post-it on their back with the words ‘kick me’ on it, you can feel embarrassed and continue with your life. Maybe even laugh about it. But you could also do something. Take action. Walk up to the person and take the post-it off. You can choose to tell the person or choose to protect the person from embarrassment. I would even say that you could just not feel it’s something that should feel embarrassing.
In the scenario I sketched for you above, with my family member, I could’ve acted differently. My usual tendency is to ‘protect’ the person. So I pull them out of the situation or add something to the scene that deflects the awkwardness from the other person or I even address the awkwardness. I don’t want to ‘deal’ with the feeling of embarrassment. After reading the article about this second-hand shame, I know I have another option: I can change focus. Because I don’t have to rescue or protect the other person because they often don’t feel the shame or maybe don’t even care what the other person thought of them. Who am I to tell them they should feel embarrassed? So next time, I’ll choose to change focus. I’ll maybe talk to a different person, look around for something more interesting, or I could even get my phone and look at that for a while. For me, this feels much more respectful to the person than trying to rescue them.
Learning to deal with second-hand shame
Of course, this was not a one-time thing. This has been a theme in my life. My mom is the best at embarrassing herself. The thing is, she doesn’t care. She has always told me that she doesn’t care. So why should I protect her from something she doesn’t care about? And now I’m older, I know what she was talking about. I love singing and dancing in public places. If there is a great song on in the supermarket, I’ll whistle along or even move along. And people usually don’t care. They are way too busy worrying about what people are thinking about them. My ’embarrassing’ behavior might even make them feel better about themselves. And I’m having fun singing and dancing, so who is the victim here? No one, right? But when I’m with someone that is ashamed of my behavior, they will feel second-hand shame and tell me to stop acting the way I am. They will, in this way, hurt me by telling me to act differently because I can’t be myself, and they are hurt by my behavior because of the second-hand shame. So why not take a breath, shift focus, and care a little less about feeling the shame you think you should feel for the other.
Stop, breathe, stop judging, and shift focus.