What Is Second Hand Embarrassment? Causes & How To Stop It

Last updated on February 2nd, 2024 at 10:39 am

Discover the psychology behind second hand embarrassment – why witnessing the awkward moments of others makes you cringe and how to stop it.

Secondhand embarrassment, also known as vicarious embarrassment, is a universal experience that occurs when witnessing someone else’s social blunder or awkward situation.

It’s that cringe-worthy feeling that arises when we empathize with someone else’s embarrassment, even if we’re not directly involved.

This instinctive behaviour sheds light on the complexities of human empathy and social interaction.

In this article, we will discuss in detail the psychology behind secondhand embarrassment on individuals and society and how to manage it with reference to Marielle Collins, PhD a Clinical health psychologist.  

Recommended: Understanding Social Awareness

Table of Contents

What is Second Hand Embarrassment?

Second Hand Embarrassment Meaning

Secondhand embarrassment, or vicarious embarrassment, is the feeling of embarrassment or discomfort experienced when witnessing someone else’s social blunder, awkwardness, or humiliation.

It arises from a sense of empathy and can occur even when the observer is not directly involved in the situation.

This phenomenon which happens unconsciously showcases human empathy and social awareness.

People may experience secondhand embarrassment while watching a movie, witnessing a public gaffe, or observing someone else’s discomfort in a social setting.

It reflects your ability to emotionally connect with others and your sensitivity to social norms and expectations.

Also Read: The Science Of Mind Management

Psychological Explanation of Vicarious Embarrassment

The psychological explanation for second hand lies in the activation of mirror neurons in the brain.

Mirror neurons are nerve cells that fire both when we act and when we see someone else perform the same action.

They are responsible for helping us understand and empathize with others, and for mimicking their behaviors and emotions.

When observing someone’s embarrassment, our mirror neurons activate, making us feel the same discomfort.

 Our brains simulate their experience, triggering our own feelings of shame.

Social comparison theory explains that we compare ourselves to others, feeling embarrassed for them and worrying about judgment by association.

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Signs of Second Hand Embarrassment

A lady trips, causing second hand embarrassment for her friends

1. Physical Discomfort: When experiencing this embarrassment, you may exhibit physical signs such as blushing, sweating, or fidgeting, mirroring the discomfort felt by the person in the embarrassing situation.

2. Avoidance Behaviour: You may also exhibit avoidance behaviour, such as looking away, covering your face, or leaving the situation, as a way to distance yourself from the source of embarrassment.

3. Empathetic Expressions: Facial expressions mirroring the emotions of the embarrassed person, such as wincing or cringing, can be a sign too.

4. Verbal Cues: Comments like “I can’t watch this” or “This is so awkward” indicate the experience of secondhand embarrassment.

5. Social Withdrawal: Some individuals may withdraw from the social situation or conversation to alleviate their discomfort.

Also Read: Personality And How It is Developed

Common Triggers and Situations that Elicit Secondhand Embarrassment

  • Social faux pas, such as someone tripping or spilling a drink in a public setting.
  • Awkward public speaking or performance mishaps.
  • Cringe-worthy or uncomfortable situations, such as TV shows or movies, are depicted in media.

Related: The Pitfalls Of An Abrasive Personality

Causes of Second Hand Embarrassment

Vicarious embarrassment in display when a woman falters in public speaking

Here are some of the possible causes:

1. Empathy

Empathy is when you can understand and share the feelings of another person.

According to research, when we witness someone else experiencing embarrassment, our brain may simulate the same emotions, causing us to feel embarrassed as well.

2. Social Norms

Social norms are the unwritten rules that guide behavior in social situations.

When someone violates a social norm, it can cause others to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable on their behalf.

3. Perception of Incompetence

When we see someone struggling or failing at something, it can trigger feelings of embarrassment or discomfort.

This may be because we associate competence with social status and view incompetence as a threat to our social standing.

4. Self-projection

Sometimes, we may project our own fears or insecurities onto others.

For example, if we are afraid of public speaking, we may feel embarrassed on behalf of someone else who is giving a speech.

5. Embarrassing Actions or Behaviours

When we witness someone else engaging in embarrassing behaviour, such as tripping or spilling something, it can trigger secondhand embarrassment.

This may be because we imagine ourselves in the same situation and feel embarrassed at the thought of it.

Also Read: 14 Negative Traits Of Introverts And How To Overcome Them

Examples of Second Hand Embarrassment

A man embarrassed when his friend tripped

There are different types of this feeling. Here are the most common types:

  • Social Embarrassment: This type occurs when someone violates social norms, making others feel uncomfortable or awkward.
  • Physical Embarrassment: This type occurs when someone does something physically awkward or embarrassing, like tripping on a rug or spilling a drink.
  • Verbal Embarrassment: This type occurs when someone says something inappropriate, offensive, or embarrassing, making others feel uncomfortable.
  • Situational Embarrassment: This type occurs when someone is put in an embarrassing situation, like being publicly embarrassed or humiliated.
  • Performance Embarrassment: This type occurs when someone performs poorly in public, like bombing a stand-up comedy routine or failing a speech.
  • Emotional outbursts: Emotional outbursts are another source of the embarrassing feeling. This type of embarrassment occurs when someone loses their composure in public, such as crying, yelling, or having a temper tantrum.
  • Clothing mishaps: Clothing mishaps are a type of embarrassment that occurs when someone’s clothing malfunctions in public. For example, if someone’s pants split or their shirt comes undone, it can trigger embarrassment in others who witness it.

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Effects of 2nd Hand Embarrassment

A child cringes, exhibiting vicarious or second hand embarrassment

The effects of secondhand embarrassment can have a significant impact on you and your interactions with others, as well as broader cultural and societal dynamics.

Let’s take a look…

Impact on Personal Mental Well-being

  • Secondhand embarrassment can lead to feelings of discomfort, anxiety, or distress in individuals who witness embarrassing situations.
  • It may contribute to heightened self-consciousness and a sense of unease, impacting one’s overall mental well-being.

Influence on Social Interactions and Relationships

  • Witnessing secondhand embarrassment in others can affect how individuals perceive and engage with those involved, potentially leading to changes in social dynamics and relationships.
  • It may influence empathy and understanding within social circles, as well as the willingness to support others during embarrassing moments.

Effects on Self-confidence and Assertiveness

  • Individuals experiencing secondhand embarrassment may become more cautious or self-conscious in their own actions, affecting their self-confidence and assertiveness in social settings.
  • It can impact one’s willingness to take risks or engage in activities that may lead to potential embarrassment.

Potential Cultural or Societal Consequences

  • Secondhand embarrassment can contribute to the shaping of cultural norms and expectations regarding social behavior and interactions.
  • It may influence the portrayal of embarrassing situations in media and entertainment, as well as societal attitudes toward empathy and understanding.

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Coping Strategies for Vicarious Embarrassment

A man having second hand embarrassment

Overcoming second hand embarrassment involves a combination of cognitive and behavioural strategies, along with self-compassion and a positive self-image.

With time and practice, it is possible to reduce feelings of embarrassment and increase resilience.

1. Understand that it’s Human to Feel Embarrassment

Embarrassment is a human thing and being in that situation is human.

If it’s a situation that requires your help, don’t hesitate to render help as this would give you a sense of fulfillment.

2. Avoid Triggers by Distancing Yourself

In a situation that does not require you to help, distancing yourself would be a good option.

However, you can do this without being rude. If you find yourself in a situation where someone is experiencing embarrassment, try to distance yourself as much as possible without being rude.

3. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, can help you to stay grounded in the present moment and reduce feelings of embarrassment or discomfort.

4. Reframe the Situation

Reframe the situation in a more positive light.

For example, focus on the humor or absurdity of the situation, or think about how the experience can help you to grow and learn.

5. Practice Self-compassion

Be kind and compassionate towards yourself, and remember that everyone experiences embarrassment at some point in their lives.

6. Avoid Dwelling on the Experience

While it’s important to process your emotions, avoid dwelling on the experience and ruminating on feelings of embarrassment or discomfort.

Also Read: Why You Should Trust Your Instincts In Relationships

Frequently Asked Questions

What is second hand embarrassment?

It is the feeling of embarrassment or discomfort that arises when witnessing someone else’s embarrassing or awkward behavior.

why do I get second hand embarrassment?

You experience secondhand embarrassment due to empathy, social awareness, and a shared understanding of embarrassing situations.

Why do we experience vicarious embarrassment?

We experience it because we can empathize with the other person and imagine how we would feel if we were in their shoes.

What are some common triggers of second hand embarrassment?

Common triggers can include social faux pas, awkward silences, public speaking mishaps, wardrobe malfunctions, and cringe-worthy behavior in general.

Is vicarious embarrassment a common phenomenon?

Yes, it is a fairly common phenomenon and can occur in various situations, such as watching a TV show, attending a live performance, or simply being in the presence of others.

Can second hand embarrassment cause physical discomfort?

Yes, it can cause physical discomfort or even pain, such as cringing, sweating, or feeling a knot in your stomach.

How can we manage or avoid vicarious embarrassment?

To manage or avoid it, you can try to detach yourself emotionally, focus on something else, or simply remove yourself from the situation. Additionally, cultivating empathy and understanding can help to reduce one’s tendency to feel embarrassed for others.


Second hand embarrassment aka vicarious embarrassment is a natural response to seeing someone else in an embarrassing situation.

It is a result of our innate social nature and our ability to empathize with others, can arise from a wide range of situations, and the type of embarrassment may vary depending on the specific circumstance.

The impact of second hand embarrassment can be complex and depends on a variety of factors.

While it can be uncomfortable to experience, it can also provide an opportunity for personal growth and increased empathy for others.


  1. Why Does Secondhand Embarrassment Make Me Cringe?
  2. Why Do We Get Secondhand Embarrassment?
  3. The Power of Secondhand Embarrassment
  4. This Is Why You Cringe When Others Embarrass Themselves
The Conducts Of Life | piousclements@gmail.com | Website | + posts

Pious Clements is the insightful voice behind "The Conducts of Life" blog, where he writes about life ethics, self-development, life mastery, and the dynamics of people and society.

With a profound understanding of human behaviuor and societal dynamics, Pious offers thought-provoking perspectives on ethical living and personal growth.
Through engaging narratives and astute observations, he inspires readers to navigate life's complexities with wisdom and integrity, encouraging a deeper understanding of the human experience and our place within society.

pyomerez@gmail.com | Website | + posts

Pyo Merez (PsyD) is a distinguished adolescent and adult psychologist at the forefront of mental health advocacy.

With expertise in cognitive and developmental psychology, focusing on social relationships, cultural contexts, and individual differences, Pyo has dedicated his career to empowering adolescents and adults.

As a sought-after speaker and panelist, Pyo shares invaluable insights on issues affecting young people, contributing to a deeper understanding of mental health and well-being in today's society.