Psychology Behind Vicarious Embarrassment

What is an Embarrassment? How many types of Embarrassment are there? What is the Difference between Embarrassment and Shame? What is the impact of Embarrassment on Mental Health?
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Everyone has been in situations where you have felt embarrassment and sometimes vicarious embarrassment. You must have felt embarrassed when your teacher scolded you in class for not finishing the homework. Embarrassment and shame are often confused as the same emotion. Today, you will learn about vicarious embarrassment and some facts related to embarrassment psychology.

1. Definition of Embarrassment

Feeling foolish in front of others can be a feeling of embarrassment. It is an emotion that can be felt, at any age. A kid can feel embarrassed when he is scolded in front of the class while teenagers and adults feel it when their parents are making a scene in public. It is felt when you are in such a situation where you feel inferior to others. 

Sometimes, when you are criticized in front of others you feel ashamed. It is a part of embarrassment. People can be embarrassed by us as well and in that situation, the person just wants to run away. Vicarious embarrassment is the extended psychology where you feel others’ pain and trauma caused due to reasons of embarrassment. (Also read What is an Unhealthy Relationship?)

2. Signs of Embarrassment

A person experiencing embarrassment can show several emotions like

  • Stammering
  • Nervousness
  • Fidgeting
  • Blushing
  • Sweating

Some people start crying while some start grinning lightly. It all depends on how your body responds to such situations. (Also read Am I Passive Aggressive?)

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3. Types of Embarrassment

According to Sharkey and Stafford, embarrassment can be divided into six types.

  • Lack of knowledge and skill is one such common type. People often feel embarrassed when they don’t possess the skills to perform a particular task. They either leave it incomplete or do it incorrectly.
  • An appropriate image is the image of a person created by them in their mind related to their physical appearance. Like how they look, what they wear, and even what model of smartphone they have. Sometimes people feel embarrassed when they are unable to live up to their mental image because of their old clothes, outdated phone, etc.
  • Criticism and rejection can make a person a target for others to laugh at. People forget others are also human and have emotions. They always see that person as a loser. 
  • The surrounding environment in which a person is can make him uncomfortable. For example, you don’t feel comfortable watching a romantic scene with your elders. In such situations, you feel embarrassed.
  • Privacy violation is one reason for feeling embarrassed in public. For instance, wardrobe malfunction becomes the cause of embarrassment for people or when a person’s private space is invaded. (Also read How to End a Toxic Friendship?)

4. Vicarious Embarrassment Psychology

Unlike embarrassment, vicarious embarrassment arises from others’ embarrassment. A person feels embarrassed when he witnesses someone being embarrassed and therefore it is also known as second-hand embarrassment or third-party embarrassment. It is often regarded as empathy or empathetic embarrassment as, like empathy, the person feels that he is being embarrassed just by watching the victim of embarrassment.

  • For example, if you see your friend feeling embarrassed because of some situation you will also start feeling the embarrassment.
  • A person can feel this even if the victim is not aware. The observer will experience the same emotions imaging themselves in the same situation as the victim. (Also read How to Deal With Family Members Who Put You Down?)

5. Psychology behind Shame

  • According to the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, shame is an emotion that arises when a person violates cultural or societal values.
  • It is possible to feel ashamed of your acts even if no one else is aware of them. Shame arises when you compare your actions with your standards. (Also read The body language of shame)

6. Signs of Shame

You start considering your life worthless when feeling ashamed but the feeling and response to shame are different in everyone depending upon their nature. The signs that you are feeling ashamed are

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7. Types of Shame

Shame is categorized into the following categories.

  • Toxic shame can be considered as one of the worst feelings. It is experienced by children suffering from child abuse. They are unable to tell anyone because they are ashamed of themselves and they cannot find words to describe the situation or trauma they are going through.
  • Vicarious shame is the same as a vicarious embarrassment. It is felt by a person who is witnessing another in shame. The tendency to feel shame for another person depends on their personality.
  • Secret shame is felt by the person because he is ashamed due to his acts, he starts feeling ashamed about feeling this emotion.
  • False shame can be described as any situation in which a person feels that he is suffering because of his deeds and he is the reason for what has fallen onto him.
  • Genuine Shame is described as dishonor, disgrace, and condemnation. People experience it on a genuine and common level. (Also read How to Be Loved By Everyone?

8. Difference between Embarrassment and Shame

Although they feel the same, there are differences between shame and embarrassment.

  • Shame arises when you have done something that is morally or culturally wrong. Embarrassment arises when you are made to feel insecure or inferior because of your acts. It may or may not be related to society.
  • You feel shame even if others are not aware of what you have done. Like if you kill an animal, you will feel shameful even if no one else knows about it. On the other hand, embarrassment arises because of your acts being displayed publicly.
  • Shame is not personality-oriented. Anyone with any personality and perspective can feel the emotion of shame. It happens if they fail to meet their own standards. Embarrassment is personality-oriented and how a person reacts to certain situations related to him.
  • No one can force anyone to feel shameful about their acts. But embarrassment is enforced by the superiors over inferiors concerning various things like status, clothes, work, etc.
  • There may or may not be a motive behind making anyone feel shameful. But embarrassment may lead to self-improvement to avoid such similar situations in the future.
  • Public humiliation is not involved in shame. In embarrassment, public humiliation is the main aspect. Shame is an emotion experienced in private. Embarrassment can never be private, but the victim experiences its after-effects in private. (Also read PhD Vs PsyD in Psychology)

9. Effects of Embarrassment on Mental Health

Many people experience embarrassment and it may harm the victim. The effects may also make someone else sad as a form of vicarious embarrassment. 

  • The person can lose their confidence and self-esteem because of such experiences. A person experiencing embarrassment can also develop such feelings. 
  • Things become worse when the victim replays that event again and again in their mind. As a result, they are unable to get over the trauma and it continues to affect their mental health.
  • Feelings of revenge can also arise in such situations. If a person is being embarrassed continuously, it may lead to several issues like depression and anxiety. They can develop a feeling of low self-worth and their eating habits and social habits are affected.
  • Once they start self-isolating themselves, thoughts of self-harm and suicide began to arise in their mind. One must seek help if one experiences such things. (Also read How to Deal With a Disrespectful Child?)
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