The comical strangeness of second-hand embarrassment
Heavy breathing, a rapid heartbeat, trembling knees, a tightened throat — these are typical symptoms for someone who experiences performance anxiety. You know, that noxious feeling you get when you’re about to go onstage and speak, dance or sing in front of a crowd of people. I’ve had that anxiety for most of my life. Depending on the circumstances, I naturally become nervous and overwhelmed when the attention is put on me, especially when I don’t see it coming. And while I have been able to find healthy coping mechanisms for combating these nerves, there is another anxiety I have that is a bit harder to figure out: “second-hand embarrassment” — that icky, white-hot, skin-crawling panic you get when you watch someone else perform, worried that they might mess up or when you’re in a confined setting and something uncomfortable occurs.
Like most of my neuroses, this anxiety stems from a somewhat traumatic experience I had growing up. When I was about three years old, my family and I saw a kids-only production of “Peter Pan” that my sister starred in. She played Jane and was hooked onto a wire in order to create the illusion that she was flying. Even though she didn’t fall, just the mere thought of her crashing down onto the floor was enough to make me erupt into a volcano of tears. Ever since then, I find myself on edge whenever I’m among a large gathering of spectators at all kinds of public events — movie theaters, lectures, plays and musicals, you name it.
As a prepubescent boy, this anxiety manifested most often whenever I heard sexually explicit rap and pop music at parties, particularly ones of the bar mitzvah variety. The fact that there were adults around us while Lil Jon yelled, “To the sweat drop down my balls!” made me want to collapse into oblivion. Hearing LMFAO talk about getting their cocks sucked was equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. And I’m pretty sure Kesha’s “Blah Blah Blah,” with its cringe-worthy, hypersexual lyrics, almost gave me a heart attack once — no offense to Kesha. I love her other songs, just not that one. At my own bar mitzvah party, I specifically told the DJ to bleep out the cuss words in “Boom Boom Pow” by The Black Eyed Peas, but imagine my horror when I heard Fergie rap “I’m on that next shit now” as I danced with my oblivious aunt. That period of awkwardness has thankfully subsided, but looking back on it, I’m a bit sad this unshakable dread robbed me of having a good time at these kinds of parties, frequently forcing me to leave the dance floor and seclude myself in a bathroom or somewhere far enough away where I couldn’t hear anything.
Watching movie trailers in a movie theater can also be really difficult for me. I know that sounds strange, but just hear me out. I tend to watch a lot of movie trailers on YouTube out of paradoxical boredom and obsessive interest, and I’ve seen so many that I am able to distinguish which trailers are bad and formulaic. If it’s a trailer for a studio comedy, there’s likely going to be quirky characters in quirky situations, jarringly swift editing, a light pop song to lighten the mood and some cheesy line of dialogue that doesn’t line up with what the character is saying on-screen. If it’s a trailer for a drama, there’s usually a solemn orchestral score, sad or serious-looking characters undergoing a serious change, a morose indie folk song or a funny moment to lighten the mood. These kinds of repetitive formulas might not bother the regular moviegoer, but for some reason they unsettle me. Maybe it’s because I find discomfort in their emotionally manipulative attempt at advertising the movie. Maybe it’s because I worry about how those around me might react, and that their reactions will be negative. Maybe I’m just too quick to judge.
Whatever the case, it’s something I have a difficult time controlling. It’s even more disorienting when movie theaters put trailers that don’t match the tone or genre of the movie that I’m there to see. This past summer, I went with my family to see “Tully,” a dramedy about a struggling mother of three who hires a night nanny, and the trailers that played before it were “The Darkest Minds” (a boilerplate “Divergent” ripoff), “Johnny English Strikes Again” (that goddamn British action comedy franchise that has zero justification for its continuance) and “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” (are you fucking kidding me?). Knowing how out-of-place these trailers were and the mortified response they could elicit from the audience, I looked straight down at the ground for the entire duration of the trailers because I knew I would probably explode right there on the spot if I glanced up at the screen.
It seems odd that visual and aural stimuli are the main agents that stir this stress inside me, considering how much I love music and film. Even when I’m not at a movie theater or at a party, I somehow am still capable of experiencing second-hand embarrassment induced by mundane, everyday occurrences. For instance, witnessing a technical malfunction or interruption during a lecture — like when a video has trouble buffering, when there’s a commercial for a movie that plays beforehand or when the professor forgets to turn off AutoPlay and another video appears — is probably one of my top 10 fears of all time. Seeing a college a cappella group perform a medley of suggestive pop songs is also a big no-no for me — if I wanted to watch a sexy rendition of a Top 40 jam, I’d just watch “Pitch Perfect.” Both situations, while equally upsetting, can trigger me for different reasons. I tend to cringe at the incompetence of the former scenario and the ostentatiousness of the latter.
Suppressing this anxiety has not been easy. It’s one of several insecurities I have that I’ve only been able to curb either by managing it or discussing it. My strategies for managing it range from incessantly doodling in my journal to typing out my thoughts in the Notes app on my phone to excusing myself and waiting alone outside for an extended period of time. And usually, I get a mix of bewilderment and fascination when I tell my family and friends about this, which is expected because it’s not something people tend to talk about when it comes to mental health discourse. Anxieties are strange, especially ones that feel very specific to who we are. It is only when we can share our experiences that we can maybe harness some power over the things that inhibit us from being the very best versions of ourselves.