Mr Cringe-a-lot
July 18, 2008 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting a bit tired of my own cringing, and wonder how others have dealt with it.

The way I understand the cringe is that it's an empathic reaction to the perceived awkwardness of someone else. Whenever I'm in a situation where I get this reaction I tend to leave the room.

I once walked into a poetry reading which was accompanied by a girl playing a small drum and dancing to the beat. My solution in that case was to unfocus my eyes (like those magic images where a dinosaur might appear) and go to my happy place.

Even pedestrian sillyness evoke this reaction. Some episodes of Frasier are almost que stage left for me, and the final concert scene in About a boy had me chainsmoking in the kitchen with headphones on. Not half an hour ago I was listening to This American Life about medieval themeparks, and yanked the plugs at the first "Welcome m'lady, I'm your knave for the evening."

I don't think is just me poopooing others, but regardless of my reasons I'd like to ween myself off of this behaviour. It's annoying to have near panic whenever someone decides that performance art is something that I should be subjected to.

So, do you recognize this behaviour and what are your suggestions for changing it to a point where I can get past my initial reaction of fear and loathing?
posted by monocultured to Society & Culture (48 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I do recognize this behavior, but although mine is triggered my a slightly different range of behaviors. Awkwardness, yes, but only in real situations (therefore About a Boy, fiction, wouldn't bother me, but This American Life would). The worst things for me are pranks, where people don't know that they've been set up for awkward behaviors. Candid Camera is unwatchable for me, as are Punk'd, or anything else of that nature. My internal reaction (cringing is a great word) is so uncomfortable that I have to leave the room, turn the channel, or plug my ears and close my eyes.

So, I don't have any advice, but I am interested in what others have to say.
posted by kimdog at 7:19 AM on July 18, 2008

This may be related to any difficulty you might have laughing at yourself.
posted by jon_kill at 7:21 AM on July 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

I'm going to be a third for "I don't know the answer, but it affects me too." I don't think I'm as nearly as hard-hit as monocultured - I'm around girl-with-drum-esque situations pretty often with no problems - but I recognized the effect immediately. It's not just real situations, though; I was pretty much physically unable to watch Napoleon Dynamite. So hopefully someone's going to be along in a minute with something useful.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:25 AM on July 18, 2008

Look, maybe hippy dippy poetry readings, Frasier, character actors, or romantic comedies just aren't your thing. So leave the coffee shop, change the channel, turn the station, or whatever. I think that "near panic" is a bit over an overreaction to a situation in which you don't need to remain if you're not comfortable.

On preview: Like kimdog, I hate seeing other people fooled or pranked. So I don't watch.
posted by amro at 7:26 AM on July 18, 2008

"This may be related to any difficulty you might have laughing at yourself."

I agree with this. If you are light hearted and don't take anything too seriously you can usually find the humour in any situation, awkward or not. if you can laugh at yourself, you can laugh at pretty much any situation (where appropriate, of course).
posted by gwenlister at 7:28 AM on July 18, 2008

Maybe try some exposure therapy --- stop yanking the plugs and going to your happy place, and sit through it. IME pretty much everything has something positive going for it, it's just up to me to recognize/appreciate it. For example, anything Renaissance-Faire-related makes me cringe, but on the other hand those people are really having a good time --- a genuine, unselfconscious good time. Together. Which is pretty cool, and actually I could use some happy unironic togetherness right about now. That doesn't mean I'm going to go seek out places that add the letter "e" to the ends of their nouns, but I can appreciate the earnestness of the people who do.
posted by headnsouth at 7:29 AM on July 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

I dunno...there are lots of times I might be watching tv with hubby and I scream-turn the channel! Turn the channel!

I think it's an oversensitive empathy gene, myself. I can't stand watching someone make of fool of themselves. And any plot involving mistaken identity? I just cannot. deal.
posted by konolia at 7:31 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

^I don't know...I don't take myself very seriously, and I experience secondhand embarrassment (what I call this particular feeling) quite often. It's not when people are taking the piss (laughing at themselves), but when they're doing something completely in earnest that is just...cringe-inducing. (See: college a cappella groups, most improvisational comedy, Tina Chen, etc. etc.)

To be frank, I'm not a very nice person and I think a lot of my secondhand embarrassment results from my hating on other people. Why begrudge other people who are taking risks, exposing themselves to others and doing things they love? Because I'm a hater, that's why. Maybe if you (or I) work on being nice, dealing with these feelings would be easier.

(note: I don't mean to assume that you're also a mean person, but if you are, I commiserate)
posted by cosmic osmo at 7:33 AM on July 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

Interesting question! The poetry reading situation is hilarious. Are you embarrassed for the other people? Are they embarrassed or are they having a good time? What is the reaction of the audience?

Maybe you can observe how other people react to these events. Maybe the drumming girl thought she was the greatest performer, and some people in the audience were rolling their eyes.

I guess I would either try to relate to another observer who is having the same feelings, or sympathize with the person on stage who is embarrassed. Try to make it less embarrassing for them if they've got themselves into a predicament.

Is it possible to just laugh it off? These situations all sound rather comical.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 7:35 AM on July 18, 2008

I recognize the behavior as well and know very well the power of the cringe. I always thought of it as sympathetic embarrassment, but your term is more pithy.

I don't know how old you are, but for me, it declined with age...I think it is either a result of exposure diminishing the reaction (think of systematic desensitization with phobias as an example...if you see enough embarrassing things in life, you eventually stop or reduce your reaction), or a philosophical shift towards a more live-and-let-live perspective that many people find as they age.

Think of it this way...this very ability to imagine and mirror the internal states of others is why we can enjoy films that evoke strong emotional reactions of fear, laughter, or love and sadness. We also know empathy is a trait on a continuum where some, like you and I, have higher levels of feeling or imagining the internal state of others, while some have very low levels. I'm sure someone will come along here and speak to theory of mind and so on better than I can.

Do you also feel sadness at the pain of others? (I do and tend to cry at sad news stories like a big loser). If so, I think it is a good thing, and maybe you can use it to motivate you to volunteer in your community or even exploit your understanding of others for business (marketing or the like). Okay, I've kinda wandered off-topic here so I'll go away now.
posted by Punctual at 7:40 AM on July 18, 2008

Tangentially, there was a AskMe thread about foreign expressions for this feeling a couple years back.
posted by letourneau at 7:47 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's annoying to have near panic whenever someone decides that performance art is something that I should be subjected to.

Why not simply tell the people attempting to subject you to this that you'd rather not, thanks? I would have no compunction telling people who invited me to a NASCAR race that it's not my thing, but thanks all the same -- I wouldn't force myself to go and force myself to suppress the grimace that I'd have on my face.

You tried it, it wasn't your thing. It's okay to feel that way.

If they're springing it on you unannounced, that may be a different problem, and may be worth having a gentle chat with the people who do this saying that gee, it's awfully nice that they're trying to include you in things, but honestly it's not quite a thing you've been all that fond of, so maybe y'all could do something ELSE together that EVERYONE likes next time?....But trying to force yourself to hide a genuine reaction to something that you genuinely don't like isn't fair to you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:53 AM on July 18, 2008

I had this reaction a lot when I was in my teens. It used be those kids in commercials who acted so cheesy and basically would say or do anything just be on national tv. Or the losers on the "What would you do for a Klondike Bar?" commercials. I hated how pathetic they were that they would sell themselves out like that. They're so stupid! Maybe I hated them because I hated my own neediness to be liked. But as time went on they bothered me less. I think it's because as I got through my awkward teen years, I accepted myself more and so it didn't bother me nearly as much when I'd see crap like that on tv.

I still hate the little kiss-ass Welch's Grape Juice girl though.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 7:54 AM on July 18, 2008

It sounds like my threshold for cringing is higher than yours, but I do have that reaction on occasion.

You're conceiving of the activity as embarrassing and demeaning. The thing is, some people (and I myself find it difficult to believe this sometimes) actually _enjoy_ watching or listening to these things. Really. There are some activities that seem horrible to your sensibilities, but they're not really that bad, or demeaning, or awful. These people are not being marked as permanently demeaned.

Audiences are able to enjoy these performances if they're sufficiently inside the same world as the performers. Sometimes, having the experience of performing or working in the same medium or genre is pretty much a prerequisite, but the point is that other audiences have a different experience than you do and notice different things. "She's really varying the tempo well, and with some restraint" rather than "she looks like a fool".

I think this response (and I've felt it too) comes from a belief that the performers are somehow hurting themselves by doing this. They're not. They're having more fun that you are, or I am.
posted by amtho at 7:55 AM on July 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have this, I really don't like going to theater or slam poetry for the same cringing reasons.
But, I've learned to deal with it and actually sometimes enjoy the cringe experience.
I just started thinking of it, and my reaction to it, as funny.

"That pathetic dude is reading his poetry and just rhymed lonely with only for the third time. And that chick in the front row is snapping? That's crazy! And Funny! And I am about to collapse internally and become part of my chair and I bet the expression on my face right now is also really funny."

I think the best therapy for this is watching multiple seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I couldn't stand the first 5 episodes I watched, but then you kind of reach a cringe plateau and it all becomes funny.
posted by rmless at 7:55 AM on July 18, 2008

Best answer: So, do you recognize this behaviour

I know exactly what you mean.

I completely disagree with the posters suggesting that it's related to not being able to laugh at yourself, or at life in general. Of course, I'm not the person to judge, but I really, really don't think that 'not being able to laugh at myself' is among my many problems. I'm also surprised by those who think it comes from being a 'hater' and/or who suggest learning to empathize with the person on stage (or wherever): for me it comes from too much empathy.

My main suggestion is to do what you seem to be doing already: learn how to zone out without looking rude. In an audience watching an embarrassing stage act, with the lights all on the performer and nobody looking at you, you can get away with a fixed grin while you see if you can remember the capitals of all the American states. But exposure is probably a good idea too.

By the way, this question totally broke AskMe's 'Related Questions' engine.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:58 AM on July 18, 2008 [6 favorites]

I think the best therapy for this is watching multiple seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Genius suggestion. A show that derives its humor from this very phenomenon.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:59 AM on July 18, 2008

I don't have any great advice, but yet another person who experiences this too. I don't watch reality tv for a number of reasons but when I've been subjected to it, I tend to curl up in a ball and avert my eyes and try not to listen - these are REAL people (or their tv selves at least) humiliating themselves on national television! But I have it with sitcoms as well (I have frequently turned off Friends reruns when I know someone is going to do something that will make me cringe). I try to explain that I feel embarrassed for others (several friends call it "secondary shame").

Maybe I should laugh at myself more. But I think I react the way I do because I know I would not want others to see me do whatever it is that's going on (be ridiculous on reality tv, be part of a stupid sitcom "misunderstanding", etc.) So I try to avoid paying attention to whatever causes the reaction because I can't control it (like I can't control how easily I blush). I feel your pain...
posted by Caz721 at 8:16 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

for me it comes from too much empathy.

I agree. For me the worst one is that scene in "adaptation" where Nic Cage tries to ask the waitress to the flower show, and then she sends someone else back with his pie... EGHHHHH. I literally have trouble looking at the screen.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:19 AM on July 18, 2008

Can you watch The Office? I agree with the idea of exposure therapy. I used to watch it with my hands over my face, but over time the cringe factor really fades.
posted by peep at 8:34 AM on July 18, 2008

I feel exactly the same way as you and always have. My threshold for cringe-inducing behaviour is extremely low and I spend what seems to me to be a huge amount of my life with my eyes screwed shut and my fingers in my ears going LA LA LA LA LA LA until I am removed from whatever toe-curling event is happening around me.

For myself, I settled on a diagnosis of a nice big pint of over-empathising with a chaser of introverted self-conciousness in the face of the public gaze. The poetry reading scenario you described would have me curled into the foetal position on the floor whimpering for someone to make it stop because I know just how kill-me-now embarrassed I would feel if I was in her place. The fact that the girl actually doing the dancing might not feel that way doesn't matter at all - I project all this with my own hatred of being watched, mix it up with the sniggering of much of the audience who invariably thinks that it's all so 'hilarious' and end up feeling like someone is scraping their fingernails down a blackboard inside my head.
posted by Acarpous at 8:36 AM on July 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

When I was a kid, I couldn't even watch the Brady Bunch without cringing (good term, by the way). This plagued me for decades, and then one day my husband turned to me and said "you know this isn't real, right?" After I got over being offended, I realized he was right - I needed to stop identifying with the characters in the show. I blame books, personally - I've always been a huge reader and a reluctant tv/film watcher and I think that using the immersive mindset that is necessary to get into a good novel is counterproductive in heavy handed visual media. They'll tell you what to feel - so don't volunteer. I'm so glad to see that I'm not the only one that has suffered from this!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:45 AM on July 18, 2008

The way I understand the cringe is that it's an empathic reaction to the perceived awkwardness of someone else.

It can be. That's the kind of cringe when you see the awkward teenager at the bus stop and remember how much it can suuuuck. But it can also be pity for someone who is doing something that you think should embarrass them.

It's annoying to have near panic whenever someone decides that performance art is something that I should be subjected to.

This and your examples indicate such a low threshold that it kinda points to the latter explanation. And I don't mean to sound snarky, but, well, it's not all about you. If your post was meaner, I would'a thrown in a "get over yourself" for good measure. People enjoy doing different things and being entertained in different ways, and you needn't take it personally. You can find something annoying without having to flee. Develop a stronger sense of meh for the small stuff.

(This is not to say that it's mean to have strong opinions or to find something super-annoying. We've all got that stuff that just ARGH STOPPIT STOPPIT. But try to chill on the loathing, eh?)

By the way, your cringing is probably making other people cringe. Think of them! Be kind to your fellow man and don't spread the cringe virius!
posted by desuetude at 8:46 AM on July 18, 2008

Response by poster: Jon_kill & gwenlister: I don't think this is right. I have an ability of making light of myself in spades, and even though I don't consider myself a particularly jolly person it's not the lack of appreciation of a particular kind of humour that's creating this. imho.

"This activity is not for you so avoid it" is how I'm handling it, but that's not the point.
Most of my friends can be in situations where they are un-interested or embarrassed, and don't start doing a moaning sound that only they can hear to drown out the situation. They can sit through something and then say "boy, that sure wasn't good/interesting/dignified" and not get such an intense reaction.

Amthos' comment was good: I think this response […] comes from a belief that the performers are somehow hurting themselves by doing this.

Maybe I should expand on the "performing arts" thing. I'm a MFA and appreciate reading about or discussing the meaning or concept of any given performance, no matter how contrived. I have had long and fun discussions about Sacha Baron Cohen "Borat" even though I couldn't watch more than three minutes of the movie.

So I can reason about something, but blank out whenever I experience it. Maybe it is a warped empathy thing; I don't get choked up because I "feel with the person," but rather because I feel what they are trying to do and don't buy it?

The Office christmas special was a horrendous experience, but maybe exposure therapy is a good thing. If nothing else I might get past my initial reaction and get a bit of distance to the whole thing. (which is lacking judging by others' sympathetic descriptions)
posted by monocultured at 8:48 AM on July 18, 2008

Best answer: I went through a period like this, and eventually deciding my cringing came because I was an insufferable know-it-all. I'd see someone doing something horribly embarrassing, and immediately my brain would be at war with itself over whether I should somehow try to stop the person from doing that embarrassing thing. I never did, because obviously it's extremely rude to inform a person that he's embarrassing himself, but still I fought this urge to save the person from their own poor judgment.

After giving it some thought, I realized that I had a bad habit of always thinking I knew better than other people, even though I was (I think) pretty good about keeping that opinion to myself most of the time. When I finally realized that I truly am wrong a lot of the time, and that other people know their own business infinitely better than I ever could, my cringing subsided. These people have made a choice to do whatever they're doing, and it is not my responsibility to judge them or help them or question whether they should be doing their thing. That's smug superiority in the guise of empathy, and it's not pleasant.

I am not here to say that you think you know better than anyone else, only that that's what was going on for me. It helped me to realize that my cringing was not just overwrought empathy (because I do tend to be a painfully empathetic person in other situations, too), it was a sign of something completely different that I wanted to change about myself once I discovered it.
posted by vytae at 8:53 AM on July 18, 2008 [14 favorites]

I dunno...there are lots of times I might be watching tv with hubby and I scream-turn the channel! Turn the channel!

I think it's an oversensitive empathy gene, myself. I can't stand watching someone make of fool of themselves. And any plot involving mistaken identity? I just cannot. deal.

I agree with those who feel that the cringe is more of a case of misplaced empathy than an inability to laugh at oneself. But, konolia, I just have to say, are you my long-lost twin? I react in exactly the same way and have the same problems while watching tv with my boyfriend. There are times when it becomes so unbearable to watch other people embarrass themselves that I have to cover my face in my hands or turn away from the tv. And I share your incapability of dealing with mistaken identity plots -- not just on tv, but in books. I also hate books where one person is mistakenly believed to have committed a crime or falsely accused of something. It just drives me bonkers!
posted by peacheater at 9:09 AM on July 18, 2008

Best answer: Agree with konolia on over-active empathy. But like an over-active immune system, over-active empathy is really no good for anyone.

I used to have this problem, and bad. This is how I dealt with it:

First, know your "empathy" totally inaccurate. Think about it: you're putting yourself and your reactions into the shoes of someone who is acting in a way you never would. Of course you cringe! But they aren't you, and they aren't feeling or acting the way you ever would. They're out there having a good time, and have no idea they're acting like a moron.

Second, try to stop caring what other people think about you (tall order, I know), because you won't ever know what they're thinking. In part the reaction is a visualization of how the person would feel if they only knew what you, and what you presume the people around you are thinking. I bet you (and I) have countless times thought we were THE AWESOME, when at least one person around us was cringing at our behavior. We'll never know. And it doesn't really matter -- what matters to them is how they feel about their own behavior, not how you feel. This is easier to come to after you realize the only thing that ought matter to you is how you feel about your own behavior.

Third, lighten up! (And I mean that in the kindest possible way. I've had to say it to myself about four hundred times) This is basically a manifestation of hyper-criticism and hyper-irony. Who cares, after all, if a girl is reading poetry, beating a tiny drum and dancing around? She seems to be digging it and thinking it's worthwhile. Try to focus on that, on what the person you feel so embarrassed for is actually feeling. She is probably having a great time. Enjoy the fact that she is, that she's happy and earnest. Be happy for her. People do what they want to do. Feel lucky to be in the presence of one of the few people in the world who are completely earnest. They have something to teach us cynics.

I know this problem is a pain and the best way I've found to get rid of it is conceptually, rather than The Office, Arrested Development and reality television-exposure. After all, you don't want to completely destroy your ability to feel empathy. Good luck!
posted by MaddyRex at 9:18 AM on July 18, 2008 [6 favorites]

I'm completely fascinated by this, because I do the same thing. From my perspective it is definitely an overactive empathy - I have heard it described before as being the result of "permeable emotional boundaries." Basically, my brain's "Be embarrassed! Be nervous! Be sad!" signals extend past my own self and toward other people, even fictional people, so that I feel those emotions on their behalf.

It hasn't affected my life much, though, apart from not being able to watch "American Idol" or go to open mic nights. I say it just means you're an empathetic person. You're the opposite of a sociopath! Nothing wrong with that.

(For me it happens a lot in sports as well - when the kicker misses the extra point that would win the game, or the guy chokes on a free throw, I literally cannot watch.)
posted by ultraultraboomerang at 9:31 AM on July 18, 2008

Response by poster: To clarify: The "being subjected to performance art" line was me trying to be witty and not an implication of a conspiracy against my fragile constitution. The "someone" implied in the sentance is as often as not myself.

Wanting to "get over myself" is the point of asking the question - and if I may be as small type snarky as to say so - not much of an answer. Saying "Meh" is obviously not a current option, even though what others do shouldn't be of any concern to me.

Vytae: That's smug superiority in the guise of empathy, and it's not pleasant.

Yeah, I think most people are guilty of this at one point or another. But even though I at times bahave smug because I think I know best (I do) it still leaves those situations where there's movies or stories involved, where there's no correlation between an actor and any judgement you might have of them as people.

I dunno. Misanthropy as suggested above by Cosmic osmo, or thinking too highly of oneself, might be reasons why you are quick to dismiss certain things, but it doesn't follow that the reaction should be so instinctual and profound.

MaddyRex: Enjoy the fact that she is, that she's happy and earnest. Be happy for her. People do what they want to do. Feel lucky to be in the presence of one of the few people in the world who are completely earnest.

Oh yeah, I totally buy this. I revel in the fact that people have interests and tastes utterly alien to me. Every thing that I find boring or campy increase the value of human existence and is a good thing™ because it proves time and again the diversity of our lives. I just want to control my reaction to experiencing it.

MaddyRex, how did you change your behaviour in practice?
posted by monocultured at 9:37 AM on July 18, 2008

Response by poster: MaddyRex: I meant really specifically, since you outline it well already. Was there a mantra involved? A behavioral therapy mind trick?
posted by monocultured at 9:53 AM on July 18, 2008

Best answer: monocultured -- Yeah, controlling your reactions is incredibly hard to put into practice. A couple of practical suggestions -- become friends with someone who is really earnest. Find someone at work, or a friend of a friend and go out of your way to spend time with them. They're fascinating up close, and they give you a better appreciation and respect for the whole earnest subset. It's sometimes hard to stay friends, because often times they can be a bit on the unbearable side, but try to bear with it for a little while; I think you'll find it changes you for the better. I became very close friends with an exceptionally earnest person, and I am a much more tolerant person because of it.

The second suggestion is an old cognitive behavioral trick. Wear a rubber band around your wrist. Whenever you start to feel this overwhelming wave of cringe, snap the rubber band against your skin. This wakes you up out of your intense pity/cringe/empathy and gives you the chance to refocus your thoughts on reality, not on how you feel about your perception of their perception of your perception ad nauseam. Do this a few times and you'll find you start abandoning the cringe automatically.
posted by MaddyRex at 9:53 AM on July 18, 2008

And here's a good mantra for the rubber band: "It's not about them. It's about me."
posted by MaddyRex at 9:55 AM on July 18, 2008

"Oh yeah, I totally buy this. I revel in the fact that people have interests and tastes utterly alien to me. Every thing that I find boring or campy increase the value of human existence and is a good thing™ because it proves time and again the diversity of our lives. I just want to control my reaction to experiencing it."

No offense, monocultured, but you are coming off as kind of a snob. Maybe you could try experiencing these new, different, and unusual situations with an open mind. You never know, these people might just teach you something about life if you're willing to hear them.

Experiencing other ways of looking at the world is a good thing because it helps you empathize with people from many different walks of life. Your name says it plain enough, but otherwise it sounds like you are content with your revulsion to novelty and diversity.

If you are sincere about changing your gag reflex, I recommend you do something completely novel--go do volunteer work in a foreign country, walk the streets of New Delhi, or climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Go salsa dancing at a Hispanic night club. Work at a domestic violence shelter. Give yourself the opportunity to see true poverty, and maybe you'll come to appreciate that life isn't about your narrowly defined view of acceptable or aversive (as some say, embarrassing). For so many people in this world, life is just the chance to survive, and, "I have no food to eat" means the same in every language.

When you come back, I guarantee you will have a better ability to stomach the inconsequential nothings you mention above. You might even begin to enjoy them.
posted by mynameismandab at 10:14 AM on July 18, 2008

I totally experience this as well.
It's been strong enough that I've walked out on a best friend's performance in a talent show.
I definitely think it's just me feeling the embarrassment that I believe the person should be feeling. It seems like I feel this way to a higher degree when it involves people I know directly.
On the positive side, I think that cringers are exceptionally good at putting themselves in other peoples' shoes. I imagine a mother lecturing her child and saying something along the lines of, "How would you feel if _________ did that to you?" And I think cringers would know exactly how they would feel.

I have a few examples of things that maybe are or aren't so related and might give a bit more insight:
The slightest sappiness in a TV show turns on the waterworks. I cry during happy moments or sad moments even though I'm not the person directly experiencing these emotions. Anything more than slight sappiness brings on what I call the "ugly crying."
I cringe AND shudder if I see laundry detergent commercials where kids are biting into sloppy joe's and getting it on their shirts (i.e. see how it gets dirty before we clean it) and I get the same reaction from watching babies being fed.

On a related topic, I actually love the Office and rarely experience a cringe-inducing scene that would push me to look away or change the channel.
posted by simplethings at 10:35 AM on July 18, 2008

Wanting to "get over myself" is the point of asking the question - and if I may be as small type snarky as to say so - not much of an answer. Saying "Meh" is obviously not a current option, even though what others do shouldn't be of any concern to me.

Why isn't it an option? Say "meh." Exhale. Allow the moment to pass. Pay attention to something else.

Look, you characterized what is basically snobbery as a heightened sense of empathy. I'm therefore surprised that you weren't interested in my suggestion that your cringing is making other people cringe, which is one more motivation to cool it.
posted by desuetude at 10:37 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know...I don't take myself very seriously, and I experience secondhand embarrassment (what I call this particular feeling) quite often.

I agree entirely. I can't watch 'cringe comedy' as I call it - the kind when the humour directly involves someone building up to looking a complete tit and/or ending in an embarrassing situation.

The last thing I do is take myself seriously. Quite the opposite. I don't mind practical jokes, either, at mine or other's expense. I do tend to feel a desire to step in and defuse situations if someone is not taking the joke well, however, but not to remove the situation, so I'm not sure that this smug superiority/empathy stuff is necessarily relevant.

In short, I don't really care if people make dicks of themselves (at all) I just can't watch it. It makes me extremely fidgety and I find it very uncomfortable. Especially is (as in the comedy example) people are knowingly letting/enjoying someone get closer and closer to looking stupid.

Just as a data point, I guess, but I think there is a chance that the 'superiority/smugness' issues are way off. This may (in my case) reflect something about how much I was on the butt end of stuff when I was younger, so I don't know if that helps shed some light on anything. Maybe I don't like to watch the same kind of stuff that I know I was the butt of years ago.
posted by Brockles at 10:38 AM on July 18, 2008

I think this comes from a rejection/suppression of the aspects of your own personality that might lead you to do something just as cringeworthy as what you're witnessing in the other person. Not that you're likely to engage in exactly the same behavior, but you fear the possibility that you could wind up in such a situation. And in a way, the fact that you fear it kind of draws you to it--kind of like a vertigo thing, where it's not the fear of falling, but the fear of wanting to fall. And if you start to recognize that, you have to pull away even more strongly.

So part of getting over it would be to realize, that yes, you may at times do things that are just as cringeworthy as what you're witnessing, or worse, because all humans do at some time or another; but even so, it would be a temporary experience and not really all that important in the long run.

It's not that you can't laugh at yourself at all; maybe you can in many situations. But there's one way in which you're taking yourself very seriously, by saying "I must absolutely never engage in -X- behavior, even though other people obviously do".
posted by dixie flatline at 10:50 AM on July 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is fascinating, because it's long been a part of my life -- e.g., I keenly recall having to leap up off the couch and leave the room during television shows.

My susceptibility has faded somewhat, whether because I'm not as sprightly as I used to be, because my psychology has changed, or because cringe-inducement is so much more a feature of contemporary entertainment . . . dunno. I really don't think it has anything to do with a lack of humor about oneself; I think it is a confusing mixture of empathy, sympathy, and being judgmental.

For me, the strain that remains most acute is this: I can't stand it when I perceive that people are making fools of themselves, or being the butt of jokes, when they don't realize it and (I think that) others such as myself can. If they're in on it, fine. If I think that only I find them ridiculous, fine. Sitcoms and the like simulate this situation to the extent that they're realistic or plausible. Of course they're not "real," but an essential part of drama or comedy is stimulating responses like they are.

It does console me if I'm able to suppose that the subjects wouldn't care anyway.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:45 AM on July 18, 2008

The cringe is your body telling you I don't like this; make it stop. It isn't a flaw. It isn't something you need to strive to cope with. It's just how you feel. If you don't like these things, why waste your time subjecting yourself to them?

Even if you muster the will to stick around and endure some hippie bongo poetry, what does that prove? Who does it help? Is hippie bongo poetry girl going to be grateful that you hung around and tolerated her? How about if you managed to convert the cringe to "good humour" and laughed at her? Somehow I don't think that's any better.

Presumably, the other people in the audience didn't say to each other beforehand, "Hey, you wanna see if we can sit through something we can't stand?" No, they're there because they like it. They want to be there. They enjoy the performance.

You don't -- so why are you there?

If you're not into it, leave. If someone's making you stay, or sitting you in front of Frasier with your eyes Clockwork Oranged, you just need to learn learn to say No. Otherwise, the best reaction to a cringe is to simply obey it.

(All that said, Curb Your Enthusiasm and especially The Office--the BBC version in particular--derive much of their humour from this very reflex. Watching them may indeed build up a tolerance.)
posted by Sys Rq at 12:26 PM on July 18, 2008

especially The Office--the BBC version in particular--derive much of their humour from this very reflex. Watching them may indeed build up a tolerance.)

Perfect example of the sort of thing that I can't find the enjoyment in. All it builds up in me is bile and the desire to turn it off immediately. I can, despite it being very clever comedy, only find tiny, tiny fractions of it amusing.
posted by Brockles at 12:44 PM on July 18, 2008

Response by poster: Desuetude: Saying "meh" and allowing the moment to pass is exactly what I can't do, or I would not have had to ask the question. My reaction in those situations resemble fear a bit - knot in the stomach, heightened pulse, etc.
MaddyRex practical suggestions for how to fight the urge to flee is a good one, others suggestions for what might be causing this reaction are interesting since many share the experience. (although there's little consensus on the reasons for it)

"Just don't do it" is then not a very constructive answer, wouldn't you agree?

As to how this affects others: Yes, this is one of the reasons why I'd like to find a working solution. I've become quite good at spacing out without showing it, or otherwise dealing with it in a non-obnoxious manner. When I'm with close friends I don't have to keep as close watch on myself; they have mostly accepted that I do this, and some of them can relate. But some friends are performance artists, which occasionally puts me in a bind. (I enjoy talking about it, I mostly understand it, I respect their profession. I just can't watch it without sweating.)

Obeying the cringe and avoiding all such situations is of course an option, but this would make my everyday life a lonely one. There's plenty of stuff that I don't like that doesn't give me hives, which I watch because I'm with friends that enjoy it. (Eurovision song contest comes to mind)

Basically, there's a difference between thinking "this is boring me" and "Run Forrest, run!" and I'd like to keep the Forrest part a bit more quiet so as not to be the annoying and patronizing dick that ruins the experience for others, not to mention stressing performers out (in the case of live shows).

Anyway, I'm off to find a rubber band.
posted by monocultured at 12:55 PM on July 18, 2008

Response by poster: Sondrialiac: We should totally hang. I have a few awesome flicks you'll love.
posted by monocultured at 1:02 PM on July 18, 2008

I know what you mean, because I have these moments when I can't look TV in the eye, due to that same cringing empathy. It happens during expected programs ("the Office," "Dr. Phil"), but, thinking about it now, I also have those feelings even when someone I think is brilliant performs well. It's painful for me to see any tiny glimpse of their vulnerability, even if they're famous and have been performing for 25 years. And it's painful to anticipate their vulnerability, even if their shell doesn't crack for the whole show.

I have noticed, however, that these feelings are much milder when I'm photographing the show. Maybe it's simply that I have something else to concentrate on (exposure, composition, waiting for the right moment to press the shutter), or maybe it's the intervention of the machine between me and the performer, or maybe it's the change in my role from audience member to support staff, but something happens, and the cringing is reduced. So consider appointing yourself as photographer or reviewer or set-list transcriber, and see how that goes.

While watching movies I try to notice the editing/filmmaking at those points, like, "Okay, I would have cut... here! No? Okay... here!" or "Ah, here comes some underscore," so I'm not totally taken out of the film but I can get through the scene.
posted by xo at 3:06 PM on July 18, 2008

Response by poster: Xo: Yeah, having a reason to be somewhere for another purpose often does the trick. Writing reviews in my head or focusing on details is one of the spacing out things that work. Even better when I'm actually assigned something, but then it's work and not play. Work makes emotional distance easier. Cameras are excellent for the purpose, but not always the proper thing to whip out.

By the way. My immediate association of your nick was Saul Tigh of BG. You get that a lot?
posted by monocultured at 4:25 PM on July 18, 2008

I disagree that it's just about excess empathy. It's also deep self-consciousness. So yes, you are able to put yourself in their position, but you are so excessively concerned with what others think of you, you're projecting it on to others. It's uptight.

I once went to an experimental-music show where a girl was screaming into the bell of a French horn and I had a feeling much like you describe. But I've since talked to experimental- and noise-music fans and the fact that screaming into the bell of a French horn is in some way funny is not lost on anyone, even the performer. The moral is that you should not presume to feel for people what you believe they should be feeling. That girl with the drum probably did not lie in bed awake that night worried about what people thought of her. If anything you should try to aspire to that.

Accept that others don't necessarily take themselves as seriously as you do, or as you think they do, or as you think they should. Assume that they have a sense of humour about themselves just as you believe you do about yourself. Feeling embarrassed for someone who doesn't feel embarrassed for herself is condescending and a waste of energy. Consciously embarrassing yourself and stretching your comfort zone will help you a lot.
posted by loiseau at 2:08 AM on July 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

What a great question! I have this trouble as well - can't bear to watch a lot of sitcoms or comedies for this reason. One of the worst for me is something that is trying to be philosophical and intense, and instead is IMHO simply awful, for example toward the end of the film I about wanted to reach through the screen and kill Bill myself just to get him to STFU. I'm finding the best way to get around this is to step back a bit and find something that's interesting about it, and focus on that, instead of trying to run away from the feeling of embarrassment.. if I can...

I'm leaning toward disagreeing with those replies that seem to imply these emotions are somehow incorrect and that there is something about you personally that is flawed. I mean, if you care about art and see/hear enough of it, you can tell what is interesting and what's not, what is new and different and what has been done many times before.. and it IS painful to be stuck watching something that's not interesting or well crafted, simply out of obligation to people you know. Did you consider at all whether this reaction you have is always the same, for instance if a film that was painful for you to get through 5-10 years ago, does it look the same today?

The ones that really kill me are the hammy, backslapping speeches that introduce political rallies. I'd get an ulcer if I worked on a campaign and had to listen to a couple of those every day. And to whoever mentioned sports.. :) NFL playoff games, if one of my teams is playing? total, total stress out to the point that they're not even fun to watch. I mean you know you got trouble when you start empathizing with Bill Belichick.
posted by citron at 10:08 AM on July 19, 2008

Damn I thought I was the only one! Stuff like Punk'd sends me into fits. Sort of like that feeling when you're at the state fair riding the Sea Dragon and it swings all the way up on one side and then you're fixin to go straight down and you're hangin up in the air and your stomach suddenly clenches and you want to crunch into a ball? Anybody? Hmm, maybe it is me.
posted by CwgrlUp at 4:17 PM on July 27, 2008

Response by poster: CwrflUp, if it's fear clenching your stomach, then a furtive "yes" to your description. But that's intentionally inducing the feeling, so doesn't come with the holding of hands over ears.

The rubber band suggestion mentioned was quite a good one; I've found all kinds of uses for it, and might post in ask six months from now about how to break the 'snap snap snap' habit I've formed.
posted by monocultured at 1:49 PM on July 29, 2008

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