How to Survive a Cringe Attack

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The other day I was putting away laundry, my least favorite chore. It’s already folded, dammit. What more do you want from me? My mind was wandering this way and that when, out of nowhere, a memory pulled me back to the summer of 2007. Suddenly, I’m 22 again.

I was an intern in the health section at msnbc.com, and in retrospect, I suspect I was terrifically underqualified for the role. All day I would nod along in meetings while the rest of the editors discussed things like hormone replacement therapy or hospital-acquired infections, and then, back at my desk, I would conduct quiet, frantic Google searches to figure out what on earth they’d been talking about. There were so many things to worry about.

Lately, though, I’d been worrying about my clothes. The newspapers where I’d interned throughout college were very come-as-you-are, but people dressed better here, or at least my boss sure did. Sometimes, I noticed, if I showed up late but was wearing something nice, she would tacitly dismiss my tardiness. I started copying my roommate, who at 25 seemed infinitely wiser than me, and who on weekdays favored mid-length jersey skirts in dark, office-approved neutrals.

But in this memory, the skirt betrays me. I leave the restroom, preoccupied by all of the obscure medical terms I need to look up later, and walk toward the newsroom. And then I hear a shriek of laughter to my right, coming from down the hall. I look toward the sound, and see three people staring back, one of whom is literally pointing and laughing at me. I look down and — oh … my god.

My skirt is tucked into the back of my tights.

In my apartment ten years later, I know I’m far away in space and time from this moment, and yet it still makes me wince. I even shake my head back and forth a few times, as if I can use physical force to remove from my brain the image of the office hallway, the laughing co-worker, the traitorous skirt. “How embarrassing,” I whisper, out loud, to no one.

This reaction, the way I will often respond physically to an embarrassing memory, has always seemed like an odd personal quirk of mine. But so many people I interviewed for my new book, Cringeworthy, confess to reacting in the same way. “You’re just sitting there and your brain decides to throw it in your face for no reason,” one of my interviewees told me. “For me, if I’m alone, I just start shouting, ‘NO! No no no no no no no.’” I came across a name for these memories that I quite like: cringe attacks. They’re the little humiliations from your past that come back unbidden, sometimes years after they first occurred.

I recently spoke with James Danckert, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo, about this. “The reason I hate it — you really relive past embarrassments,” he said. This is less true of the emotion he studies: boredom. I can remember feeling bored in high school, for example, but the feeling doesn’t come back with the memory. Not so with embarrassment. “When you think about it again,” Danckert said, “you get embarrassed all over again.”

Recently, I had coffee with an acquaintance who told me that a couple of weeks earlier, she’d been innocently standing in front of her bathroom mirror when she flashed back to Halloween 2015. “I did ecstasy and made out with two guys on the same improv team,” even though she really liked another person at the party, she told me. For her, this was enough to cause a cringe attack so strong that she yelled at her refection: Oh my god, why did you do that?!

It happens to so many of us. But why? These memories may be embarrassing, but they’re not necessarily traumatic. So what’s causing them to rush back at seemingly random times? And is there any way to prevent them, or at least make them hurt a little less?

I didn’t get the answer I was expecting, but what I found instead was so much more interesting, and genuinely useful for anyone who regularly feels under attack by embarrassing memories. The first step is somewhat obvious: Learn how to be nicer to yourself. The second is less so: Learn how to forget yourself.

I have asked Nima Veiseh a simple question: I want him to tell me about an embarrassing memory from his past. He’s had time to think about it, too, because I asked the same question in the email I sent several days ago to schedule the chat we’re having now. And yet he can’t answer me.

Veiseh is one of just 60 or so people in the world who is thought to have a highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition discovered in 2006 by scientists at the University of California at Irvine. He remembers nearly every day of his life in vivid detail. I, in contrast, could not confidently tell you what I published on Science of Us just last week. Mine is only an average memory, and yet I often feel haunted by cringeworthy jolts backward in time.
The more I thought about it, the more I was dying to know: What would it be like to remember your embarrassing moments when you remember everything that’s ever happened to you?

Earlier, I spoke with Joey DeGrandis, who also has HSAM. We had a great talk about memories and our relationships to our past selves, but he, too, struggled with my question about embarrassing memories. He and Veiseh used different analogies for their memories: Veiseh seems to think of his like a highly organized file cabinet, while DeGrandis thinks of his past selves as being perpetually connected to his present by thousands of invisible threads. But neither of them seemed to be able to use their superpower to summon an awkward moment from their past.

Isnt this your whole thing?! I shouted inwardly, while outwardly keeping quiet as they consulted their memory threads and file cabinets. I knew I couldn’t assume that everyone with HSAM would necessarily have as much trouble recalling cringeworthy moments as they did, but even so, I was baffled. How could it be possible that I can’t stop remembering embarrassing episodes from my past when these two guys — who supposedly remember everything they’ve ever said or done — struggle to think of even one?

To understand this, let’s return for a moment to those of us with ordinary memories. Research in neuroscience might categorize the cringe attack as an example of “persistence,” which means pretty much what it sounds like — it’s a memory that persists over time and is often involuntary and recurring. Persistence is often associated with traumatic experiences, but as the neuroscientist Dean Burnett has explained, these memories don’t always come from some dramatic life event. “You might be wandering along the road on your way to somewhere,” he writes in his book Your Brain Is an Idiot, “casually thinking about nothing in particular, and your brain suddenly says, ‘Remember when you asked that girl out at the school party and she laughed in your face in front of everyone and you ran away but collided with a table and landed in the cakes?’ Suddenly you’re racked with shame and embarrassment, thanks to a 20-year-old memory, apropos of nothing.”

But why do these memories so often seem to come back out of nowhere? Burnett, in his book, describes the brain not as a supercomputer that should be revered but as a dotty, irrational thing. Imagine, he says, “a computer that kept opening your more personal and embarrassing files, like the ones containing all your erotic Care Bears fanfiction, without being asked, and at random times.” To Burnett, that’s not a bad metaphor for your brain.

But Lia Kvavilashvili, a psychology researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, believes that memory is more orderly than that. Kvavilashvili has made a name for herself by studying what she calls “mind pops,” those thoughts that seem to come to you out of the clear blue sky. Early on in her research on mind pops, she wrote down every single one that happened to her over the course of nine months, during which she experienced some 400 of these cognitive mysteries. She found some commonalities: 90 percent of the time they happened when she was alone. And 80 percent of the time, they happened while she was doing some kind of mindless routine, like chores or personal grooming.

She’s replicated those results by studying people who kept diaries of their random memories. “Always, people reported being engaged in an undemanding activity, just being in a relaxed state of mind,” she tells me, which sounds about right: I was dragged back to 2007 while putting away laundry, and my friend flashed to a 2015 Halloween party in the middle of her morning routine.

At this point in our conversation, she gently breaks it to me that so far no one has yet studied specific emotions attached to mind pops, so she can’t tell me exactly why embarrassing memories come back to us in this way. But she floats a few theories.

For one, some researchers argue that even the memories that seem random are in fact triggered by something in the environment. She tells me about a colleague of hers who would obsessively dictate his random memories into a voice recorder while he drove; in reviewing the recordings, he could see how a street name or a particular car make or model brought the memory forth. “So even at times when it seems completely random,” she says, “it seems like they are not really totally random.” Maybe something about the T-shirts I was putting away that day reminded me of the feel of the turncoat jersey skirt.

For another, think about how often your first response to someone who’s witnessed an embarrassing moment of yours is something like “This isn’t what it looks like” or “I can explain.” If you never actually get to make that explanation, the moment likely feels unresolved in your mind, and some researchers believe that interrupted moments stick with us longer than those that feel completed.

Or else there’s the fact that awkward moments often cause you to see yourself, if only briefly, from someone else’s point of view. Studies have shown that self-defining memories tend to stay more vivid in our minds across the lifespan: You see yourself in some brand-new way, and those moments tend to stick around.

Even so, there may be a much simpler explanation for the neurological mechanism behind cringe attacks (in people with typical memories, that is): Your emotions dictate what your brain decides to hang on to. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the memory.

I knew he was only saying this to illustrate the link between memory and strong emotion. He’d given me a heads-up that he was about to say something purely for the sake of creating an example, and that he didn’t mean it. Still. It kind of hurt.

“You may well remember that the rest of your life anyway, even though I said it’s not true,” he acknowledged. “It was unexpected,” McGaugh said, and it was highly emotional, both of which cause the brain to say to itself, Capture that moment, whatever that was.

He takes me through a simplified version of the neurobiological processes at work here. Something excites your brain, which triggers the release of adrenaline, which in turn releases another substance called noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that then perks up the amygdala. “That’s a region of the brain which gets excited by emotional arousal,” he said. The amygdala then communicates “with almost every other region of the brain, and it says, in effect, Something important happened. Make a strong memory.”

This happens in moments of embarrassment or humiliation, but it’s not limited to these emotions, and it’s not, as I initially assumed, limited to negative emotions either. If someone told you that you’d just won the lottery, you’d remember that moment forever; perhaps you can still vividly recall the moment your partner told you, for the first time, that they loved you. All of these things, McGaugh said, are evidence that “we have a built-in system which helps to ensure that the important experiences in our lives are remembered better than the boring ones, because that will help us adapt in the future.”

And here’s a practical application of which you might want to take note: This link to strong emotions may be the key to combating a cringe attack. According to one recent finding in neuroscience, it helps to try to recall other, nonemotional details about a highly emotional memory. Can you remember what you were wearing? Who else was there? What did it sound like? What did it smell like?

In a 2015 study, scientists found that when people took a few moments to mentally flesh out the details of a memory that caused them pain, it helped to dull the sting. “Sometimes we dwell on how sad, embarrassed, or hurt we felt during an event, and that makes us feel worse and worse,” Florin Dolcos, one of the researchers, said in a statement. But focusing on the unemotional aspects of the memory should help tamp down the emotion attached to it. “Once you immerse yourself in other details,” Dolcos explained, “your mind will wander to something else entirely, and you won’t be focused on the negative emotions as much.”

And this brings us back around to Veiseh, DeGrandis, and others with HSAM. McGaugh was part of the team of scientists who first discovered this remarkable memory ability, and he explained to me his theory about why the two HSAMers I talked to had such a hard time recalling an embarrassing episode from their past. One reason their memories may work the way they do is that everything is registered at the same emotional level. It’s why the mundanities of their day-to-day lives are so readily recalled; I offhandedly mentioned a date in the mid-2000s to DeGrandis at one point, for instance, and he immediately knew that was the day he saw A Beautiful Mind.

But if everything is emotional, then nothing in particular is. “If you have a strong memory that just takes everything up to a high level, then there’s no differential,” McGaugh said. It isn’t that DeGrandis and Veiseh can’t remember embarrassing moments; it’s just that those moments don’t stand out more vividly than any of their other memories, even memories as bland as “that time I saw an overrated Russell Crowe movie.”

For some with HSAM, this means they’re haunted not just by a few painful moments from their past but by almost all of them. “The thing is with HSAM: You can’t hide from anything,” Veiseh told me. “Every beautiful moment, every demon, is persistently and constantly present.” Some with this unusual ability are more troubled by their pasts than others, just like those of us with regular memory capabilities. “It comes down to the individual,” McGaugh said, “and how they handle their memories.”

My own memory will never work the same way as Veiseh’s. But as he and I talked, his conceptualization of his own amazing memory made me realize that I could borrow from his perspective on his past. “To be disciplined against embarrassment with HSAM, you kind of have to accept yourself,” he said. “Which is a fundamental thing about embarrassment in general — the people you find who are least [sensitive to] embarrassment are either total jerks, or else they’re very self-accepting. HSAM forces you to be self-accepting. There’s no time decay of memory. You don’t forget.” The rest of us could learn a thing or two from this mind-set.

“Some people roll with life’s punches, facing failures, losses, and problems with equanimity,” begins a 2007 article in the journal Personality Processes and Individual Differences. That line continues by contrasting the roll-with-it types with those who “exacerbate their distress by ruminating excessively about life’s calamities, castigating themselves for their shortcomings, and catastrophizing about their problems.” Since about 2003, psychologists have been dividing the world in two in this way: those who practice self-compassion, and those who do not.

The term “self-compassion” sounds as if it means something like self-esteem. Children of the 1990s like me will remember sitting through classroom exercises in which we were told how special we were and how we should always, always love ourselves. This is not that. Instead, this research suggests that self-compassion helps you see yourself accurately; it helps you see yourself the way others see you.

After I talked to Veiseh and DeGrandis, they started to seem to me like exaggerated examples of a broader truth: You can never truly escape your past self, so it would be best if you could learn to be a little more objective about Past You. This is at least partially what Veiseh means by self-acceptance: recognizing your former self for who you truly were, instead of trying to forget or fudge the details. Self-compassion suggests a way to achieve this.

In one study, researchers rounded up some college students who had just learned that they’d done poorly on their midterms, and they measured each person’s individual level of this particular type of self-awareness using a short questionnaire. People low in self-compassion tended to agree with statements such as “When I think about my inadequacies, it tends to make me feel more separate and cut off from the rest of the world” or “When I fail at something that’s important to me, I tend to feel alone in my failure.” But those high in self-compassion tended to agree with statements such as “When things are going badly for me, I see the difficulties as part of life that everyone goes through” or “When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are shared by most people.”

Students who scored higher in self-compassion were also more likely to accept their poor grades. In contrast, the others were more likely to engage in “avoidance-oriented coping”— they tried not to think about it. In the context of a cringeworthy moment, avoidance is a tempting but ultimately useless strategy. Sometimes an embarrassing moment is a sign of something about yourself you really do need to change, and you can’t fix something if you never look straight at it.

In another, weirder study, researchers asked people to come into the lab and take a seat in front of a camera, which would record them as they made up a fairy tale. The only rule: It had to start with the sentence “Once upon a time, there was a little bear … ” After they told their made-up stories, the researchers played them a recording — either their own or that of a different participant in the study — and asked them to evaluate the bear story.

Overall, people who did not have much self-compassion hated their own recordings. These participants were more likely to call their own stories “very bad” or “somewhat bad”; they also tended to describe their personal demeanor in the recordings as awkward or foolish. They were embarrassed, irritable, and nervous while being made to watch themselves tell their stories about the little bear, and they scored their own performances lower on average than others scored them. People high in self-compassion, in contrast, weren’t as bothered by watching themselves on video, and they tended to rate their own recordings just as other people rated them.

This is important, because it contrasts self-compassion with self-esteem. Studies on self-esteem and performance evaluation usually find, unsurprisingly, that people with a lot of self-esteem really love themselves and their performance on a given task, tending to rate their own performance and personalities much more favorably than others do. Self-esteem can make the reality of how others see you harder to bear. And yet: “In contrast to the self-enhancing tendencies of people who are high in self-esteem,” as the authors of that 2007 journal article wrote, those who are high in self-compassion “appear to judge themselves as others do.” You can see and accept yourself, even your flaws.

But this form of self-acceptance doesn’t leave you there, gaping at your imperfections. Returning again to the bad-midterm-grade study, the students in that report who had a lot of self-compassion were more likely to exhibit signs of what’s known as mastery orientation — their behaviors and attitudes suggested that they wanted to know why they screwed up, so that they could get better. Those without much self-compassion, in comparison, were more likely to become defensive when probed about what might’ve gone wrong.

If self-compassion doesn’t come naturally to you, there are ways to learn it. Kristen Neff – a University of Texas at Austin psychologist and a leading expert in self-compassion – has suggested that you behave toward yourself in the same gentle but no-nonsense way you would behave toward a close friend. I’m lucky enough to have several close friends who keep me grounded, telling me plainly but kindly when I am being ridiculous. That’s the kind of friend you should be to yourself, not the kind who means well but is so protective of your feelings that she minimizes your bad behavior, by telling you that whatever you did wasn’t that embarrassing. Sometimes, it really was that embarrassing.

But pair that with a reminder that you’re not the only person on earth to have done something like it. Be the kind of friend to yourself who would tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, but would also tell you about the time she herself walked around all day with a giant coffee stain on her shirt.

There is even some evidence that people who are high in self-compassion may be better able to withstand a cringe attack. You can try this right now, if you want: Think about some awkward moment from high school or college, something that really made you feel bad about yourself. What happened right before? Who was there? How did you feel at the time?

While it’s true that focusing on the unemotional aspects of one of these memories can help lessen their impact, there’s also a case to spend a little time doing the opposite: Let the feelings in! Let them all the way back in. “Give it a full seven seconds, and release it,” advised a 2017 Jezebel post on dealing with embarrassing memories. It’s a great start, but it doesn’t seem like an effective long-term strategy. It’ll just keep coming back.

Instead, once you let the embarrassment back in, put the memory in its place with these three questions. First, how many times have other people experienced something similar? How many times have other people, say, exited a public restroom with their skirt stuffed into their tights? A lot! It was embarrassing, but it’s also kind of a cliché of embarrassing moments.

The second question: If a friend came to you and told you about this memory, how would you respond to her? In this situation, I think I’d say that if she told it right, it could be a really funny story; beyond that, I’d probably tell her it’s endearing.

And the last one: Can you try thinking about the moment from someone else’s point of view? Let me try to project myself into the mind of the woman who pointed and laughed when she saw this happen. Maybe she was just grateful for something to have upended the workday monotony. Or, now that I’m older, I know how out of place interns sometimes seem in the workplace. Sometimes, to those of us who feel more at home in the office, watching interns try to get the hang of things really is amusing, even if we feel like jerks laughing about it.

This three-questions advice is the gist of that same 2007 paper. But here’s what doesn’t work: convincing yourself it was someone else’s fault. Distracting yourself by focusing on your positive characteristics. Telling yourself that the memory “does not really indicate anything about the kind of person I am.”

Self-compassion turns out to be a version of self-awareness that lets you acknowledge that you are the “kind of person” who makes mistakes, while also putting those mistakes in perspective. As Neff has said of her research, when we arrive at this kind of self-awareness, then “when we fail, it’s not ‘poor me,’ it’s ‘Well, everyone fails.’ Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.” It helps you see yourself. It also helps you see beyond yourself.

Not long ago, I came across a funny tweet from Olivia Nuzzi, the Washington correspondent for New York. In it, she had screencapped a Lena Dunham quote: “I AM a model. I am Rihanna to myself.” Nuzzi, who is always entertaining on Twitter, responded to this in one run-on sentence: “I’m so over the self-love movement I think we need a self-hate movement.”

I realize she wasn’t serious, but it caught my eye, because I’m similarly bored with people promoting excessive self-love. And yet ( … obviously) advocating for self-hate would be absurd. Instead, lately I’m interested in something I’ve started to call self-indifference.

Self-indifference is the relief of realizing that you are simply not that big a deal. I’m sure my attraction to this idea is at least in part a reaction to a childhood steeped in the self-esteem movement. We were constantly told how exceptional we were, how special we were. And yet the psychological science on the subject has shown that when you try to make yourself feel better by shaking off criticism and zeroing in on your positive aspects only, it backfires. The best, if counterintuitive, way to truly feel better about yourself is to see yourself as you really are.

As Veiseh and his extraordinary memory reminded me, even those of us with normal memories will never really escape our past selves. So it’s best to acknowledge the things about yourself and your past that make you cringe, and address what you can — but then, shrug. Who out there hasn’t done something equally ridiculous?

Self-indifference is essentially a synonym for humility, though this is a misunderstood concept, the psychologist Jennifer Cole Wright has said. We often understand it as if it meant having a low opinion of yourself and your status, but Wright and other contemporary scholars studying the attitude see it differently. As the anthropologist Alan Morinis once wrote, humility allows you to “occupy a rightful space, neither too much or too little.” Humility is knowing your place.

Humble people tend not to focus on themselves, according to the modern scientific literature on the subject (not to mention thousands of years of philosophical writings). Wright explained that a little humility helps you keep your natural talents and honed skills in proper perspective: The fact that I’m able to string coherent sentences together as a professional writer isn’t valuable because of what it says about me and how awesome I am. What matters is what I do with that ability.

What humble people focus on, then, is other people. They look outward, to those around them, just as often as they do inward, to themselves. “This is not to say that a humble person fails to care about her own welfare or pursue her own interests — it is simply that she sees these as being deeply intertwined with the welfare and interests of others,” write the authors of a 2016 philosophy paper called “Some Varieties of Humility Worth Wanting.” Humility allows you to see yourself as part of an interconnected whole. You matter because of the way your actions impact everyone else.

If you are sensitive to cringe attacks, then you’re already in a great position to start becoming a little more humble. These embarrassing memories briefly shift your perspective, as you imagine what you must have looked like from somebody else’s point of view. In an instant, you’re freed from your own perspective. So a cringeworthy moment, then, can be used as a reminder that yours is not the only perspective. Likewise, a cringe attack could become a reminder that you aren’t alone in your embarrassment. It’s not a feeling that is unique to you. Everyone shares it, to some degree or another, and reminding yourself of that may be one way to minimize the impact of these memories.

The secret to surviving cringe attacks isn’t to shut the memory away, and it isn’t to try to tell yourself it wasn’t really that bad. Instead of focusing inward, turn your attention outward, onto the people around you. You’re not that special. Isn’t that great?

Excerpted from CRINGEWORTHY: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl. Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Dahl. With permission from the publisher, Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved.

How to Survive a Cringe Attack