science of us

How to Survive A Cringe Attack

The science and psychology of embarrassing memories.

Photo: Carlos Carreno/Getty Images
Photo: Carlos Carreno/Getty Images

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, 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. 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. “How embarrassing,” I whisper, out loud, to no one.

So many people I interviewed for my new book, Cringeworthy, confess to reacting to old embarrassments 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 recently 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.

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. 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. 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. But neither he nor Veiseh seemed to be able to use their superpower to summon an awkward moment from their past.

Isn’t this your whole thing?! I shouted inwardly. 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?

A persistent memory is often associated with traumatic experiences, that’s not always the case. In his book The Idiot Brain, the neuroscientist Dean Burnett 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.”

So that’s the idiot brain theory. But Lia Kvavilashvili, a psychology researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, believes that memory is more orderly than that. She 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. 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 has some ideas.

For one, even memories that seem out-of-the-blue may be 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. Maybe something about the T-shirts I was putting away that day reminded me of the feel of the 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: Your emotions dictate what your brain decides to hang on to. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the memory.

“I’ve only talked to you for a couple minutes,” James McGaugh, a neurobiologist who studies memory, said to me on the phone. “And, you know, I’m sorry – you’re really stupid.”

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.”

McGaugh was part of the team of scientists who first discovered HSAM, and he explained to me his theory about why the two men with HSAM 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. 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.

For some with HSAM, this can mean 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, McGaugh said.

“To be disciplined against embarrassment with HSAM, you kind of have to accept yourself,” Veiseh 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.”

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. In the psychological literature, this tendency toward self-acceptance is given the somewhat cornball name of “self-compassion.”

Studies on self-esteem 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. In contrast, something about self-compassion allows people “to judge themselves as others do,” write the authors of a 2007 introductory paper on the subject.

Self-compassion turns out to be a version of self-awareness that lets you acknowledge at once that you are a goofus who makes mistakes, while also putting those mistakes in perspective. As Kristen 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.

Lately I’ve been thinking about something I’ve decided to call self-indifference: the relief of realizing that you are simply not that big a deal. 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 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. 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). 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. What matters is what I do with that ability.

Humble people look outward just as often as they do inward, understandin g themselves as part of an interconnected whole. You matter, but only because because everyone matters.

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 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.

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