A Way To Handle Uncomfortable Cringey Memories Of Your Social Mistakes
You're laying in bed trying to fall asleep, or watering your plants, or waiting for the bus. Out of nowhere you remember that day in middle school you tried joking around with your crush. You thought you were being really slick and witty at the time, but looking back you were acting really odd and trying too hard. You can't help but cringe at the memory. It's almost physically painful.
You may cringe at a huge humiliating incident. Or it could be at some little thing you said that no one remembers, or even noticed at the time, but you can't help but look back on it and go, "Ugh, what was I thinking?!" You could cringe at an embarrassing moment that was out of your control, like someone spilling their drink on you. But in my experience people are way likelier to wince at their own poor judgment, like a comment they thought was clever and edgy, but in hindsight was rude and inappropriate.
Why can cringe-inducing memories strike us out of nowhere? Sometimes I think some random thing reminds us of one. At other times we may not be happy with an aspect of our lives, and our mind can't help but bring up old related missteps. Not always, but I think sometimes fixating on regrets can be a kind of misguided problem solving - "I'm struggling with this issue now. What would fix it? Well, if I hadn't done such-and-such five years ago I might be in a better spot..."
Cringing at your awkward mistakes isn't the worst psychological pain in the world, but it's still uncomfortable. The moments often pass on their own before long, but I'll still share a method to resolve them a little more quickly.
It can be counterintuitive, but in my experience a good way to make cringe attacks pass is to accept you're feeling that way, lean into it, and let the emotion run its course. Often when we feel an unpleasant emotion we do other things to make it go away, so we don't have to experience it anymore. If you're cringing and beating yourself up you might try:
- Forcing yourself not to think about the cringey moment
- Doing something else to get your mind off the memory
- Telling yourself what happened wasn't so bad, or that no one else cares, so you have no reason to wince at it
- Generally trying to adopt an attitude of going easier on yourself
- Telling yourself you did the best you could at the time
- Telling yourself you were just a kid when it happened, and couldn't be expected to know what you do then
- Telling yourself that even though you were 19 or so at the time, and more of an adult than you were in middle school, you were still young in the grand scheme of things. Your brain still wasn't fully developed
- Trying to reframe the event as a funny story you can look back on and chuckle at; trying not to take yourself so seriously
- Trying to mine a valuable life lesson from the experience; focusing on what's ahead of you
- Reminding yourself of all the ways you've changed and grown since that cringey day
- Using techniques to alter or reframe the memory itself, to reduce its emotional impact - for example, focusing on the furniture in the room where the memory takes place; changing the hair color of one of the people in it; picturing yourself watching the moment play out on a movie screen
All these things can help, and have their place, but like I said, they try to intellectually dismiss the cringing emotion so you don't have to actually experience it. But emotions want to be felt. Cognitive techniques and attitude shifts can make an emotion go away for a while, but it often comes back.
Instead, first make peace with the fact you have this feeling. Don't judge yourself for it. Don't tell yourself you're weak or stuck in the past for randomly fixating on some bumbling thing you did eight years ago. In other words, don't add a bunch of new unpleasant emotions on top of the original one. If your mind wants to cringe at some old, small screw up, that's what it wants to do. Give it what it needs, rather than trying to fight it off.
Next, turn off your inner monologue and just let yourself feel the pure physical sensations of that cringing regret - the tenseness in your muscles, the hot, flushed feeling in your face, the way you're breathing tightly or holding your breath. From a detached perspective, observe how the feelings in your body change and move around. Maybe your face will be a bit warm and tingly at first, but that fades, and you start to notice your arms tensing up. If any thoughts pop into your head, acknowledge them, then put them aside for now. Sitting with the raw emotion may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but the feeling should pass after a few minutes.
That's a quick overview of what to do, and may be all you need to handle a mildly uncomfortable awkward memory. This article goes over a more detailed version of the steps.
In general you can resolve many day to day less-pleasant emotions by finding a quiet spot and letting yourself feel them. It's different for more serious issues like clinical depression or trauma, but if an event makes you a little embarrassed, irritated, or nervous, just allowing the feeling to happen and run its course will get it out of your system more easily than trying to logically banish it.
That's not to say there's no value in learning from an experience, or figuring out how to be more compassionate with yourself, or realizing no one else cares about your socially clumsy moments as much as you do. But that's stuff you can sort out after you've processed the emotion itself.
Here's a related article on dealing with a more general sense of regret over your past social misakes, rather than focusing on the painful cringey feeling: