How To Emotionally Process The Upsetting Memories That Fuel Your Social Anxiety And Insecurities

In another article I explained the theory behind why it can be helpful to process the upsetting memories of the difficult life experiences that feed your social anxiety and insecurities. Here I'll provide a simple outline on how to do the "fully feeling your emotions until they pass" part of it on your own.

I said the same thing in the piece on how to face your fears: You can read this as quickly as any other article on the site, but if you actually put its ideas into practice it can make a huge difference.

Warning: Don't try this with severe trauma memories

Only try this on memories that feel mildly or moderately uncomfortable to focus on. For example, a memory of making a cringey comment, or being verbally picked on. If you have any extremely traumatic memories don't attempt to work on them by yourself. Dwelling on them may be so scary and intense that you end up having a meltdown and retraumatizing yourself. Find a trauma therapist to work through those experiences. They'll make sure you tackle everything at a safe, manageable pace, while you have plenty of support.

Basic steps to process a somewhat upsetting memory

As I said, this is a barebones set of steps. It doesn't belong to any particular therapy or healing method. However, different modalities will add their own structure or bells and whistles to this core process. For example, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy has you attend to bilateral stimulation as you sit with the memories, and teaches you some relaxation and coping skills beforehand, among other things. That can all be useful for more serious trauma memories. However, if your memories aren't too upsetting, you can process them in a more basic way.

Step #1: Set aside some time, and get comfortable

Give yourself at least twenty minutes. Sit or lie down, whatever you prefer, and take a few slow, deep breaths to unwind. It's often easier to focus if you close your eyes, but it's also fine if you keep them open and just stare off into space.

Step #2: Pick a single, specific memory of an upsetting social experience

For example, "The time in Grade 7 I asked if I could sit with some classmates in the cafeteria, and they snickered and told me to go away".

Step #3: Rate how uncomfortable the memory feels on a 0-10 scale

Score how the memory feels to focus on right now, not how bad it was at the time.

The number is just a rough guideline, so don't stress about it being perfectly accurate. At first it's helpful to come up with proper numerical ratings. As you get more experienced with the steps you can often just go by a rough sense of how emotionally charged the memory still is.

Step #4: Spend a few moments fleshing out the various facets of the memory

Each memory has a variety of facets, aspects, or angles to it. Some of them may not reveal themselves right away, and will only appear once you've already processed them a bit. For now, get a sense of what you can observe.

Step #5: Spend a minute or two sitting with the memory, especially the physical emotions in your body

You can set a timer, or just use your judgment. Turn your inner monologue off. Just sit and let yourself feel the physical emotions the memory brings up. Observe the sensations in your body and let them do whatever they do. Don't try to stop or change them. You may find one emotion fades, and another becomes noticeable, or the physical effects of an emotion move around (e.g., first there's a tension in your shoulders, then it shifts to your hands).

Step #6: Once the time is up, take a breath, then re-rate the emotional intensity of the memory from 0-10

Usually the rating will be a bit lower, as you feel your emotions and let them naturally work their way through your system.

Step #7: Do another round of sitting with the emotions of the memory

Focus on whatever feels most emotionally charged. Often different facets of the memory take center stage as you continue sitting with it. Like a feeling of embarrassment may fade, and now you're aware of an underlying sadness at not fitting in. As I said, some emotions won't be revealed until the "louder" ones on top of them have been felt first. Or you may find your attention shifts to a vivid image or bit of dialogue.

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Step #8+: Keep doing rounds of feeling and rating the emotions around the memory, until it goes down to 1/10 or 0/10

I say 1 or 0 are both fine, as some people will say they can never be sure they're truly at a zero, and will always give a 1/10 rating just in case.

It's not an exact science, but you'll have a good sense of when a memory is down to a one or zero in intensity. It will feel emotionally flat or neutral. The imagery associated with it may get patchy or faded. It gets harder to stay focused on it, because it doesn't feel like there's much left to pay attention to. You'll still know what you went through, and how it made you feel at the time, but the raw emotions are harder to connect with.

You may also find your beliefs and perspective around the event naturally shift (e.g., "I'm not a hopeless loser. I just made one mistake when I was a kid and didn't know any better. I did plenty of things right at that age too.") The new mindset feels easy and true, not like you're forcing yourself to look at things from a more positive or logical angle.

Farther down I give some reasons why a memory's rating may not drop, even after several rounds of sitting with it, and sticking with the same facet.

Step #9: Once you get the memory to a 0 or 1, check to see if there's still some lingering emotional charge in it, and keep working with it if there is

Don't be too quick to accept that 0 or 1/10 and conclude you're all done. It's better to be thorough. Tune into the memory and ask if there's anything that still feels upsetting or has some emotional juice to it. Try to get worked up about it. There may be bits of an emotion you have a harder time getting in touch with, or don't want to admit you feel.

A few techniques you can use:

If you can call up a bit more emotion, then do more rounds of sitting with and rating the memory, until you truly get it down as low as you can.

Step #10: Once it feels like you've fully worked through a memory, check in again a week or so later

Ideally, it will still feel emotionally flat. Though it's not uncommon for you to find there's still a bit of emotional intensity you didn't get to last time. Do rounds of sitting with whatever you find until that's cleared up too.

It's not the end of the world if you don't completely get a memory down to zero

Sometimes you can only do so much work with a memory in one day. If you set it aside for a while then revisit it, you may find there's more to dive into. Totally neutralizing a memory is the goal, but even if you get one from 7/10 to 2/10, it's still going to bother and affect you a lot less.

Some additional things to try if a memory feels a touch too emotionally intense to simply sit with at first

As I keep saying, if a memory feels unbearably traumatic and horrible, don't try to work with it by yourself. However, if you initially rate one as between a 5 and 8/10, where you could handle it on your own, but the thought of doing so doesn't thrill you, try one of these techniques to make it easier to tolerate:

Play around with these techniques and see if one works best for you. Use it on a memory until it drops to a 3 or 4. From there on let yourself sit with the physical emotions like you normally would.

Reasons why memories can get stuck at a certain level of intensity

Sometimes you'll sit with a memory for several rounds, but it doesn't go down any further. There are a few reasons this may happen:

Long-term, slowly work through all your socially upsetting memories

If all went well you drained the frozen emotional charge out of a single memory. If you have a very simple fear or insecurity, that's sustained by the memory of a single incident, then you should feel a big reduction in your fear or self-doubt. However, most social anxiety or self-esteem issues are propped up by a bunch of of individual painful experiences.

What you want to do is make an ongoing project out of processing all your upsetting social memories. It sounds overwhelming at first, but I promise it's not that bad. Start a list of your difficult experiences, and work through one or two distinct memories a day. After a month or two you'll have made quite a dent in them.

The good news is you don't have to literally go through every single distressing incident in your life. If you process the key ones that will often take many of the smaller, related ones with them. In particular look for the earliest, worst, and most recent memories that tie into a particular fear or insecurity, as they have more sway in sustaining it. However, sometimes seemingly mild, insignificant memories feed an issue more than you think they would.

If you begin a list you'll obviously add many memories to it right away. Sometimes one won't come to you for a few weeks, but it will pop into your head sooner or later. Where this project gets trickier is when you're not consciously aware that a past event is contributing to your social anxiety or insecurities. It's common for people to tell themselves an experience didn't affect them, and repress how they truly felt at the time. Like you may be perfectly aware of how being rejected by your classmates contributed to your insecurities, but be in denial about the role your loving, but subtly critical, dismissive parents played. As you get more in touch with your emotions you may be able to reflect on your past and tap into how certain things actually impacted you. A counselor could also help you explore and get around your blind spots.