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".
- The memory should be of an event that took a few minutes at most at the time it happened. If it's longer than that, break it up into smaller chunks (e.g., the moment a teacher embarrassed you in class, and then when some kids made fun of you for it at recess.
- If it feels like you have a blurred together collection of related memories, like "Starting high school generally sucked" see if you can pull out a few prominent specific events. Another option is to make up a general "memory" that represents what you went through, and work with that. It may not have literally happened, but as long as it still brings up the emotions connected to that time in your life then you can use it.
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.
- Zero means it's totally neutral and unemotional, and doesn't affect you at all
- A five means it's moderately uncomfortable
- A ten means it's debilitatingly terrible to think about. Again, if it's that upsetting I wouldn't risk working with it on your own
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.
- The sequence of events - "E.g., " I was standing around with everyone at recess, making jokes. I thought I was being entertaining. Then John said with a deadpan expression, "You're acting really weird right now".
- The most upsetting part of the experience, the emotional crescendo - E.g., The mental gut punch I got right as John told me I was being strange.
- The emotions you felt, and feel now as you remember the incident - E.g., embarrassed, ashamed, nervous, afraid, angry, sad, hopeless, lonely, surprised. Like I said, you may not be in touch with every emotion an event brings up at first. You may only be able to tap into the stronger surface ones, like anger or anxiety, and the others will pop up later.
- Where you physically feel the emotions in your body - E.g., face is hot, clenched jaw, tightness in chest, tense arm muscles, heart beating quickly, heavy feeling in pit of the stomach, urge to slump over, "about to cry" tingling in eyes. If you were never taught how to get in touch with your emotions, as many people in Western countries aren't, this step may be new to you and you'll have to get used to quieting your thoughts and just observing what's happening in your body.
- Features of the memory that stick out - E.g., the flat, fed up expression on John's face; the matter of fact, but cutting, tone of his voice; an image of my shoes after I looked down after he told me; how the sky was gray and overcast that day.
- Beliefs you had at the time - E.g, "I'm such a loser", "I'm so annoying", "Everyone hates me", "I have awful judgment. I can't read the room." Maybe you didn't put them all into words at that exact moment, but you had a sense of them in your gut.
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).
- The emotions may feel somewhat physically uncomfortable, but breathe and tell yourself you can handle them. They're just sensations in your skin, muscles, and organs. If you stay with them and let them run their course they'll usually go down before long. Though if they feel a tad too strong, there's a section later on that has some extra suggestions.
- Though once more, if you have an extreme emotional reaction to a memory, like you start to panic, then call off the exercise for now. Take steps to calm yourself, and commit to working with a trauma therapist if you want to try to deal with your more intense memories.
- You may want to outwardly express the emotion, such as by letting out a long, angry exhale, or gently crying. Allow yourself to do that if it feels manageable. These are feelings that have been frozen in your mind for a long time, and it's good to finally let them out.
- Many people are fine simply sitting with their emotions, but some find it's easier to stay focused if they do one or both of the following: 1) Repeat a quick phrase that sums up the memory, e.g., "Told I was weird, told I was weird..." 2) Do some sort of simple physical motion, like tapping your fingers back and forth on your knees, or tracing a little diamond on your chest with your finger. I find the exact motion doesn't matter, so play around and settle on one that feels right for you. They just seem to keep a part of your mind occupied enough that you can stay on task more easily.
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.
- If it's the same, that's okay. Try not to be attached to a particular outcome.
- If it is the same, check if you're now focusing on different facets of the memory than before, e.g., at first you were focused on your 5/10 anger and embarrassment, but now you're feeling 5/10 shame; You started by attending to the 2/10 flushed feeling in your face, but now you're tuned into the 2/10 tense feeling in your abs.
- It's also possible the rating will go up, as you get more in touch with emotions you were previously a bit cut off from. That's alright as well.
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.
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:
- Try to imagine the incident in an exaggerated way, like by making everyone's facial expressions extra-rejecting and their tone of voice super mean.
- Slowly give a start-to-finish account of what happened, and attend to when you feel your emotions rising (e.g., "...and then everyone paused and thought about my joke... ugh, I can feel myself cringing.")
- Ask yourself, "How do I know the rating isn't a zero?"
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:
- Instead of sitting with the memory itself for a couple of minutes, focus on the thought of, "I'm a bit nervous to work with this memory" or "This memory feels uncomfortable". Often you'll find your nerves go down after a while, and then if you re-rate the memory itself you'll see its intensity has dropped to a more manageable level.
- Imagine viewing the memory from a distance. For example, picture yourself fifty feet away watching the event happen to your younger self.
- Imagine you're watching memory on a screen, and you can increase the playback speed and skip through it quickly. Watch the silent, sped up version a few times.
- Call up an image of yourself at the age the memory happened, then picture that younger vision of you expressing the emotions they felt at the time. In your mind watch them release their emotions, rather than directly feeling them (e.g., view your eight-year-old self yelling with anger over being embarrassed by their teacher).
- Send a message into your mind of, "I want to feel the emotions associated with this memory so I can heal from my old baggage, but I can't do that if they're too strong to sit with. Whatever part of me is sending these emotions, can you please dole them out to me at a pace and level I can handle?" It may sound kooky to try to negotiate with your own brain like this, but it can do the trick.
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:
- You're getting caught up in an "acceptable" surface emotion, like anger or fear, and not allowing yourself to acknowledge the ones it's covering up. For example, you may not want to acknowledge that aside from making you angry, being picked on also made you feel weak and vulnerable, and that you want to cry.
- You're having a hard time tuning into an emotion and where it's physically showing up. Like it's causing you to hold your breath, and you don't notice you're doing it.
- You're not simply sitting with and feeling the emotion, and letting other mental processes come into play, like trying to logically tell yourself it was no big deal, or playing out daydreams of what you wish you'd said or done at the time.
- Your mind is drifting to related memories that bring up similar feelings. Aim to work with one specific memory at a time and not jump around between a couple of them, or let your thoughts shift to a broader issue like, "Being rejected".
- You have a belief that's blocking you from fully feeling and letting go of the emotions. Like you may think you're unfairly letting your bullies off the hook if you release your anger toward them, or that if you work through your old memories and reduce your social anxiety then you're going to be blindly overconfident going forward and get yourself rejected, or that you don't deserve to be free of your mental scars. If you're consciously aware of a blocking belief you can sometimes resolve it with logic ("I can still believe my bullies were jerks, even if I'm not extremely angry at them.") At other times the beliefs just feel true on a deeper level, and you'll have to do a separate chunk of work to resolve them (e.g., that you don't deserve to get over your old wounds). Sometimes your blocking beliefs are unconscious and you'll have to figure out what they are. It can be frustrating to find there's extra steps to take care of, but at least you have a clearer sense of what you're dealing with.
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.