Why You Should Process The Upsetting Memories That Fuel Your Social Anxiety And Insecurities
There are several broad ways to tackle the nervousness and self-doubt that holds you back in social settings. None will single-handedly fix your anxiety, but they can all help:
- Logically challenge the beliefs behind them
- Learn to accept, roll with, and act in spite of your worries and insecurities
- Gradually face your fears and get used to the things that scare you
Another core method to tackle your nerves is to process the upsetting memories or old scars that fuel them. By "processing" I mean to fully work through the frozen old emotions attached to difficult events from your past, so they dissipate and don't hinder you so much in your current life.
Most people who feel socially anxious and awkward are aware of the past experiences that feed it, such as getting picked on in school, being seen as "weird" by their peers, or having critical, distant parents. However, their approach to the past is often to try to overcome its effects in the present, often by using one of the above-mentioned approaches. They may also fully buy into the messages they heard about themselves in childhood and try to compensate for them ("I'm not good enough, so I'll become super popular and successful in order to matter as a human being"). They don't try to clear up the painful old memories directly, even though that's an option.
Here's some background theory:
How painful old experiences get stuck in our minds, and then get set off in the present day
If you go through an emotionally intense experience, and you don't fully work through it at the time, it gets "frozen" in your mind. How you felt at that moment gets preserved in its own little bubble.
Later in life when something reminds you of that situation, those old feelings get activated or triggered, and you feel like you did back then. Your mindset gets sucked into the past, and you temporarily lose access to your usual balanced adult perspective.
This is most obvious with severe, acute trauma. To use a classic example, a soldier is in combat, and in that moment he feels terrified. Years later when he hears fireworks going off he has a flashback. He feels like the firefight is literally happening all over again, and that he's in serious danger. He may try to tell himself he's safe at home, far removed from the original event, but his emotions and mindset are so hijacked that it doesn't sink in right away. It takes a while for him to come out of the flashback, realize he's fine, and calm down.
Something similar can happen with milder upsetting events. Say once in elementary school three bigger, older boys came up to you in the hall, boxed you into a corner, then said they were going to beat you up. They laughed at the scared look on your face, said they were just kidding, and walked away. Or maybe in high school you were assigned to a group with two classmates you didn't know that well. You made a joke, trying to win them over, and they exchanged a disgusted, annoyed look and proceeded to ignore you the rest of the class. Ouch.
Years later when you're around a group of large, bro-ish guys, or co-workers with the same vibe as those mean classmates, you feel really insecure and on edge. You may only be half-conscious of what's happening, but in your mind you temporarily shift back to feeling like a weak, vulnerable seven-year-old who thinks he's about to get a beating, or an awkward ninth grader who may get another dose of searing rejection and humiliation.
That's how you felt at the time. You may have thought you were going to be beaten to death, or that one look of disdain meant you were an irredeemable loser who would never have a social life. Your fears weren't objectively realistic, but you saw things as a kid would. You weren't some mature scientist.
As an adult around those jocks or vaguely familiar colleagues, you may try to logically tell yourself they're nice and no danger to you, but your brain can't fully accept it. You may know it's true on an intellectual level, but it doesn't feel true. You're anxious anyway. You may physically be older with way more strengths and life experience, and in a totally different context, but at that moment you're looking at the world as if you're still a helpless pre-teen.
You can see how your brain is just trying to help. It thinks it's still warning you of a legitimate danger. The problem is it's information is outdated.
Whenever you have an outsized emotional reaction to something in the present it's usually because it's hitting an unhealed sore spot from your past. Like your friends may tease you about five things, and you can laugh and roll with the punches. Then they poke fun at your weight, and you instantly get touchy and defensive, because you were picked on for being heavy as a child.
What does it mean to "process" an experience, and what happens if you don't do it?
"Processing" is a somewhat vague term that people can use without explaining. I gave a quick definition earlier, but here's a more fleshed out one: To process a difficult event means to fully work through it - To fully feel all the emotions it brings up, so they can naturally work their way out of your system; To talk about it and get outside support; To think about what the experience means and possibly adjust your worldview, self-image, and behavior going forward. You may be able to process a minor event in a few minutes. You may need to work on more serious ones here and there over a period of weeks or months.
Ideally you can process an upsetting event soon after it happens. For example, your teacher criticizes you because you answered a question wrong, your classmates all snicker at you, and you feel embarrassed, angry, and dejected. Over the following days you let yourself fully feel those emotions as they come up, and before long they've largely faded away. You go to your parents to get it off your chest, and they tell you they love you, you're not stupid, and the teacher was wrong to treat you like that. You do some thinking and update your worldview. Before you assumed all teachers were benevolent and wise, but now you realize some of them can be flawed and mean-spirited. You're not going to be blindly terrified of all of them, but keep that lesson in mind, and not blindly trust any of them before they've earned it.
Often we can't fully process difficult life experiences, especially when we're kids and don't have the emotional maturity or knowledge to do it. We may not have any support either. Your teacher embarrasses you. Whenever the memory pops into your head you sense the anger and shame rising, but tell yourself to get over it and push the feelings away. Besides, your grandma is sick, and the family is moving in two weeks, so you have other things on your plate. You go to your parents and they scoff and tell you that's what you get for slacking off on your homework. You spend a bit of time considering what it all means, but only enough to conclude all adults are out to get you.
So that unprocessed memory of being humiliated, and all the beliefs and emotions that go with it, gets preserved in a little capsule in your mind, waiting to be activated by a similar situation down the road. Going forward you may always feel on edge around authority figures. You might get especially nervous when a manager asks you a question in work meetings.
The good news is you can go back to those old memories as an adult and finally drain that clogged up emotional charge out of them.
Repressing the emotional part of memories
Again, you may know what events drive a present day fear or insecurity. However, the origin might be out of your awareness. It's common to repress your reaction to stressful experiences, and tell yourself they were no big deal, they didn't affect you, and you turned out fine. You don't repress the memory of the event happening altogether, but your true emotional response to it. For example, maybe you peed your pants on the school bus when you were six, and as an adult you have a whole little comic routine about it. You believe you're so over it you can joke around about the whole thing. You're out of touch with how deeply humiliated you actually felt. You haven't put two and two together and realized it ties into how you hate taking public transit.
Trauma memories vs. Regular biographical memories
Here's some more background theory. The two types of memories have different characteristics. Once more, the difference is most obvious with severe trauma.
Most memories, of mundane or stressful-but-processed events, are stored as a start-to-finish story. They still have emotions, images, and sensations attached to them, but for the most part you recall them as a fairly neutral narrative. They're an account of something that you know is over and happened in the past.
Severely traumatic memories are raw and disorganized. When you remember them it feels like they're all happening all over again. They bring up intense emotions, like terror and helplessness. You may get random flashes of images, sounds, or smells. The sequence of events can feel fractured and scattered. You may get a quick flash of someone's angry face, or fixate on a smell, but a poor sense of what actually happened.
Moderately upsetting memories are in between. They have a fair bit of emotion attached to them, and the imagery tends to be more intense. You can put them in a sequence, but your mind may keep jumping back to certain parts that jump out at you. You know it happened in the past, but your body half-reacts as if it's going through it again.
Thinking of the time the bullies threatened to beat you up, your muscles tense and your heart rate goes up, you feel trapped and powerless, and you can see the sadistic smirk on the leader's face. But again, that's assuming you're truly in touch with all facets of the memory. If you're in denial about how much it affects you, you may be able talk about it while keeping a detached perspective.
As you process difficult memories you turn them into flat, narrative ones, and deplete them of their raw, emotional intensity. You still know what happened. You still realize what you went through was unpleasant. If you really try to tune into it you can call up some emotion, but for the most part it feels pretty neutral. If you revisit a processed memory that used to really bother you it may look faded or patchy in your mind's eye, and there can be a sense you can't connect to the feelings it used to bring up.
Most importantly, once a memory is processed, then similar present day events won't trigger those old emotions. Instead you can approach that situation from your balanced, adult perspective. As always, "balanced" doesn't mean willfully blind or idiotically over-positive. Like if you meet a new jock bro co-worker you may still be a bit wary, since life experience has taught you guys like that are sometimes obnoxious. But you don't break into a cold sweat because your inner fourth grader thinks he's about to get his ass kicked. Any thoughts or emotions you have are appropriate and in proportion to what's in front of you. If you meet an arrogant jock when you're thirty you may reasonably get 5% anxious. There isn't an extra 70% being set off by old baggage.
"But I ruminate on my crappy old experiences all the time. In fact, I can't help it. Wouldn't they be processed by now?
Usually no, because you're not actually fully, properly processing them. The memories come up, and you feel the associated emotions, but they're uncomfortable, so you do something to try to make them stop, rather than just letting the feelings run their course.
To go back to the example of being threatened by some older kids, the memory appears in your mind, and you feel angry and resentful. Then you may do one of the following:
- Fantasize about an alternate past where you know martial arts and kick their asses. You get stuck on daydreams of enacting revenge.
- You tell yourself it was no big deal and you need to get over it.
- You intellectually rationalize that they must have been from broken homes, so it wasn't their fault, and you have no right to be annoyed all these years later.
- You berate yourself for being a wuss who's still hung up on elementary school.
- You try to be loving, compassionate, and spiritual about the whole thing.
Let's say hypothetically if you sat with the anger and resentment it would pass in five minutes. But rather than do that, you feel it for three seconds, then try to make yourself feel better with a revenge fantasy, or whatnot. It's like only playing the start of a song then switching to another one, rather than listening to the whole thing.
Or you might get caught on one emotion, but be out of touch with the ones beneath it, like fear, sadness, shame, and so on. Your mind finds it more acceptable to just stay with the anger, and not acknowledge anything else (but it still doesn't fully feel even that).
"So I get the rough idea, but how do I process my old memories?"
The main way to process a memory is to just to sit with all the emotions it brings up, fully feel them, and let them run their natural course, like they've "wanted" to do since the incident first happened. You may also find it helpful to talk to someone supportive about what you went through or consider how you may need to adjust your worldview, but that's not a substitute for feeling your feelings.
With mild and moderately upsetting memories you can do this on your own. It can be uncomfortable to sit with the emotions, but it's not debilitating. With severe trauma the memories are almost always too intense and awful to deal with by yourself. If you try you can get extremely upset, feel like you're going through that hellish experience all over again, freshly retraumatize yourself, and possibly spiral and do something self-destructive to try to calm down. There are lots of techniques to slowly, safely process very difficult memories, but you should do them with a trauma therapist.
There's more to it than "Just sit with your feelings", but that's the gist of it. It seems so simple, but Western culture doesn't emphasize this. It encourages us to ignore, minimize, or suppress our emotions, to dispel them with logic, to distract ourselves, and so on.
This article goes into more detail about the hands-on steps:
It's fairly straightforward to sit with and drain the emotion out of a single, identified memory. That can sometimes resolve an isolated fear fairly quickly (e.g., if someone's uneasy around dogs because of a single charged memory of being roughed up by one as a kid).
Things get trickier when there's a complicated web of unacknowledged memories propping up a more general issue like anxiety or low self-esteem. It can take a while to find and resolve them all. If you're not in touch with your emotions, it takes time to learn to tune into how you truly felt about a bunch of events in your life. There can be parts of you that are invested in the status quo, and don't want you to examine the way you actually feel about certain things ("I had an awesome home life as a kid. My parents were great. My social anxiety is only from not fitting in at school. My mom and dad had no impact on it. Nope.")
It all takes longer, but once you've knocked away enough supporting memories, you can notice a reduction in your anxiety or low self-worth. You won't necessarily feel a sudden dramatic shift in your confidence. Social situations will just feel less stressful, and one day you'll look back and realize they haven't been bothering you as much as they used to.