Think of your most embarrassing memory — the one that unwittingly pops into your head when you’re trying to fall asleep or about to head out to a social event. Or the one that makes you want to grab your past self by the shoulders and exclaim, “Why?!”
Got one? (I do, but I’m not sharing!)
Now, imagine if you could disarm this memory. Instead of making you cringe or want to hide under the covers, you’ll just smile or even laugh at it, or at least be at peace with it.
No, I haven’t invented a sci-fi memory deletion device. This approach is much cheaper and probably less dangerous.
Melissa Dahl, a journalist and editor at New York Magazine, researched awkwardness and embarrassment for her book “Cringeworthy,” which came out last year. Dahl was curious what this feeling we call “awkwardness” really is, and whether or not there’s anything to be gained from it. Turns out, there is.
While exploring various performance events and online groups dedicated to airing people’s awkward moments — sometimes with their participation or permission, sometimes not — Dahl discovered that some people use others’ embarrassing situations to ridicule them and set themselves apart from them.
Others, however, like reading or hearing about cringeworthy moments because it helps them feel more connected to people. They cringe right along with the people in the stories, and they like the fact that they feel empathy for them.
Dahl realized that we can turn this into a powerful way to cope with our own lingering feelings of embarrassment. All it takes is asking yourself three questions.
First, think of the memory you recalled at the beginning of this article. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably used to trying to shut the memory down whenever it comes up and quickly distracting yourself from the feelings it provokes.
This time, let yourself feel those cringey feelings! Don’t worry, they won’t last. For now, just let them be.
Now, Dahl’s first question:
1. How many times do you think other people have experienced the same thing you did, or something similar to it?
There’s probably no way to know for sure — if someone’s done a large research study on this, please correct me, because that would be delightful — so you’ll have to estimate.
It’s probably quite common if your memory involves drawing an awkward blank during a job interview or saying “you too” to the server who says that they hope you enjoy your meal.
Even something rarer, like completely bombing a stand-up set, is likely very normal for people who have done stand-up comedy.
Once you’ve thought through that a bit, here’s the second question:
2. If a friend told you that this memory happened to them, what would you tell them?
Dahl points out that a lot of the time, it would be a really funny story that both of you would be laughing about. Or, you might say that it doesn’t sound like a big deal and chances are nobody even noticed. Or you might say, “You’re right, that’s super awkward, but anyone whose opinion matters would still think you’re awesome.”
You probably wouldn’t tell your friend any of the things you tell yourself when you’re thinking of this memory.
Finally, the third question:
3. Can you try thinking about the memory from someone else’s point of view?
Say your memory is of stumbling over your words while giving a speech. What might an audience member think? What would you have thought if you were listening to a speech and the speaker made a mistake?
I’d probably think, “That’s real. Memorizing and giving a speech in front of hundreds of people is really hard.”
What if people laughed at your mistake? Even then, putting yourself in their shoes for a moment might be illuminating.
I still remember participating in Model United Nations as a high school senior and attending an end-of-year summit with all the clubs from schools around the state. It was a long day of mostly boring speeches, but during one of them, a student misspoke — instead of “success,” he said “suck-sex.” The teenage audience roared with laughter.
I still remember it so well because it was so funny. And I remember that I didn’t think anything negative about the speaker at all. (If anything, he had my respect.) I laughed joyously because it was funny and it broke up the monotony of hours of political speeches.
Ever since then, every time I’ve publicly humiliated myself in some way that made others laugh, I’ve tried to remember the fact that giving people a reason to laugh can be a wonderful thing, even if they’re laughing at me.
This approach may not always be helpful
If you’re finding that this approach isn’t helping with a particularly sticky memory, keep in mind that the memory might be painful for reasons other than embarrassment.
If someone treated you badly, or if your embarrassment was caused by acting in a way that conflicted with your own values, you might be feeling shame or guilt, not just embarrassment. In that case, this advice might not be applicable.
Otherwise, letting the memory happen, feeling the feelings it brings, and asking yourself these three questions can help stop the cringe.
You can even write the questions on an index card and keep it in your wallet or somewhere else you’ll be able to find it easily. Let embarrassment be a reminder to practice self-compassion.
Miri Mogilevsky is a writer, teacher, and practicing therapist in Columbus, Ohio. They hold a BA in psychology from Northwestern University and a master’s in social work from Columbia University. They were diagnosed with stage 2a breast cancer in October 2017 and completed treatment in spring 2018. Miri owns about 25 different wigs from their chemo days and enjoys deploying them strategically. Besides cancer, they also write about mental health, queer identity, safer sex and consent, and gardening.