Why we relive embarrassing memories
Why is it that little humiliations from our past can still make us wince years after they’ve happened? asked writer Melissa Dahl. It turns out that the stronger a feeling is, the stronger the memory.
The other day I was putting away laundry, my least favorite chore. My mind was wandering this way and that when, out of nowhere, a memory pulled me back to the summer of 2007. Suddenly, I’m 22 again.
I was an intern in the health section at MSNBC.com, and in retrospect, I suspect I was terrifically underqualified for the role. All day I would nod along in meetings while the rest of the editors discussed things like hormone replacement therapy or hospital-acquired infections, and then, back at my desk, I would conduct quiet, frantic Google searches to figure out what on earth they’d been talking about. There were so many things to worry about.
Lately, though, I’d been worrying about my clothes. The newspapers where I’d interned throughout college were very come-as-you-are, but people dressed better here, or at least my boss sure did. Sometimes, I noticed, if I showed up late but was wearing something nice, she would tacitly dismiss my tardiness. I started copying my roommate, who at 25 seemed infinitely wiser than me, and who on weekdays favored midlength jersey skirts in dark, office-approved neutrals.
But in this memory, the skirt betrays me. I leave the restroom, preoccupied by all of the obscure medical terms I need to look up later, and walk toward the newsroom. And then I hear a shriek of laughter to my right, coming from down the hall. I look toward the sound, and see three people staring back, one of whom is literally pointing and laughing at me. I look down and—oh…my god.
My skirt is tucked into the back of my tights.
In my apartment 10 years later, I know I’m far away in space and time from this moment, and yet it still makes me wince. I even shake my head back and forth a few times, as if I could use physical force to remove from my brain the image of the office hallway, the laughing co-worker, the traitorous skirt. “How embarrassing,” I whisper, out loud, to no one.
This reaction, the way I will often respond physically to an embarrassing memory, has always seemed like an odd personal quirk of mine. But so many people I interviewed for my new book, Cringeworthy, confess to reacting in the same way. “You’re just sitting there and your brain decides to throw it in your face for no reason,” one of my interviewees told me. “For me, if I’m alone, I just start shouting, ‘NO! No no no no no no no.’”
I came across a name for these memories that I quite like: cringe attacks. They’re the little humiliations from your past that come back unbidden, sometimes years after they first occurred.
I recently spoke with James Danckert, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo, about this. “You really relive past embarrassments,” he said. This is less true of the emotion he studies: boredom. I can remember feeling bored in high school, for example, but the feeling doesn’t come back with the memory. Not so with embarrassment. “When you think about it again,” Danckert said, “you get embarrassed all over again.”
Recently, I had coffee with an acquaintance who told me that a couple of weeks earlier, she’d been innocently standing in front of her bathroom mirror when she flashed back to Halloween 2015. “I did ecstasy and made out with two guys on the same improv team,” even though she really liked another person at the party, she told me. For her, this was enough to cause a cringe attack so strong that she yelled at her reflection: Oh, my god, why did you do that?!
It happens to so many of us. But why? These memories may be embarrassing, but they’re not necessarily traumatic. So what’s causing them to rush back at seemingly random times? And is there any way to prevent them, or at least make them hurt a little less?
I didn’t get the answer I was expecting, but what I found instead was so much more interesting, and genuinely useful for anyone who regularly feels under attack by embarrassing memories. The first step is somewhat obvious: Learn how to be nicer to yourself. The second is less so: Learn how to forget yourself.
I have asked Nima Veiseh a simple question: I want him to tell me about an embarrassing memory from his past. He’s had time to think about it, too, because I asked the same question in the email I sent several days ago to schedule the chat we’re having now. And yet he can’t answer me.
Veiseh is one of just 60 or so people in the world who is thought to have a highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition discovered in 2006 by scientists at the University of California at Irvine. He remembers nearly every day of his life in vivid detail. I, in contrast, could not confidently tell you what I did last week. Mine is only an average memory, and yet I often feel haunted by cringeworthy jolts backward in time.
The more I thought about it, the more I was dying to know: What would it be like to remember your embarrassing moments when you remember everything that’s ever happened to you?
Earlier, I spoke with Joey DeGrandis, who also has HSAM. We had a great talk about memories and our relationships to our past selves, but he, too, struggled with my question about embarrassing memories. He and Veiseh used different analogies for their memories: Veiseh seems to think of his as a highly organized file cabinet, while DeGrandis thinks of his past selves as being perpetually connected to his present by thousands of invisible threads. But neither of them seemed to be able to use their superpower to summon an awkward moment from their past.
Isn’t this your whole thing?! I shouted inwardly, while outwardly keeping quiet as they consulted their memory threads and file cabinets. I was baffled. How could it be possible that I can’t stop remembering embarrassing episodes from my past when these two guys—who supposedly remember everything they’ve ever said or done—struggle to think of even one?
To understand this, let’s return for a moment to those of us with ordinary memories. Research in neuroscience might categorize the cringe attack as an example of “persistence,” which means pretty much what it sounds like—it’s a memory that persists over time and is often involuntary and recurring. Persistence is often associated with traumatic experiences, but as the neuroscientist Dean Burnett has explained, these memories don’t always come from some dramatic life event.
“You might be wandering along the road on your way to somewhere,” he writes in his book Your Brain Is an Idiot, “casually thinking about nothing in particular, and your brain suddenly says, ‘Remember when you asked that girl out at the school party and she laughed in your face in front of everyone and you ran away but collided with a table and landed in the cakes?’ Suddenly you’re racked with shame and embarrassment, thanks to a 20-year-old memory, apropos of nothing.”
But why do these memories so often seem to come back out of nowhere? Burnett, in his book, describes the brain not as a supercomputer that should be revered but as a dotty, irrational thing. Imagine, he says, “a computer that kept opening your more personal and embarrassing files, like the ones containing all your erotic Care Bears fan fiction, without being asked, and at random times.” To Burnett, that’s not a bad metaphor for your brain.
But Lia Kvavilashvili, a psychology researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, believes that memory is more orderly than that. Kvavilashvili has made a name for herself by studying what she calls “mind pops,” those thoughts that seem to come to you out of the clear blue sky. Early on in her research on mind pops, she wrote down every single one that happened to her over the course of nine months, during which she experienced some 400 of these cognitive mysteries. She found some commonalities: 90 percent of the time they happened when she was alone. And 80 percent of the time, they happened while she was doing some kind of mindless routine, like chores or personal grooming.
She’s replicated those results by studying people who kept diaries of their random memories. “Always, people reported being engaged in an undemanding activity, just being in a relaxed state of mind,” she tells me, which sounds about right: I was dragged back to 2007 while putting away laundry, and my friend flashed to a 2015 Halloween party in the middle of her morning routine.
There may be a simple explanation for the neurological mechanism behind cringe attacks: Your emotions dictate what your brain decides to hang on to. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the memory.
James McGaugh, a neurobiologist at UC Irvine, takes me through a simplified version of the neurobiological processes at work here. Something excites your brain, which triggers the release of adrenaline, which in turn releases another substance called noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that then perks up the amygdala. “That’s a region of the brain which gets excited by emotional arousal,” he said. The amygdala then communicates “with almost every other region of the brain, and it says, in effect, ‘Something important happened. Make a strong memory.’”
This happens in moments of embarrassment or humiliation, but it’s not limited to these emotions, and it’s not, as I initially assumed, limited to negative emotions, either. If someone told you that you’d just won the lottery, you’d remember that moment forever; perhaps you can still vividly recall the moment your partner told you, for the first time, that they loved you.
And here’s a practical application of which you might want to take note: This link to strong emotions may be the key to combating a cringe attack. According to one recent finding in neuroscience, it helps to try to recall other, nonemotional details about a highly emotional memory. Can you remember what you were wearing? Who else was there? What did it sound like? What did it smell like?
In a 2015 study, scientists found that when people took a few moments to mentally flesh out the details of a memory that caused them pain, it helped to dull the sting. “Once you immerse yourself in other details,” Florin Dolcos, one of the researchers, explained, “your mind will wander to something else entirely, and you won’t be focused on the negative emotions as much.”
This brings us back around to Veiseh, DeGrandis, and others with HSAM. McGaugh was part of the team of scientists who first discovered this remarkable memory ability, and he explained to me his theory about why the two HSAMers I talked to had such a hard time recalling an embarrassing episode from their past. One reason their memories may work the way they do is that everything is registered at the same emotional level. It’s why the mundanities of their day-to-day lives are so readily recalled.
But if everything is emotional, then nothing in particular is. It isn’t that DeGrandis and Veiseh can’t remember embarrassing moments; it’s just that those moments don’t stand out more vividly than any of their other memories.
My own memory will never work the same way as Veiseh’s. But as he and I talked, I realized that I could borrow from his perspective on his past. “To be disciplined against embarrassment with HSAM, you kind of have to accept yourself,” he said. “Which is a fundamental thing about embarrassment in general—the people you find who are least [sensitive to] embarrassment are either total jerks or else they’re very self-accepting.”
Pair that with a reminder that you’re not the only person on earth to have done something embarrassing. When we arrive at this kind of self-awareness, then “when we fail, it’s not ‘poor me.’ It’s ‘Well, everyone fails,’” said Kristen Neff, a University of Texas at Austin psychologist. “Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.”
It helps you see yourself. It also helps you see beyond yourself.
Adapted from Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Dahl.