Psychiatrist Reveals How To Stop Dwelling On Past Awkward Moments
I don’t think it’s any great stretch to say that my life is impacted on a daily basis by embarrassing moments from months – and sometimes even years – ago.
I can be out perusing the yoghurts at Tesco and suddenly, overwhelmingly, I’m ripped back to some mortifying moment in my past. So vivid that it feels like I am actually, physically there, perspiring and breathless and wanting to sink into my shoes like a boiling liquid.
I will end up freezing in the aisle, struck hot and rigid as a fire poker as old shames wash over me anew, again and again. Things I’ve said and done when I was a bit younger and dumber mostly, which really could fill a whole book of humiliating moments.
Sometimes these recollections can be quite silly, the sort of stuff that I can laugh about when I’m in a good mood.
Like the time when my skirt got bunched up in the back of my skimpiest knickers and I didn’t get why I was getting beeped at until some kind passer-by gave me a heads-up. Or the time when I let out a thunderous burp in a seminar after a few two many vodka and cokes the night before.
But other times, there are moments that really sink their claws into me, jolt me bolt upright with horror just as I’m drifting off to sleep.
After more than a year of working from home and having far too much time on my hands, I have spent many a wasted hour ruminating over old awkward moments, replaying these over and over again and trying to figure out what I could have done differently.
More often than is comfortable, these feelings can be so intense, so repetitive, that I will avoid heading out for a walk or even stepping beyond my front door.
These are the humiliations that dig a little deeper below the skin, letting me know that I’m not as nice or as smart as I like to think I am.
My body will clench up entirely at such times, and I’ll find myself sat about, scrolling through Twitter and desperately waiting for the shame to feel less sharp, less overwhelming.
I know I’m certainly not alone in this regard. May people who, like myself, suffer from social anxiety, may be more sensitive to embarrassment and may go out of their way to avoid potentially cringe-worthy situations.
Lockdown has unfortunately given me more time than ever to ruminate over my past mortifications, big and small, with no new memories to fill my lazy, daydreaming evenings.
I’ve personally found myself grimacing away at increasingly regular intervals, from the time I strolled into the club with a train of loo roll trailing behind underfoot, to the time when I projectile vomited all over a dancefloor.
And so, for Awkward Moments Day, I wanted to know how I could get through the day without little lightning bolts of shame giving me shocks the minute I let my guard down.
I spoke with Floss Knight, a psychotherapist and founding director of UK Therapy Guide. With over 20 years in the field, Floss has spent time gaining a deep understanding of how we as human beings think and feel. And of course, shame unfortunately makes up a fair part of the human experience.
Floss told UNILAD:
Shame is a real prison, it’s not a friend. And we can kind of fixate on things and it becomes very self punishing and isolating. I think as we get to know ourselves better, it’s about how we respond to those instances.
[It’s about] realising that what what you’re feeling is not necessarily what somebody else is seeing, people are generally quite empathetic. We’ve all put our foot in it, and we’ve all done that hugely embarrassing thing.
As someone who has spent many an excruciating hour wondering how others might perceive and remember my most red-faced moments, the humbling thought that others might not be spending their precious time thinking about what a plonker I am is actually quite soothing.
After all, if I spotted someone accidently bump into a lamp post, I wouldn’t think any less of them, and would probably just feel an empathetic ‘ouch’. Of course, when you’re in the heat and fury of the embarrassment looking out, it’s quite a different story.
Floss went on to draw from an example from her own life, thinking back to when she was a schoolgirl and was so completely mortified by being run over by a car than it overtook every other emotion, even thoughts of her own safety.
She was about 13 or 14 at the time, a point in life when many of us will have a ‘really sensitive skin’:
I think, as we mature, that sensitivity certainly decreases. But we are acutely aware of how others perceive us, and I think one of the things is we might be less embarrassed when we’re more confident and more able to kind of build up our self-worth and resilience.
Considering how we might build this sort of resilience, Floss advised that ‘we can feel it, and talk about it’ with a ‘friendly, non judgemental person’:
The point is, when you share things, it’s almost like bursting the power of the event, the experience.
If you go further, if you realise that you are somebody that suffers severely from feelings of shame and things from the past and so on, going to see a therapist can really help you resolve that.
And you can certainly explore the reality of what’s going on. The reality that you are after all human, and you have fact, fear and fantasy. Fantasy is, ‘everyone’s going to say this about me and no one will like me’, or whatever your narrative is.
And often when that happens, you are empowering yourself and disempowering the fear of those reactions.
For me, my blazing cheeks over past events can be so extreme that I will actively dodge TV shows, films and pieces of music which remind me of what happened.
I once avoided eating at Pizza Express for years because I had a big emotional outburst at the one in York, a social faux pas that still makes my toes curl to this day.
As I write this, I know how daft it sounds, and I know that pizza is always worth wincing through a couple of cringey memories. I know on some level too that the embarrassment I feel far outweighs the reality of what actually happened. But how can we put such things in perspective?
Floss explained that a really good way to do this is to use the ‘helicopter position’:
So you’re looking down almost as if you can see you and you can see whatever was happening. It’s definitely a useful way to revisit that moment.
When working with her own clients, Floss will explore ‘what really happened, and why it felt so acutely uncomfortable’, gaining a clearer, more forgiving perspective.
Of course, we are all works in progress and I myself have been struck dumb by intrusive embarrassing thoughts at least five times today, exacerbated no doubt by dredging the sweaty palm parts of my brain for this article.
To an extent, having such embarrassing moments can be an extremely useful tool to understand yourself, as explained to UNILAD by Şirin Atçeken, psychologist, therapist (MFT), and EMDR specialist at WeCure.
Şirin told UNILAD that such moments ‘teach us to be more cautious, to make better decisions, to empathise with others, and even to communicate more effectively’, adding:
It’s important to remember this, next time you think about, or experience something embarrassing, and understand what you can learn, and have learnt from it.
Happily for me, Şirin also had plenty of good things to say about those who embarrass easily:
We are often told to not worry about what others think of us, and this is certainly easier said than done. However, it’s important to think of the positives.
People who do care what people think, and who are embarrassed more easily, are often more trustworthy, and more honest. They also tend to be more authentic, and genuine. So next time you feel really embarrassed, think about what that says about you as a person.
For me, my dream would be to be able to walk about my daily life and not feel constantly splashed with waves of embarrassment.
To be clear on the extent to which this affects me, I still can’t walk my parents’ dog by the childhood home of my first boyfriend because I fear I ‘snogged him weirdly’. Reader, I was 15.
Psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo explained:
It’s important to avoid ‘battling’ with difficult thoughts and feelings that show up when we think of a situation that caused up embarrassment.
We can become hypervigilant to such feelings, bodily sensations and accompanying thoughts such as feeling hot and flushed, sweat or begin to breathe more rapidly and thinking that people may laugh at us or are judging us in some way.
According to Dr Tara, this could well ‘create a further vicious circle whereby we then purposefully avoid situations or even leave situations should we begin to notice these symptoms occurring’:
We may even go on to develop rules for living such as ‘I always embarrass myself’ or ‘people think I am an idiot’. This can then exert an impact on our mood, self-esteem and self-worth.
Dr Tara advised:
Try not to avoid situations you fear may trigger embarrassment, acknowledge how you feel, what physical sensations you are experiencing, notice how you are behaving or feel like behaving as a result of these symptoms such as wanting to leave the room, talk more rapidly etc.
Try and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth to slow your breathing, try some grounding exercise such as naming some things you can see or hear around you.
Maybe even make a joke of it if you can. This can often help those around you know how to handle the situation too.
I for one still have a long way to go before I can go a full day without clenching my jaw in vivid horror or googling things like, ‘how to clear your brain of awkward memories’.
But there is plenty we all can do to feel a little better about the various inevitable blunders in life, treating them as learning curves rather than monsters to run from, or even just coming to the realisation that none of us can be cool 24/7.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.