Have you ever been walking through the grocery store or trying to fall asleep when, all of the sudden, you’re hit with a wave of embarrassment over something that happened a long time ago? Maybe it was the time you dropped all your textbooks in a quiet school hallway in seventh grade, or maybe you told a server at a restaurant to also enjoy their meal last week. If it makes you feel better, you’re not alone: Dealing with the occasional flashback to a cringe-tastic moment that seems to come out of the blue is a pretty universal experience. Bustle spoke with an expert about why people think about embarrassing memories years later — and about when this normal habit becomes unhealthy.
While most people would probably prefer to go their entire lives without having to deal with an embarrassing situation again, this dreaded feeling actually serves an important psychological purpose. According to Psychology Today, embarrassment is considered a “self-conscious” emotion. Simply put, it helps you examine your behaviors, thoughts, and how you conduct yourself in social situations, so you can learn and grow as a person in the future. As Forbes reported, a 2012 study found that people who are easily embarrassed are more trustworthy — and more generous — than their peers. Furthermore, as fellow Bustle writer JR Thorpe explained that the physical signs of embarrassment, such as blushing, have been shown to help foster closeness in social circles, and makes folks more prone to forgiving the person feeling embarrassed.
“Thoughts about past embarrassing experiences may certainly be a part of anxiety or depression, but they can also pop up as a part of normal day-to-day life," Jacob Goldsmith, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and coordinator of the Emerging Adult Program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, tells Bustle. "Sometimes the thought is meaningful, and sometimes, it is not.”
Like the emotion itself, Goldsmith explains that thinking about old, embarrassing memories is both “healthy and normal,” and may be a sign that you need to tweak or change some of your behaviors, especially when it comes to social situations. This “change” could even be something as simple as remembering to lift your feet when walking over different areas of the sidewalk, because you tripped before at the same spot.
“The trick is to be open to receiving the message — that is understanding that I need to make a change — without getting caught up in a spiral of rumination, and shame that doesn’t contribute to positive change,” Goldsmith says. “If you think the embarrassing thought points to something you can and should change, actually taking action, and making change will go a long way to stopping the rumination.”
Science has shown our brains are hardwired to think more negatively, and it can actually be tricky (but definitely not impossible!) to train your mind to into being more positive on a regular basis. So for some people, Goldsmith says, the habit of ruminating on humiliating moments may reinforce negative thinking — especially if “a person feels sad or ashamed, and digs through unresolved past experiences for memories that support these feelings.” He adds that, “In this case, the embarrassing memory is a signal that a person needs to work to build self-compassion and self-esteem, and break the cycle of negative thinking.”
Lacking in self-compassion and positivity aren’t necessarily indicative of a mental health issue, but when previous embarrassing moments become all-consuming, it may be a clue that you’re dealing with an underlying disorder. Rumination is a common symptom of anxiety, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), around 40 million people in the U.S. every year are affected by an anxiety disorder. Specifically, the ADAA estimates that social anxiety disorder alone affects around 15 million people. “Remembering embarrassing experiences from the past become unhealthy when it is part of a pervasive pattern of negative thoughts about self, [and] anxiety about the past or future. Or, when it causes significant distress and interferes with day-to-day life,” Goldsmith says.
Luckily, once you’re aware of this thought pattern, there are ways to overcome it. “If you have these sort of thoughts often, prevention becomes important,” explains Goldsmith. He says that, in addition to using distraction as a coping skill, it’s important to “build understanding of the sort of thoughts and feelings that lead to ruminating on past embarrassing events, and work to either avoid or mitigate those triggers. [...] you don’t have to deal with rumination alone. Try reaching out to someone you trust, both as a reality-check, and for compassionate support.” This may even mean seeking out the help of a therapist if embarrassing memories from the past impact your life and wellbeing.
In short, having — and occasionally reliving — embarrassing moments is an all-too-normal part of being human. This habit may propel you to make positive changes to your life, feed into negative thinking, or it could make you more aware of your mental health than you were before. The bottom line is, embarrassing memories from the past are pretty much unavoidable, but how they impact you comes down to the skills you learn to deal with these pesky thoughts when they pop up.