You’re driving the car and you’re suddenly flooded with a memory and let out an audible yelp, groan or sudden cry…. If you’re anything like me, you might even give yourself an involuntary smack across the head in a somewhat fruitless attempt to physically rid yourself of the memory-from-hell.
Hello and welcome: you just experienced the dreaded Cringe.
We all know the crippling shame that happens when we do or say the wrong thing. And the unprovoked, toe curling, physical squirm that hits when said memory inevitably comes back to haunt us.
Cringing, it seems, is part of the human experience.
There’s a theory that social psychologists call The Spotlight Effect. It’s the idea we all envision ourselves walking around with a giant spotlight shining down on us, highlighting our every move.
Given the simple fact that we only ever get to experience the world as ourselves and from our own perspective, it’s hardly surprising that we might be so egocentric.
We are, in other words, the centre of our own universe.
But if that’s the case, then it means that everyone else is at the centre of theirs too.
For us cringing types, this simple realisation should be music to our ears. The fact is: most of us are far too wrapped up in ourselves to pay attention to what other people are doing.
Let’s illustrate this more clearly.
Try to recall three different past experiences where you have felt like you embarrassed yourself (sorry!)
Next, try to remember three different embarrassing experiences you’ve witnessed other people make.
My guess is you struggled with the second.
Cringing happens from a failure to put ourselves into other people’s shoes, to see the other side of the story. To realise that whilst we might share experiences, we each live and recall them differently.
But the most dangerous part of all? This illusionary spotlight feeds our paranoia. And the more paranoid we are, the less likely we are to think and act outside of the box, and take the necessary risks that propel us forward in achieving our goals.
As a self-confessed cringer, you probably also have a tendency to think things are a lot worse than they actually are. The psychological term for this is called catastrophising, which is known as a cognitive distortion.
Cringing and catastrophising play into each other pretty nicely. Here’s how.
You went for a job interview and you’re sure you fluffed it. Maybe you stumbled over your words or didn’t really answer the question. You walk out cringing and muttering to yourself angrily, playing the moment over and over again in your head. It’s not long before you’ve convinced yourself that there’s absolutely no way you got the job.
Catastrophising is when we blow things out of proportion, and immediately start imaging the worst. So what started as a minor slip up has become something a whole lot worse. And a far cry from what actually happened.
In other words, when we catastrophise it means we’re not seeing a situation for what it really is.
Oh, social media. The powers of Instagram and Facebook have turned us all into our own mini celebrities. Hashtags like #livingmybestlife might disguise themselves as declarations of positivity but for the most part, they serve as a dangerous facade.
The spotlight can easily trick us into thinking we’re the only person who slips up and embarrasses ourselves. This feeling is heightened more so when we spend our days looking at social media feeds that only portray one side of the story.
We all do embarrassing things, so why don’t we share them?
There’s a night in London I went to several years ago called ‘Cringe’ where people stand up in a room full of strangers and read snippets from their angsty teenage diaries. It’s hilarious and you know why? Everyone’s laughing because they can relate to it; they’ve been there too.
In the middle of a cringe meltdown? Remember everyone’s been there. And far from isolating us in shame, cringe moments can actually bring us closer together.
But for now, here are a few on-the-spot tips:
Pick up the phone
Cringing happens when we’re taking ourselves seriously. The ability to laugh at ourselves is one of the most important tools we can call upon when times get tough. No matter how bad this particular situation is, my bet is there’s still something funny to take out of it. I remember calling a friend deep in regret the morning after a particularly embarrassing drunken texting episode (the kind when you’re too scared to check your phone), and she said simply, “Ha sounds pretty funny to me”. Not ground-breaking nor particularly insightful but it was enough to snap me out of it.
Think of that time you saw a friend doing something embarrassing
Did you play it over and over again in your head? The chances are you had a bit of a laugh about it and put it to rest. Maybe you’re struggling to think of anything at all. That’s how small this is.
Move yo body
Cringing is a head-y experience. Go to the gym, run like a maniac around the block - move as much as you can. Not only will the endorphins kick-in but getting back into your body can provide a welcome distraction from circling thoughts.
Vow to learn from it
Did you drink too much? Did you say something catty? Were you being too arrogant or cocky? Take your cringing as a signal for growth.
Think back to the non-emotional aspects of the cringe-inducing scenario
Research has shown that thinking back to the non-emotional parts of an experience can help you reframe an embarrassing memory. What were your friends wearing that day? Were you eating anything? Were you sitting down or standing up? What kind of music were you listening to?
Remind yourself true friends love you warts and all
Cringing tends to go hand in hand with thoughts like, "Everyone’s thinks I’m an idiot". Remind yourself that real friends would never think less of you for a silly mistake. In fact, they’ll probably rejoice and love you all the more for it.
Set aside “cringing time”
If the memory just won’t disappear, tell yourself that you are designating yourself cringing time, at say 5.15pm this evening. It can help stop the spiralling thoughts, and chances are you’ll forget all about it later on.
Write it out
Scribble down your embarrassing episode. And I’m not talking about a finely worded analysis of what happened - the trick here is to simply GET. IT. OUT. It probably doesn’t look half as embarrassing on paper.
Focus on solutions
If it really was that bad, what can you do to fix it? It’s easy to be avoidant when we find ourselves racked with shame. But we lessen its power when we buckle up and face uncomfortable situations head on. Put your foot in it with your mother-in-law? Your cat pissed all over your neighbours house? Call them and apologise, no biggie.
Reliving minor embarrassments over and over again is fruitless. Whatever has happened, happened already. There’s no point letting the ghosts of our past creep in and hinder our present.
The best we can do is practice self-compassion and self-acceptance. Becoming our best self means allowing ourselves to be who we truly are. Unashamedly us. And that means embracing the embarrassing bits too (and having a good laugh about them). There really is nothing to be gained from beating ourselves up.
Or maybe it really is just as simple as one comment I came across,
“Realise the world does not give a fuck about you and move on”.
Amen to that, folks.