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“Cringe…did I really do that?!”
It’s happened to just about all of us: one minute you’re lying in bed, drifting off to what promises to be a beautiful, restful night’s sleep, and then you’re hit with a memory about something that humiliated you years before.
Suddenly you’re in a full-on cringe attack that your mind is going to keep chewing on for a good few hours. Better yet, it’ll likely linger for days, reminding you regularly about The Thing.
Of course, it doesn’t just occur when you’re trying to fall asleep. Reliving past (usually humiliating) memories can happen at any time. You could be at work, on public transit, at an event, or even hanging out with friends and family when BOOM!…your pulse starts to race, your mouth gets dry, and you’re having full-on embarrassment flashbacks.
This might only happen on occasion, or it may be a regular occurrence. Really, it all depends on factors such as how bad The Thing was that happened, your sensitivity levels, and whether others in your social circle keep bringing it up.
But how do you stop these cringe attacks? And how do you stop yourself from feeling so completely awful when they do occur? There are a few techniques you can try, depending on your individual personality type.
1. Come back to the present moment.
The best way to stop yourself from thinking about those embarrassing memories when they pop into your head is to bring all of your attention back to the present moment.
What happened in the past is done and dusted: all that matters is what’s going on right now, right this minute.
Recenter and ground yourself by looking around you and bringing all of your attention to your senses. What do you feel? Touch your clothes, your desk, your bedsheets—whatever’s within reach at that time. If you have a drink nearby, put all your attention into how it tastes, what’s going on in your mouth, and how it feels as it trickles down into your belly.
Stretch your body, and try to put your focus into specific areas. For example, try to move only one of your fingertips individually. Or alternate moving your big toes: 20 scrunches on each side. Pull your focus forward and into something present and tangible, rather than floating back into your head and ruminating over and over again.
You’re not experiencing The Thing now. It sucked at the time, but it’s over. You’re not there: you’re here now. Stay here. Any time your mind tries to wander elsewhere, repeat the process. Try to do things that require all of your attention and concentration, like balancing a book on the top of your head, or keeping meditation balls (aka Baoding balls) rolling around in the palm of your hand.
The more present you stay, the less you’ll be affected when these cringe attacks happen.
2. Know that what you resist, persists.
Acceptance is key here. Quite often, changing how we feel about something is effective for disarming the incendiary reactions we have to it. This is kind of like exposure therapy when someone has a phobia, such as toward spiders or the dark. The more you avoid and shy away from something, the more power and hold it has over you.
Try leaning into it instead. Rather than bracing against the discomfort of the memory and trying to distract yourself from it, face it head on. Our first response to discomfort in general is to either run away from it or fix it. This is the animal instinct within us rather than our higher consciousness.
Instead, as mentioned, take a good look at what it was that transpired. You’ll undoubtedly feel a massive wave of self-loathing, as well as an adrenaline rush and an overall feeling that you want to crawl into your skin and fold yourself up several times to get away from this. But no, not this time.
THIS time, you’re going to look at the experience, but from a slight distance: as the neutral observer. Try to remove emotions from it, and look at what unfolded impassively. Furthermore, look at the entire scenario that played out—not just the part that still makes you wince.
What did you learn from this experience? Which types of insight, compassion, empathy, and such would you otherwise not have if you didn’t have firsthand experience with them?
I’m not sure whether you’ve noticed this or not, but most beings learn more from painful situations than pleasant ones. It’s why the child won’t stick a fork in an electric outlet once shocked, nor will a wild animal try to chew on a giant thistle. Pain = education, and it’s hammered fiercely into our memory banks.
Now you can shift your focus from the pain to the lessons that were learned. Yeah, it was awful at the time, but you’re not there anymore. So come back to the present moment.
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of trash and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
– Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
3. Confront the cringemaster.
(Yes, that means yourself—or rather, the subconscious part of yourself that keeps bringing up the cringey memory.)
When the old memory arises, bringing with it all the awful emotions and aversive instincts, envision that part of your memory like a bitter person who’s intentionally trying to hurt you. Ask them outright: “What good have you done in the world today?” Or, “Do you have nothing better to do than bring up old wounds and try to cause misery?”
This technique is remarkably effective for shutting that voice up. By giving it form and substance, you have a tangible “something” to confront. And guess what? You’ll end up the victor in these confrontations because they literally have nothing good to say.
Another way you can approach this is to ask your subconscious the simple question: “how does this thought serve me?” If it doesn’t, at all, then that’s a pretty solid clue that it’s time to let that thought go. Take a deep breath, and as you exhale, visualize yourself blowing that thought or memory away from your body.
4. Laugh at it and learn from it.
In all honesty, one of the best ways to diffuse any situation—or memory—is to find the humor in it and try to laugh at it. Furthermore, when you laugh at a situation instead of being horrified by it, people are less likely to home in on it as a bad thing. This means they’ll be less likely to keep reminding you of it over the years in an attempt to wind you up (more on that later).
Can you try to see something funny about what happened? Try to move past the discomfort you naturally associate with it and attempt to find at least one amusing thing about what occurred. If this had happened to someone else, would you have found it funny? If so, try to see it from that perspective and move on from it.
Furthermore, use it as an invaluable learning experience. After all, a lesson that hits you in the shame space means that you’ll be far less likely to ever commit such a heinous act again. Essentially, use it as a springboard to launch you in the opposite direction of the previous action, whether you were the instigator or part of the issue via association.
Additionally, recognize that if you’re cringing about past missteps, it means that you’re probably a decent human being.
There are many individuals out there who are seemingly immune to shame. In fact, you might even feel jealous or awed by them and their ability to do literally anything and seemingly remain carefree from the horrors they leave in their wake. While the ability to rise and float above the chaos they leave behind might seem admirable in some ways, it’s also more than a little disturbing. Socio- or psychopathic, even.
The ability to feel shame is a good meter to establish the kind of person we either want to be or never wish to become. After all, when you think about the atrocious things that others have done, do they make you want to follow suit? Or avoid doing anything similar by any means necessary?
How you feel about and respond to various situations is a crucial indicator of your own personal moral compass. Furthermore, since you are ultimately in control of your thoughts and emotions, you get to decide how to feel about various situations and how you’d like to learn and grow from them.
I don’t know about you, but personally, I prefer to feel joy and fulfilment—or at least a sense of quiet contentment—as opposed to the bitter aftermath of shame or the constant grinding tension of ongoing feuds and drama (and the shameful memories they help to create.)
Similarly, you can choose to keep ruminating and wallowing on uncomfortable things you’ve experienced or you can acknowledge they happened, learn the necessary lessons, and move on.
5. Be aware that what’s cringey to you might be insignificant to someone else.
Unless the event or experience that scarred you emotionally had far-reaching repercussions that affected a lot of other people, there’s a strong chance that the discomfort associated with it is solely in your own brain. Even if you think that others hate you for this awful thing that happened, that may not be the case at all.
Here’s an example: A few years ago, my partner got an email from an ex-boyfriend she’d dated over 20 years before. He reached out to apologize for something that had happened back then; something that had been weighing on him—tearing him up, even— for over two decades, and he finally had the courage to say something about it.
She thanked him for the heartfelt apology, but she had no idea what he was talking about. Seriously, she had NO memory of this supposedly awful thing that had occurred. Obviously this thing hadn’t been a big deal to anyone other than him. In fact, what he had interpreted as a Big Deal was utterly insignificant to her.
Remember that people react to, process, and deal with all manner of situations in different ways. What will affect one person badly will slide off another like water off a duck’s back. If someone has been quite sheltered and hasn’t experienced many hardships, they’re often more likely to be seriously affected by uncomfortable situations.
In contrast, someone who’s been forged through hardship will be much more resilient. As such, one person’s traumatic experience is another’s regular Tuesday afternoon.
Keep this in mind when you’re processing uncomfortable feelings and assuming that others feel the same way you do. Just because you’re interpreting or feeling things that particular way, doesn’t mean everyone (or anyone) else is.
On that note, you can try to…
6. Overwrite the memory.
Those cringeworthy moments were awful when they happened, but the only place they now exist is in your memory: all that’s left is what your brain is holding onto.
Think of this rather like a file on your computer: one that can be overwritten. You know how if and when you update or alter a file, you’ll be asked whether you want to keep the original or replace it? If you choose the latter option, the previous one will pretty much cease to exist.
So try doing that.
As mentioned above, things that have made you want to turn inside out may have been insignificant to others. Since the cringe storms that arise are likely just in your own brain, you can choose to remember them differently.
Bring up the memory in its entirety, and try to be detailed about the things that you remember happening. What you were wearing, what you could see, smell, taste, touch, and so on. Then, instead of remembering how you said or did that particular thing, change the memory. Maybe you swallowed that glass of wine instead of spitting it at your date. Or you didn’t step on that famous person’s foot when you met them.
Do this repeatedly until the cringiness subsides.
Note: if you did something spectacularly heinous that may have hurt or damaged other people badly, then pretending it never happened or that you remember it differently might be really bad if you ever run into them again. This is because saying that you don’t remember their experience might be construed as gaslighting and invalidating. Make sure to take this into account when you’re working through different coping and healing options.
7. Try to be aware of why (and when) these cringe attacks occur.
This is important, and I’ll tell you why.
If you’re a person who grew up with a great deal of stress and anxiety in your life, you might not cope well with peace and stability. You could be in a great home in a perfect, quiet location, with a job you like and a relationship that fulfills you, but you’ll be on high alert all the time, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
This is because you were forged in troubled circumstances, so your default setting is to perform well and survive under pressure. When there’s no external stress or pressure weighing on you, it feels like there’s something “wrong.” As a result, your mind tries to step up and fill in that gap with anxiety or stress of some kind so you’re back in your comfort zone.
If there’s nothing external that could be worrisome, your mind will dig into your memory banks to dredge up something that hurt or upset you before. Bringing up that memory will bring up the same pain, embarrassment, or even your “fight-or-flight” reflex. Suddenly, on some subconscious level, you feel more comfortable in your surroundings because you’re in familiar territory.
On a similar note, try to determine why this cringey feeling is arising right now. Our bodies will make us feel pain to let us know that we’ve received an injury, and our psyches are the same. If something cringey is coming up now, it could be your subconscious mind trying to bring attention to something else that needs to be tended to.
It’s difficult to break out of these “self-soothing through pain” reflex actions, especially if they’ve been your go-to for a long time. That said, if you can recognize them as they occur, you may be able to stop them by redirecting your attention elsewhere.
When I find myself affected by a past cringey moment, I’ll do some calisthenics or other repetitive body work. If I’m focusing on counting seconds in a plank or weight-lifting reps, I’m not letting my mind spiral into shame.
8. Forgive the person you were when it happened.
Chances are pretty high that you’ve been in situations where other people have embarrassed themselves around you. Or at you. They might have caused you some kind of harm, or something happened that involved you but absolutely mortified them. As such, there were undoubtedly countless apologies howled in your direction, likely as they ran off to go cry in a dark corner.
Depending on how bad (or humiliating) it was, they might still be apologizing to you years after the fact. You’ve undoubtedly forgiven them for the occurrence, and you might not ever even think about it unless they bring it up. As a result, it might not affect you at all, if it ever did.
Try to put yourself on the receiving end of that kind of forgiveness. Look back at the person you were when The Thing happened. Take into account all the factors that went into the event, including the other stuff that was going on in your life at the time, as well as who you were with, what your emotional state was, and so on.
Were you dealing with stress or other difficulties during that period? How mentally and emotionally stable were you? What mitigating factors were going on all around you? Were you significantly younger and inexperienced? Or inebriated in order to cope with difficult circumstances? We often forget how we were in those situations—how tired, how angry, how worn down. All we recall is the mistake.
Unless you’re an 80-year-old Buddhist monk who’s completely unaffected by worldly happenings, you’ll undoubtedly be affected by things that go on around you. As such, recognize that when The Thing happened, there were undoubtedly external factors that went into it unfolding as it did.
Reassure your past self that although what happened was quite crappy, they’re still a good person, and they’re forgiven for what unfolded. That will allow both past and present versions of yourself to move on from the occurrence with a clean slate.
This is something that the Catholic church got right when it came up with the sacrament of confession. When they’ve acknowledged and owned up to something they’ve done, and asked forgiveness for it, they receive a particular formula for atonement and then the slate is wiped clean again. It’s an ideal way to release the weight and torment from past transgressions in order to be able to move forward.
You might not be Catholic, but consider doing something similar for yourself. Acknowledge what happened, come up with something you can do to make amends, and start anew.
9. Learn how to deal with other people reminding you of past cringey moments.
How often have you had to deal with family members or so-called friends bringing up past memories at gatherings? They likely do it when all attention is in your direction to both wind you up and get a reaction out of everyone else. Worst of all, they likely do it both as an attempt to cut you down and get positive energy via laughs from the others.
This is where understanding their motivations comes in handy. It is tempting to retaliate with all their terrible life choices. In fact, it may just shut them up, but what is guaranteed to work is not to let them into your spirit.
Recognize that they are feeling insecure and trying to tear others down to establish dominance. You can ask them why is it funny to bring these things up. Do they like shaming their loved ones? If they continue to be rude, let them know it’s unacceptable and leave.
Robert Downey Jr. is famous for having walked out of a live interview when the interviewer refused to stop bringing up his past. Downey gave the guy three chances to change his line of questioning, and when he refused to, he simply informed everyone that the interview was over and walked out.
Alternatively, if you can’t (or don’t want to) just pick up and leave, then call people out on why they’re behaving this way.
For example, if someone in your family keeps bringing up a cringey thing that you did when you were a child, you can ask them why they have nothing better to discuss.
If they go on about how it’s “just a joke,” keep asking them about it. Why do they think it’s so funny? What is their motivation behind bringing it up? Remain emotionally neutral as you ask this so it isn’t seen as an attack, but with the undercurrent of pity that they’re behaving so pathetically.
Ultimately, beware of those who constantly remind you of previous cringe-inducing moments that you feel ashamed about. They may be trying to belittle you or push you into self-destructive behaviors.
For example, if you’ve given up drinking, they might constantly remind you of things you did when you were drunk, then mock you for what they deem to be a “temporary” sobriety. They seem to believe that, ultimately, you’re not going to change, and you’ll inevitably do something stupid or horrible again in the near future.
If the people in your social circles treat you so disrespectfully, ask yourself why you continue to associate with them. Should you feel obligated to because they’re “family,” try to limit your contact with them as much as possible and be impassive when you do have to interact. Don’t let anything they say or do affect you, and they won’t have any power over you at all.
And of course, try to avoid saying or doing anything that would give them additional ammunition. If we use the sobriety example mentioned above, avoid falling back into old habits—like drinking—in order to cope with the horrible feelings they inspired in you.
When you’re focused on being the best and brightest version of yourself possible, you can’t help but rise above any past missteps.
Learn from them, laugh at them (if you can), and do your best to move on. You’ll be unlikely to repeat such actions in the future, and you’ll have some horrifyingly funny stories to tell the grandkids someday.
Still not sure how to stop cringing at yourself and the things you have done in the past? Talking to someone can really help you to handle whatever life throws at you. It’s a great way to get your thoughts and your worries out of your head so you can work through them.
Speak to a therapist about it. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can help you to see the events of your past from a different perspective and offer tailored advice to allow you to let it go.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.
You may also like:
- How To Forget A Bad Memory: 5 Highly Effective Tips
- How To Let Go Of The Past: 16 No Nonsense Tips!
- How To Deal With Shame: The Process For Overcoming It
- How To Get Over The Embarrassment Of An Awkward Moment