I have this thing I do where, every night before I fall asleep, I rehash as many embarrassing or shameful events from my past as my brain can fit in. I do not do this deliberately. It just happens, no matter how much meditative breathing or backwards counting from a thousand I do to try to distract myself. I simply must re-experience the embarrassments of years past before slipping fitfully into sleep. These memories range from small-scale “oopsies” to dear-God-let-the-earth-swallow-me-now calamities. A few highlights:
One year when I was visiting my ex-husband’s family in Peru, I offered to help in the kitchen and was asked to make the rice. Of course, simple; I can handle rice. It’s the easiest thing on the menu. But I forgot to add oil, so it came out all weird and sticky and weird-tasting, and it was stuck to the sides of the rice cooker too, and everyone saw that the dumb American did not even know how to cook rice. I cook rice all the time! I know how to cook rice! I swear!
In middle school I got in trouble for shoving a boy on the same day I’d crimped my hair to try to be cool. Something about sitting in the principal’s office awaiting punishment while simultaneously trying to be cool with my dumb crimped hair continues to make me cringe to this day.
During college, I had the incredible fortune to attend Aspen Music Festival in Colorado via a generous and prestigious scholarship. As a scholarship recipient, I was assumed to be a capable violist and was thus invited to play with the famous outdoor summer quintet for a few hours, a gig whose tips paid extremely well. I played once with them and managed to hang in. They invited me back a second time, and I completely and utterly choked. It was like I forgot how to read music. Why? Why did I choke? Why didn’t I just read the music?
While attending a financial conference during a brief tenure as a financial planner in my late twenties, I was asked to describe a type of investment known as a private placement. A group of men stood around me, staring down expectantly, rooting for this young woman to know what she was talking about, and all I could do was sputter some nonsense about how these investments “weren’t like the stock market.” I’d described a private placement a hundred times to my clients. Why couldn’t I just say what I knew? I felt like I’d let every woman on the planet down by not showing my competence in that extremely male-dominated field.
A few years ago, I was invited to do an interview with Huffpost Live about my kid and his ADHD. The other guest’s big personality so overwhelmed me that I sat in silence and contributed basically nothing about a topic I could ordinarily talk about for hours. Huffpost never called me back. I imagine the conversation they had about me afterward: “Yeah, she was a boring guest, and also really quite stupid. Delete her from our list.” Ughhh.
These are ones that have popped up in the last few nights. I have a hundred other examples that haunt me, moments when I embarrassed myself in some stupid way or froze in gape-mouthed, mute despair. Other people attest that they too have plenty of instances of similar embarrassment. Why do moments like these haunt us?
Melissa Dahl calls these moments “cringe attacks” — an apt descriptor if I’ve ever heard one. She wrote a whole book on the topic, called “Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness,” in which she explores the reasons we dwell on embarrassing moments and how we can reframe these moments as opportunities for growth.
For an article for The Cut, Dahl interviewed James McGaugh, a neurobiologist who studies memory. McGaugh explained that embarrassing moments stick in our brains better than mundane ones because of the heightened emotions we experience during the event. In that moment of “Dear God, help,” our brains release adrenaline, and then noradrenaline, and then our amygdala wakes up and tells our brain, “Something important happened. Make a strong memory.”
Yeah, that sounds about right.
Psychologists call this fixation with past embarrassments “rumination.” Folks who have anxiety tend to worry most about the future — what may happen. Ruminating has to do with the past — wishing you could go back and “redo” a moment in time. This behavior isn’t any better for our mental health than the anxious worrying about a potential future that may never come to fruition. In fact, studies have shown that rumination is associated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.
So, as much as I can almost poke fun at myself as I lament my nightly “cringe attacks,” and as much as others may commiserate with me when I bring it up, the truth is, this kind of rumination should be a signal that it’s time to better prioritize my mental health. These memories make me physically cringe as I’m trying to wind down from the day and fall asleep. Combined with some of the other symptoms I’ve experienced — memory problems, hair loss, general lethargy — these are not just awkward moments hilariously relived. They’re a sign I need to take better care of myself. More exercise, a consistent sleep schedule, meditation, and if none of that helps, an appointment with my doctor.
Advice for how to stop ruminating abounds on the internet — experts recommend learning to recognize when you’re ruminating, to know your triggers, to learn to let go, call a friend or distract yourself in some other way. And all of that can be useful. But if you’re like me, regularly entertaining paralyzing memories of ancient embarrassments that you objectively know no one else is thinking about but you, a bigger check-in with yourself — and maybe your doctor — may be in order.