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How to Get Over the Memories That Still Make You Cringe Whenever They Randomly Pop in Your Head

Step #1: Remind yourself that everyone’s embarrassed about something

Everyone has at least one forgotten embarrassing moment that creeps into their head as they attempt to fall asleep. I myself have a bunch, which might explain why many of my nights are spent previewing Ian’s Top 10 Most Cringeworthy Moments on the backs of my eyelids. Props to my mind, though. It always does a marvelous job editing these sequences into one seamless wince-inducing montage.

Marvelous or not, given the option, I’d prefer to fall asleep without having to cringe my way through every single dumb thing I’ve ever said, which is why I asked Duke University psychology professor and social motivation researcher Mark Leary to help me make peace with my incredibly embarrassing past. Here’s how our conversation went…

So, uh, I may possibly have done some embarrassing things that I can’t stop thinking about. Help?
[Know that] whatever problems a person has, whatever mistakes they’ve made — even tremendous mistakes — aren’t unique and personal to them exactly. Recognize that it’s a common aspect of humanity to have problems, to make mistakes, and that whatever mistakes you’ve made aren’t only peculiar to you, because everybody makes them.

Now, that doesn’t take away the fact that you made a mistake that might have had repercussions. It’s not saying your mistakes aren’t important in your life at all, but it takes away the extra layer of self-incrimination, which is what often keeps people awake at night.

Does that mean I’m basically off the hook with my brain because everyone screws up?
A lot of people, when they hear that, they say, ‘Well, you’re just being self-indulgent,’ or that you’re cutting yourself slack by saying, ‘Well, everybody else does it, so I don’t have to worry about it.’ That’s not the point: Again, if you’ve made mistakes and you’ve hurt other people, you want to make those things right. But the mere fact that you made mistakes and you did things you shouldn’t have done — that fact, in and of itself, isn’t really a problem, because you’re a human being and every human being does those things.

You’re saying I still need to recognize that what I did was wrong, but I also need to remember that doing something wrong isn’t innately… wrong?
A lot of times, we feel like, when we’ve done something wrong, it’s necessary to beat ourselves up for it or be hard on ourselves. It’s almost like it absolves us of the sin, of the problem, to make us feel miserable. But people are often much harder on themselves in their minds and much more critical than they need to be. You could acknowledge — yes, I shouldn’t have done this thing; yes, that was a bad decision; yes, I hurt that person — without unnecessarily beating yourself up.

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And that’s pretty much it: Really, truly acknowledge the bad thing rather than shying away from the memory, tell yourself not to do the bad thing again, and hopefully your brain will chill the fuck out with the 2 a.m. home-movie sessions. I, for one, am looking forward to a good night’s sleep tonight.

Or at least, in a couple of months from now, when I’m finally done acknowledging every regrettable thing I’ve ever done. See you on the other side…