You’re going about your life when it suddenly happens: A humiliating memory from your past pops into your head, making you wince. It’s a cringe attack!
It’s been more than a decade, but Melissa Dahl still remembers the day she walked out of a work bathroom distracted, not realizing she had tucked her skirt into her tights.
“There were people down the hallway who were literally pointing and laughing,” Dahl, a senior editor at New York magazine's The Cut, told TODAY. All those years later, she still has a physical reaction to the moment, feeling embarrassed and shaking her head when she relives it, she writes in her new book, “Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.”
But why does it happen and why are these uncomfortable feelings everywhere? First dates, job interviews, tight spaces, long silences are all so awkward. “The Office” made awkwardness a star so vivid it made you wince as much as it made you laugh.
If you curse feeling awkward, Dahl has some advice and a few words of comfort:
Q. What’s your fascination with awkwardness?
Dahl: It has driven me crazy for as long as I can remember. This feeling of "I’m not sure I know what to do here. Is everyone looking at me? Am I doing this wrong? I don’t know what’s going on." I became obsessed with figuring this out.
It became interesting to me after studying this feeling for a couple of years how people are really afraid of awkwardness. It really holds people back from doing stuff.
Q. Does awkwardness have a purpose?
Dahl: It can act as an alert system to warn you when some kind of social norm has been breached; someone is stepping outside boundaries of what is normally done. For a while, that was how I was conceptualizing it: a feeling that keeps us in line and keeps us sticking to social norms.
But then I started to think of it differently. These little moments where things go wrong — that happens to all of us and all of us feel this way eventually. Maybe part of the purpose is to unite us in feeling like inept weirdos. It’s really, by the end, how I started to think about it.
Q. Why do we relive past embarrassments?
Dahl: These moments aren’t objectively traumatic, but our brains record them as if they are. The explanation I found was that any moment in our lives that’s attached to strong emotion — our brains will note that.
It’s not really clear why these things pop back up in our minds, but the researchers I talked to think it’s not as random as it seems, it’s just that we don’t always get what’s triggering the memory.
It’s the worst and the only way to survive these cringe attacks is to realize yes, that was ridiculous but I’m not the only person who has done something ridiculous like that. In a way, these little moments become opportunities for remembering how connected you are to other people. Initially, they seem really isolating, but they don’t have to be.
Q. Would you rather not feel awkward at all?
Dahl: Some people don’t know they’re causing awkwardness, whereas I’m hyper attuned to it. I’m feeling it for you, I’m feeling it for this person, I’m feeling it for me. For a while, I wished I was the sort of person who didn’t feel that way, and then after obsessing over this, I really started to appreciate it.
Part of my grand theory of cringing or of awkwardness is that it shows you the gap between who you think you’re presenting to the world and how the world is actually seeing you. If you never know that there’s that gap, then you never have the chance to try to improve yourself. So it can help you make some necessary changes if you listen to it.
Q. What are the best strategies to cope with awkwardness?
Dahl: There are two extremely helpful things to me.
Be aware of the “spotlight effect.” Most of us assume that more people are paying attention to our embarrassing moments than we think. It’s not to say that nobody is noticing, but not as many people are noticing as we think. It’s not making as big of an impact as we think.
Also, have self-compassion and the ability to see yourself as part of a wider whole. Your mistakes don’t make you uniquely bad or embarrassing — many people have done similar or worse things. Realize it’s something all of us share in this absurdity of being human. It’s helping your thoughts of yourself fade into the background a little bit, which can be useful.
The other lesson I learned over and over again by writing this book and in my life is just to lighten up. Laugh at this stuff and take it a little easier on yourself.