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Mind

How To Stop Reliving Embarrassing Memories

Reliving bad memories may be an evolutionary trait. Learn why embarrassing memories linger and how they fade over time.

By Sara NovakMay 14, 2024 9:00 AM
embarassed woman
(Credit: Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock)

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They are the moments that jolt you into awareness. You’re minding your own business, and all of a sudden, you’re reminded of how mortified you felt at that moment, weeks, months, or even years ago. Embarrassing moments can still carry the same emotional weight as they did in the moment they were happening. It’s the brain’s way of telling us not to make the same mistake twice.

The good news is that you don’t have to suffer at the hands of embarrassing moments, and over time, their power over your psychological state will start to diminish.

Reliving Embarrassing Moments

The brain is programmed to respond to negative threats, so we’re more likely to relive negative memories out of nowhere, all in an effort to avoid making the same mistakes again, says David Hallford, a clinical psychologist at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

A certain smell, taste, or sound can make us remember a memory time and time again. “Odor-evoked memories” can be particularly meaningful because we need them for our very survival, protecting us from spoiled or poisonous foods or even fires. Smell is also a core aspect of taste, which is also key to our survival.

“The olfactory bulb, in particular, is very close to the brain, and it’s a powerful tool that triggers memories sometimes at random,” says Hallford.

Embarrassing memories can also emerge more readily when we’re going to sleep or when we’re waking up because these are times when we’re at rest and not focused on the things we have to do in our day. This is a time when the Default Mode Network is more active, a part of the brain related to thoughts about the self and general self-reflection that’s at work when we’re at rest.


Read More: How Do Different Emotions Manifest In The Body?


The Purpose of Reliving Bad Memories

The purpose of the brain is to keep us alive and keep us procreating, says Halford, and our social skills are important for our place at the top of the food chain. We often relive memories of when we said and did the wrong thing socially in order to help us fix our social missteps.

Getting along with people outside of our immediate family was necessary for our very survival, but at times, our brain overdoes it. For example, those with social anxiety may be overly responsive to these social threats. 

“Being able to affiliate with people and be liked and valued is really important for us. Social relatedness is one of our core needs,” Hallford says. “In those times when we embarrass ourselves, that’s a threat to our social relatedness.”

Some people have a negativity bias, which means they’re more likely to be “scanning for threats” more often. These are often people who have PTSD, depression, anxiety, or personality disorders, says Hallford. In these cases, we’re more likely to jump to negative, disappointing, or sad memories.

People with mental health issues also tend to think of embarrassing or generally negative memories as self-defining. For example, thinking things like “I always do this” or “This shows who I am.” 


Read More: There's an Evolutionary Advantage to Blushing


How to Reduce the Impact of Embarrassing Memories

However, for the majority of people, negative or embarrassing memories fade with time. The Fading Affect Bias basically says that the negative impact of a negative personal event tends to become more positive. We tend to sway more positively in time.

And for those that are still very present, it’s also good to sit with feelings that make you feel uncomfortable so that you can process them. For example, if you’re meditating and a negative emotion emerges, you can label what the emotion is and identify where you feel it in the body and how it makes you feel. Then notice its impermanence; emotions often come and go like clouds floating in the sky. Even if the feeling is terrible, it will pass.

If you label a memory as something that you can’t handle because it’s so negative, it gives that memory more power. But once you sit with emotions, no matter how mortifying they once were, they lose their strength as time passes.


Read More: Why We Laugh at the Most Inappropriate Times and What It Says About Us


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Sara Novak is a science journalist based in South Carolina. In addition to writing for Discover, her work appears in Scientific American, Popular Science, New Scientist, Sierra Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, and many more. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. She's also a candidate for a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University, (expected graduation 2023).

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