Life is funny sometimes. There you are blithely going about your day, minding your own business when–BAM! It happens. Some word or smell or slight change in the wind pattern reminds you of a cringe-worthy event from your past. You stop whatever it is you were doing and silently kick yourself for having been so clueless. Maybe it was that fight you had with your ex 2 years ago, or that time you (accidentally) passed gas on the train packed full of passengers during rush hour. Whatever it was, that memory wiggles its way to the forefront of your consciousness and makes you feel like an idiot.
Psychologists call this phenomenon rumination. It is characterized by dwelling on the mistakes or embarrassing moments in your past, sometimes to the detriment of your present. This is not to say that re-examining your life is all bad. It depends on what you do with those thoughts and memories when you find them. Do you obsessively turn them over and think about them for a long time afterwards? Do you let your mistakes prevent you from moving forward? Or, do you use those mistakes to reflect on how you can make positive changes in your life?
One of the most ironic things about these negative memories is that, though it sticks out in your mind as an intensely awkward and embarrassing situation, the other people involved probably barely remember it. They’re too involved in their own lives to worry about that one time in high-school when your secret crush brushed you off for another person. There’s a certain amount of awkwardness built into life that we just have to learn to acknowledge and move on from.
But how do we do this?
When these memories come up, try to distract yourself with something that you enjoy doing before you start to really think deeply about them. This could be as simple as steering the conversation to a subject that you enjoy talking about, or going for a jog/walk around the block.
Alternatively, you could actually let the memory play in your mind, but instead of concentrating on what you did wrong or how embarrassed you felt, think about what you could have done to make the situation better. There are some mistakes that we actively take part in, like an argument with a friend, or a poor performance at a presentation. These are moments that we can examine to discover what part, as individuals, we had to play in the events. Once that’s done, though, apologize (if needed), resolve to do better next time, and move on.
There are other events that are just downright embarrassing that we have little to no control over. Maybe you tripped on a curb and landed flat on your face or maybe someone wasted coffee all over you and you couldn’t go home to change. These are moments that you simply have to acknowledge, try to find the humor in it, and move on. Remember, it’s highly unlikely that anyone remembers this event besides you.
And even if they do, so what? You are more than that one mistake or embarrassing moment. We develop from the negatives. They help us develop character. More than that, they teach us about perseverance, empathy, and humor.