There are many things that can trigger cringe reactions. For example, it’s hilarious when you see someone else’s cringeworthy moment, like PewDiePie’s terrible handshake or your friend’s awkward flirting attempts. But it can also be really embarrassing when you experience a cringeworthy moment yourself, like waving back at someone who was actually waving to the person behind you. (Ugh, talk about awkward!) This feeling of self-cringing is what we’re going to talk about today.
So, what even is self-cringe? Why does it happen? And most importantly, how do you stop it? Let’s find out!
Why cringe at yourself?
According to psychologist Dr. Tara Quinn-Cirillo, “cringe” is a term often used to describe the physical and emotional reactions that occur in awkward or embarrassing situations. It’s not a technical term that you’d hear in a therapy session, but it’s a feeling we’ve all had and recognized. There are several theories that attempt to understand why we feel embarrassed to the point where it affects our peace of mind. Let’s take a look at a few of these theories.
The social judges
We often cringe when we think back to an awkward “all eyes on us” social situation. The social evaluation model, developed by psychology professor Rowland S. Miller, has a theory about why we might feel this way. According to this model, we evaluate ourselves and others based on social comparison – meaning, we compare ourselves to others to figure out our own social standing. The embarrassment comes from feeling like we’ve been evaluated negatively by others. This can happen when we’re the center of negative attention, or when we feel like we’ve made a mistake or done something socially unacceptable. So, when a waiter tells you “enjoy your meal” and you cheerfully reply with a “you too!”, you might worry that this act was socially unacceptable. And that’s why you get that mortifying cringe feeling and wish to hide under the table!
Not a fan of myself
Your self-esteem can play a role in how you respond to self-cringe or feelings of embarrassment or shame, too. People with high self-esteem tend to have a positive view of themselves, and may be more resilient in the face of self-cringe or embarrassing situations. They often see their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. But if your self-esteem is low, you may be more likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed when you do something cringe-worthy, and may be more sensitive to criticism or negative feedback. That’s when you may start to dwell on your mistakes and replay them in your mind all night long like it’s a cringe party! The opposite is also true – cringe-worthy memories can lower your self-esteem. A 2002 study published in The British Journal of Clinical Psychology found that when individuals experience shame, they might feel like their whole person is suddenly devalued, which lowers their self-esteem. Frequently experiencing shame can eventually develop into a trait of shame, which involves negative and often painful feelings such as inferiority, despair, helplessness, and the desire to hide personal flaws. Needing everything to be perfect might exacerbate these feelings, too.
If you’re a perfectionist, you may know that feeling of needing everything to be just right. If it’s not – here comes the cringe again. Studies have shown that there really is a link between perfectionism and embarrassment. For example, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology examined this link with young athletes. Researchers found that fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment is central in the relationship between perfectionism and fear of failure. How can perfectionism influence your self-cringe? Perfectionism can cause you to set high standards for yourself, fear failure, and view any mistakes or flaws as unacceptable. When you are unable to meet these standards or experience failure, you may feel inadequate and experience negative emotions such as self-criticism, shame, increased stress or anxiety.
How to stop?
No matter how cringeworthy some of the things you’ve done may seem, remember that it’s totally normal to make mistakes. Instead of stressing out about past embarrassing moments, try to learn from your experiences and embrace yourself just as you are. One way to do this is by developing shame resilience, which is all about recognizing and understanding shame and seeking support when you need it. Brené Brown, a research professor and author, is the one who came up with this concept. She says that to become shame resilient, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what shame is and how it can impact you. And you’ve already taken that first step by learning more about the origins of cringe! Great job! In addition to shame resilience, try practicing self-compassion to help cope with shameful thoughts. A 2018 study published in the journal Mindfulness found that practicing self-compassion can significantly reduce shame-proneness, irrational beliefs, and social anxiety symptoms in undergrad students. To practice self-compassion, try writing a compassionate letter to yourself, focusing on gratitude and self-care, and using positive self-talk. But if you’re still struggling with embarrassing moments, and feel like you can’t do it alone, it might be helpful to talk to a mental health professional for some extra support.
It’s easy to lose yourself in all those embarrassing moments. But if you choose it to be, self-cringe can also be a reminder to be more compassionate and understanding towards yourself, rather than dwelling on your flaws or mistakes.
So the next time you feel that awkward, embarrassing feeling, take a moment to reflect on what you can learn from it. Embrace your quirks and remember – nobody’s perfect, and that’s totally fine! And don’t forget: you matter! Until next time, thanks for reading!
Andrews, B., Qian, M., & Valentine, J. D. (2002). Predicting depressive symptoms with a new measure of shame: The Experience of Shame Scale – PubMed. The British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41(Pt 1). https://doi.org/10.1348/014466502163778
Cȃndea, & Szentágotai-Tătar. (2018). The impact of self-compassion on shame-proneness in social anxiety. Mindfulness, 9(6), 1816–1824. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-0924-1
Groves, N. (2022, June 5). The psychology of cringe (and how to work through the feeling). HuffPost UK. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/psychology-of-cringe-how-to-work-through-it_uk_627a9c83e4b009a811c9ea95
Miller, R. S. (1997). Embarrassment: Poise and peril in everyday life. Guilford Press.
Sagar, S. S., & Stoeber, J. (2009). Perfectionism, fear of failure, and affective responses to success and failure: The central role of fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31(5), 602–627. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.31.5.602
Sutton, J. (2017, June 14). Shame resilience theory: Advice from Brené Brown. PositivePsychology.Com. https://positivepsychology.com/shame-resilience-theory/