Cringe! We all know the feeling. Your shoulders tense, your stomach clenches, your face screws up, and you cover your eyes to make it go away.
Few emotions manifest in such a physical way. But what really is cringe? Other people make us cringe, of course, but why does cringing at ourselves feels worse? And could this uncomfortable feeling actually be good for us?
Just ask Taylor Swift. In May, when picking up an honorary doctorate from New York University, the singer made a speech for the graduating class of 2022 and used the opportunity to address this very issue.
“Learn to live alongside cringe,” the 32-year-old singer advised the hatted hordes. “No matter how hard you try to avoid being cringe, you will look back on your life and cringe retrospectively. Cringe is unavoidable over a lifetime.”
Turns out it’s not just TayTay’s songs that speak truth. Psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo talks us through the psychology of cringe – and how to work through the feeling so that it doesn’t limit you, but actually helps you know yourself better.
Why is cringe a natural feeling – and what causes it?
“Technically ‘cringe’ is not a clinical term,” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo – instead, it’s a word we recognise and use to describe the “physiological and emotional responses to awkward or embarrassing situations”.
What prompts the cringe can be internal or external, “from being embarrassed about your or another’s behaviour, being disgusted at something you have seen or heard, shame around past behaviour or appearance or a particular subject you are uncomfortable with such as intimacy or physical illness/injury.”
It’s actually normal for people’s emotional responses to manifest in physical ways – and in the case of cringe, there’s a particular reason it does.
“It is essentially ‘moving away’ from the topic or situation you are experiencing,” explains Dr Quinn-Cirillo. “In many situations we cannot physically actually move away or remove ourselves and the cringe descriptor is a good way of showing how we want to in our response!”
How can you tackle embarrassment in the moment?
The physiological and cognitive responses associated with embarrassment are linked to primeval functions in our body. “Our bodies produce adrenaline when we are in situations that we perceive as threatening This sets off a myriad of physical sensations we often then interpret as ’bad” and try to avoid at all costs such as rapid heartbeat, sweating and blushing,” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
However, it’s our interpretation’ of these responses that risks causing a cycle of embarrassment, when those feelings of cringe re-emerge 10 minutes, 10 months, even 10 years later, she says. And we can actually get better at managing embarrassment both in real time – and after the fact.
“Try and notice when your mind is sending you ‘judgement’ thoughts about how your behaviour may be perceived by others. We can easily lose the ‘facts’ of the situation and see it as a lot worse than it actually is,” Dr Quinn-Cirillo says.
“Wherever possible, try and carry on in a situation where things may not go according to plan, try and remember why you are there in the first place and what values lead you to be in that situation.”
That might be a social occasion with people you like or want to get to know, for example, or a public speaking engagement that will further your career. “Acknowledge how you feel, what physical sensations you are experiencing, notice how you are behaving or feel like behaving as a result of these symptoms such as wanting to leave the room, talk more rapidly,” she says.
“Try and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth to slow your breathing, try some grounding exercise such as naming some things you can see or hear around you. Maybe even make a joke of it if you can. This can often help those around you know how to handle the situation too.”
Why does embarrassment sometimes repeat on us?
We all feel embarrassment in the moment and know those feelings will pass. But the cringe Taylor Swift talks about is embarrassment at our former selves – and this can be harder to shift.
“It is important to avoid ‘battling’ with difficult thoughts and feelings that show up when we think of a situation that caused up embarrassment, ” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. “We can become hypervigilant to such feelings, bodily sensations and accompanying thoughts such as feeling hot and flushed, sweat or breathe more rapidly, thinking people may laugh at us or are judging us in some way.
“This may then create a further vicious circle whereby we then purposefully avoid situations or even leave situations should we begin to notice these symptoms occurring. We may even go on to develop rules for living such as ‘I always embarrass myself’ or ‘people think I am an idiot.’ This can then exert an impact on our mood, self-esteem and self-worth.”
Remember that we are all human beings, says Dr Quinn Cirillo. “Sometimes we may behave in ways that do not meet our perception or personal expectations of how we should act in a given situation. If the outcome is also unwanted attention this may lead to more pronounced feelings of embarrassment.”
Of as Swift puts it: “We are led by our gut instincts, our intuition, our desires and fears, our scars and our dreams. And you will screw it up sometimes. So will I. And when I do, you will most likely read about it on the internet.”
Does the current climate up our exposure to cringe?
There are some reasons why cringe feels more common than ever. Firstly, the pandemic has exerted a toll on our emotional and physical wellbeing, says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. “Many are reporting feeling fatigued and this can lead to increased levels of low mood and anxiety.” Those, in turn, can up your hyper-vigilance.
Couple this with the the fact so much of our lives is shared online, she says, and we become ever more alert to things that can lead to us being appraised negatively or judged – that includes past social media posts or images of our ‘former’ selves we may even want forgotten.
“For some people, their self-esteem may be tied up with their current self,” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. “The rise of the digital age can mean that our past self will remain in view of the world. It may not allow us the previously ‘natural’ transition we go through in life. Especially for young adults.”
Again, Swift knows about this. “Being publicly humiliated over and over again at a young age was excruciatingly painful,” she told NYU graduands. “But it forced me to devalue the ridiculous notion of minute-by-minute, ever-fluctuating social relevance and likability.”
She was even able to make a joke: “Getting cancelled on the internet and nearly losing my career gave me an excellent knowledge of all the types of wine.”
So, how do we build a better relationship with our past selves?
Swift’s ultimate message in that graduation speech was to make peace with your past and be kinder to younger you. Of course, It’s easier said than done. “Things from our past can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us and exerting an influence on our behaviour in the current moment,” says Dr Quinn Cirilo.
“Our brains are primed to ‘store’ memories or events where we may have experienced actual or perceived threat. This can include physical and emotional/psychological threat. Unfortunately, in similar situations to the past our brain is ready to arm us with this knowledge as it thinks it is protecting us from repeating behaviours that previously had negative consequences.”
She adds: “It can be hard to embrace elements of your past self that have association with distress. However, if we can learn to ‘lean in’ to our emotional responses and memories and make room for the fact that our past experiences often play a crucial role in shaping our adult selves.”
Ask yourself: what lessons have you learned? How can these help you navigate your life now? And if the cringe feels debilitating, don’t forget Dr Quinn-Cirillo and Taylor Swift’s advice to breathe. “As long as we are fortunate enough to be breathing, we will breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out,” said the singer. “And I’m a doctor now, so I know how breathing works.”