The Simple Way to Stop Reliving Embarrassing Moments, According to Science

Updated: Oct. 20, 2020

That time everyone witnessed your unreciprocated high-five? Here's how to move past it.


Think back on your most embarrassing moment—say, the time you went in for a first kiss and were rejected, or you made a super embarrassing e-mail mistake—and you probably still get a sinking feeling in your stomach. And while it’s highly unlikely that anyone else ever recalls that particular memory, it doesn’t stop you from reliving the horror every time you’re vaguely reminded of it.

But according to one study, there’s a way to move on quickly whenever life’s most terrible moments float into your mind. The secret? Focus on everything about the memory except the way it made you feel.

“Sometimes we dwell on how sad, embarrassed, or hurt we felt during an event, and that makes us feel worse and worse. This is what happens in clinical depression—ruminating on the negative aspects of a memory,” wrote lead researcher Florin Dolcos. “But we found that instead of thinking about your emotions during a negative memory, looking away from the worst emotions and thinking about the context, like a friend who was there, what the weather was like, or anything else non-emotional that was part of the memory, will rather effortlessly take your mind away from the unwanted emotions associated with that memory. Once you immerse yourself in other details, your mind will wander to something else entirely, and you won’t be focused on the negative emotions as much.”

Basically, you take control of the memory and let it float out of your thoughts just as seamlessly as it snuck in.

The process is different than suppressing the bad memory, which is sometimes effective in the short term but increases anxiety and depression in the long run. It’s also simpler than other emotion regulation strategies, such as trying to recast the negative situation into a positive one.

“Looking at the situation differently to see the glass half full can be cognitively demanding,” says Sanda Dolcos, a co-author on the study. “The strategy of focusing on non-emotional contextual details of a memory, on the other hand, is as simple as shifting the focus in the mental movie of your memories and then letting your mind wander.”

It can also be effective in the long term, and the team wants to investigate whether prolonged use of the technique can lessen the severity of the memory.

Need to take action after an embarrassing slip-up that could have hurt someone else’s feelings? Here’s how to handle 7 of life’s most embarrassing moments.