8/ Cringe Attacks
Cringe attacks are the uninvited little humiliations from the past, reappearing years after the event occurred. They are persistent (not necessarily due to a trauma) and recurring memories of the past. Luckily, we don’t remember every single day of our lives, let alone in full detail. Forgetting oneself is a wonderful skill.
It looks like these flashbacks mainly occur during routine activities requiring close to no brain involvement, and/or when the person is alone. Nonetheless, there’s no agreement on why they are happening in the first place.
One theory is that there’s something in the environment (smell, certain location, T-shirt colour or design on a stranger, etc.) that may trigger a certain memory. Another theory is that there are unresolved issues (usually following the “I can explain” responses to cringeworthy situations), which usually stick with us for much longer.
The memories that tend to remain vivid during our lifetimes are the ones when we get to see ourselves from another person’s perspective (that very irreconcilable gap), which also means that our teenage/childhood memories carry so much weight.
Unexpected + highly emotional things (saying “you’re stupid” all of a sudden) force the brain to remember them for a long time: the amygdala gets aroused and thus creates an “imprint” of the memory. This works for both negative and positive emotions.
Making the emotion less intense when it randomly fires is possible by recalling other details of the event: the surroundings, clothes worn – anything unemotional about the event. The better memories people have – the less emotions they have recalling past events, as such recollections get balanced.
There are two kinds of people who don’t experience embarrassment as much as others: sociopaths and completely self-accepting people.
Self-acceptance helps narrow the gap of perception because it forces people to accept themselves instead of constructing a narrative in their heads that makes them look good.
Self-clarity helps to accept the inevitable blows to ego or the random things in life without blaming others or engaging in avoidance-oriented coping. “Accepting” doesn’t mean “not trying to improve things”, quite the opposite. It also helps better appreciate the results of one’s work (technically – not devalue the things that others don’t pay much attention to anyway). It’s not equal to self-esteem, which is ego-boosting, but focuses inwards.
Probably people with high self-clarity are better at withstanding cringe attacks. There are reasons to believe that laughing at an embarrassing situation can remove the negativity about it: after all, embarrassment doesn’t define a person. Blaming others, on the other hand, never works. Everyone fails sometimes.
A bit more on self-esteem. The way it’s taught to kids is (in a slightly simplified way) that negative feedback is suppressed or ignored, thus creating a hugely unrealistic version of self in a person. All future events and accomplishments will be measured against this inflated self, creating even further motivation to suppress the negative feedback.
What can help is self-indifference or humility – not thinking of oneself. Rather, one should think of themselves as a part of a whole, an interconnected network. It’s not to say that personal interests should not be pursued or de-prioritised. Being humble helps approach difficult conversations with an open mind. [MK: and believe me, this is one of the most useful Board Director’s skills.] Intellectual humility helps understanding the opposite points of view and others’ interests without necessarily accepting them.
So, the first thing to understand about cringe attacks is that almost everyone has them, it’s a common thing that one is not a bad person for experiencing them.
9/ Awkward Silences at the Office
The two common questions in the workplace are: “why is everyone hanging out without me”, and “how can I ask my colleagues to leave me alone”?
Office is particularly important to people (even remote office) as it’s the source of self-worth, income, and interaction.
In the office the stakes are high, and avoiding awkwardness (i.e., not rocking the boat) is as easy as saying nothing.
Ambiguity and stress in the work environment makes even relaxed people look for closure rather than leaving loose ends. This causes reaching for closure as soon as possible, looking for some answers when there may be none.
Most managers already know that ambiguity is part of work life, and that any path chosen won’t be the ideal path. It just has to be good enough given the information and time constraints. Time and time again, the best way forward for many awkward situations is a straightforward question.
MK: I’d add that a straightforward communication is insanely helpful when it’s important to put a stake in the ground and offer one’s version of truth: it cleans up one’s conscience and if anyone misinterprets the event – it’s their problem not worth thinking about.
People are scared of addressing situations because of possible (and most often – imaginary) repercussions or unintended consequences (offending someone or looking stupid). But this is not being rude – staying professional is very important here.
It’s good to have friends at work, but such friendships are fragile due to conflicting interests and positions. [MK: I can only think of one similar kind of friendship which almost completely disappears once people stop seeing each other – between schoolkids’ parents.] Work friendships are helpful as they can shield a person from unwanted gossip while still exchanging useful intel. At the same time, it’s quite implausible to become friendly with a slacker.
Many people have nothing else in common with each other – just work. No wonder they fail to stay in touch despite their promises to do exactly that. But severing work friendships by leaving can be taken as betrayal.
Multiplex relationships are the ones superimposing personal friendship with work-focused interactions. While people who have friends at work tend to be better overall employees, too many work friendships can be draining on time and emotions and limit one’s ability to provide honest feedback at the risk of damaging the relationship.
Awkwardness at work may occur when one has to listen to others’ complaints, or be manipulated in doing work, or be offered unwelcome friendship. Most of the time saying “I’m too busy for this dialogue / activity / friendship” provides a gentle hint that the advance is unwelcome. Sometimes an extra sentence explaining the refusal is needed, but it’s important to be diplomatic.
Dutch and English speakers start feeling uncomfortable with silence after 4 seconds. It’s 8 seconds for the Japanese speakers. Silence triggers ambiguity, so it’s helpful to recognize this. During salary negotiations silence is helpful to the party that wants to improve its position by waiting for a concession from another party. Silence also allows one to compose themselves and think of an answer without looking confrontational.
When a job description doesn’t mention that salary is negotiable – men tend to negotiate more frequently than women; if it does – the gender gap disappears. 57% of people thinking they’re assertive or overassertive are actually being perceived as underassertive.
10/ Laughing at Imaginary Tumblers of Spilled Whiskey
Improvisation requires the ability to adopt the viewpoint of a person across from them. It’s similar to awkwardness exactly because one doesn’t know where the conversation will go, but it adds the enjoyable thrill to the process.
There’s normal dislike for embarrassment and then there’s social anxiety when people have extreme and irrational fears about interacting with fellow humans. Fear of embarrassment makes their lives miserable. They believe there are some firm social standards and rules everyone’s following; overstepping these boundaries will lead to disastrous, long-lasting social consequences.
Fear of public speaking is the most common example of social anxiety.
(The author talks at length about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Cool stuff.)
Taking oneself seriously and not being able to laugh at oneself is an impediment to enjoying life.
11/ The Awkward Age, Part 2
When recalling an embarrassing event, approaching it from the third-person perspective makes a person consider it less embarrassing than if it were recalled from the first-person perspective. Somehow this also works better to reduce anxiety when a person says: “you can do it” to themselves rather than “I can do it”.
It’s easier to give another person advice than to oneself – precisely because of the distancing from the problem.
Looking at one’s old posts / tweets often causes cringe because the new self is now distant from the old self, allowing to finally see the outsider’s perspective on one’s past writings.
It’s tempting but wrong to think that the past “you” was the wrong version of “you”, but the current version is just about right. A few years later parts of today’s “you” will look as embarrassing as the past “you” looks today.