We've all been there: A movie theater usher rips your ticket, tells you to enjoy the film, and without thinking, you blurt out, "You, too!" despite the fact that this usher is likely staying put and not going to join you in the auditorium. (If you have never done this, please refrain from showing off.)
Nearly everyone has said or done something awkward that they regret, but sometimes the weird thing you said comes back to haunt you years later. If you've ever cringed at the sudden memory of a gaffe you made in public, you're not the only one. It's one thing if you realize you've put your foot in your mouth as you were doing it and could backtrack, but what if the damage is already done? As it turns out, shame and embarrassment are pretty powerful feelings.
"Maybe something triggered the memory, and you never fully worked with the shame around that, so your inner critic is coming on board," says Erika Shershun, MA, MFT, a therapist at Grateful Heart Holistic Therapy Center.
From a psychological standpoint, Marni Amsellem, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Smart Health Psychology, says that when you've said or done something that you feel shame over, you are connecting that action with the feeling of embarrassment — and when the memory resurfaces, so does the feeling.
And dealing with a social misstep, even one from years ago, can be difficult.
"Whenever it’s interpersonal, you’re dealing with someone else, too," Dr. Amsellem says. "Your style might be to avoid whatever the awkwardness is, and someone else’s style might be to confront it."
That being said, if something you once said is still bothering you, there are ways to recover from it — though what you do to recover depends on the situation.
"The best thing you can do is check in with yourself and ask, Am I comfortable with what I did?" Dr. Amsellem says. Of course, if you're embarrassed about it, there's a pretty good chance you won't be comfortable, but you can also ask what you would have done differently, and whether or not it's worth it to say something to this other person or group of people.
If you said something critical or offensive to someone, for example, it might be worth addressing.
"You can start by saying something like, 'Remember six years ago when I said this to you? This will help me clear my mind a bit, but I didn’t mean what I said,'" Dr. Amsellem says.
Of course, if that's too awkward, or whatever you said was too innocuous to warrant bringing it up, you might just have to make peace with it and remind yourself that you're only human — and weird social interactions are par for the course.
"It’s going to heighten your anxiety if you dwell on it," Shershun says. "You have to learn how to have self-compassion for your humanity. We’re humans, we’re imperfect."
On the other hand, if you can't stop going over something harmless (but still cringe-worthy) that you said, Shershun says, "It’s important to try to bring in a sense of humor and be able to laugh at your imperfections."
And the next time that embarrassing, involuntary memory comes up?
"The bottom line is, if you said something in the past, it’s in the past," Dr. Amsellem says. Sure, that might be a little obvious — but truly understanding that can help you shake it off.
As Shershun puts it, remember that "it’s [now] just a thought, and you are not your thoughts." In other words, you are not defined by your embarrassing slip-ups. The sooner you know that, the sooner you can move on.