I was 10. It was my birthday party and I was having a disco in the primary school village hall. Enrique Iglesias' "Hero" was playing and the smoke machine was smouldering. I wanted to slow dance with Tom (because it was MY party). But Tom, in his flame shirt, only had eyes for popular girl Kay. There's VHS evidence of me physically pushing in and joining their cute twosome, in what can only be described as the most awkward three-way slow dance of all time. The horror.
A year later I had graduated to the somehow more painful age of 11 and moved up to Big School. I liked a new boy – let's call him Tom 2 (the sequel) – and everyone knew it. One day, a team of pubescent pimples (aka Year 8s) bounded up to me at break and handed me a crumpled note. Will u go out with me? From Tom. I couldn't believe it. Breathless, I ran up to Tom 2, who was parading himself around on the netball court. "Of course I'll go out with you!" I shouted over the sound of balls dropping, which was met with a look of amused disgust from Tom 2. The pimples burst into laughter in the wings. The note wasn't from Tom 2 at all but from his skeevy little mates, in an Iagoian plot that's stayed with me ever since. Whenever I think about it, I become this burned, humiliated 11-year-old, dribbling tears in goal defence.
I have ever more examples, dear reader. When I was interning at a fashion magazine in my early 20s (I am now 29) I remember the exact shade of scarlet I went when mispronouncing the Spanish luxury house Loewe (it is of course "loh-weh-vay"). My "low" was met with sniggers and eye rolls by my superiors – the luxury pronunciation police – and my confidence was kicked back into the primary school village hall.
Counselling Directory member and London-based psychotherapist Beverley Blackman remembers being humiliated in front of her entire class at the age of eight for not doing her history homework. "I had only started the school the week before and no one had told me that I had homework to do; I'd never had homework before." The teacher called her 'dull', 'thoughtless' and 'stupid', which left a lasting impression. "But which event do I remember: the humiliation by my teacher and my classmates subsequently rubbing it in for the rest of the week, or the fact that I did the history homework that night and achieved full marks?" Of course, she remembers the shame over the success. "The feelings were far more intense because the teacher's opinion mattered (he was an authority figure) and I was new to the school and I wanted my classmates to like me, not pick on me."
These days, after much reflection, Blackman also sees the little girl who was new, confused, shy and had never had homework before. How was she supposed to know, if no one told her? "I see a band of kids who were needlessly unkind to that little girl and am reminded that kids can be very primitive in their behaviour. Now there is no shame and I can forgive my younger self for not doing her history homework; it's a neutral memory now."
Thankfully, we're not alone in wanting to work through our historic and ingrained embarrassing moments productively. It's not unusual for Blackman's clients to present with similar problems. For many, it's not the memory itself (which could be an act as seemingly insignificant as taking a little more time than usual to put some change back in your purse, as Mirel Zaman tells R29) but the way it makes you feel that triggers emotional distress on repeat.
One of Blackman's clients shared a childhood mistake that still haunts her, 40 years on. The client brought her "very imperious great aunt" a cup of coffee rather than tea. She couldn't even remember what the great aunt had to say about it but recalled the overwhelming feeling of shame when she was judged harshly for her mistake. "We can rationalise and see that this was a mistake made by a child and that there was no malice intended. But so often it is not our own response to events or situations that go wrong; it is the judgement of others and the subsequent feelings of not being good enough that will persist."
Blackman continues: "It also affects our self-esteem in that we then have a negative view of ourselves, and in some cases that will stick around and then spiral as it is further fuelled by other mistakes."
For me, this piling-on effect of embarrassment resonates. When I experience new mortifying moments (which seems to happen a lot), old ones get triggered from the depths of my memory. I shudder, become hotter and my cheeks glow as I fall into a spiralling pit of all the bad things I've ever done. Each new public disgrace gets memorialised in a catalogue of ignominy.
"You may look back at the person you were then – inexperienced in life, still learning who you are and what makes you tick; still learning about the world – and from the adult perspective, despite seeing your younger self's inexperience, you still cringe," says Blackman. At a deep level, shame can trip us into believing everything bad about ourself, and in the process believing nothing good as well. "This is a horrible experience but it is something that you can change – you are not stuck like this."
So how can we move past the humiliating moments that haunt us? Beverley Blackman has given R29 readers (myself included) the following advice.
1. Easier said than done, but accept it
"Learning to love yourself and accept who you are despite past mistakes is part of it. This is linked to raising your self-esteem and starting to take on board and believe the good things that people tell you about yourself, rather than just focusing on the bad things. It's worth reminding yourself that you are human, and humans make mistakes or get things wrong. It's nature; no one is, or indeed can be, perfect."
2. Sympathise with your younger self
"If you are looking back to the past and recalling a specific event, try to view your childhood or teen self with sympathy. Your younger self was doing your best and here is one occasion whereby it didn't quite work out. Were there other times when other things that you were doing actually did work out? Try to bring those into the equation too. Chances are that you are not an entirely bad person just because you made a mistake."
3. Reassess the power you put behind other people's judgements
"It is worth reminding yourself that you make a choice as to how much weight you attach to a person's judgement of you. What gives them the right to judge you? Why would you trust their judgement? When you look back, what do you think of the way in which you were judged back then?"
4. Talk about it
"Choose a friend you trust – or maybe a friend that was there at the incident you have in mind – and ask them if they remember it. They may not, and this will tell you something: that it possibly isn't as remarkable as you recall it to be. They may remember, and they will probably respond with sympathy and they will give you their view on it. One of my clients fell off the stage during a nativity play when they were at primary school; they discussed it with an old friend who had also been there at the time. The client's recollection was of people laughing. The friend's recollection was of the class bully laughing but of others rushing to help – and they were able to sympathise with my client.
"The mind can be very selective as to what it remembers and if your narrative about yourself is negative, then the memories will be shaped to fit that narrative. Having the narrative challenged by someone you trust can be very beneficial as it allows you to change your view of an event and consequently shift your perspective of yourself."
5. Put the feelings of embarrassment down
"A further way to deal with it is simply to make the choice to put the event and the feelings down. This is acceptance of a mistake and the knock-on effect of it, and usually happens once you have got it back in proportion, having explored and dealt with it by chatting to friends or by learning to think about it differently yourself. A reminder that it happens to us all, even psychotherapists!"