“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by those you did do”.
If you’ve been anywhere near social media over the past few years, chances are you’ve come across these words. And as it turns out, science shows us that there’s actually a lot of truth to them. People do tend to look back at moments in their lives and feel more disappointed by times of inaction than the times when they took a chance.
Still, many of us often hold back from saying what’s on our minds or avoid doing things we really want to do out of self-consciousness, embarrassment, and fear of judgment from others. In social psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. We tend to believe that others notice us more than they actually do. It’s not that no one is paying attention to us; it’s just not to the extreme we believe it is.
Sitting at her desk reading about the spotlight effect, Senior Editor at Science of Us Melissa Dahl recognized herself and her own personal experiences. She wasn’t an overly anxious person per se. But she did consider herself to be highly self-conscious and could easily recall distinct memories where she had let opportunities pass her by out of fear of attracting attention. She recoiled from memories where she thought she said the wrong thing or instances where she feared she had stood out a little too much.
“To me, awkwardness is self-consciousness coupled with an uncertainty of what’s going to happen,” says Melissa. “It’s something I’ve experienced regularly for a very long time. And it’s just always been something that has driven me nuts. I’ve often felt like ‘I want to speak up in a meeting but I’m gonna be too self-conscious. I can’t do that’. Or ‘I need to have this conversation with somebody at work but I feel too awkward. I’m just no good at awkward conversations, so I’m not going to do that.’”
Melissa wanted to figure out why she felt embarrassment so intensely. And she wanted to understand why memories of her awkwardness would suddenly reemerge in her mind, causing her to relive her humiliation over and over again, something Melissa dubbed “cringe attacks”. Most importantly, though, she wanted to discover how she could learn to embrace these feelings rather than shy away from them.
“One of the things I came across was exposure therapy, which is a series of small steps towards making you feel more comfortable with something. So if you’re afraid of heights, exposures can slowly get you to the point where you’re able to stand on the top floor of a high rise building,” says Melissa. “And another was social mishap exposure, where you intentionally set yourself up for embarrassment with the purpose of making yourself a little less sensitive to it. You can look back at doing something kind of crazy and say ‘yes, that was weird but I’m ok, I survived’. And you get used to that feeling. The idea is that if you get used to these weird situations, perhaps you’ll be better at them when you encounter them in real life.”
Melissa’s recently released book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness recounts her own version of social mishap theory, through a series of challenges where she intentionally set herself up to be embarrassed with the hope of learning to be more accepting of her feelings.
She had a difficult conversation surrounding contentious topics with a friend that had a completely different set of political beliefs than herself. She attended a weekend-long seminar on racism that required her to engage in “uncomfortable but consequential subjects like politics, religion, and race” with complete strangers. She danced in the middle of a circle, leading the group through the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” during an improv class. She even auditioned and performed for a live edition of Mortified, a show that invites people to read aloud from their childhood journals in front of an audience.
“Mortified and my experience there was one of the most powerful things that I did because it shows this idea that we all have this secret version of ourselves, so much of which is contained within us,” recalled Melissa. “And every time you go up on stage in a show like that, you learn to kind of unmask this secret side of you. You get to be in touch with that incredibly intimate emotion of feeling out of place and share it with other people.”
As Melissa continued to challenge herself, she realized there was no way to fully free herself from awkward situations. They could happen anywhere and at any time, even when she least expected it. Instead, she learned to gain a better understanding of herself during the moments when she experienced those feelings and discovered that no matter how awful cringeworthy moments could sometimes feel, that she would get through them.
“It’s something that I don’t think is ever going to completely go away for me or probably anybody because if there’s an awkward situation that comes up, the emotion can still follow. But after you do something over and over and over again, you realize it isn’t so bad. You get used to it. People have a way of getting used to things.”
Check out Melissa’s book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness here.