You arrive at your high school's prom, which is advertised as a “Venice Party.” You and your mother carefully chose an outfit to match your bright blue mask: blue shirt, blue pants, and washable blue dye in your hair. But you see it as soon as you enter: hardly anyone is dressed! You run in fear to the toilet cubicles, where a second shock hits you: blue hair dye has covered your entire face.
No, this is not a nightmare, nor is it the opening scene of a bad rom-com, but something that actually happened to me twenty years ago. I still sometimes think about it and have a stomach ache.
There are few memories so powerful that we are ashamed of them. Stumbling in public, making an offhand comment to someone you're looking up to, forgetting your lines on stage… everyone can imagine one of their own mistakes. But if it makes us feel uncomfortable, why is our memory of shame so strong?
The benefit of shame is easy to understand from an evolutionary perspective. People who join a safe group have a greater chance of survival. That's why we evolved in a way that motivates us to be social and to “belong.” Shame helps us do this: it links inappropriate behavior that may lead to rejection from the group with strong negative feelings, so that we avoid this behavior in the future.
However, like almost all emotions, when shame reaches extreme levels, it no longer works in our favor. For example, research shows that shameful events, especially those that occurred in our early childhood, can have traumatic consequences. The memory of such events can simply enter our consciousness, and often triggers rumination: repeatedly thinking about your thoughts and feelings at that moment, so that you can relive them over and over again. Even after many years, extremely embarrassing events increase the risk of developing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even paranoia.
Sometimes it seems better to simply forget a particular painful memory. But can we do it of our own free will? Studies of “motivated forgetting” indicate this. In the first studies of this phenomenon, participants had to learn different combinations of two words. They then had to try to think of the word that matched some of the words, but not of another part of the words. Later, their memory for words that they had not consciously thought about actually became worse. In follow-up research, it was shown that this technique also works to forget negative images and even details from our negative memories.
However, motivated forgetting does not always work equally well for everyone. It seems to be less easy in extreme events, and people with complaints of anxiety or even sleep deprivation are generally less efficient at it. Moreover, there is no need to completely erase from our memory the shameful events of our lives. Most importantly, we learn how to process the negative emotions associated with our memories in a constructive way. This is usually achieved by gradually dissociating memory from our emotions, which involves repeated exposure (Exposure) is a useful tool.
For example, years ago I gently told my best friend about the “blue hair incident.” Besides being poignant, he also thought it was a very funny story. Since then, I sometimes tell the tale at a party, or about a new love, because now I can see the humor in it for myself. But you won't see me buying blue hair dye anymore — so my shyness still has an evolutionary use.
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