Cringing at ourselves, while painful, can lead to greater awareness of our personal identity. First, one of the most common forms of self-cringe is cringing at our past selves, which reminds me of this meme (our brains are incredibly adept at recording cringe memories in crisp detail, whereas positive memories are a bit more blurry). This greater capacity to accurately record (and replay) cringe memories appears, I think, to stem from our natural negativity bias – we are primed to better remember negative events in our life because it is a higher priority, socially, to avoid similar events in the future rather than achieve positive moments.
The emotion of cringe is related to embarrassment, shame, and exclusion, and as such it speaks to our inherent need to be accepted socially. From an evolutionary perspective, experiencing these negative emotions in our distant past would be warning signals that we could be, or were, separated from the group, which would entail a lower chance of survival. The negativity bias exists, then, because we fare better when the focus is on mitigating future mistakes and negative events, instead of trying to maximise successes and positive events.
Evolution aside, it is possible to see the positive side of cringe: as a self-revelatory emotion. When we cringe at our past selves, this provides insight into the changing self-concept, or how our conception of ourselves develops over time. If we didn’t believe that we had changed as people, then it would not be possible to cringe at things we thought, said, or did in the past. There is, therefore, a sense in which we have a consistent self (a sense of self or parts of self that persist over time) and an inconsistent self (a tension between who we were in the past – or the present conception of our past self – and our conception of ourselves in the present). We may deem certain personality traits inherent to who we are (some of which may, indeed, remain more or less stable over time), whereas other personality traits – or attitudes, beliefs, worldviews, tastes, lifestyles, and behaviours – can shift; sometimes quite dramatically. We contain multitudes. But there are some of our past aspects we’d rather forget, based on the value we place on the parts of ourselves we developed over time and the evaluations we make based on these differences.
In a sense, cringe can also signal that we have multiple selves, which may be temporally related (e.g. the present self that cringes at the past self, the latter still being part of who we are since we deem that past belonging to us and influencing our current self) or more present-focused (i.e. we cringe at some existing aspects of our sense of self, and we may feel this as a conflict between a self-concept we embrace and another self-concept we reject). The compartmentalisation of the self, or the sense of having different selves, helps to make cringe possible.
When we come to negatively appraise certain traits that we did in the past, we can experience ‘cringe attacks’. Some of these cringe memories can also be extremely recent. Although teenage years can be especially awkward, with outpourings of awkwardness coming from our insecure ego and desire for approval, everyone is susceptible to cringe. A joke that doesn’t land, a social faux pas, or some other slip-up can etch itself into our memory because we feel a painful realisation that how we attempted, or wanted, to come across did not come across that way at all, and so we suffer the sting of a spoiled social atmosphere. We feel the judging and mocking gaze of others bearing down on us.
Cringing at ourselves, since it is often within the context of social situations, can additionally reveal how the self is, to a large extent, relational. Who we are is (partly) based on how we envision others conceiving us, while others have their own subjective conception of who we are. And this presents an interesting, and perhaps existential, difficulty in the attempt to match these two self-concepts. How can we know if how we think others conceive us aligns with how they actually conceive us? Does this alignment matter? Are we better off arriving at a stable sense of self, irrespective of both the imagined and actual evaluations of ourselves from others? Or do we gain a healthier sense of self when we aim for consistency between how we feel authentically, the conviction that others see that authenticity, and their actual perception of that authenticity (which we can glean from the comments they make about us to ourselves and others)?
I’m not sure about the right answer to any of these questions, but they nonetheless point to the relational aspects of self, and how our connections with others – marked as they are by uncertainty since we are non-telepathic – also suffuse our sense of self with a degree of uncertainty and, in turn, anxiety. (Humans do, distinctively, possess Theory of Mind (ToM), otherwise known as mind-reading, which is an evolved capacity to mentally represent the thoughts and beliefs of others, but this does not amount to actually reading the minds of others.) We may want to know for certain who we are as people and how everyone we encounter truly thinks of us, and the relation between these two desires. But such knowledge seems to elude us.
We’ve already touched on the temporal aspect of cringe, at the common – the painfully all-too-common – experience of cringing at our past selves. But something that crossed my mind recently is that this temporal relation can be reversed; our past self can cringe at our current self. By this, I mean that we can carry into the present our past self-concept, and we can imagine who we were in the past cringing at who we’ve become in the present. This is not usually how the emotion of cringe operates. Cringe tends to be directed towards the past. However, I have found myself thinking (and I’ve heard others say this) that my past self would cringe at some of the opinions and beliefs I have now.
As an example, I was very much into the atheist movement and anti-religion attitude as a teenager. But as I became more interested and appreciative of (certain elements of) religion and spirituality as I got older, I can imagine my younger self cringing at my current self. Feelings, outlooks, and ways of expression that might have been judged as ‘airy fairy’, irrational, deluded, and cringe by my past self now seem balanced, healthy, and fulfilling by my current self. I wonder if it is also possible to cringe at our imagined selves in the future. Perhaps some of us already have a sense of turning into our parents, making dad jokes, being even more out of touch with the younger generation – becoming ‘uncool’, in other words – and this can give us anticipatory cringe.
Cringe may also lead to insight into the acculturated self, or the acculturated aspect of personal identity: the self that is informed, or formed by, culture. When we cringe at ourselves, we may be recoiling at what we’ve said or done because culturally we deem it unacceptable. This unacceptability is frequently based on cultural norms and standards, which may be (more or less) universal among different cultures, or relative to a specific culture.
Returning to the notion of multiple selves, we can think of ourselves as having an acculturated self – that is, the kind of person that is, or the kind of person we want to be, based on the culture we are situated in. Of course, this personal identity will be similar among many different people because culture is uniform. We may cringe at ourselves, sometimes, when we feel we step out of this uniformity and think, speak, and act in ways that are atypical; and in so doing we ourselves and others may deem our opinions or behaviour as ‘too much’, offensive, weird, and so on and so forth.
This point about the acculturated self ties into the idea of cringe being related to authenticity. In my essay on the philosophy and ethics of cringe, I suggested that we often cringe at ourselves when we act inauthentically; cringe arises when we experience a mismatch between who we genuinely are and a sense of self we are trying to put out into the world. I have wondered, however, whether some cringe is based on the opposite of this: we may sometimes feel embarrassed when our true selves are naked and exposed to the world. Hence, this can be why it is uncomfortable to let loose and fully relax when amongst others because this might mean saying and doing things that we have long been accustomed to view as inappropriate (based on the expectations of our peer group or the wider culture). A reputational cost may then follow.
If this is the case, then this can be another form of self-insight. The experience of cringe may signal to us that something inside that wanted to be expressed has been expressed and our discomfort about that being seen by others tells us that we’ve become psychologically naked. Whether we experience or imagine judgement from others based on our honest self-expression, we can turn our cringing at ourselves into a kind of self-affirmation. Cringe is a form of aversion and rejection. It is thus a way of saying ‘no’ to ourselves. It is the non-Nietzschean attitude towards life. If some cringe is based on authentic expression, this is valuable because it lets us know that we struggle to fully accept and affirm ourselves. Every instance of recoiling at ourselves can be turned into an attitude of self-embrace, which casts the toe-curling pain of cringe in a completely new light.