How can I get over embarrassing memories?

I can't seem to put these cringe-worthy, shudder-making moments out of my head.

Topics: Since You Asked,

Dear Cary,

Do you have any advice for getting over an embarrassing memory?

I seem to relive the gut-wrenching shame and crushing humiliation every time one of these unfortunate moments replays, unbidden, in my mind. They never seem to go away, either, along the lines of a recurring nightmare. Rationally, I realize that none of it really matters, it’s not such a big deal, everybody has these kinds of experiences. But it’s surprising how intense the negative emotion can be.

Until an “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” type of memory-erasing procedure becomes available, is there anything — short of substance abuse, of course — that can be done to get rid of cringe-worthy recollections, or at least how they make me feel? Like dying, that is…

Still Shuddering at the Thought

Dear Still Shuddering,

Let’s talk about embarrassing memories.

When I was very, very young something happened involving my penis and a woman who smelled really good and had prominent breasts. I don’t know what precisely occurred. Perhaps I was playing with my penis when a woman who smelled really good and had prominent breasts came along and scolded me. Perhaps I attempted to discuss my penis with such a woman and profoundly negative consequences resulted. I do not remember. But something happened. And to this day, when I see a woman who smells really good and has prominent breasts, I want to talk to her about my penis.

It’s quite awkward. I’m over 50 and married. I do not talk to strange women about my penis. A few years ago, however, when I was well into adulthood, a woman who smelled really good and had prominent breasts came to my office and invited me to lunch. She did not know anything about the prominent breasts and the smelling really good and the childhood association. She wanted to discuss how I might contribute to a storytelling series. She just thought that I was a person who might stand up in a crowded room and tell some kind of story.

It must be said that one’s deepest compulsions often seek cover in ideas. I have long held the idea that the power of personal storytelling comes in part from the uncomfortable lifting of a veil over one’s most difficult and troubling personal facts. It is this belief that has taught me to be particularly alert to those areas of revelation that bring a tremor to my soul. It is in the raw revelation of such things, I have long believed, that a kind of catharsis can be found, and a deep bond can be forged between audience and performer.

So thusly under the influence, your honor, of a certain compulsion, veiled, as it were, as creative license, it occurred to me as we sat having lunch that it would be a boundary-transgressing, cutting-edge act of provocative theater if I told a story about my penis. So I talked to this strange, good-smelling woman at some length about my penis — its shape and size, its history, its many uses.

I forget what we had to eat — or I have repressed it. But I remember the place — the Metropol on Sutter Street in San Francisco, over which now hangs, in the streetscape of my mind, a fluorescent banner that says, “Cary Tennis talked about his penis here.”

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The whole thing in retrospect is profoundly embarrassing.

Talking about it helps.

It was perhaps a healthily aversive experience, as the look on her face said a great deal about the meager chances for a positive outcome such an approach would have onstage. And the palpable discomfort of our moronic conversation, coupled with my growing unhappiness later as the days wore on and no phone call came inviting me to tell my story, the story, after all, of my penis — all this contributed to a feeling of closure on the issue.

I suppose the little deranged homunculus who wants so desperately to talk is still writhing away somewhere in the womb of my unconscious. But the obsession has miraculously lifted!

It was, as I say, profoundly embarrassing and caused many shuddering moments of reluctant recollection. In fact, until this very day, I have told no one of this story. No one knows but me and the poor woman who endured an exceedingly strange lunch with an obviously troubled man.

In telling it, however, I have framed it in such a way as to accept it. My motives were good. I was following something. It was quite innocent in a way. One needs, after all, to put on blinders sometimes, to endure discomfort and fear of social disapproval in order to get at the truth.

So, having shown you mine, I would expect you to show me yours — your embarrassing story, that is. Your unbearable faux pas, your cringe-worthy tale. That is what we do with these things. We tell them. We find the sane motive behind the insane behavior. We consider how circumstance conspired against us, catching us at our weakest, our hungriest, our most vulnerable. We try to widen our focus to see the inevitability that relieves some of the blame. We see how this thing was destined to happen. And we try to forgive ourselves.

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