Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Embarrassing Memories: Sharing and Not Sharing the Self

The Unshared Self: Embarrassing memories are unshared, but not forgotten.

Some memories are left untold. Generally, we like to tell each other stories and share our memories. But maybe there are some things we choose to not share. We hide these memories from each other, developing an untold or hidden self.

At the end of the day, we talk with our friends, families, and partners about what happened – our triumphs, failures, and frustrations. Telling our memories serves important functions. Through narrating our lives, we define who we are. When I tell a personal story, I accept that event as being about me. I claim that event as self defining to some extent. I integrate that experience into my ongoing autobiography. By narrating personal stories, we also build relationships. We learn about others, we describe ourselves, and we develop a shared narrative. Thus the experiences we tell are important.

Of course memory is selective. We don’t each other everything that happens every day. We skip the boring stuff. But we also skip some of the important stuff too. Which experiences do we leave unshared?

Embarrassing experiences seem likely candidates for unshared memories. Pasupathi, McLean, and Weeks (2009) asked people to keep a diary of daily experiences and report whether or not they had told someone else about the experience that day. The researchers wondered if people would avoid sharing certain types of emotional experiences. They found that emotion predicted which events were shared on a daily basis – in a very simple manner. People shared more emotional memories. It didn’t really matter whether the event was happy, sad, joyful, frustrating, angering, or embarrassing. The stronger the emotion, the more likely it would be shared. Pasupathi and colleagues wrote as if they were a little surprised by this finding, as if they anticipated that people might avoid sharing embarrassing memories. Then they looked at the content of the memories. The embarrassing events were typically small transgressions: being late for a meeting, forgetting something, and talking in class. These are the sort of mistakes we all make; these mistakes simply define us as human. These transgressions don’t make us bad and awful people.

In additional research, Pasupathi, McLean, and Weeks took a different approach. They asked people to describe some memories they had shared and then some memories they had kept to themselves. Here the results changed. For the unshared memories, the transgressions were bigger and the negative emotions stronger. People chose to leave serious embarrassing memories unshared. And I am choosing to not share my own personal embarrassing experiences as examples – think about your own examples.

People also described why they chose to leave those memories undisclosed. In essence, people were concerned about the social risks of disclosure and wanted to avoid thinking about the events.

We disclose the small embarrassments of everyday life. But we avoid disclosing the serious embarrassments, the real transgressions. We don’t want to suffer the personal pain of remembering and we don’t want to suffer the potential social risks in how others will see us.

Interestingly, these unshared transgressions are not forgotten. These events are not part of our narrative selves; that is the stories we tell others. But these transgressions remain part of the self. When asked about embarrassment, we may think about these events, but we reject these events. We decide to not share these memories. Nonetheless our transgressions stay with us – they become our unshared self, our hidden self, and the self we prefer to not acknowledge.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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