How to Forget Things On Purpose

Woman staring out window

Have you ever found yourself cringing over a bad memory? You're walking down the street when, all of the sudden, you're hit with a wave of embarrassment over something you did weeks, months, or even years ago?

If you have, you're not alone. Almost everyone has experienced these "cringe attacks" at least once, if not multiple times. For some, these bad memories fade away with time. However, especially if you have social anxiety disorder (SAD), it may feel like you're constantly reliving your most embarrassing moments.

Negative Social Memories

You may have a hard time trying to forget a bad memory, whether or not you have SAD. It may feel as though you've built up a "memory bank" filled with all of the situations you remember as being shameful and embarrassing.

While the specific memories that stick with you will vary from person to person, some examples include the following. These might be subjective, such that only you would see the negative aspect of the situation or they could be overtly traumatizing, such as being the object of ridicule:

  • Making a mistake in a social situation, such as calling someone by the wrong name
  • Freezing during a performance situation
  • Being rejected by someone, particularly in a romantic relationship
  • Believing that others were aware of your anxious symptoms, such as shaking hands or blushing
  • Being bullied or made fun of by your peers

After these types of events, when you recall them, you might say things to yourself such as:

  • "Why did I say/do that?"
  • "I'm so embarrassing"
  • "Why can't I interact easily with others?"

In essence, you keep reliving those embarrassing memories and it may feel as though you can't shut off your brain.

Oxytocin and Bad Memories

While the hormone oxytocin has generally been heralded as having a positive influence in social situations, recent research has pointed to its potential to embed negative social memories in those with SAD.

In this way, oxytocin may have the effect of causing emotional pain and could be the reason that stressful social situations stay with us long after the original event—and may even trigger future anxiety and fear.

Research in Mice

In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in 2013, mice with varying levels of oxytocin receptors (no receptors, increased receptors, normal levels of receptors) in the brain were studied to examine the effects of fear and anxiety.

In the first experiment, the mice were placed in a situation with aggressive mice in which they experienced social defeat, creating a stressful social situation. The mice who were missing the oxytocin receptors would not have had any oxytocin enter their brains.

Six hours later, the researchers put the mice back with the aggressive mice. What they found was that the mice with no receptors showed no signs of fear. The mice with extra receptors show increased levels of fear. Finally, the mice with normal amounts of receptors showed a typical level of fear.

In a second experiment, the researchers were able to show that oxytocin in a stressful social situation could even transfer fear into a situation that followed it—in the case of the mice this was an electric shock. Again, the mice without receptors showed no signs or remembering to be afraid of the electric shock.

Research in Humans

In contrast, a 2017 study administered oxytocin into the noses of men. First, these men were shown a neutral stimulus (pictures of faces and houses) that was sometimes paired with an electric shock. Then, subjects either received a single dose of oxytocin or a placebo. Then, they underwent fear of extinction therapy while receiving MRI scans. 

They were once again shown the photos, but without the pairing of the electric shock. What they found was that the subjects who received the oxytocin had increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (for controlling fear) and decreased responsiveness in the amygdala when shown the images. This suggested that a single dose of oxytocin was effective to enhance the use of extinction-based therapy for fear and anxiety.

While these results (mice vs. men) may seem contradictory, this could relate to the timing of the oxytocin dose. Had the men who received oxytocin received it at the same time as the electric shock, would the memory of the shock have stuck with them longer? The answer to this issue is not clear.

Oxytocin and Social Fears

What does this research tell us about our own fear, anxiety, and their relation to bad memories?

It appears that oxytocin may strengthen social memories in the brain (specifically, in the lateral septum), or have the effect of intensification or amplification. This is important since chronic social stress is known to cause anxiety and depression. This effect seems to also last a long time—at least six hours.

This type of research also suggests that just as social anxiety appears to have a genetic component, it follows that your brain's ability to access oxytocin might relate to how well you encode bad memories in social situations, such that they may make you afraid in the future.


If past negative social events play a central role in SAD, it makes sense that the elimination of memories of these events would help to lessen your anxiety:

  • If you tend to have flashbacks or "cringe attacks" about shameful situations from the past, it may be helpful to keep a journal in which you record happy or positive events as well. Anytime you remember a negative memory, try to follow it up with a positive one.
  • In response to flashbacks, you could also have a few phrases that you repeat to yourself, such as "that event does not define me."
  • You could also try to practice mindfulness when memories come back to you. Instead of allowing yourself to become engrossed in the memory, try bringing your attention to something in the present moment such as a sight or smell.
  • If you still struggle, try employing a cognitive-behavioral approach, and ask yourself, "Does anybody other than me really remember that situation or think about it?"
  • Finally, if you find yourself falling victim to the need to be perfect, and your memories center around times you have made mistakes, try making mistakes and doing things wrong on purpose. In time, if you are out there seeking to embarrass yourself, memories of those situations will have a different flavor. Tell yourself that you deserve social acceptance now, at the moment, rather than at some future time when you have become the "perfect" person.
  • Above all else, don't use negative strategies to forget bad memories, such as abusing drugs or alcohol.

Gene Variations and Bad Memories

Wouldn't it be wonderful to completely erase all of your negative memories? While that might sound like science fiction, modern medicine may be closer to making it happen than you realize.

Research has shown that a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene variation is related to fear generation. BDNF gene therapy could be used in the future, by altering genes that contribute to fear and anxiety.

In the same way, the Tac2 gene pathway has been shown to reduce the storage of traumatic memories. As a result, a medication that blocks the activity of this pathway could prevent the storage of traumatic memories in the first place. While this would be most useful for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this type of research may also eventually inform negative memories in SAD.

Don't worry though—those bad memories are not erased for good. They are still stored somewhere but are no longer accessible.

A Word From Verywell

Are you haunted by memories of mistakes you've made in the past? While thinking back on past mistakes is normal, dwelling on them to the point that they cause intense fear and anxiety in the present is not.

If you are notice these thoughts are becoming more frequent and interrupting your daily life, consider consulting with your doctor. In particular, meeting with a therapist who specializes in SAD may be helpful to generate strategies to better cope with these negative memories.

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