My mother once asked me if there were times when I would think of something I had either done or not done, no matter how silly, which just made me cringe to think of it. It might be something I said which I feared someone had interpreted the wrong way. Or which revealed something about myself which they might interpret the wrong way or, even worse, the right way. And yes, I had to admit that this was one thing I had inherited from her, the tendency to beat myself up over the most trivial thing. My father was not like that at all, as far as I could tell: he spoke his mind openly and if he felt any regret later sure didn't show it. I have always envied his ability in that respect.

This type of thinking, this over-and-over obsessive dwelling on trivial things, is called ruminating. The term compares our mind to a cow, chewing a mouthful of grass for several minutes to break it down for digestion. Of course there is an evolutionary rationale; our species would not have got as far as we did without the ability to concentrate on dangerous situations to the exclusion of everything else, but when it gets tangled up in everyday minor problems, we have a problem.

So what is an overly sensitive person to do, when they are going to be paralysed with fear about giving the slightest offence even to people who you will never see again and will likely have no memory of it? For example, let's say you buy a coffee at a coffee shop, and have just enough for the coffee but not enough for a tip. You slink away mortified that the pleasant young person who served you will now hate you, and you allow this to ruin the rest of your day. Some of you reading may think what's the big deal? But some will know exactly what I mean. What do you do? Well one alternative is to spend the rest of the day thinking about it, what you should have done, how you can make it right, maybe with twice the tip next time, but wouldn't you look stupid giving such a big tip for such a small item, and what if the same person is not there anyway? They're probably off somewhere telling all their friends about that cheapskate who stiffed them for 15 cents, and will never know that you really did try to make up for your unforgivable sin and oh god...

Or you could try this. Whenever something like this happens, and you become obsessed with some trivial thing that you know most people would laugh off, take the middle knuckle of your right hand (left if you are left-handed) and give yourself a sharp rap on the forehead. You have now been punished for your transgression, and can forget about it. Note that if you want to give an extra tip next time, that's fine, but you need feel no obligation.

Go ahead. Make a mental inventory of those times you did something silly that caused someone to look at you funny, or revealed something about yourself that did not fit that carefully cultivated image, like the time you were drunk and said something that a particular person might have found offensive--if they had been there to hear it (but maybe somebody told them!) -- all the embarrassing moments with friends and family and store clerks, which they forgot in 10 seconds if they paid it any mind at all, but you still shudder at 5 years later. The list doesn't have to be exhaustive. No doubt other things will come to mind later, but by then you will be properly equipped to deal with them.

Now, for each of the items you have dredged up, apply this test. Is it really worth a rap on the head (a severe punishment after all!) or can it just be laughed off? As you begin this process, you may find that yes, pretty well everything is just too cringeworthy and hence rapworthy. But as you start developing a visible bruise on your forehead, you may get tired of beating yourself up and take a closer look at the incidents you are dismissing in such a drastic fashion. Is a chance remark to a cab driver something serious? How about the time you forgot an important task at work and were met with a disapproving look from the manager? Are you perfect? Is he?

As you become more discriminating in selecting incidents worthy of a rap, you will find yourself doing it less and less, and becoming more accepting of yourself and your frailties. Pretty soon you will find that most things you ruminated over before are in fact totally trivial, and you can dismiss them without a second thought. And you will also find that your anxiety in social situations is reduced: you are not as anxious about doing something silly because now you know how to handle it.

Note that this technique can be useful for most things, but not all. You should NOT use it as a universal absolution for all your sins. As you look over the things that make you cringe, there will be some which are actually valid. Things you did (or didn't) which really did cause hurt to other people (or yourself) cannot be dismissed with a rap on the head and a feeling of relief. Examining these, you will probably find that they fall into two categories: things you can do something about and things you can't.

If you can make things right with the person you hurt, then you should do it. Confess to them and ask what you can do to make up for it. You'll probably find that they have forgotten about it, but if not, they will likely be surprised and pleased that you have come forward.

If the hurt is too deep and they can't forgive you, so be it. You probably deserve to suffer. And that's OK, as long as it makes you a better person in future. Finally, if the hurt was to someone who has died or you've lost touch with, find another positive way to redeem yourself. Try to do some good to people who have suffered as you made that person suffer.

My mother died last year, before I worked out this technique. It has helped me greatly. Would it have helped her? I don't know. I wish I could have told her about it, but I can't, so I'm telling you. I hope you find it useful.

Author's Bio: 

I have a background in teaching and web design, and have been a frustrated artist all my life. I finally really opened myself up to the creative process when I encountered The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and since that time have organized the Toronto Artist's Way meetup, dedicated to bringing together artists and would-be artists in a supportive environment. It is always a joyous thing when people come together and realize that there are others like them, who share their dreams for an artistic life and don't reflect the common societal disapproval of creativity. More recently I have set up a website - www.artiststatement.com - which contains articles and resources for people who want to make their way in the world of the artistic.