There are very few times in life when you say something so keenly insightful and significant that you know you have stumbled upon something of great sociological importance to humankind. I would like to humbly announce that so far in my life I have managed this only once, but it was a truly golden moment.
It came about from a conversation that I was having with a friend who had just ended a relationship, but was second-guessing their choice; I was trying to say something – anything – that would be remotely helpful to their situation, and what came out was: “There’s no escaping the cringe.”
We both looked at each other dumbfounded, as we realised the enormity of our discovery. This was exactly what was happening here. My friend had the cringe – had it bad, in fact – and there was no coming back from it. Any relationship struck by the cringe was doomed.
On further reflection, I realised there were two types of cringe: outer cringe and inner cringe. Which you experience the most – and most people experience both at some point – depends largely on your perspective of yourself and the world:
Inner cringe is arguably the most painful to personally experience. Your inner cringe is the reason you know the exact tone and texture of the object of your affection’s shoelaces, but not their eye colour; the reason why you blush and stammer as if their simple question about your day was straight from the second round of Mastermind, and perhaps even the reason why you loudly and catastrophically snorted into your fizzy orange drink as they brushed past you at the last church social. Suspiciously over-specific examples aside, whatever form inner cringe takes, you can rest assured that it’s always characterised by deep feelings of self-loathing and a sudden and mysterious loss of hand-eye coordination.
Outer cringe is equally cruel and malicious, and its ways are even more mysterious, but the fear and loathing tends to be projected outward, onto the people around you. Outer cringe – also known on the depths of the internet as Sudden Revulsion Syndrome, or SRS – is where, out of nowhere, your other half’s innocent habits or quirks invoke a cringe so sudden and violent as to be irrevocable. It’s cruel and unsparing, and impossible to ignore.
I have to admit to being both an inner and outer cringer for much of my life, but with a definite preference toward the outer cringe. And outer cringers have it easy, it must be said. Sure, we feel a little guilty sometimes, when we’ve decided that our date’s penchant for kale has left little to the orthodontist’s imagination (hello, teenage years), or when their laugh has an unusually high squeak at the end, but in general, we come out of the process relatively unscathed. Your date meanwhile, may or may not be bankrolling Kleenex in a fluffy nightie (or male equiv.). Love truly is cruel sometimes.
Inner cringe seems fairly easy to pin down to a lack of confidence, but outer cringe is more complex. I once asked my boyfriend whether he’d experienced the phenomena of outer cringe, and he looked at me like I’d grown another limb. “You know,” I said, hoping that clarification would somehow make me look less monstrous, “it’s when you suddenly just go off someone? You’re really into them one minute and then – poof – the next you’re wishing they were as far away from you as possible?” He just looked at me incredulously. Finally he said: “But why would anyone do that? How is that even a thing?”
It was about this time that I realised that outer cringe is probably the domain of the emotionally unstable. And lest you think I’m being unnecessarily harsh here, I would like to remind you of the definition of unstable, because thinking someone is great one minute and unbearable the next definitely seems like shifting sands to me.
I’m thankful to say I’m now a reformed outer cringer – it’s been quite some time since I really experienced those feelings in full force, and much longer since I’ve acted on them. But what’s changed in me? Why was I so compelled to push people away from me for so long, for seemingly harmless reasons? And is there hope for outer cringers everywhere in my story?
You’ll find plenty of articles on SRS online which continue to firmly pin the blame for outer cringe on outward influences: the relationship had passed its use-by date, it’s a sign of incompatibility, etc. I suspect this is because many of the writers are themselves outer cringers, and outer cringers tend to externalise their issues. But I felt I had to face up to facts and accept responsibility.
I began to realise that my cringe is probably a whole lot more about me and my dislike of certain traits within myself, than it is about the other person. Projection is a word that is over-used in popular culture, but in psychotherapy it specifically applies to the mind’s ability to, often inaccurately, view someone through the lens of certain undesirable traits we dislike in ourselves or in significant others. If I dislike my own selfish nature, I may react quite strongly to any indication, real or imagined, that my boyfriend has similarly selfish traits.
Now, some of this dislike is, if a little hypocritical, at least defensible – who wants to be with a selfish person, after all?! But the reasons for ending relationships were, for me, usually much more innocuous than this, and in many cases, were quite frankly a symptom of a deep-rooted inability to deal with imperfection in myself. Ouch.
So now, if I had my chance again, what would I say to my friend about the cringe? Would I really announce that it’s the final word, the last hurrah, the nail in the coffin of a half-dead relationship?
It’s nowhere near as pithy and will probably never be put onto one of those desk-quote calendar thingies, but I have to say that facing the cringe head-on and pushing through it was probably one of the best choices I ever made. So goodbye, outer cringe. It’s really not me this time, it’s you.