What are painful memories?
Painful memories are flashbacks to incidents you would rather forget, added to cringe-worthy feelings, or shame, disgust, hurt, rage and grief. Concerning things you did wrong, or things people (apparently) did to you. To be distinguished from traumatic memories (PTSD), which are connected to crisis and extreme danger. The advice in this article does not apply to trauma, which is best dealt with using the EMDR technique face-to-face with a trained practitioner.
Memories are not what they seem
Like thoughts, memories are selective, arbitrary, and often misleading. The ‘memories’ that emerge into consciousness are not photographic records of what actually happened; they are crude sketches of what might have happened. Looked at in close detail (as I invite you to do) they are patchy images which zoom in on a few salient details: a face, an item of clothing, or a piece of landscape, for example.
These details are actually symbols for the retrospective judgments you have about that experience: overwhelming, pitiful, or unbearable. A similar technique is used in B-movies, in which the camera closes in on a face in the window, or switches to an object swinging from the ceiling, evoking the sensations of mystery and horror.
Each time your mind-brain retrieves (or more accurately, re-assembles) the ‘memory’ it re-edits it. In this way your memories are like a game of Chinese whispers: each edit takes you further and further away from the original. This is one reason we are so often shocked on re-visiting a place we knew as a child, to find it is not at all the way we recall it.
Memories are partly fashioned by the Ego
The Ego adds its own judgments to each memory, based on the story it has created about life. For example, if your story is one about rejection and loneliness, your memories will have a depressive tone; if your story is about triumphing over the machinations of people who stood in your way, your memories may have a hateful one. If yours is a victim story then your memories may come with anger. In every case, the feelings attached to each memory are a retrospective judgment on the past. Which, in turn, distorts your recall of what really happened.
Your memories will also reflect the Ego’s present judgment on the person you used to be. For example, if your ego’s judgment is that you are weak, your memories will convey feelings of shame. If that you are unforgivable, a feeling of guilt. If that others have damaged you, feelings of despair. Thus, your memories will be of shame, guilt and despair rather than the events themselves.
Creative fantasy and memory
Good novelists are well aware of the potential of (distorted) childhood memories for creating marvellous stories.
From Charles Dickens’ memories of himself as a child forced to leave school after his father was sent to a debtor’s prison, he created David Copperfield. In that novel (‘a mist of fancy’ as he called it) he dramatises his feelings of despair at being made to work in a slum factory by the Thames. Weaving them into a story about a boy who escapes from the factory, runs away to Aunt Betsy, and becomes a successful journalist (as did Dickens).
Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust all repeated the trick in their own novels of childhood, as do many others.
Using creative fantasy to re-edit your own painful memories
You, too, can use your brain’s creativity to defuse memories attached to painful emotions. Here are some methods I employ in therapy. Please remember this creative method requires some repetition before success i achieved.
Insert your (wiser) older self into the scene, guiding and comforting that fictional younger self.
Add a further scene on to the memory, in which you and a (wise) mentor reflect on the life lessons that can be drawn from the memory.
Pick any ‘happy’ memory you can find of yourself and add it on to the unhappy one. Watch as you walk away from the painful scene and enter the pleasant feelings attached to the newer one. Do this again and again until your brain resets.
Changing visual access to painful memories
Like all your other memories, your painful ones are encoded in a series of visual building blocks. For example, you might see your painful memories close up, or in 3-D panorama (remember those B-movies?). The lighting may be harsh and bright, the detail sharp. In the scene, you might be a watcher, or you may be ‘in’ the scene itself.
You can experiment with all these cues. Pushing the scene out to the size of a postage stamp, dimming the light, changing the movie to black-and-white if it is in colour, making the scene fuzzy or dream-like, or taking yourself out of the picture all together.
In my experience (personally and professionally) the most dramatic change you can make is to take a bird’s-eye view, seeing the whole thing from several hundred feet up in the error, with the characters no bigger than toy soldiers.
The lesson here is not to allow your selective ego-mind to control you, but to bend it to your own will.