Note: This is the second of a two-part series
Let’s argue for a moment that you have certain memories that won’t go away. These memories might be pleasant, disturbing, conflicted or erotic. They may be related to success, failure, embarrassment or about handling a situation poorly. The only truly common theme is that these memories keep coming back to you, re-occurring over and over in your mind. So how do you make sense of memories—sweet or haunting—that simply won’t go away?
The first step is to recognize that many of our memories are there to teach us something, to hold us accountable for handling ourselves better or to require more effective behavior of ourselves in the future. Jefferson A. Singer offers suggestions for understanding memories that won’t go away in his book Memories that Matter (New Harbinger Publications): They are:
• Find a couple of memories from your life where a negative experience became an opportunity for learning. It may be of a personal setback or failure, of a conflict or loss, of shame, embarrassment or humiliation. In each case, ask yourself the question: “This memory has taught me that…” Make sure to look at how the experience helped you learn or changed you for the better. Just doing that will often go a long way in reducing the pain from the memory.
• When you have a memory that won’t go away, but that doesn’t have a lesson that you can identify, try answering the following questions: How would you define the problem? What is causing the tension or the conflict? What feelings do you associate with this struggle? Why do you think the problem has not been resolved? Then try to imagine alternative but realistic resolutions to the memory’s dilemma. When you have found an alternative ending that feels best to you, imagine how it might have changed you, or your subsequent experiences and interactions.
• Find a memory that won’t go away, and ask yourself: “What was I doing before this incident occurred? What will I now do as a result of this incident?”
• Find a memory of you rising to the occasion—where you faced a challenge or adversity and had to summon your inner resources to overcome an obstacle. Memories of this nature can be used to assist other people, including your children—who are discouraged by a setback or a difficult challenge—to gain hope and courage, and to summon their own inner resources to overcome the obstacles in their way.
• Identify a memory that expresses regret or a feeling of having missed the mark. Write down all the details, thoughts and concerns associated with the memory. Also write down any of the following statements that apply: “Under the circumstances I did the best that I could. I am only human and am allowed to make mistakes. I meant well, even if the end result did not end up as I wished. This incident does not capture all of who I am. I have punished myself enough for what went wrong. I cannot change the past and therefore must let go.” Sit quietly and reflect on the memory and the words of release that you have written down. Repeat the words of release several times (example: “I cannot change the past and therefore must let go.”)
Every one of your memories is a metaphor that reflects meaning. It may be asking you to learn something, to alter some behavior or to hold yourself accountable for doing better in the future. Individuals who possess the ability to step back from—and reflect on the lessons from their life experiences—are far more likely to gain wisdom and be at greater peace with themselves.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Denver and Boulder, CO, specializing in how people strengthen their intimate relationships. He can be reached at 303.758.8777, or e-mail him from his website www.heartrelationships.com.