Shifting Thoughts About Memories

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Reader’s Question

I guess there’s always something we wish we could forget, but normally it’s something bad. I have a situation where the memory is actually a wonderful memory and held so much meaning for me. The problem is, it is kind of holding me back and I need to be able to move on from the past. Remembering is making this impossible. The memory pops up at the oddest times, and I just wish there was a way I could forget it. Is there any way I can do that?

Psychologist’s Reply

It might seem counterintuitive that a significant, pleasant memory could actually create painful or difficult feelings for us. However, when we recognize that the event itself isn’t influencing our feelings or actions directly, but is doing so instead through the meaning we are making of the event, we can begin to explore alternative meanings and expand our choices.

While that sounds like a good idea, knowing how to begin to recognize thoughts or meanings as separate from the event can be difficult. There are, however, steps that may help anyone in this situation begin to discover and disentangle the thoughts from the event. I would encourage you to treat these thoughts like a scientist who works with a non-judgmental, objective approach to discovering what may be contributing to the end effect. Viewing this as an experiment may help you uncover more information versus getting caught up in the thoughts and feelings.

First, it may help to give yourself permission to have a journal or something to write on available when you anticipate the “holding back” or feeling “unable to move on.” When it happens, notice what sensations you feel in your body, any emotions that you experience, and most importantly, what thoughts or images pop into your head. Alternatively, you might take some quiet time to reflect on the last time the memory popped into your head and recall where you were, what you were doing, and then see if you can remember what you were thinking about the memory at the time.

Once you are able to more objectively identify the thoughts that arise when the memory appears, you can then begin to explore them more and perhaps start to ask questions about them. For example, if a memory of a former romantic partner comes up, we might think “I really miss that person and I wish he or she were still in my life.” We can let that thought be, or observe whether it leads to other thoughts. If it leads to thoughts like “I’ll never find someone like that again,” or “I’ll be alone forever” then feelings of sadness and worry probably arise. If, however, we can more objectively explore whether or not those thoughts are accurate, we may be able to generate some different thoughts.

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For example, we might ask ourselves “How have I met romantic partners before? What worked? Can I try those things again?” Or, we might ask ourselves what friends and other loved ones we have in our lives, and how to reach out to them or make plans with them. Alternatively, perhaps reflecting on the thoughts and coming up with more compassionate thoughts might influence how you feel. For example, we might say “I miss that person, but I am grateful for the time I had with them” or perhaps, “I learned a lot about myself and how I am in relationships from that person.” When we can expand into more compassionate or grateful thoughts about an experience, it may open up new opportunities. Instead of coming from a stance of scarcity, we may be able to see more abundance and generate thoughts like, “I now know more about the attributes I like and don’t like in a partner, and the next time I meet someone I will be able to make more informed choices” or “I know I will be enough and I will be okay no matter what happens.” Notice how you feel (in your body and/or emotionally) when you generate these more compassionate thoughts instead. Also notice what new ideas or actions you might generate. Finally, sometimes just being able to see what difficult feelings we can tolerate shows us that they are temporary, and that we can weather them when necessary.

Although it may seem as if a magic eraser of memories is the solution right now, my guess is that in a few years you will be grateful to still have it as part of your story. I would encourage anyone in a similar situation to set aside time and space to allow the memory to come so that it doesn’t surprise you at unexpected times. If you are able to allow the memory to come when you invite it and you are able to objectively explore thoughts and meanings you associate with it, you may be able to generate more useful thoughts that may open new feelings and ideas for you.

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