As recently as a few years ago, I still could not stand to paint the inside of my house. Painting always seemed to me to be a quiet activity with lots of time for a wandering mind to think.
Within hours of starting to paint, I would find myself mired in recollections of painful emotions and broken dreams. It was like a time machine taking me back to a period when I had to paint the inside of my house while languishing in the despair of a broken heart.
Long road trips similarly evoked a parade of memories of lost relationships from my adolescent years. I found it amazing that my present moments, my thoughts and my feelings, could be so clouded by decades old events… even those I had already worked through with the help of others.
Now, years later and as a psychologist, I regularly work with people whose daily experiences of the world and other people are shaped by the tyranny of their memories. What defines you and your daily experiences?
Whether you define yourself as a brain, a body, or a soul, how you navigate the world and relationships is largely influenced by your past experiences… by your memory.
Attachment styles, as emotion regulation strategies and roadmaps for the social world, have strong implications for memory and present real-time experience. People with dismissing attachment styles show evidence of decreased recall for memories of relationships and emotional content from the past. A hallmark of dismissing attachment is that people with this style regularly report having little to no memory of early childhood.
This may be because they actively turn their attention away from negative social events and may not transfer the event into long-term memory in the first place.
People with disorganized or fearful attachment styles have memories that may be disjointed and fragmented when it comes to recalling difficult interactions with others. Verbalizing memories in this way on the Adult Attachment Interview typically results in someone being classified as “unresolved” in relation to loss and trauma. In other words, disturbing memories from the past still interfere with thought processes.
Individuals with preoccupied attachment styles also have a penchant for certain memory patterns. They have a tendency toward being focused on memories of past hurts and often do not get over anger toward an attachment figure who has been inconsistent or otherwise wronged them. They tend to replay memories past painful events as if figuring things out in the present will somehow undo the pain of the past and facilitate a psychic release of pain.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these attachment styles and their corresponding memory patterns, but each has a cost. The trick is to pay the cost intentionally and on purpose with full knowledge of how the memory system works.
Consider for example a person with a preoccupied attachment style who tells their therapist a painful story of fractured relationships, loss, and distress. This person may tell the story multiple times across the next several months of treatment. Each time the story is told, it activates the painful emotions that go along with it. These painful emotions are experienced in the real present moment and further solidify the memory.
Many supportive helpers will encourage this emotional processing, assuming that they are facilitating a therapeutic emotional release. While that may be true, there also reaches a point of diminishing returns where retelling the story just prolongs the sense of loss and relationship dysfunction that negatively impacts the person’s self-concept.
At this point, a mental health professional may suggest, with care and respect, that retelling the story and re-experiencing the emotions may be what is keeping the person stuck. I have suggested to people in this situation, that there really is little left to figure out by rehashing the painful memory. That they may be better served by changing how they think and feel in the present.
Try this thought experiment:
The next time you are bothered by something and mulling it over in your head to the point where you are feeling annoyed or otherwise experiencing negative emotions, ask yourself: “If I did not have a memory, what would this present moment look like?” Would I still be having a negative experience?
I did this recently on the way to work after having a spat with a relative and a difficult interaction with a coworker. I asked myself the “what if I didn’t have a memory…?” question. At that moment, I looked up at the clear blue sky and took a breath of the clean fresh air. I brought my attention to my body and noted that I felt strong and healthy.
I thought of the exciting and important work I had to do that day. And I answered the question. “There would be absolutely nothing wrong with this moment. The present moment is a good one.” And with that, I was able to let go of my memory of the spat and negative interaction and started my day positive and fully in the present.
You can also ask yourself things like “what would this moment be like if I didn’t remember being lonely or feeling rejected, angry or afraid?” Don’t worry about deluding yourself. You won’t. Remember that as humans we are biased toward recalling negative events more readily than positive events. We also tend to take negative explanations for events as facts and dismiss positive explanations as delusions or fantasies. I am merely suggesting leveling the playing field.
Here is some more to think about: Researchers (Foster and colleagues, 2017) recently found evidence that when we recall memories from the past, it changes our physiological reactions (heartbeat; sweating) in the present. In other words, memories activate real-time emotions. So, the more you think about negative events from the past, the more emotional pain you will feel in the present moment.
But this effect works in the other direction too. Painful emotions in the present (feeling sad, rejected, lonely) will trigger memories from the past that are congruent with those emotions. Charmaine Hanson and Terry Pettijohn II (2016), found that people recall negative events and memories easier than positive ones and that a sad mood reduces your attention to the present moment and makes it easier to recall the past. It’s as if your brain is looking for additional evidence to justify how you feel. And it will find it!
The more often the connections between memories for events and feelings are made, the stronger those connections become and the more easily recalled the memories will be in the future. And, the farther back in memory you go, the more access you will have to more unpleasant memories.
Based on their findings, Foster and colleagues suggested that older memories will have been activated more (by each time they are recalled) and will, therefore, be associated with more similar memories and the negative emotions that are associated with them.
My take-home message from all of this is to encourage you to practice not living in fear of your own painful memories, to realize that they are not of the present moment and need not dictate how you feel, or even who you know yourself to be, in the present.
Understanding how memory works and is automatically activated should help you to choose, consciously and with intent, the degree to which you replay the past or whether you take a page from the dismissing-attachment playbook and learn to suppress old memories when it is no longer adaptive to keep replaying them.