I’ve come to look at my memories differently lately and no longer trust them to be either accurate or carved in stone as I now know they change. My first“Aha” moment about memories came years ago when I discovered that if I leave a contract in a drawer unread for twelve months,God will play a practical joke and change the words.
This lesson came hard and expensive. I’m in the real estate ownership business, which can be very litigious. We own many properties with thousands of retail tenants adding up to thousands of legal contracts, many of which were the result of both emotionally- spirited and hard-fought negotiations.
Occasionally there will be a contentious dispute and one side or the other will eventually say“Sue the bastards!” I’ll remember vividly what the contract saysand get upset with the other party, knowing I’m in the right, and the war will be on. Then I’ll reread the contract and be shocked to see it doesn’t say what it said when I signed it! Or at least it doesn’t say what I remember that it said…
A second example is having the blessing of spending the last two years living with my 94-year-old mother. It’s given me the opportunity to see how in her very late years her memories of a tormented childhood have shifted into seeing her tormentors as loving instead of terrorists.
My mother always told me that she was scared of her mother who showed little warmth(she threw my aunt out of the house) and my mother didn’t respect her father’s passive role in her childhood. After hearing this for my entire life I now see that her memory has shifted to seeing both her parents as sweet, kind and loving.
How can it be that I’m sure that a contract I signed a year ago said certain things, and after a year I discover the contract says entirely different things and that my mother goes a whole lifetime angry and afraid of her mother who’s been dead for years, and all of a sudden, she turns her mother into a saint?
These example show that memories aren’t always accurate and, in fact, may change as time goes by.
Indeed, as I learned from an article in Wired magazine (February 17, 2012), most of us think our important memories are carved in stone, existing in a fixed way like films or videos, are stored in our brain and always replay the same way –but we are wrong. Scientists have discovered that actually memories are formed through neural connections and chemicals and that in the act of remembering an event, a memory is reconstituted or reassembled.
Different parts of the memory of that event – the visual images, the sounds, the emotions, all the various aspects of the memory – are stored in different parts of the brain, and when we recall the event the brain rebuilds the memory by combining all its different aspects. And it may be remembered slightly differently, depending on how you’re feeling at the moment you reassemble it.
Let’s say you’re remembering a dinner with your mate. If you’re hungry when you remember the evening, you may have a more vivid memory of the food; If you’re feeling loving when you remember the evening, you may see the memory through a loving lens. If you’re feeling anxious about your relationship, you may remember things that would support your feeling anxious now. The point is that the emotions you feel reshape how you remember it.
New information or knowledge may change the memory. Let’s say that you notice a family dealing ith an angry child having a tantrum. Your first reaction is what a brat the child is and that the parents should have more control over him. Later you learn that the child is autistic so your memory of the incident changes, and by feeling compassion for the child and parents, you realize, when you remember the event, that the parents are doing the best they can.
I’ve seen people who had unhappy marriages with a difficult spouse remember only good things about their marriage once the spouse has died.
When all is said and done, it’s human nature to recall an event the way we want to see it. Many people have a tendency to convert painful memories into more harmonious memories by forgiving grievances or painting over events with brighter colors than were actually there or focusing on different aspects of the event than those that were prominent during the time closer to the event.
Recognizing that a memory can change canhelp us think about our memories and see them differently and constructively but without whitewashing them, and may help us heal.
Years of therapy have helped me shift my childhood memories of my emotionally fragile mother. I grew up thinking that I was forced to be “the man of the family,” responsible for her emotional well-being after my father died, even though I was only eleven years old. I learned, through therapy, that this responsibility robbed me of my childhood by “parentifying” me long before I reached adulthood. I spent most of my 30s and 40s becoming (silently) angry at my mother for doing this to me.
It wasn’t until my 50s that I started to see her from the perspective of “wiring” – the way her brain was programmed from the traumatic experiences she had had in her own early life – and I realized then why she was so emotionally fragile.I also came to realize thatshe never asked me to take care of her.I took the job on because I didn’t trust her stability. It was my doing, believing that the only way I could survive was to take care of her and to have no conflicting needs of my own. Interpreting the situation with my own particular programming, I’d volunteered to be “parentified.”
Remembering the memory with the additional knowledge I gained did not take away the painful effects of having lost my childhood at age eleven – it didn’t make my childhood experience less of a challenge for me – but it did help me to let go of my anger and allow me to heal and to forgive.
Remembering my mother as a woman doing her best to cope with a tragic loss and having wiring that made her emotionally fragile helped me understand her. In time, it also helped me to have compassion for her as well as for what I experienced as a child.
I still had scars, but I saw the scars differently. And the new information I had about how we are wired and our potential for change, helped me to see that, through mindfulness – through paying attention to the present instead of letting my programming run me – I could transform myself and have a more fulfilling life.
A friend shared a similar experience of how additional knowledge about his father reshaped his memories of him. While my friend was growing up, his father, who was angry and controlling, often lost his temper and hit my friend, which had made my friend hate him. As an adult, my friend learned that his grandfather had committed suicide, and that his father had found the body when he was six years old. This had a profound negative effect on my friend’s father because, besides losing his own father, now his mother had to get a full time job, and he had to be brought up by his angry older brother.My friend’s father’s wiring that resulted from his own childhood caused him to copy his brother’s “parenting style” in parenting my friend.
Learning this new family history allowed my friend to heal, to let go of his anger at his father and to feel more compassion for him.
As with me, my friend’s scars are still there, but he sees the scars a different way and is committed to fulfilling his potential to change and to grow.
The emotional content of memories is held in the amygdala, which plays a major role in triggering fear. The middle prefrontal cortex provides the executive functions, which include modulating fear and other emotions, insight, intuition, and other functions that help us to be attuned to ourselves and other people in our responses.
Pioneer psychoanalyst Carl Jung coined the word complex to describe the mini-personality that we form unconsciously in reaction to traumatic relationships with a parent. If we have a traumatic relationship with our father or mother, we may develop a father complex or a mother complex – which causes us to feel bad and act inappropriately when we encounter a man or a woman that our programming interprets as being the same or similar to our parent.
When we’re in a complex –the mini-personality which has its own programmed point of view –, the amygdala runs the show, bypassing the executive functions and all rational thought. In this non-reasoning state, people we encounter tend to be heroes or villains, sinners or saints, all good or all bad.
The lesson to be learned is never trust memories that show up while you’re in a complex. While you’re in a complex, you’re not thinking correctly,
The thing to do in order to heal is to be mindful enough to separate your anger and rage from your perception of what really happened during a particular upsetting event. You have to see the event for what it was as opposed to your interpretations of what occurred.
All upsets result from of one of three things:
1. an incomplete communication (a message that the other person didn’t truly get or receive)
2. a thwarted intention (you had an objective and you didn’t achieve)
3. an unfulfilled expectation (you anticipated something would happen a certain way – probably that it “should” happen that way– and it didn’t).
If you want to heal, you have to clean the wound that resulted from the event. Cleaning the wound comes from full self-expression. True healing comes when we are able to be fully self-expressed, to share what is going on in our inner world with the person that can really do something about it and to share it in a user-friendly way — a way in which the other person doesn’t feel that he/she is being attacked.It’s easy to feel like powerless victims when we feel that a person who hurt us has all the power.
When we remember a situation in which we’ve been hurt and we’re not being mindful, we may well perceive ourselves as a helpless victim. If we look at the situation mindfully and with insight, we can see that we play a role in creating suffering for ourselves and that we co-created the situation by giving the other person power over us instead of taking our own power to stand up for ourselves. When we can do this,our memories will magically shift as will our attitude and our quality of life.
- 20 Jun, 2013
- Posted by Steve Fogel
- 0 Comments