Why memories hurt

When an experience is recorded as a memory, it goes through the emotional and cognitive filters, assumptions and interpretations of the person. This is one of the reasons why different people can have quite different recollections of the same event.

As records, memories are not a great problem even if they do not accurately reflect the experience. It is the emotional charge of a memory that makes it so potent.

For example, events that do not invoke any particular emotion (passing strangers in the street) do not create significant memories. But if an event involves harm, pain, distress, anger or other strong feelings, the memory and the feelings associated with it will be stored as one.

The emotional charge of a memory comes mostly from the stories we tell ourselves about a difficult experience. One person might say, Well, it happened and although it hurt me, I can’t do much about it now. Better get on with things and deal with the new situation. Another person, on the opposite end of the spectrum, might say, It’s a catastrophe, I’m totally devastated and will never recover from this, ever.

What effect will their memories have on their lives? Neither of the two people will likely forget what happened. But for one person it will be the factual record of a difficult time while for the other it will remain as emotionally charged as the actual experience and keep them trapped in suffering.

Memories are not fixed

Memories are like video and audio recordings that can be modified, enhanced, played louder or softer, rearranged, edited, with special effects added, reissued in new versions. The facts of an event cannot be changed but the emotional charge of a painful memory can be ‘edited’ by facing the emotions associated with it and changing the stories you tell yourself about the event..

Some people need time to get into the right headspace before they can deal with things. Perhaps you have heard someone say, I can’t deal with this right now; or, I am not ready to face it. It is sensible to take charge of your own rate of progress, even it means switching off temporarily.

But when avoidance becomes ingrained and maintained by self-destructive behaviours, the emotional darkness of a memory needs to be transformed. Instead of trying to outrun the memory and its associated pain, a light needs to be shone on it until the emotional charge dissipates and a calmer recollection of the experience is possible.

Disarm painful memories

Be mindful of your inner state as you apply any of the strategies below. Temporary discomfort and distress may be inevitable but usually recedes as you stay with the feeling, experience and acknowledge it rather than fighting or trying to suppress it. However, if you fall into a pit of such despair that it overwhelms your own coping abilities, do not continue. Professional help may be needed.

If you choose to proceed, do so at a time and place that allow privacy without distractions. Some people go to a place of significance in the original painful event that triggers the emotions associated with their memory. Do it your way – whatever that is. Proceed at a pace comfortable to you and take time out from your inner work as needed.

Work with the body 

In this technique you are not addressing the memory and its emotional charge directly. You work indirectly through the body. The memory will remain but your body’s reaction to the memory can be changed.

Recall the memory. Feel the place in your body where that memory affects you the most. Focus on that part, let it soften and gently breathe into it until the tension or discomfort  recedes. When that part feels better, again tune into the memory and find another place where the memory affects your body. Repeat as many times as needed. The process will be complete when you can recall the memory calmly or it now seems far away.

Watch a movie of the event

This strategy uses imagination and visualization. If you find that difficult, do it in your thoughts. When ready, close your eyes and imagine (think) watching yourself in a movie. See (think) yourself as if performing on a screen, safe and okay in a situation before the traumatic experience. Then start the film of the event as you remember it. See what happened, how you and other people acted, and anything else that deeply affected you.

You might cry or feel other intense emotions. Let them be but don’t get drawn into them. Just sit and watch it all unfold on-screen. At the end, imagine (think) the film being rewound at very fast speed to the safe starting point, i.e. return to the situation when you were okay. Let your emotions settle and realize the event has not destroyed everything. You still have a life right now and ahead of you. You may be different than before the experience, but you are okay.

Tell your story

Journalling, writing a book, giving lectures, and presenting workshops can neutralize painful memories and have a cathartic effect on the storyteller’s life.

Final words

There are other ways of working with memories. How have you been able to diminish your painful recollections? Or would one of the strategies above work for you?