I’ve always loved stories about amnesia. The Jason Bourne movies are some of my all-time favorites, and the only show I watch besides Supernatural is Blindspot, whose main character is slowly regaining a few of her long-term memories. When I read the book Beware the Wild last month, I was fascinated by the way that characters’ memories were replaced with new ones.
I never knew why I was attracted to this theme… until now.
I’ve written before on this blog about a few of the things that have helped me overcame deep depression and become a positive, joy-filled person. And I’ve written before about having been a grade school pariah (a post I’ve deleted, for reasons that will become clear in this post.)
Growing up for me was hard for other reasons as well. One reason was that as a five-year-old girl, I was the one-time victim of an awful crime, and nobody else knew about it. I thought it was my fault, and I wrongly believed my parents did know, but what I’d done was too sinful to discuss. I thought that when I died, I would go to hell.
As an adult, I know this incident wasn’t my fault. I don’t dwell on it because I don’t consider myself a victim or a sad figure.
But every once in a while, a similar crime shows up in the news, and as happy and positive as I am, the story takes hold and I kind of lose it. This happened last week. I couldn’t stop reading about a particular court case, I got weepy, and I drank too much wine.
When I woke up early in the morning with a headache and got to work on the big novel revision I was in the middle of doing, I had a revelation. Enough was enough. This memory had caused me too much pain already. I was going to replace it.
Your Own Revisionist History
You know how you can completely rewrite something in a Word doc, and when you hit “save,” the old version is gone? That’s what I wanted to do. Not just about this particular crime, but also about many negative things in my past – and we all have them.
Our bad memories are toxic. They tell us that we’re neither loveable nor good at things. They suggest that the world is a bad place to be, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bad memories aren’t only depressing, but also limiting. If you didn’t remember messing up an oral report in grade school, would you be more confident about giving a presentation now? If you didn’t recall failing Spanish in high school, you might think to yourself, “I bet I could learn Arabic.” If you didn’t remember being poor, you might be more likely to believe, “I could make myself rich.”
Because of the associative structure of the brain, bad memories spur additional negative thoughts. When you remember something sad, your brain says, “Totally, and also, do you remember this other terrible thing that happened to you? Hey, and you know what else is bad? Global warming.”
(Fortunately, your brain does this with positive thoughts, too. If you think about how grateful you are for your family or your job, your brain will say something else like, “You know what else is great? Kittens.”)
There are some bad memories I wouldn’t change. If I were grieving for someone’s else’s loss or their suffering, I would have no desire to set it aside. That would be disrespectful to them and to my own feelings for them. But a lot of negative experiences aren’t rooted in love and significance like that. They’re just stupid and pointless.
How to Revise Bad Memories
I haven’t done it yet, but here is my plan. I’ll have a ceremony soon where I write on slips of paper representing bad memories. Some of them will be basically a category of bad memories: “almost everybody hated me in grade school,” and so on.
Then I will write out alternate, positive narratives for each of them, and I will burn the little slips of paper in a fire.
Imagination is powerful and memory is malleable. I’m sure you’ve heard about people having a hard time knowing whether they actually remembered something from their early childhood, or just remembered a family member’s account of it. You’ve heard about people confessing to crimes they didn’t do, and becoming more or less convinced that they are guilty, after being told repeatedly that they did them.
Neuroscience has proven over and over that the brain is not that great at distinguishing imagined events from real ones. Why not use that to our advantage?
If you really think it’s impossible to get rid of bad memories, let me share this timeline with you:
Last Monday, I had that bad night after thinking about a court case involving a crime similar to one I experienced as a victim.
Last Tuesday, I told myself several times: That’s not me. It didn’t happen to me. I no longer claim that experience.
Last Wednesday, we watched Blindspot, and one storyline involved a character who is starting to have flashes of memory about his childhood victimization.
I said to Mr. Donovan, “I bet that’s really hard.”
Not, “I know how hard that is.” My first thought was, “I bet that’s really hard.” I didn’t have the usual deep-down pang of recognition.
My guess is that rewriting a bad memory will be more effective than just trying to erase it, because it’s hard to hold two conflicting narratives in your head at the same time.
Keeping The Advantage of Bad Memories
Our bad memories serve a few purposes. Most negative things in our life do.
Whenever we talk about our bad memories, we get automatic sympathy from our listeners most of the time.
Our bad memories can give us excuses not to succeed or reach our potential. “Hey, that’s just the way I am. I can’t help it, considering what I’ve been through.”
My own feeling is that sympathy is not worth the poisons or the limitations that bad memories impose on us. We all deserve love and understanding whether we’ve been through terrible things or not. And I don’t want excuses. I want to live up to my potential every day.
However, we do learn valuable things even from our worst experiences, which I am going to build into my ceremony. For instance, I might say: “I hang on to empathizing with the outcasts and the unpopular. That will always be a part of me. And now I destroy this memory.” And then I’ll burn the slip of paper called “almost everybody hated me in grade school.”
End of the Day Revisions
Maybe even day-to-day bad memories need to be rewritten. I have inched toward this by choosing not to commemorate too many frustrations and disappointments on social media (let’s face it, who wants a gripe to show up in Facebook’s “On This Day” feature, years later?) and by keeping a Happiness Jar, where I record only the best part of every day.
What if, at the end of every day, I consider whether I had any negative experiences? If I did, I can make a mental note of whether there’s anything to learn from it. Then I write out an alternate history. I love this idea because if I somehow screwed up during the day, I am scripting how to handle the situation differently in the future, rather than just simmering in feelings of guilt or inadequacy.
Finally, I can write down the best thing that happened and put it in the Happiness Jar. Now, even a bad day is recorded in my soul as a good day… which will give me happiness and optimism for a good night’s sleep and a better tomorrow.
This isn’t a new idea. I’ve come across a quote before (and I don’t know who said it first) that says:Write your hurts in sand… carve your blessings in stone. Click To Tweet
I’m just suggesting to send the tide in to wash away those hurts written in the sand, and to imagine even more of the blessings that are possible.
Are you intrigued by the idea of overwriting bad memories? Is it something you have experience with yourself? Or is this the first time you’ve considered it? Share your thoughts in the comments! And if you’re not doing so already, follow the blog for future posts – there’s a place you can sign up at the lefthand side of the page. Thanks for reading!