Getting Over It: The Problem of Bad Memories 1

Many people feel tormented by things that happened in their past. It’s like the memory is sitting in some corner of their mind, ready to jump out at them, as vivid and powerful as if it only happened yesterday. Quite trivial events and experiences in the present can trigger memories so powerful that the present-day trigger is forgotten, washed away by the surge of negative feelings. Bad memories leave us questioning- and the questions are another torment. “Why did that happen? Why did I let that happen? Did I deserve it? Will it happen again?”

Unless they’ve caused physical injuries, or ongoing problems like a criminal record that stays with us, most of these past events exist only in our memory. Everyone else who was involved may have forgotten or even died. Yet the memory remains powerfully alive.

How should we deal with such damaging memories? Should we just forget about them and get on with our lives, or should we dig them up and examine them in detail? Or is there a third possible solution?

“Just forget about it” is the traditional solution. Unfortunately it’s nonsense. We can’t simply forget a horrible event, the way we might forget the name of some kid we went to school with. That’s because these are two completely different types of memories, which are stored in different ways.

Memories of things that don’t affect us emotionally- like the names of every kid in our class in school- are stored like the old files in an office. They’re kept for years just in case they’re needed- but probably in some basement or lock-up space, not even in the main office building. Those memories are easy to forget- because the mind feels no need to remember them.

The “problem memories” are kept close to hand because the mind thinks they could be needed at any time. They’re in a place where time doesn’t matter- everything is right here, right now. Something that happened 20 years ago is remembered every day, while things that happened yesterday are already forgotten.

This is why “just forget it!” is useless advice. And it’s even worse when we’re told to “forgive and forget!” Many people use the word “forgive” to mean “pretend it didn’t happen.” This is very convenient for someone who has wronged you- they can do it all again and take you by surprise, just like the first time!

In my next two posts I shall look at other possible answers to the problems caused by “bad memories”.

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