Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Modest Proposal About Changing Your Memories

Memory is a squirrelly thing.  The other day I was at a memorial service for a friend I knew way back from high school and I was reminded that my memory for those days is not very good.  Which is always kind of funny because, in those days and for years afterwards, I was frequently told I had a memory like an elephant.  Both are true.  In those days, life felt very precarious and I felt the need to keep track of nearly everything.  I couldn't be found to be wrong in any circumstance.  Nowadays life doesn't feel as scary anymore.  You could challenge me to a battle of who remembers our childhood's more clearly and I would just shrug and say, "you win." I no longer have to wear my memory as a suit of armor.  While I am sometimes amazed by the depth and breadth of the details that have now slipped by me from my childhood, I know that my hyper vigilance at the time is also the culprit now. While I was tabulating details, I wasn't very present or "in the moment."  How can you be when your mind is running a constant check list to see if everything is ok?

Until recently, though, I could remember bad details of my childhood with crystal clarity.  The sad result of filing the successful moments away as something completed and the unwanted moments as problems somehow still waiting to be resolved.  Holding myself as never being any better than that little girl who got into a lot of trouble when she was eleven.  I know I'm not alone too.  The dates and ages are different, but a lot of other people do the same thing.  It doesn't have to be that way.

The other day I was reading about memory and I learned a startling fact.  When you remember an event you are not actually remembering the event itself, you are recalling the last time you remembered the event.  While that might be a nightmare to those who always have to be right, to the rest of us it provides a surprising opportunity.  Since the details about an event are invariably going to shift like a phrase whispered from one kid to another during "The Telephone Game," why not help them along?  Particularly if you have painted yourself a loser or the villain of your childhood.  Why not rewrite your story and treat yourself with a little bit more kindness?

Let's try an example.

Let's say you didn't have a lot of friends growing up and you spent a lot of time by yourself.  Rather than focusing on the loneliness and the isolation, how about focusing on the things you did and what you enjoyed?  Form a sentence in your mind looking at the positive aspects rather than the negative.  For instance:

I really developed my love for art back in high school when I was able to spend hours of uninterrupted time looking at reference books.  

Just like a good affirmation, the sentence has to be something you will find believable.  That means can't just put on a cape in every memory and become a super hero.  You will find more success if you shift your point of view more than the details themselves.  

When I was growing up, my parents were very over protective and controlling.  When I would get into trouble, my mother would have a massive freak out and behave as if I were "The Bad Seed."  I tormented myself with the self image that I had processed out of those memories until both of their deaths.  My mother, who was bed ridden the last two years of her life, gave me the inspiration for rewriting some of those earlier stories.  One day when I was visiting, she was talking about the time she, my aunt and my grandmother attended college classes.  It was when I was a toddler and was a sort of "girls night out" for them.  In the story, my mother told me one of my cousins once helped her with writing a paper.  "Pointing out what needed to be capitalized and that sort of thing."  She gave an example or two and, while I said nothing at the time, I was struck by the contrast between us.  All of the rules of grammar for which she needed guidance, came to me so naturally I couldn't possibly forget them.  While driving home, I thought about the notion of knowing more than your parents and remembered the many times my parents had talked about how smart I was.  "What if," I thought, "I didn't get into trouble so much because I was a 'bad person,' but because I was a 'smart person.?'"  I already knew that my mother's life revolved around fear.  What if my mother was afraid early on that I would be smarter than her?  What if she worried that I would create or get into troubles that were beyond her coping skills?  It certainly wasn't the story I had been telling myself, but at the same time, I could see it as a valid point of view.  I stopped rehashing the notion, "I am inherently bad" and began telling myself:

I was a bright and curious child who liked learning new things and exploring.  My parents sometimes felt out of their depth keeping me out of harm's way.  

Notice I didn't change the facts.  My parents still went to unusual or undesirable methods to control me.  I changed my understanding of why that was the case.  Whatever happened, let's say you broke your arm, got an F in Algebra or wrecked your dad's car.  That event still happened.  It is the story you tell yourself about why it happened or why it was such a bad thing or had such a negative impact on your life where you have the most opportunity for change.  I would argue the most need for change as well.  

Think of it this way.  Whether you believe in an anthropomorphized god, a life force of energy, or no god at all, this is your life.  You are here to live.  During that lifetime, you will attempt and accomplish a lot of things.  I just think you will have an easier time if you start out telling yourself you are good and worthy and capable.  This is just a method to backdate that way of believing in you.  

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