Memory Medic

How to improve everyday memory.

Memory Aggravates Relational Pain. There Is a Treatment

Here's a New Year's resolution you really need to keep

It’s that time of year for making New Year’s resolutions, and I am inspired to write this on January 1 because good resolutions can result. I never thought about the pain of broken relationships much in the context of learning experience and memory until I ran across a LinkedIn post from writer and speaker Carl Prude Jr. Here is what he posted:

“Resentment and unforgiveness are two of the wardens of relational pain. Whenever we employ them they only make sure that we are constantly reminded of the hurt and smallness we felt from hearing someone's negative remarks. They also make sure that we never see the incident in a forward-moving context - instead, keeping us chained to a low moment in our past. I try to look beyond the circumstances of their comment and evaluate the comment independently - to see if it has any constructive merit. If it was mean-spirited or intentional, I immediately dismiss it and forgive the person who said it.”

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Usually when we think about memory we focus on how to strengthen it. But there are times when it is best to forget – as in the case of hurtful things we have endured from other people. Here is a case where nursing the hurt leads it to fester, not heal.

So, how do you teach yourself to forget things you should? This maybe especially hard if your focus has always been to enhance memory.

I have discussed some related ideas for erasing memories in earlier posts on new treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome. In the next post, I will discuss some recent research on advertising where marketers work hard to erase the memories of counter-productive ads.

But here, I want to focus on erasing memories involving relational pain, like the kind you find among spouses in unhappy marriages, siblings clinging to memories of childhood conflicts, employees who are underappreciated or employers who resent lack of support and loyalty. Of course there are many kinds of broken relationships, but all have one thing in common:

The slights and insults are remembered

and etched in a heart of stone by frequent recall. 

The pain will never go away as long as the memory is strengthened by recalling it. Typically, one has to learn to forget the pain, not necessarily what caused it. But how does one learn to forget pain?

In many cases, it is a matter of breaking the bad habit of rehearsing the memory and thus strengthening it. Humans react the same way as Pavlov’s dogs, in that repeating a stimulus, in this case the relational affront, conditions memory of it. Like Pavlov’s dogs, if you could repeat the stimulus without the associated pain, the affront would lose its association with the painful memory. Though our natural instinct is to disengage with people who have hurt us, the cure may require us to find ways to continue engagement under non-threatening circumstances. This is equivalent to repeating the conditioning harmful stimulus without the associated punishment – thus extinguishing memory of the original bad learning experience. This is not easy to do, and is sometimes unwise to attempt.

Nonetheless, the principle is sound. People can use the extra brain power that dogs do not have to review the memory more dispassionately. This demands a more objective analysis of the original painful events. It should begin by examining your own contribution to the event, as I explain in my book, “Blame Game, How To Win It.” People don’t usually say and do hurtful things without some kind of provocation, and it may have come from you. More objective analysis also usually reveals that the affront is not nearly as important as you have made it in order to nurture memory of the affront. Humans have a perverse need to remember and magnify affronts, for it validates their vanity. Saying to oneself, “I did not deserve this affront, my hands are clean” is salve to a wounded psyche. We feel better about ourselves and superior to the perpetrator. Thus, we make sure we remember the events that bolster our vanity.

Also basic to rational analysis is the recognition that all people make mistakes. We have to put ourselves in this category too, but focusing on the misdeeds of others reduces the perceived need to admit our own flaws. Learning to accept and live with human nature is a hallmark of maturity, and it is no wonder that many of our remembered grievances occurred in childhood when we had not yet learned to understand and accept the weaknesses of others.

Nursing grudges creates the habit of nursing grudges. The cure is to have more self-discipline in breaking of bad habits. I explore this in the above-referenced book. But one example comes from a racial bias experiment I described in which racially biased people were trained to be more accepting by having more emotionally neutral social interactions with members of the opposite race. Humans are hard-wired to be more comfortable in a like social group. That’s why tribalism persists even in most cultures even today.

How does one acquire more self-discipline, which of course is needed to break habits? Well, we could join the military and go to boot camp.  In boot camp, you learn to do things you don’t really want to do. In everyday life, forcing yourself to do what is needed and though not appealing, creates character and self-control. Self-induced practice can include making yourself do such things as:

  • Self-train in small steps. “Life by the inch is a cinch. Life by the yard is hard.”
  • Act as if you already are as you wish to be.
  • Get your act together (pay attention, get off your butt, organize your life, dress and groom well).
  • Always be on time.
  • Do things you know you should, even though you don’t want to.
  • Do the hard things first.
  • Increase, rather than decrease, dealing with people you don’t like.

Finally, it is essential to be more introspective about one’s self-esteem. As I explain in the book, self-esteem has two components, self-confidence and self-worth. The fully actualized person has both. Neither component alone is sufficient to neutralize the false gratification we feel from perverse remembering and magnification of affronts. Generating self-confidence is relatively easy, because it can be earned. So get out and earn it, emphasizing things that seem to work for you and learn what you have to do to build small successes into big ones.

Sense of self-worth is harder to have. At one time or another, all of us have endured neglect, slights, and insults. We may have been used, perhaps even abused. How does one cure a broken spirit? First, I recommended believing in a God who created you, loves you, and values you. Accept that love, pray intently with thanks for it, and ask that it give you strength to be a better person. Second, be more socially active and engage with more different kinds of people one on one. Seek friendship, remembering the axiom that to have a friend one needs to be a friend.

Actualization begins with realizing the importance of caring for yourself. The commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” needs to be thought of more in terms of the italicized words. Ability to love others or forgive affronts depends on one’s self-esteem. Each of us should examine our every thought and action with the question, “Is this really helping me, or is it good for me?”

As I said at the outset, nursing the hurt makes it fester, not heal. 

 

Blame Game, How To Win It is endorsed by media celebrities Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Reverend Robert Schuller. The book is available through Amazon.

William Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University.

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