Some memories are left untold. Generally, we like to tell each other stories and share our memories. But maybe there are some things we choose to not share. We hide these memories from each other, developing an untold or hidden self.
At the end of the day, we talk with our friends, families, and partners about what happened – our triumphs, failures, and frustrations. Telling our memories serves important functions. Through narrating our lives, we define who we are. When I tell a personal story, I accept that event as being about me. I claim that event as self defining to some extent. I integrate that experience into my ongoing autobiography. By narrating personal stories, we also build relationships. We learn about others, we describe ourselves, and we develop a shared narrative. Thus the experiences we tell are important.
Of course memory is selective. We don’t each other everything that happens every day. We skip the boring stuff. But we also skip some of the important stuff too. Which experiences do we leave unshared?
Embarrassing experiences seem likely candidates for unshared memories. Pasupathi, McLean, and Weeks (2009) asked people to keep a diary of daily experiences and report whether or not they had told someone else about the experience that day. The researchers wondered if people would avoid sharing certain types of emotional experiences. They found that emotion predicted which events were shared on a daily basis – in a very simple manner. People shared more emotional memories. It didn’t really matter whether the event was happy, sad, joyful, frustrating, angering, or embarrassing. The stronger the emotion, the more likely it would be shared. Pasupathi and colleagues wrote as if they were a little surprised by this finding, as if they anticipated that people might avoid sharing embarrassing memories. Then they looked at the content of the memories. The embarrassing events were typically small transgressions: being late for a meeting, forgetting something, and talking in class. These are the sort of mistakes we all make; these mistakes simply define us as human. These transgressions don’t make us bad and awful people.