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Memory

Perfectionism About Memory May Undermine Recall

Here's how to respond to memory lapses more helpfully.

Key points

  • Having perfectionistic beliefs or unrealistically high expectations about your memory might interfere with your memory recall.
  • When we hold excessively high standards for our memory, occasional memory lapses can be experienced as highly distressing.
  • It can be helpful when attempting to recall a memory to anchor yourself to any sensations in the present.

Imagine that you’re at a dinner party. A friend of a friend you met once a long time ago walks in. You recognize the person but realize that you cannot remember their name. Your heart suddenly starts to race. You usually pride yourself on your memory recall. You think that you should remember this person’s name and that there must be something wrong that you can’t.

When the person reintroduces themselves, you have that “aha” moment and immediately remember their name. But it still bothers you that you couldn’t recall it right away. That inner voice inside said, “Ugh, what’s wrong with you? You knew that!”

 Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

If you tend to feel anxious or frustrated about occasional memory lapses like this, you’re not alone. You might feel especially worried if you’re someone who perceives yourself as having a strong memory and values remembering things accurately and quickly. Unfortunately, having perfectionistic beliefs or unrealistically high expectations about your memory can interfere with your memory recall.

A recent study by Picon and colleagues published in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology sheds light on this phenomenon, which the authors refer to as “memory perfectionism.” The study authors investigated the association between memory perfectionism–defined as “strongly valued memory ability and an intolerance for minor memory lapses”–and perceived memory difficulties in everyday life in individuals who had previously suffered a concussion.

The authors found that increased memory perfectionism was associated with worse subjective memory ability in daily life, even after accounting for actual memory ability using objective cognitive testing. Put another way, for every one-point increase on a standardized assessment of memory perfectionism, there was a 25 percent increase in the odds of reporting memory impairment in daily life.

These findings are specific to a group of individuals with a history of concussion and can’t necessarily be generalized to the population at large. The study is correlational and does not prove that memory perfectionism causes worse memory in daily life. However, the findings are consistent with my observation in my own neuropsychological practice and research: setting overly high standards and expecting ourselves to have a perfect memory can make it harder to remember.

Why might this paradox exist? How could strongly valuing our memory and setting high standards be associated with worse memory?

The key factor is holding a standard for excessively high or perfectionistic memory. When we hold excessively high standards for our memory, occasional memory lapses can be experienced as highly distressing. A delay or difficulty in remembering a piece of information can trigger:

  • Upsetting emotions like anxiety, frustration, and self-blame.
  • Physiological sensations associated with anxiety, such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating.
  • Negative thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, like “What’s wrong with me that I couldn’t remember!” “I’m so stupid!” “I should be able to remember this.”

These emotions and thoughts take up our brain’s limited cognitive resources. Brain activity is then divided between processing these self-critical thoughts/difficult emotions and the active process of trying to remember what we originally tried to remember. Another way to think of this is that our brain’s online processing capacity is like a blackboard. When that blackboard becomes filled with self-critical thoughts and negative emotions, there’s less space to devote to the active process of memory retrieval.

The solution is not to try and be blissfully unaware of memory lapses or to try and ignore memory lapses outright if they are bothersome or interfering with everyday functioning. That’s not helpful, either. We want to be aware of our memory lapses so we can take helpful, proactive actions.

What are some more helpful actions? The next time you experience a delay or difficulty in memory recall and you notice yourself feeling anxious and having self-critical thoughts about your memory, try to take a few deep breaths. Anchor yourself to any sensations in the present–for example, by noticing the sensation of your feet on the floor or your back against a chair (if you’re sitting). These kinds of “grounding” techniques can prevent your anxious thoughts and emotions from spiraling and taking up more space in your mental blackboard.

If you notice self-critical thoughts popping up in your mind, try to respond to them with more balanced, helpful thoughts that acknowledge the difficulty of the situation but also the full context: “I’m having trouble remembering my friend’s friend’s name, and it’s frustrating, but let’s give it some time. I’m usually pretty good at this, and it might come to me with time.”

Turning the temperature down on negative thoughts and emotions can help you to think of strategies to help your recall. For example, thinking of the beginning letter of a name can help self-cue the full name. Recalling the context of where you learned a name or another piece of information–where you were, when it happened, and what else was happening at the time—can also trigger recall. You might also think of strategies to help you in future situations, like taking notes on your phone or in a pocketbook.

Finally, sometimes our fears about our memory can be trying to tell us something important. If you’ve found that your memory is steadily worsening, other people have noticed a change in your memory recall, or you’ve recently experienced a medical or neurological illness, then obtaining a neuropsychological evaluation can you help you understand whether the memory lapses are normal for your age, or whether additional intervention is needed.

Even with memory difficulties that are more significant than would be expected with age alone, managing self-critical thoughts and difficult emotions can be helpful.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Picon, E. L., Todorova, E. V., Palombo, D. J., Perez, D. L., Howard, A. K., & Silverberg, N. D. (2022). Memory perfectionism is associated with persistent memory complaints after concussion. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 37(6), 1177-1184.

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