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Why Some People Leave Such a Positive, Lasting Impression

Some people linger as lasting memories throughout our lives. Here's why.

Key points

  • Out of all that happens in our past, we are generally left with a couple of dozen memories and images.
  • Aside from traumatic memories — such as abuse, loss, and danger — we tend to remember certain positive ones.
  • Reasons for retaining a positive memory of someone may be because that moment filled an emotional need or crystallized what they meant to you.
Jovica Varga/Shutterstock
Source: Jovica Varga/Shutterstock

We all have these: Clear memories of one particular afternoon sitting on our grandmother’s lap as she read us a story. An image of a high school or college teacher emphatically making some point or an old boyfriend smoking a cigarette in a certain way and tearing up when he talked about his brother. Out of all the events and people that unfold in our lives, why do certain people, certain memories and clear images linger, memories and images that now looking back on them seem so… everyday, trivial, unimportant?

It is remarkable that out of all that happens in our past we are generally left with, at best, a couple of dozen memories and images. Think about your childhood and what stands out. Of your parents or family. Some, of course, were traumatic—abuse, loss, danger—but others, especially positive ones can be few and far between. Why these and not others? Here are some of the common sources:

They emotionally represented what you needed at a critical moment.

Many years ago, my I and my family had a terrible car accident. Our car went off the road on a major highway, the car overturned in a median. Truckers and eventually the police came to the site. We were all okay but obviously shaken. What I remember is feeling overwhelmed, emotionally collapsing near the car. What my wife remembered was one older gentleman who probably lived near the highway who came over. He didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, but just hang around until the state police came. For her, her image of his being there was one of a calming presence. He represented calm, concern, that this would be okay.

For others in a different situation, it may be the take-charge attitude of the police officer or a stranger who offered directions when you were terribly lost and afraid or a nurse at a hospital whose joking manner helped you feel relaxed. They were able to give and represented what you needed most, and somehow changed your view of the world and others.

The image is a composite of the overall relationship.

Sitting on Grandma’s lap was a composite of Grandma—her attentiveness and curiosity, her comfort and relaxed acceptance in contrast to your own parents who seemed so critical or harried. She embodied what you needed and what was missing from your life. Or likewise, it is about the boyfriend who teared up — that what you learned from him was compassion or that he changed your image of men and you learned that they could be sensitive in contrast to the other men in your life so far.

They represented a role model of who you wanted to be.

During times of your own transition—struggling with adolescence or young adulthood and dealing with the normal struggles of who you want to be—you are open to positive role models. Young teens, for example, have posters of rock stars or action idols who represent ideal boyfriends or girlfriends or who they ideally would like to be.

But on a closer level, it is a high school teacher or college professor who had qualities that you wanted to emulate: his kindness or passion, her accepting and supportive attitude, or ability to not seem to care what others think. You needed these examples of how to be a different person than those of your family. They inspired you to think about other ways of being, about who you ideally want to become and be.

They offered the right words at the right time.

We all have this too — a memory of someone close to you or not who said something that has stuck with you through the years. Advice — take your time, decide what is important to you; relief — you're doing okay, you're smart and you'll figure out what is right — words that left you with a new way of seeing your problem or your options that you never considered.

What is often happening here is that the words were in themselves not magical but they felt magical because they crystalized what you had already been struggling with and thinking about. They put into words what you already knew but you didn't quite know that you knew.

The Takeaway

So what does this tell us about memory and the positive impact of others in our lives?

That others do have a positive impact that you don’t realize.

The moral of this is that you never know what may or may not have an impact on others. There have been studies done in my field—mental health—where therapists imagine that what had the most impact on a particular client was that carefully crafted interpretation they made about their mother in a particular session. Ask the client, and what they recall having the most impact was the way the therapist looked when they talked about their abuse, or that they offered to help jump their car when they found that their car battery had died.

You never know what can impact others, and so even little things are important and you need to be mindful of them.

That appreciation is part of closure.

Sometimes these memories linger because you never had an opportunity to express your feelings: How important your grandmother was in your life, how you appreciated how the police officer handled that traumatic situation, how important your high school teacher was in shaping your future life. Maybe it's time to reach out and express gratitude.

That memories linger because they continue to tell you what you need.

What you received from your grandmother is rearing up now because you need more comfort or safety. That you need to think about what that teacher represented and what is missing from your life. That your memory of that old boyfriend represented what you need from a partner now.

Out of all you can remember and think about why this, why now?

Facebook image: Jovica Varga/Shutterstock

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