- People do not have to continue repeating the same old harmful patterns over and over.
- Emotional memories can be changed so that they lose their power over the individual and their experience.
- Cognitive reprocessing and narrative therapy techniques can help someone change their view of the past and open the door to a happier future.
Do you ever feel that you’re stuck in a movie like Groundhog Day, where you just keep reliving the same experience over and over? Or, maybe you prefer the movie Edge of Tomorrow or the television series Russian Doll. The premise is the same: You gain awareness of the pattern you are stuck in at some point, but you seem helpless to stop it from repeating anyway.
A middle-aged woman may still experience her family as she did in childhood. She may feel unseen, invalidated, and shamed by her now 80-year-old mother, but she still can’t find her voice to tell Mom how she feels.
Another person may have had their last long-term committed relationship 10 years ago. In their decade-long search for love, they have dated many people. The names are always different, but it’s really just the same person over and over again—and they are still alone.
Other people might describe themselves as being “broken” or permanently flawed in some way. Maybe you just have that strong feeling of loneliness or sense of being less than others; the feeling sticks to you like glue no matter what the external environment looks like.
Even successful people with everything going for them (from an external vantage point) can find themselves driving to work, feeling mildly depressed and inferior. It is a feeling some people know too well. But if the feeling is pervasive and not triggered by things in the present, then it might not be today’s emotion. You can look at it as a “residual” feeling that is so familiar to you that it just seems like part of who you are. But what would happen if you could view it as a memory?
Most of us have recounted our stories to ourselves so often over the years that the thought process becomes automatic and largely unseen, residing just under the surface of our consciousness. Even when we are not consciously thinking bad thoughts or recalling unpleasant memories, these core beliefs or relational schemas still activate our emotional systems. So, you may experience the emotional residual of your past but not be consciously aware of why you are feeling that way. Hence my use of the phrase “residual emotional memory.”
These memory structures and our related experiences in the world seem to have a great deal of continuity. But why do you have to wake up tomorrow feeling the same as you did today? Why do you have to enact the same behaviors and relationship patterns? The answer is that you do not.
The reason you feel the same today as you did yesterday is that you wake up every day and tell yourself the same old (crappy?) story.
Changing the narrative
Here are ways that you can become consciously aware of the story you are telling yourself and create a new one that works better for you.
- Realize that your negative emotional experience is a residual memory from the past.
- Understand that the way memory works is that your brain will tend to pull up memories that are consistent with how you are presently feeling (e.g., if you are feeling lonely, your brain will activate memories of being rejected and alone). Then you can go down the rabbit hole of reexperiencing your painful past.
- Fantasize or daydream a new story. No, you don’t want to be deluded. At age 59 and at 5’8”, I am not going to go play for the NBA next year. But I can imagine myself walking into work, holding my head high, and feeling confident and happy. I can remind myself of what is working and going right in my life.
- Practice some self-discipline and stop scaring yourself. Thoughts like “I am broken,” “I am always going to be alone,” and “No one likes me” usually don’t have a lot of present-time external evidence. Sure, you could conjure up evidence from the past, but remember, that is precisely the pattern we are trying to change.
- Try running a mental simulation. Imagine an alternate past. You might imagine being a bright and happy 4-year-old. Then ask yourself (for example), “How would I have moved forward into elementary school if my parents had not gotten divorced and my dad hadn’t left?” See yourself being a happy, well-adjusted kid. Imagine fitting in with friends in high school and not feeling rejected or having your heart broken. How would you have felt at high school graduation? How would this happy person have felt stepping into college or work life? Confident, self-assured, and happy? Try it. I can run this exercise while driving to work, and within 10 minutes, my self-doubt and insecurities are gone, and I am not constantly thinking about myself. And remember, you are not going to forget what actually happened or become permanently deluded. But why should a past that you did not choose get to constantly dictate your day-to-day experience? This exercise should show you that it doesn’t have to.
It is OK to let your memories of the past and your emotional experience shift. When you have a more positive emotional experience in the present, you will probably realize that you actually have some positive memories of the past… and at least the bad ones won’t have such a hold on you.
When I have felt residual sadness, I would often (unintentionally) pull up a memory of being 7 years old. I was in a foreign country where my mom had taken me and my sister to live with her and our new (wicked) stepfather. In that memory, I was always lying in bed, crying. I had all my stuffed animals lined up in bed with me as my only friends… and I thought, “If I die in this foreign place, no one will remember me or know that I ever existed.”
En route to my own healing and becoming a clinical psychologist, I did a great deal of inne- child work on my past and have practiced running happier scenarios through my mind. Now when I pull up that memory and go to that bedroom in that faraway land, I find that the bedroom is empty. My inner child, who was stuck in that room and memory for decades, is gone. He has left that experience and gone on to grow up and live a happy, healthy life—my life. Just think of the ending of the movie Good Will Hunting. As always, Ben Affleck goes to pick up Matt Damon for work at the factory. Ben knocks and knocks on the door, but Matt is not there. He finally broke his pattern and is gone. He got out of that place and went on to live his life, and so should you.
Freund, I. M., Peters, J., Kindt, M., & Visser, R. M. (2023). Emotional memory in the lab: Using the Trier Social Stress Test to induce a sensory-rich and personally meaningful episodic experience. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 148. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2022.105971
Nieto, I., Koster, E. H. W., & Everaert, J. (2021). The Role of Emotional Memory in Reappraising Negative Self-referent Thoughts. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 45(6), 1141–1149. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-021-10216-6