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How to Change Your Outlook by Shaping Your Negative Memories

Research shows how you can work with memories to change your mood and attitudes.

Key points

  • Your present mood and outlook on life is strongly flavored by your emotional memories.
  • Emotional memories also create the background mood states that shape how you feel about and see the world.
  • You can change your experience by drawing on memory research to shape how you recall representative memories.
Cast of Thousands / Shutterstock
Source: Cast of Thousands / Shutterstock

Do you remember specific events from your past, relationships, or childhood that keep popping back into your mind? Once you know how memory works, you can use these memories, and even bring some up on purpose, to heal your stuck points and change your present-time emotional experience.

Your present-time experience entails perceptions, thoughts, and emotions related to your rapidly shifting environment. Emotions are reactions to identifiable events or thoughts. But underlying these momentary experiences is the background flavor of your mood.

Mood is a “background mental state that casts a glow or shadow over thoughts and behaviors” and, unlike specific emotions, can be sustained across time despite changes in what is happening around you. Mood also has a strong impact both on how we form and how we retrieve memories.

How Do Memories Relate to Mood?

A recent (2023) review of mood-congruent memory research by Leonard Faur and Kevin LaBar shows that we are much more likely to retrieve memories congruent with our present mood states. If we have a general sense of sadness, we are more likely to retrieve sad memories. The same goes for when we are feeling happy or angry.

Moods can also bias us to interpret present events in a way that yields specific emotions congruent with them and makes those emotions more intense. For example, if we have an angry mood, we are more likely to pay attention, perceive, and then interpret someone saying something to us in a way that will make us angry.

At the same time, because of mood-congruent memory recall, we will be more likely to pull up memories from the past that brought up similar emotions (like people treating us in a way that made us angry). So, your past, present, and future all fall into line in a way that can make you feel stuck in a non-ending pattern.

Mood-Congruent Memories in Action

Consider this example: I have been in a negative (sad, anxious, and hopeless) mood state and have many thoughts of being unappreciated and not celebrated at work. Things keep happening that lead me to feel this way. It’s not that the events are not true, but I am interpreting things in a way that enhances my mood-congruent thoughts and makes my emotions more intense.

As I drive to work one day, I feel this sad mood combined with thoughts of not being appreciated or celebrated. I reflect on my present context of being an established and successful professor and psychologist and I wonder where this negative mood state and thought of not being celebrated comes from—how it sticks to me like glue across long durations of time and pollutes my present experience. Because this seems to be a recurrent theme in my life, I draw my thoughts back to childhood and other times when I may have felt this way—and a clear mood-congruent memory comes up.

My fifth birthday party was anticipated with great excitement. I had been at my older brothers’ (they are twins) birthday party the past fall and it was a huge affair. It was like a carnival with so many children from the neighborhood there—with balloons, games with prizes, and music.

But on the day of my birthday, there was just my immediate family and none of that exciting fanfare. I remember sitting in my birthday hat, feeling disappointed and deflated—not special and certainly not celebrated.

There you have it. This salient memory from more than five decades ago has a strong mood state associated with it. And when I am in that mood state now, years later, my present perception of events and my present mood and emotional experiences match. And so, the mood, the memory, and my present experience all reinforce each other and carry forward into the feeling this same way in the present.

How to Break the Cycle of Mood and Memory

But we don’t have to be stuck with recurrent themes like this, because memories, and the mood states associated with them, can change. Memory is very fallible, and a large body of research shows that it is notoriously inaccurate.

According to Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., a distinguished memory researcher who was recently interviewed on Kaitlin Luna’s "Speaking of Psychology" podcast, “New information, new ideas, new thoughts, suggestive information, misinformation can enter people's conscious awareness and cause a contamination, a distortion, an alteration in memory.”

Because memories can be changed by new information, they also can be changed to facilitate altering mood states and facilitating healing. Let’s take my childhood birthday party as an example. I am going to refer to that memory as a “representative memory” because it represents the current theme of the mood, thoughts, and emotions that I have been having. However, I am well enough versed in the research to know that my memory of the event may not be accurate and may have changed over time. It stands to reason that there could be other interpretations of what happened.

Using the cognitive behavioral therapy tool of “cognitive restructuring,” I might look for alternative data that could influence memory. For example, while it might be true, there could be reasons for the small celebration other than my family not seeing me as special or wanting to celebrate me (e.g., it was summer and school was out, my brothers are twins and had a double party, my family was about to move, etc.).

Beyond looking for alternative explanations and challenging the data, I also could intentionally distort the memory to shift my mood (and as I recall the event, even my present-time thoughts and emotions). I could do this by introducing a new character into the memory imaginarily.

I visualize my adult self as a caring person who cherishes and celebrates the child. I could imagine him seeing me (his future adult self) there at his birthday party and knowing how special he is and how much I love him. I could imagine him happy and full of hope on his fifth birthday.

Would these things change what happened? Of course not. But I can choose to recall those events in a different context and with added themes that counter the sad and not celebrated mood state that has stuck with me for so long.

Therapists often use these tools to change the way people think and feel in the present. If one of my clients insists that they cannot change what happened and therefore don't want to change a memory, I affirm this—but I also point out that they do not need to recall the memory in a way that causes present-time pain and re-traumatization. If the memories that keep coming up for you involve more disturbing events or trauma, you may wish to seek out the help of a trained professional to help you.

So, give it a try: If you don’t like your present background mood (and related thoughts and emotions), have a sense of curiosity about where it originated. Follow your mood-congruent memories back as far as you can and see if you can identify a representative memory to work with.

See if you can put the memory on its proper timeline (early memories are often misplaced sequentially). Look at the bigger context that existed at the time and see if you can come up with alternate explanations of the events in a way that might counter the negative way you came out feeling.

Then work on changing the way you recall the memory by imaginarily implanting new positive images, ideas, and thoughts. You might not notice it right away, but your self-identity is largely a narrative or story you tell about yourself. As the memories that make up this story shift more positively, your present experience will shift more positively too.


Faul, L., & LaBar, K. S. (2023). Mood-congruent memory revisited. Psychological Review, 130(6), 1421–1456.

Buchanan, T. W. (2007). Retrieval of Emotional Memories. Psychological Bulletin, 133(5), 761–779.

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