What Do You Remember From Your Past?

Our childhood memories are limited: Can they tell you what you need now?

Posted Jul 18, 2020

 Jon Tyson / Unsplash
Source: Jon Tyson / Unsplash

When you think back over the entire course of your life, particularly your childhood years, you never have a thousand memories floating around but maybe a couple of dozen at most. I’ve always been fascinated by how this gaggle of individual memories are so different between parents and grown children. Your parents have fond memories of your trip to Disney World when you were 7 (along with all the sacrifices they remember making to get there), while for you it is blank, or all you remember from the trip is how upset you were when they said you couldn’t go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. 

But on your side, you remember that time on vacation when that you and your mom got up early and went down the beach and you walked along the shore and she held your hand, and she pointed out how the seagulls were flying, how the waves were all different just like people. This for you is a precious memory, but ask your mom about it and she has no recollection of the time, the day, the trip.

Such is the nature of memory, how selective it is, so unique to our own psyches. Here is an exercise to help you become curious about your memories, why these and not them, and what together they may reveal about you:

Sit comfortably with no distractions or time limits. Take a few deep breaths to help you settle, calm. Think back to your childhood years. See if you can recall your earliest memory. Now move forward through the film, the story of your childhood. Try to discard any memories, images that you’ve already seen a thousand times on videos or your parents’ stories, photos. Look instead as you travel over this landscape for those memories that seem to have a strong emotional punch.

Now begin to make a list of those most important memories that stand out; just write. If, as you do this, you find that you are feeling flooded with too many memories, slow it down: Take a couple of deep breaths, look over your list, and again look for that emotional punch. If some revolve around a particular time or event, cross out the ones that are emotionally “weaker” or consolidate the ones that circle around one event. See if you can limit your list to no more than 10.

Now, with this list in hand, ask yourself the following questions for each one:

Your earliest memory

Most of us don’t remember much before age 5, but whatever is distilled into your earliest memory, your psyche may be saying that this is something important.

So what do you remember? Your dad swinging you around by your arms in the living room. Your first day at school and getting on a bus while your mom, sad-faced, waved from at you from the street. The time you went to the doctor and you felt frightened about getting a shot.

What about this event made it important? What was the tone — happy, sad, frightened? 

Your other memories

What was significant about this event? 

You remember that time at Disney World, or your grandfather’s funeral, or the big argument between your parents after your birthday party. You felt that your parents were harsh and scolding the entire day at Disney World, the funeral stands out because it was the first time you saw your dad cry, the argument after the party left you shaken and afraid that you had somehow caused it. 

Looking back, what was important about that time in your life?

The memory is embedded within a certain chapter of your life. What five adjectives best describe you and this time — lonely, happy, awkward, depressed? What made this so?

What impact did this event have on you?

Your grandfather's funeral made you realize that people die and never come back or that your dad was not as hard-hearted as you had thought; that you needed to be good or your parents might divorce; that you can’t get what you want or that life feels unfair.

Events that have a big impact often alter our perceptions of the world and how we need to be in it. What did you learn about you and the world from this experience?

Is there a theme to your memories?

You notice that they all center on loss or anger or disappointment, or that bad things suddenly happen, or that people do love you and the world is safe. What do they tell you is the moral of the story of your past, the story of your life that you have created? What do they tell you about what you need but feel you never received?

What do your memories tell you about you?