Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why We Remember Bad Things

There be dragons.

It’s tempting, according to the film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” to erase bad memories, even though I suspect most of us know that it’s better to make peace with them than to destroy or suppress them. Memories of early childhood are usefully considered myths or folk tales, not about a culture’s purpose, hurdles, and origins, but about an individual’s. A set of myths that are all positive—well, like America’s—leaves us ill-prepared to recognize and address what needs improving.

(Early memories are also usefully considered allegories, as are dreams, but that’s a topic for another post.)

For example, a woman’s simple memory of mom calling her to the kitchen to lick the spoon when she was making cake might be a myth about plenty. Someone with this memory may not need to remind herself to engage in self-care. She’s likely to use extra energy and spare time for what I call the Lauper principle (“girls just want to have fun”).

Of course, there may be complications. The same woman might have a childhood memory of being yelled at for asking if the family can give the new baby away. If so, it’s starting to look like the myth is still one of plenty, but of the sort you find in paradise—that is, devoid of aggression since this other memory seems to say that aggression (in the form of sibling rivalry) ruins things. The individual may be good at making herself a snack or hanging out with friends but bad at self-care when it comes to competition and ambition.

Now, the point of interpreting early memories is not to guess how she manages competition or snacking. The point is to illuminate what’s going on psychologically when we observe problematic behavior, like when she gets so flustered if her friends propose a game night rather than a wine-tasting. Memories can indeed be used to predict behavior, but their power in clinical work is their ability to illuminate. In this example, her getting flustered can be considered the external result of internally yelling at herself for the proposal of game night awaking a desire to win.

Generally, clinicians consider it problematic when a memory includes malevolent forces because these imply their allegorical presence in contemporary functioning. This post is about two exceptions to the tendency of malevolent memories to indicate pathology. The first is the memory of trauma. When something terrible happens, we try to make sense of it by constructing a narrative around it.

In a trauma memory, the presence of death or an earthquake or an abusive figure does not necessarily reflect on the individual’s current psychology. The memory may instead depict the meaning of a bad event. The main question in understanding a trauma memory is whether the malevolent force is manageable rather than whether it is present. (This is yet another example of why it’s not always a good idea to tell trauma victims that it wasn’t their fault, since that attitude also communicates that there was nothing they could do about it.)

The other sort of malevolent memory that does not indicate chaotic functioning is what I call the caveat memory. Like the notation on old maps, “There be dragons,” these memories stand as warnings, cautionary tales about what can go wrong. They often depict sexual and aggressive urges in bad terms, because there be dragons within us, not just at the edge of maps. For example, a memory of a neighbor child killing a frog may solidify the association between aggression and sadism, and it may stand as a cautionary tale against expressing aggression directly.

A memory of childish sexual exploration gone horribly wrong may be similar. A woman recalls masturbating in the bath at age 3 and getting physically punished for it. As per usual, the question is not what really happened—eyewitnesses can’t be relied on as adults recalling events from a day ago, so they certainly can’t be relied on when recalling events decades ago when they were children. The question, instead, is what myths are captured in the memory and how they illustrate the way the person sees the world and treats herself. This individual may be self-punitive when feeling sexy. Or, she may be using the memory like a traffic sign warning her not to feel sexy lest she lose her friendly relations with others.

A gay man recalls in psychotherapy a time in kindergarten when he kissed a boy and was humiliated for it. A good therapist will invite him to consider a few possible meanings in light of whatever their mutual understanding is about the internal conflicts they are doing therapy to resolve. (If they are not meeting regularly to resolve the patient’s internal conflicts, then they are doing something else besides psychotherapy.) The most obvious is the question of whether the therapist will react poorly if the patient expresses affection. Next is whether the memory is an allegory representing the patient’s own disapproval of his sexual orientation, depicted by those humiliating the boy in the memory.

Third, treating it as a caveat memory, the patient may retain the memory to remind himself that his sexuality—accepted and approved by himself—is not always accepted and approved by others. In most therapies (that is, in light of the most common case formulations that organize the work of therapy), the therapist will want to help the patient relax the caveat and make it more context-specific. When is his sexuality best deferred, and when is it best indulged? A therapist who insists that the patient’s sexuality always be championed is like a parent who doesn’t tell a masturbating boy to do it in his room.

The healthy nature of some memories with hostile forces, and of retaining bad memories in general, is yet another way in which psychological health—in an individual or in a society—is not a blissful absence of conflict but an energetic, engrossed, welcoming coordination of conflicting forces.

More from Michael Karson Ph.D., J.D.
More from Psychology Today