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Your Most Emotionally Painful Memories

How inventorying your life's painful moments can help you move forward.

PDPics, Public Domain
Source: PDPics, Public Domain

Of course, staying mired in your past pains can inhibit you from moving forward. But inventorying them and identifying lessons learned can be well worth it.

If that feels right to you, list your life's emotionally painful moments, starting with your earliest memories. For each, ask yourself, "Does that offer me a lesson that can help me now?"

To jump-start your thinking, here are some of mine:

Ages 7-10: Getting beaten up by the tough kids.

Lesson learned: Showing off causes enmity. Be modest, at least reasonably so.

Age 14: In class, intercepting a girl's note to her friend about her "Santa Claus"--her menstrual period--and her being furious at me.

Lesson learned: Just because you can be quick and clever, doesn't mean you should be.

Age 16: I was nominated by the faculty to run for my high school's "Class Musician."  At the risk of immodesty, I was clearly more deserving than the drummer who was also nominated. But I wasn't as well liked as him, so to try to ensure I lost, the student who wrote the ballots deliberately wrote my name as "Mary Nemo" rather than "Marty Nemko."

Lesson learned: Competence is not enough. Indeed, if people don't like you, they may do what they can to ensure you fail.

Age 17: I rushed five fraternities, none accepted me.

Lesson learned: I still was trying to be liked by demonstrating how smart I was. No one likes a show-off.

Age 22: I was running drug-prevention groups in a challenging junior high school and could not control the class. The school district's superintendent was touring the school, heard the chaos in my room, came in, told me to step outside, and said, "Son, you need a new career."

Lesson learned: Even a bright person can fail if given poorly suited work. Do things that capitalize on your strengths and skirt your weaknesses.

Age 34: In an informal conversation with the chair of the department in which I was a visiting lecturer, I mentioned how I appreciated New Yorkers' directness. I later heard that he, a Midwesterner, was offended by that. Despite excellent student evaluations, I was not rehired.

Lesson learned: Before opening your big fat trap, put yourself in the other person's shoes, especially if it's your boss.

Age 62: I had written what I believe was an important article on men. My editor liked it and published it but activists from women's groups didn't like it and pounded away at him until he felt he had to fire me. In case you're curious, the article made similar points to those I made in this Psychology Today article.

Lesson learned: Race and gender are third-rail issues. I'm not wise enough to know how to make contributions that I believe will be useful without my getting electrocuted, so I need to leave those topics to wiser and braver souls.

Today: I got on the scale and weighed 194, my highest in a long time. I'm now 20 pounds overweight.

Lesson learned: That's a useful reminder that we all know what we should do--for example, eat more broccoli and less cheese--but, as human beings, we're all, well, human. Be more accepting of human failings.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.