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Unwelcome Emotional Memories

When is forgetting more important than remembering upsetting details?

Emotional memories help us manage our lives because they are part of the learning process. Nevertheless, there are times when emotional memories become negatively intrusive and disruptive to our present state of mind. Consider a couple of simple examples: Dina purchased some hummus, given its reputation as having significant health benefits. Yet upon opening the container she felt a sense of fear combined with disgust. She quickly recalled the image of an abusive family member who loved to eat hummus. In an effort to rid herself of the imagery and her noxious response to memories of abuse, she threw the hummus into the trash. Similarly, Madeline was happily cleaning a closet when she came across a box of photos. As she took a look at the contents of the box she began to feel anxious and sad. Suddenly she had unwelcome memories of being mistreated as a child by a family member depicted in a photo. She quickly closed the box, shoved it to the back of the closet, and busied herself with other tasks.

Whether memories are of painful childhood scenes, traumatic experiences, instances of intensely felt shame, or reminders of relationships that have gone badly, is it maladaptive to suppress them? Certainly not. Our ability to control unwanted memories through voluntary suppression is critical for maintaining mental health and cognitive functioning, and a failure to suppress them has been linked to symptoms in a number of psychiatric disorders.[i] When we are reminded of something that we would prefer to dismiss from our awareness, we may control the unwanted memory by stopping memory retrieval; namely by using mechanisms similar to those we use to stop a reflexive motor response, such as inhibiting a particular movement or action, which is a basic function of executive control.[ii] Therefore, we might say to ourselves, “I’m not going to go there,” or automatically turn our attention away from the unwanted thoughts or the stimulus that activated them. Suppressing the retrieval of unpleasant memories shuts out the intrusive thought and restores control over the direction of our thoughts and our emotional well-being.[iii] Thus, the better people are at suppressing unwanted memories, the more it reduces their emotional responses to disturbing images and scenes.[iv]

Yet the capacity we have to inhibit the continuous activation of unpleasant past experiences may not be so easily controlled by our willpower or by using directed thinking and feeling activities, such as “trying to forget it,” since these common-sense suppressions leave the negative emotion within the range of awareness and its self-reflexive activation may continue, if not become stronger.[v] Rather than attempt to ignore or curb emotions by sheer willpower, instead, we can delay our reactions by being aware of our spontaneous emotions without interpreting them right away and without determining who or what caused them, and by learning to use the skill of intentionally narrowing the span of awareness to a limited now through sensory awareness or muscular relaxation.[vi]

Although we learn extraordinary lessons from unpleasant or painful emotional experiences, and all of our emotional memories are an important part of who we have become, there are times when motivated forgetting is more productive than remembering upsetting details and attempting to come to terms with what we feel. We cannot erase emotional memories, however, we can alter our current reactions to past and present emotional responses, as well as suppress the imagery that appears in response to what we feel. In some cases, we can become more aware of what activates unwanted emotional memories and either avoid similar situations or suppress the feeling itself.

Contrary to my training as a psychotherapist, I have found that sometimes the past should be left alone. Certainly, reliving the past and evaluating what we experienced can clarify our own errors in judgment or any misrepresentation in our perception of a situation. Yet ruminating about a traumatic or hurtful past that cannot be changed stirs up our emotional brain, rather than calms it down. As we live our lives, many past unpleasant events become buried beneath new emotional memories, and these newer memories can shield us from the past and our emotional responses.

All of our experiences where emotions were triggered, and how we responded to them, are compiled in our brain and contribute to forming a set of rules—the scripts—by which we live.[vii] Sequence patterns of stimuli (an event, a person, or a situation), the emotions activated by them, and corresponding responses become scripts that are much like a reflex that is coded into implicit memory and thus operate automatically and mechanically.[viii] Scripts are based on the repetitive activation of a given emotion, or emotions consistently activated, by a particular stimulus. As such, the emotions we experience in the present have past histories that have been compressed into mini-theories which help us make sense of regularity and change in our lives, and provide information concerning ways of living in the world.[ix] Scripted responses can either help or hinder us as we interpret, evaluate, and make predictions in our experiences.

Most people are well aware of some of their scripted emotional responses to situations, especially in terms of the theories they have developed around intimate relationships. If a new partner behaves in a particular way, for example, we may find ourselves cognitively weaving theories based on our past emotional responses in similar situations that inform our present emotional response. In interpersonal situations, this often involves protecting oneself from the shame of hurt or loss. Since our scripts are based on what we have learned from all of our past experiences when similar emotions were triggered, we cannot necessarily undo or erase them, but we can learn further from them, modify our responses, or inhibit them when we realize they do not necessarily apply to a current situation. Thus, there are times where suppressing memories that arise from our scripted responses may be more adaptive and healthy than delving into them, especially since they may bias our perception, our interpretation of a current situation, and our attention in the present.[x]

People who have repeatedly suffered from failure, for example, may have to detach themselves from past emotional experiences of defeat in order to persevere in the present. Many athletes, as well as people whose work involves sales, are certainly aware of the importance of staying in the present, regardless of prior unsuccessful attempts at achieving their goals. In academic arenas, suppressing memories of defeat in order to pursue achievement is important, while simultaneously looking back to correct errors rather than ruminate about one’s past failure. New emotional memories of success can subdue reminders of failure since joy and excitement felt in favorable outcomes are pleasurable emotions that become welcomed memories.

A common value in many psychotherapeutic approaches has to do with an interest in pursuing what we generally want to keep out of our consciousness. Exposure to painful memories is prominent in cognitive behavioral therapies as well as in psychoanalytic approaches. The therapist’s value of fuller expression and integration of inner experiences may be at odds with a client’s goal to more effectively suppress painful feelings and better repress traumatic memories.[xi] In instances of severely traumatized individuals, for example, the goal of the therapist may not be to uncover painful emotional memories, but instead to function as a provider of comforting time and milieu whose aim is to help the client find, accept, and to get on with him- or herself, as well as recognize that within the self is a scar which cannot be analyzed out of existence.[xii] With this goal in mind, the individual can discover his or her way into the world of others (rather than be shown the ‘right’ way by some profound interpretation) and not feel as though others oppress or impinge on him or her.[xiii]

There are times, however, when one must revisit an emotionally distressing memory before one is able to suppress or control it.[xiv] In essence, it is important to recognize what one feels at a given moment that corresponds to the imagery and thoughts associated with painful memories, find ways to inhibit or distract oneself from the feeling and to control the urge to revisit the past through one’s thoughts. Prefrontal brain areas associated with inhibitory mechanisms, lateralized predominantly to the right hemisphere, have been found to be involved in the suppression of emotional reactivity.[xv] Suppressing retrieval engages the right medial frontal gyrus and reduces related hippocampal activity.[xvi], [xvii]Thus, memories can be controlled by suppressing the sensory aspects of memory, and through repeated practice strengthening cognitive control over one’s recollections.[xviii]

All emotions motivate us to pay attention to whatever activates them. Yet the same emotional system that motivates us to remember, may also be a reminder that can motivate us to leave the past alone.

[With appreciation to Lisa Dylan for her insights related to this post.]


[i] Liu, Y.; Lin, W.; Liu, C; Luo, Y. Wu, J.; Bayley, P.; and Qin, S. (2016). Memory consolidation reconfigures neural pathways involved in the suppression of emotional memories. Nature Communications, 7. doi: 10.1038/ncomms13375

[ii] Anderson, M. C. and Levy, B. J. (2009). Suppressing unwanted memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 189-194.

[iii] Anderson, M. C. and Levy, B. J. (2009), cited above.

[iv] Gagnepain, P.; Hulbert, J.; and Anderson, M. C. (2017). Parallel regulation of memory and emotion suppression of intrusive memories. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37, 6423-6441.

[v] Bois, J. S. and David, G. F. (ed.) (1996). The Art of Awareness: A Handbook on Epistemics and General Semantics. Santa Monica, CA: Continuum Press and Productions.

[vi] Bois, J. S. and David, G. F. (ed.) (1996), cited above.

[vii] Tomkins, S.S. (1995). Script Theory. In Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, ed. E. Virginia Demos (New York: Cambridge University Press,

1995), 334.

[viii] Tomkins, Script Theory, p. 387, cited above.

[ix] Tomkins, Script theory, p. 290, cited above.

[x] Daleiden, E. L., Vasey, M.W. (1997). An information-processing perspective on childhood anxiety. Clinical Psychology Review, 17:407–429.

[xi] Berman, E. (2001). Psychoanalysis and life. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 70, 35-65.

[xii] Balint, M. (1969). The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.

[xiii] Balint, M. (1969), cited above.

[xiv] Depue, B.; Curran, T.; and Banich, M.T. (2007), Prefrontal Regions Orchestrate Suppression of Emotional Memories via a Two-Phase Process. Science 317, 215. DOI: 10.1126/science.1139560

[xv] Depue, B.; Curran, T.; and Banich, M.T. (2007), cited above.

[xvi] Anderson MC, Ochsner KN, Kuhl B, Cooper J, Robertson E, Gabrieli SW, Glover GH, Gabrieli JD. (2004) Neural systems underlying the suppression of unwanted memories. Science 303:232–235.

[xvii] Depue, B.; Curran, T.; and Banich, M.T. (2007), cited above.

[xviii] Depue, B.; Curran, T.; and Banich, M.T. (2007), cited above.

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