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What to Do With Our Painful Holiday Memories From Last Year

Why emotional compartmentalization is good for us and how to do it.

Key points

  • We have many memories from the pandemic that can be overwhelming
  • It is OK, and emotionally healthy, to not try to process all of the memories from the pandemic at once.
  • Compartmentalization is a skill to differentiate our memories and feelings and keep them from interfering with our functioning.
©istock used by permission
Managing holiday memories in the pandemic
Source: ©istock used by permission

The pumpkin pie is in the oven, and that makes it official: The holiday season has begun. Normally at this time of year, I repost two evergreen pieces—one about navigating tricky family dynamics at holiday gatherings and the other about making sure we find time for ourselves to reflect on the past year and feel peaceful amidst the holiday rush and stresses.

Hold up a second. Is that even possible, a peaceful reflection on 2021?

Why Reminiscing Is Hard to Do in a Pandemic

The mere suggestion to “look back and reflect on the year” or the words “last Thanksgiving” or “the holidays” may have already flashed snapshots in your mind and set off cascades of uneasiness from a place deep within. Isn't it astonishing the power a couple of words can have on our nervous system?

As life is slowly coming back to us after nearly two years of the pandemic, we may be having a harder time dealing with what we had already endured and lost than when we were going through it. There’s a good reason for that. We can’t survive and process at the same time. It’s just not how we’re built.

During stressful situations, the way the human brain works, experiences, and memories get stored for later but are easily located or triggered by a word or an object that instantly transports us out of our autopilot coping program, whisked through a door to the past.

Even just opening that door a crack allows your mind to go back to what may have been sealed off safe, and howling wind of vulnerability and uncertainty of our pre-vaccine lives comes rushing at us. The feeling of being trapped in place, the searing ache of isolation, the lockdown and not gathering for the holidays, the longing to simply see and hug the ones we love, the fear of COVID, the grief for our losses the rumbling, the wind tunnel of the pandemic—all that pierces our longing for our old lives, knowing that we couldn’t have them.

And as here we are in another COVID surge, we know that these experiences of longing and loss are not over, but it may be especially traumatic to look back and see earlier versions from a somewhat safer standpoint.

Instead of happily reminiscing as we might have in other years, we can feel like a deer in the headlights of our own memories with this holiday season. Yes, what we see when we are whisked through that door are moments that we have already lived through—we’ve survived them— but that doesn’t mean a darn to our nervous system.

When the memories jump out at us, they do not seem like memories at all. They seem very present. If our minds wrote captions to go with the images from last year, they might go something like this: “It’s too much; I can’t.”

We could edit those sentiments as I’ve suggested in the past, using our “red pens” to do a rewrite of the captions, paring them down to a more liveable size: “I can’t do this now, and that’s OK.” Or, “This is too much for me now, and that’s OK. Or, “I’m having that ‘this is too much for me’ feeling, and that’s OK.” All of these would be good options—especially if you’re having these feelings right now. Taking it a step further, we could use something even more powerful than our determination. A red pen was given the sheer volume of emotional backlog.

What do we do with thoughts and memories that overwhelm, overtake us, and leave us disoriented and unmoored?

The short answer is a long word: compartmentalization.

When we have an overwhelming feeling that threatens to overtake us–it helps to have a place for it.

Compartmentalization Is an Important Emotional Intelligence Skill

The concept is simple—it’s sort of a mashup of two things. The first is the emotional equivalent of having a place to put your keys. Just like having a place to put your keys doesn’t ensure that we put them there, it’s more likely that we will put them there in a place designated for them.

The secondpart of compartmentalization is enabling you to function better by not having to multi-task and instead to be freed up to focus on one thing at a time. Imagine walking through your day having to hold your keys or other important objects the whole time. What could you get done?

We can use compartmentalization to manage our holiday year in review emotions because too many ideas swirling about renders us dysfunctional. Finding a place for those hard experiences and memories means we’re not navigating the world while holding those in our tired arms.

Having the idea of compartmentalization in mind, we can visualize a box, really a series of boxes, to put emotions or memories in that are too hard, unwieldy, or things that we’re simply not ready to process yet.

To be clear, these strategies below will help with what we may think of as lower-case "t" trauma. For those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), please know that there are extremely effective interventions for your suffering, and you can seek professional help.

How to Use Compartmentalization When Memories Pop Up

So, go ahead and try it. Start naming boxes. There is power in simply naming the box. It tends to the importance, so you don’t have to. Here are some of mine.

  • Things that I don’t understand
  • Things that are too hard to think about
  • Things I can’t change
  • Really sad things
  • Things I’ve lost
  • Unfinished things

Organized people know that it helps to have a place for things. But what do we do with the things for which there is no place? Make a box for those, too: Things that I can’t even categorize yet.

I know I am oversimplifying and compartmentalization won’t solve all our problems, but it can do enough to reduce our overwhelm and suffering managing each day. Having the picture in mind to differentiate our experiences helps us not continuously dump our experiences out on the floor—past, present, future, the 360-degree array of memories and feel beholden to them to try to make sense of them and ourselves all the time. Instead, we make compartments.

Does sorting ensure that these hard thoughts, feelings, and images stay sealed up Tupperware tight?

No.

But, when these pictures get up and wander through the halls of your mind, rather than trying to process and solve them, we can direct them back to where they belong.

Looking back at pictures—either in our minds or those iPhone selections just for us(!) remembering last year we may feel overwhelmed and want to turn away— which is fine. The anxiety we’ve been feeling is understandable but not helpful. Turning to this compartmentalization skill over and over allows us to have some parts of the brain quiet, while other parts that are more needed can step forward. It’s not that the troubling recollections aren’t important, but they are not important to us at that very moment. Our emotions are not trying to manipulate us, they’re our programmed responses that just happen, but we should be the deciders as to whether something belongs in the urgent box or elsewhere.

Tips for Safer Memory Exploration

When do we open those boxes of stored experiences? Do we open them?

There’s no universal right or wrong. Whenever it’s right for us—that’s the time. Some boxes we might never want to open, and if that’s working for us, good. We need to trust that we are in our own good hands on this.

When we look back at those memories, we can give ourselves grace and gratitude for getting ourselves through and remind ourselves that this is in the past and not happening now. It also helps to orient yourself to the present when you look back at the past, leaving a path of crumbs to find your way back into the life you know.

Here are some ideas for how to do that:

  1. Open those boxes, visiting those difficult places, but on a schedule: not just when they pop in. That way, you are more prepared.
  2. Before you even start that “visit,” make a plan and decide what you’re going to do afterward—maybe set a time limit and alarm, arrange in advance for a friend to call, decide on a piece of music to listen to, go outside in nature, or… Netflix.
  3. Ask yourself, when you’re there, periodically, “Is this good for me, or is this not good for me?” An important strategy to keep nearby at any time, know that these explorations aren’t mandatory and you’re the decider. You can close up the box again and set it aside.

Should we share the feelings we find in our boxes?

Going through those journeys together, having empathy for each other, and sharing what we find, deepens our connections and helps us heal. There will be more to process as we move forward. Our doors to the past will open some more. Together with our boxes of difficult things at hand, we can help each other heal—witness those memories, not necessarily make sense of them beyond that. Still, just in their shared acknowledgment, we will be helping each other heal and make room for new memories from this year.

Please be safe, everyone, hug your loved ones tight, wishing all good health, meaning, and connection this holiday season.

©2021 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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