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Current versus Memory-Triggered Emotions

Clients sometimes get confused when I encourage them to experience all their emotions, yet discourage them from unconsciously dwelling on feelings that trickle up unbidden from the past. This advice is a bit confusing, I admit. So, let me explain.

There’s a difference, at times obvious and at times subtle, between emotions that spring from a current event or interaction and those that are triggered by memory. For instance, if a friend is often late and, because of this, you end up entering a movie after it has started, you may have appropriate feelings of annoyance or anger. You’d want to connect to these feelings to rationally decide how to handle them—mention something when your friend arrives, wait until you’re having coffee after the movie, etc. However, in this same example, if your friend arrives late and your memory coughs up all the times your alcoholic father strolled in late for parent-teacher conferences or school recitals and failed to keep his promises in general, you may have a more intense reaction. You may become so paralyzed with fear or rage that you can’t say a word to your friend or, conversely, start screaming that you can’t be friends with her and storm off.

See the difference? In the first scenario, you’re reacting in the present (which includes recent history with your unreliable friend), feeling hurt or disappointed and using your cognitive abilities to decide how to deal with the situation. In the second, your memory has intruded into the present and hijacked rational thinking. You’re reacting as if you were a little kid dependent on your father—terrified to speak up or so enraged that you want to strike out and hurt someone who has hurt you.

When I advise you to feel all your feelings, I mean in the present or about the past by identifying what emotion you’re experiencing and, if necessary, exploring and trying to understand what it’s about, then deciding on an appropriate course of action. Using the example above, this may involve noting that your friend reminds you of your father and of how you felt when he frequently disappointed you. You’ll want to make that connection with the observant part of your brain, but avoid sliding down your memory chute and reacting as if your friend is your father disappointing you or that you have no ability to respond other than as the child you were. This is an important distinction.

You know you’re triggered by memories of old, painful events when your reaction is disproportionate in intensity to a current situation. Distinguish between recall- and reality-induced feelings and you’ll have an easier time with emotional management.