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Emotional Memories Now versus Then


A client said she wished desperately to learn how to not be reactive. Specifically, she wanted to learn how not to be triggered by her traumatic, abusive childhood. We’d talked a great deal in therapy about trying to stay out of recall and stay in reality, so I valued her desire to pursue being grounded in the present.

We can’t erase memories or stop recalling how we felt in them, especially events which threatened our survival, being reactive to previous threats is meant help us outwit current dangers. Memories are guideposts for our journey in the future. We need the ability to recall the threats we faced to recognize future encounters with them. 

However, we only need a general idea of what we felt to keep safe; we don’t need to relive the suffering we had at 4 or 7 or 19. A quick identification of the emotions we experienced is sufficient reminder. Any more than that is overkill and doesn’t serve us.

Here’s an example. If you got beaten up by a band of bullies in middle school, you need not recall what every blow felt like and how ashamed you were to walk into homeroom battered and bleeding in order to know this was an experience you don’t want to repeat. All that’s necessary is remembering the fear and shame you felt. You don’t need to experience all of it all over again, only be able to identify what you felt.

There would be no point dragging yourself through all the pain you felt during this middle school assault because you’d be recalling it through the eyes and emotions of a child with only a partially formed brain, lacking executive functioning that’s tasked with regulating emotions. Recalling your suffering in detail does nothing for you now. If you were attacked by a pack of bullies now, as awful as the experience might be, you’d be enduring it as an adult, a far less harrowing encounter because you’d have a fully formed brain (which develops in the late twenties) with which to process it.

Here's another example. I was terrified of clowns as a child. Every year when my father took me to Madison Square Garden to see the circus, I’d steer us clear of them and cling to my father in case any of them lunged at me. Now, at 75, I still get queasy when I see a clown, but nothing remotely like the terror I felt as a child. Why? Because my brain interprets what I’m seeing differently. I will never like clowns, but as an adult I don’t quake in my boots from the memory of them, though I did quake at the time. 

So, it’s okay to recall painful memories. Just do it from the vantage point of looking back at them as an adult and avoid re-experiencing them as if you were still a child.