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One of my goals as a therapist is to help clients unearth childhood memories so they can better understand themselves in the present. With other clients, especially those who’ve experienced trauma, my goal is to help them let go of powerful, hurtful memories. My focus depends on where they are in the emotional healing process
Events which we perceive as bad make an indelible mark in our memory bank. Our brains are built to recall them with special clarity and intensity to avoid similar harm in the future. Speed down the hill on your bike, then fall and break your arm often enough, and one hopes experience will teach you to slow down. In this way, recalling events which have hurt us is a beneficial process that leads to prevention. However, continuing to replay a distressing incident or period in your life over and over long after you’ve squeezed out every bit of instruction from it, is neither useful nor beneficial.
There’s a time to remember and a time to put away memories, but you can’t trust these processes to happen on their own. Too often your brain refuses to remember pain in order to avoid more of it or won’t forgot pain because it fears its reoccurrence. Deciding when you have finished working on, with and through painful experiences involves conscious decision-making. You must answer these questions: “What is the point of my thinking about this memory any longer?” and, “Will it benefit me to delve more deeply because there’s more to know or is it time to shut off this memory because I’ve learned all I need to from it?” Think of yourself as an archaeologist: At some point you’ll have found all the buried treasures in one spot and will need to close up shop and move on.
If you’ve replayed an awful experience over and over in your head and it still plagues you intensely, it’s time to stop the show. Replaying these memories is unnecessary and continues to reinjure you emotionally. You’re trying to make sense of what happened to you by going over the memory repeatedly, but, paradoxically, returning to your ground zero only entrenches it. Would you watch a movie you disliked repeatedly or would you turn it off when it comes on and go out of your way to avoid seeing it? When you drag yourself through memories of painful experiences—beyond what’s needed for healing—you’re activating pain circuits, not spurring on relief. After a certain point, if reviewing an incident or injury hurts, don’t do it. This advice goes for interpersonal mistakes and food binges as well as past trauma. You once may have been a true victim, but you needn’t be a victim of memory. You can choose where to place attention and awareness—and where not to. By all means, learn from the past, but please don’t stay stuck in it.
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