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Ways to Identify When You’re in Recall Not Reality


It takes work to recognize when we’re in recall rather than reality. This happens when a painful memory echoes a current experience and we become mentally unmoored from the present and suffer what we felt then. Remember, memory is how we protect ourselves from bad things happening to us—the old “better safe than sorry” adage.

As I’ve written before, recall memories co-opt the present and the best we can do is to realize when this is happening and mentally drag ourselves back to the present. To do so, you will need to be a keen, accurate observer of your thoughts and feelings. 

Step 1: Notice the strength of your emotions. If someone cuts in front of you in line at the bank, you might be slightly annoyed. However, if you’re so enraged you want to shove them out of line or knock them to the ground, you’re being swept up an extreme unconscious reaction which is likely triggered by a memory of you, for example, being bullied in school or pushed around by your father. Your intense feelings are due to a surfacing of whatever you felt back then—pure untempered intense emotion.

Step 2: Notice the vulnerability you feel. The line-cutter may have unintentionally or intentionally snuck in front of you, but it’s doubtful they were targeting you intentionally. If the incident causes you to feel severe vulnerability and makes you as anxious as you were on that old lunch line or around Dad, you’ve shifted from reality to recall, to a time when you were vulnerable and had reason to be anxious. These strong emotions come from how you felt at whatever age you were, too young and scared to fight back. 

Step 3: Notice the frequency of intense feelings. If someone cuts in front of you in line at the bank, it’s normal to have the memory to pop up during the day—or to never think of it again. Over time, strong discomfort about the line-cutter should lessen. Maybe you mention the incident to someone, but in the course of the day, the experience is soon forgotten. However, if you continue to obsess about something minor that happened, especially if your anger (and desire for vengeance) grows, you’ve likely fallen into recall. 

One way to snap back into reality is to observe your reaction and recognize where it comes from, nearly always from a similar occurrence and consequent emotions in the past. Another strategy is to be curious about why this stranger might have cut in front of you which provides mental distance from your feelings, as you try to figure out what would motivate someone to do that to another person. Consider their childhood and what would induce anyone to behave so inconsiderately—including not paying attention. Once you’re in analysis mode, you’re back in reality where you belong.