One of single biggest issues that stops people from living the life they want is their inability to let go of negative memories from their past.
Most often when people experience hurtful events in their life they tend to prefer to suppress their memories, or to simply silence their emotional pain by trying their best to ignore what happened.
When you ask them about why they want to avoid revisiting their past, they often say that there is no reason to dwell on their memories, since there is nothing they can do about their past anyway.
They will say things like: What is the point of remembering your childhood sexual abuse? It doesn’t change anything about what happened. And why should I remember that I grew up with an alcoholic father? or a mother who abandoned me? Crying about what happened or didn’t happen would simply be wasted tears.
At first glance this way of thinking seems reasonable. And it would be a great solution indeed, if it were really possible to simply let go of the past like this. The problem, however, is that our body remembers, even though we don’t. What this means is that whatever unfinished business we have not addressed will keep getting activated and wreak havoc on our lives, until the day we really confront it and lay it to rest.
What to Do about Negative Memories from the Past:
The positive news is that there is a lot that can be done about unpleasant memories and experiences from the past. Although it is true that we cannot change the past, we can in fact change how feel about it and what meaning we attribute to it.
The best way to do so is to go back into the experience rather than to avoid it.
Les Greenberg, a psychologist and researcher at York University in Canada, has studied how people work through unfinished business in talk therapy, and has proposed that change happens through a process he refers to as changing an emotion with an emotion
How to Change an Emotion with an Emotion:
When you don’t shut down a negative or unpleasant emotional memory, but are helped to fully enter into it, you will be able to learn something from it. Emotions tell us something about ourselves and about our needs, and this information helps us transform our emotions by giving us access to other emotions.
How to Overcome Negative Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse:
If you were sexually abused, for example, this memory is oftentimes initially experienced as unbearable, repulsive, or shameful. But if you enter into the emotion and get some help from your therapist, you will soon see that the initial experience of disgust, or pain, or shame, can give rise to a whole set of other emotions, which in turn change the overall meaning of the experience.
The emotion of shame, which causes you to want to hide, or the emotion of disgust, which causes you to want to push away, are often turned against oneself in people who were abused. They often think of themselves as “broken”, “damaged”, “vile”, “unlovable”. They sometimes want to hurt themselves as a form of punishment, or hide who they are from others because they don’t feel worthy of acceptance.
However, by fully going into these emotions, rather than shutting them down, the person may be able to access other facets of their emotional experience.
They may begin to access sadness at what was lost or what was taken away from them and to enter into the grief that was previously blocked by shame.
The sadness may in turn give rise to anger at the perpetrator for violating a helpless child, or at caregivers for not picking up on small signs that things were not okay.
As the person gets more in touch with their anger, this changes their sadness, by making them feel more empowered. In this way the person can go through a change process from initial shame or disgust, to sadness about their loss, to anger about what should have happened, but didn’t happen.
As they begin to feel more indignant at the other person, rather than blaming themselves, they may also better be able to soothe themselves or care for themselves. It is only a short step from “I was so helpless and alone” (sadness) and “it wasn’t right and shouldn’t have happened” (anger), to feeling compassion for one-self “I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t blame myself”.
By entering into the initial emotion, which was very unpleasant, it became possible to change the original emotion with another emotion, and thus to change the experience of the memory itself.
According to Les Greenberg this emotional change process will eventually lead to acceptance and agency. Once we accept who we are and what happened to us, and work through our feelings about it, we come out on the other side as feeling empowered and having a choice about how we want to move forward.
Instead of being stuck in a past that keeps wreaking havoc on our lives, we can now take control of our lives, give ourselves a pass, and orient ourselves toward the future with a renewed confidence and a more positive sense of self.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist at Better Therapy PLLC. I help people experience change at an emotional level and overcome traumatic memories and experiences that are holding them back.