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Bad Memories

Bad Memories

We all remember things we’ve done that we wish we hadn’t.  We’re human and imperfect, so we can expect to wrestle with bad memories. They’re a part of life. 

Who hasn’t made a bad choice and messed up? 

We embarrass ourselves, or hurt others, intentionally and unintentionally, and wish we could take it back.  We get into car accidents, someone robs us, we fight wars, or maybe witness something terrible, and do nothing about it.

Once we’ve done these things, they’re very hard to forget.

A Past that Haunts You

Scientists say that painful memories haunt us because they represent a moment that activated our fight-or-flight instinct. This instinct, which prepares our bodies to either fight or to flee, is very primal. It has helped our ancestors survive threats in the environment around them.

Our brains are hard-wired to remember fight-or-flight moments as emotionally significant. They store them for reference, so we can avoid the same threatening situation in the future.  Unfortunately, our brains make a special effort to remember all fight-or-flight moments, even those that didn’t actually threaten our lives.  We’re stuck with them.

Forget Traumatic Events

Since we are hard-wired to remember painful memories more so than any other, we have a hard time letting them go.  Still, it’s possible.  People can forget traumatic events.  Sometimes the forgetting is intentional and, at other times, unintentional.

Intentional Forgetting (Suppressed Memories)

A person may deliberately forget a memory that provokes extreme anxiety as a way to protect herself.  She might “place a guardian at the gates of her mind,” and deliberately focus on something in the present–like a sight or smell–the moment the memory tries to intrude.

She may also create a “substitution” for the memory, where she redirects her consciousness to another memory or strategy (such as reciting the periodic table of elements), the moment the bad one tries to come back.   

Of course, all memories tend to fade over time, and as long as a person doesn’t keep actively recalling the painful memories, they’ll fade faster.

Unintentional Forgetting (Repressed Memories)

A person may also repress memories that are associated with a high level of anxiety or trauma, making them impossible to recall consciously.  These memories still might affect her unconsciously, though, and could re-emerge later if triggered by something associated to the memory, such as sights, sounds, smells, who was there, the weather, and so on.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has a diagnosis for this condition. It is called “dissociative amnesia” and its defining feature is the inability to recall important autobiographical information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is inconsistent with ordinary forgetting. 

Bad Memories in Dead Friends Forever Movie

The APA suggests that a person suffering with a repressed memory may have a difficult time sorting out repressed memories of real events, vs. false memories that lessen the emotional impact of the same event.

Bad memories are moments in life most of us want to forget, if only to limit the power they have over our present lives.  But maybe it’s even more important to remember that the only moment that truly matters in our lives is this one, right now.  Someone once said,

While those bad memories may continue to haunt us, they are in the past.  They can’t hurt us…unless we let them.

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