It’s funny the things we hold onto from various experiences. There are things I said in middle school that rise to the surface of my consciousness from time to time and still have the power to make me cringe. Conversations I had that could have gone better. Things I thought I needed that were detrimental to my own sense of self.
I wish the good things could come to the surface more often than these embarrassing and shaming memories.
At the same time, it’s hard to know how true those memories are and how much of them have been shaped by the narrative I’ve built around them – I remember them as embarrassing so the words and actions are subtly shaded toward embarrassing in way that they may not have been in real time.
It’s really interesting to me how the mind filters and revises and then revisits our memories. I talk to my clients all the time about the difference between reliving and remembering our pasts.
Confirmation bias, as the term is typically used in the psychological literature, connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.Raymond S. Nickerson
We have a set of biases that we seek out evidence to support. The narratives that we’ve created about ourselves and others and about our relationships become theories about how we absolutely are, about how others definitely will behave, and what we can expect from our relationships. Then, we see evidence that these theories are correct in all of our many day to day interactions.
With relived memories, though, we experience the same physical sensations and the same reactions even in situations that differ widely from the remembered experience. When triggered, our bodies revert to a familiar neurological pathway and follow it to its natural and traumatic conclusion. We are no longer even present in the current moment, we’ve journeyed back in time to react to long gone stimuli.
In a way, though certainly not to the extent that people with significant trauma experience it, we are all suffering from post traumatic stress – the things that we found painful and upsetting come back and are revisited. They shape our perspectives and perceptions and we see current events as proof that how we remember the past is correct.
My goal in therapy, then, is to get clients to remember their traumatic experiences without reliving them. To improve mindfulness to the point where they are aware of their triggers and prompting occasions and are able to prepare themselves to observe their reaction and to stay present in the situation they find themselves in currently.