*Excerpt from the book Stop Fighting with Yourself and Move Upwards*
When it comes to dealing with bad memories, Memory Reinterpretation (MR) is more difficult compared to Memory Neutralization (MN). MR is, however, more beneficial than MN, in the long run. You can check out Memory Neutralization technique here https://thelogicalist.com/how-to-neutralize-bad-memories/
MR allows you not only emotionally neutralize an event but to completely change how you see it. You can also combine the Memory Reinterpretation and Emotion Substitution (ES), as you will see later. Whenever possible, you should use MR or combined MR plus ES techniques. Only use pure Emotion Substitution if you cannot think of a way to reinterpret a memory. So, how do we achieve Memory Reinterpretation?
One way to change the way you see an event or person is to shift the focus of the memory from one part of the recollection to another. This technique utilizes the Peak-End rule, which we covered earlier in this chapter. The Peak-End Rule tells us that people judge events based on the highest and lowest emotional experiences and your emotional state at the end. So, Peak-End rule tells us that people do not look at the whole event when judging how good or bad something was, only the highs, lows, and the end. I will give you a small example from my own life, to demonstrate what I mean.
When I was about 14, I went to learn swimming during my summer school holidays. On the last day of the swimming class, there was a competition where the students competed against each other in various categories. The pool was an Olympic size swimming pool, and I was one of the older students in the class. Other kids my age and I were supposed to take a swan dive at the shallow end, and the first person to swim the whole length of the pool wins. The problem was, I had missed the last week of classes because my school had started again and consequently never learned to do a swan dive.
At the shallow end, the water was only about 2-3 feet deep, and the jumping-off point was at least 6 feet from the surface of the water. I was sure that had I tried to do a swan dive from that point, I would not be able to pull it off and would hit the bottom of the pool. I could have explained my fears to the instructors, and they would have understood, but for some reason, I did not. Instead, I went and took the standard starting position that you see in all the swimming competitions, with the hands touching feet. The instructors started the countdown, three, two, one, and standing there on the diving platform; I realized something. I knew I had no interest in risking busting my head on the pool floor merely to avoid embarrassment.
Then, the instructor said, go, and instead of doing a swan dive as the rest of the guys did, I just jumped down into the pool, feet first, and then started swimming. Everyone laughed, and I could hear their laughter. Unfortunately for me, as it turned out, my humiliation quotient for the day wasn’t up yet. Now I don’t know what you know about swimming but doing a swan dive gives you quite the head start in any swimming competition. Since the other guys had done a swan dive and I had just jumped vertically down, they had quite the head start on me. I, though, am a fighter and don’t like to lose, so I did the only thing I could do, I swam as hard as I could, and it worked. I started closing the distance, and I had almost reached the guy at the 3rd place when my luck ran out.
I was swimming so hard at one point that I did not get enough time to take a full breath. How did that happen? My head was shifting too fast between air and water; that is how. Anyway, the details aren’t crucial to the point I am trying to make. The results were predictable. I was running out of breath.
To make matters worse, by this point, I was in the deep end of the pool. At the deepest end, the pool was 50ft deep, and I had just crossed the 40ft mark. Being me, I thought to myself, I am already at the last leg if I could just hold on for a minute more, then I can finish, and maybe I even win third place. Also, I thought, I am not in any real danger of drowning, with so many instructors watching on, so no need to worry. But then a point came when I could no longer ignore the burning in my lungs. Having messed up my rhythm, I had no breath left, and I was no Olympic swimmer, only a kid who had just learned to swim. I did the only thing I could do, veered left, and swam towards the edge of the pool. Reaching the side just in time, I took in a lung full of air, and I have to say, what a relief it was merely to breathe again. You never appreciate the little things in life, like breathing, till you suddenly can’t.
All the instructors came running asked me if I was ok and what happened. I said I am fine, explained everything, and yeah, it was all fine. Except, of course, everyone’s opinion of me had taken a nosedive. Once the prize-giving ceremony and everything was over, we all headed back home. On the bus ride back, well again, the predictable happened, and I got made fun of and that too by much younger kids. When you are 14, getting laughed at by a bunch of 10-year-olds is a bit of a low point.
Now I will not go so far as to say this memory was the bane of my existence because it wasn’t. I rarely thought about this incident. However, every now and then, when I had to do public speaking or something, I would think of this memory and cringe. I would remember this event when I thought of swimming or had to do something potentially embarrassing. I would recall how I felt in that situation, cringe, and then try to suppress this memory.
Eventually, I realized, rewriting this memory and making it emotionally neutral was a lot better way of dealing with it than swatting it away. I recognized that even though I was pushing it away from my conscious, it was still stuck in my unconscious. Buried in my psyche, it could possibly be impacting my overall confidence level, without me even realizing it.
Therefore at the age of 32, 21 years after the fact, I rewrote the memory. How I solved the problem was by refocusing the peak emotional point from me jumping and making a fool of myself to another part of the recollection. On the same day, on the bus ride back from the pool, when the other kids were making fun of me, my friends defended me. My friends got angry and told the kids mocking me to shut up. My friends coming to my defense was very emotionally satisfying for me. Let us face it, who doesn’t like to know that there are people in your life who care about you enough to stand up for you.
When this memory popped up instead of pushing it away, I recalled the memory. I thought specifically about my friends defending me, I pictured it in mind, thus triggering an emotional response. Subsequently, when my brain rerecorded the memory, the emotional peak of the memory was no longer me embarrassing myself, but my friends defending me. While this did not completely turn the recollection from a negative into a positive one, it did lead to the negative and the positive emotional peaks evening out. Shifting the peak and end emotional states of the memory made it more emotionally neutral. Now, the recollection was no longer about my failure and embarrassment but instead about people caring about me enough to stand up for me.
While the example I have given is relatively mild, worse memories can also be reinterpreted in this manner. Refocusing memories from the negative part on to a recollection of people supporting you or consoling you is very much possible. Whether the consoling happened that day, two days, or even a year later does not matter. In human memory, time is not an immutable variable as it is in the real world, so when the consoling happened is not as critical. It only matters that the consoling was related to the memory you are trying to modify. That said, too long a time differential can make the reinterpretation harder to achieve. For instance, if there is a gap of say ten years, between the event and the consoling, then you may find it harder to make it work.
The Peak-End rule states that how we recall an event depends more on the peak emotional moments and what we felt when the incident ended rather than on the entire experience. Refocus your attention on a different part of the memory such that it triggers intense counter-emotion. If you shift the emotional focus of the event, then recollection is rerecorded with a different interpretation, and that is how Memory Reinterpretation (MR) works. In the step by step format, the MR technique is as follows,
Step 1: Recall the memory
Step 2: Refocusing your attention on a different part of the recollection, preferably one with different emotional resonance.
Picture the new focal point of the memory in your mind till it triggers an emotional reaction. Subsequently, spend a minute or two ruminating about that part of the incident to allow the emotions to really register. Do not focus on any other part of the memory, or the effect will be diminished.
Step 3: Once you have finished refocusing, do an Emotion Substitution so that you don’t end up dwelling on the memory.
Use different trigger-thoughts when doing Emotion Substitution to prevent Classical Conditioning.
Following these three steps will cause the memory to rerecord with the new emotional information. Repeat this process consciously once or twice a day, or every time the memory pops up until it becomes emotionally neutral.
You can also combine the Emotion Substitution (ES) and Memory Reinterpretation (MR) techniques to produce faster results. To merge the two methods, simply replace Step 2 of the ES with Step 2 of MR. The decision on whether or not to combine the two techniques I leave to you, as different people have different capabilities. The ability to recall memories, and analyze them, etc. varies from person to person, so which method will work for you depends on you.
Also, just because memory has been evened out emotionally doesn’t necessarily mean that the effect it had on your behavior will completely disappear. Emotionally neutralizing the memories, however, does reduce the power that these learned rules will have in your life and will lead to these rules fading faster. For example, memories of a bad break up do not have the same impact after five years as it did a month after the fact. That said, the effect bad memories have on your behavior lasts a lot longer than the recollection’s emotional relevance. Your unconscious Emotional-self learns and internalizes rules of conduct based on your life experiences. These life-experience derived behavioral rules become a part of your Instinctive Moral Code and drive your emotions.
Someone who has gone through multiple breakups and has been emotionally hurt numerous times is likely to have a jaded attitude towards relationships and life in general. A disheartened approach to life will have a negative impact, not just on their future romantic relationships but also on other relationships such as those with parents, friends, co-workers, etc. Depending on the level of hurt emotions a person carries with them, even the children of such individuals will be impacted by the behavioral impact of these memories. However, as bad memories fade, you find it easier to do things like say, trust people, which at one point may have seemed impossible. The faster you neutralize bad memories, the quicker their effects on your behavior will fade. The less affected your decisions are by emotional variances, the more likely you are to have a stable and positive life.
Long term emotional equanimity can only be build by developing a high sense of meaning. But, these practical techniques will help you achieve higher emotional stability in the meantime.