No man left behind. No child left behind. No unpleasant memories left behind? We often hang on to memories of awful past events way longer than necessary.
Brain science tells us that the key to remembering things is repetition. Information we hear over and over again becomes engrained in our mind. Memories we revisit regularly become stronger.
This works out really well for things that we actually want to remember. We are happy to give important facts and happy memories a prominent place in our mind. Unfortunately, prime real estate in our brain is often occupied by things we would rather forget. Some unpleasant memories just won’t move away. And we’re the reason they’re sticking around.
A part of us wants to find a different place for those unpleasant memories, preferably six feet under. Another part of us continues to reserve a place of honor for them.
We regularly remember the times when we got hurt, were embarrassed, or felt humiliated. We dust off our dreadful past events, perhaps even giving them a fresh coat of paint and making them look more vivid and dreadful. And each time we revisit those unpleasant memories, we get hurt, are embarrassed, and feel humiliated all over again.
In my conflict resolution practice, I meet many people who spend a lot of time revisiting unpleasant memories and keeping them front and center. The past takes up so much space in their brain that there is hardly any room for the present, let alone for the future.
So why do we keep revisiting those unhappy memories? Are we masochists? Do we enjoy feeling bad? Perhaps there are some people who do. I find that, for most of us, revisiting unpleasant memories has different reasons:
* As long as we are stuck in the past, we don’t have to face the present. It’s daunting to clean up the mess, pick ourselves up from the ground, and let go of negative emotions. It’s daunting to forgive someone, be compassionate with ourselves, and move forward with a positive attitude. It’s easier to stay in the mud and mope.
* As long as we are stuck in the past, we don’t have to face ourselves in the mirror. It’s daunting to take responsibility for our own part in our story. It’s daunting to look at our own contribution to the mess. It’s easier to stay in the mud and point a finger at someone else.
* As long as we are stuck in the past, we don’t have to face the uncertain future. It’s daunting to figure out what to do differently. It’s daunting to try, and not know whether we will fail or succeed. It’s easier to stay in the mud and know what’s happening.
We’re human. Most of us don’t like daunting tasks and uncertainty all that much. So we keep revisiting the unpleasant memories and tell ourselves that they just won’t go away. Not realizing that we are the ones keeping them in place.
I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to leave unpleasant memories behind. Some memories are so intense or traumatic that it takes quite some time and effort, and maybe even professional help, to deal with them properly. But it’s up to us to spend the time and effort, and get the help we need, to put those memories away.
I’m also not suggesting that we immediately purge awful events from our memory. We need to learn from the past so we don’t keep creating new unpleasant memories. But it’s up to us to learn our lesson.
We decide to deal with our past, take the lessons with us, and leave the bad memories behind. We decide whether we polish our memories or let them fade away. We decide.
Unpleasant memories are better left behind. Visiting hours are over, and it’s time to go. The future is waiting.