Releasing the Charge of Difficult Memories

Sometimes we carry intense emotional memories that continue to affect us today. I am talking about memories that still bring up feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, regret… all the greatest hits of our emotional repertoire.

Some folks get stuck in these memories, where a core story was born that continues to rule their lives—something like, “That’s when I learned no one would ever take me seriously.” Though they know it’s in the past, they can’t help but recall it often, talk about it, feel trapped by it.

Other folks get stuck as well, but have learned to avoid or suppress the memories. “It happened in the past. There’s no point in talking about it.” The problem is that these memories still carry the emotional charge, they are alive for us just as much as the folks in the previous example.

There are a number of therapeutic approaches to dealing with these kinds of memories. Here is one practice I do with myself and the occasional client to work through memories that carry deeply stuck shame, guilt, or anger. (I do not, however, encourage this exercise for traumatic memories, especially if you are not currently in a strong therapeutic relationship to heal your trauma response. The reasons why would be too long to explain in this post but I suspect most folks with traumatic memories will get it when they read through the exercise.)

Step 1: Identify a specific memory that is highly charged.

Specificity is very important, perfect recall is not. For example, something like, “My mom was always critical when I tried to make her happy” is too general for this exercise. Detail brings up more of the emotional intensity and ultimately reveals more important information that helps us to move. You do not have to get all the details exactly, though, because this isn’t about being right or confronting another person. It’s simply accessing the memory as it is currently alive for you. (For the purpose of this exercise, I would practice with something on a 4-5 in the scale of intensity, with 1 being no intensity and 10 being nuclear meltdown.)

Step 2: Imagine the memory as it occurred, in as much detail as you can recall, and record it.

I like to imagine the memory and type out the memory as I’m having it, but that is easy for me. It might be easier for you to narrate the memory out loud and record it. If you can find a person to listen to you and witness, that is even better.

Step 3: Identify a key figure of someone else involved in the memory. Retell the story of what happened, but this time from their perspective. Record this.

If there is a person in this memory who is a “villain” or a “victim” or simply a person who was part of the conflict, imagine what happened from their perspective. This works surprisingly well if you don’t over think it, analyze it, or try to justify it, just re-imagine the scene as though you were “in their shoes” and tell the story as it unfolds. Unexpected details may come out, things you can’t possibly know, or things you do know but finally make sense from this perspective. Don’t censor it—again, this isn’t evidence for a court of law, it’s to help you bring to light your unconscious beliefs and intuitions about the situation.

Step 4: Imagine the memory one more time, this time as though you were a camera or an impartial observer. Record this.

Step 5: Review all of your recordings.

If you have a trusted ally who saw you narrating these out loud, ask them to tell you what they observed.

Notice what is different from each perspective. What can you learn about yourself and the people involved from these different lenses? What does one lens show that wasn’t available to the other? What does this memory and how it unfolds tell you about ways you deal with similar situations today? What are the strengths and limitations of that approach? What would you have done differently if you had all this information?

A femme person in a pink dress opens her arms toward a wave splashing the rocks.

The joy of bringing flow to the unconscious. Photo by Danka & Peter

Step 6: Think about a next step to honor this work.

If you have felt guilt, shame, or anger about the memory, consider if there is some action you could take to bring closure. Perhaps you need to make restitution for harm done, or offer yourself forgiveness for a situation that can no longer be rectified. Perhaps you need to apologize, or to go confront someone after all.

In some cases, I encourage revisiting the memory and imagining what I would do now if I could intervene in the event as it unfolded. Go help that part of you still stuck in the pain and emotions to get out of it. It doesn’t change the literal events of the past, but it changes the ongoing meaning and emotional charge of those memories, which frees you to rewrite the present and create a future.

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