When Emotions from the Past Trip Us Up Now…
Managing difficult, overwhelming emotions, not being hijacked or flooded by them, is essential to our emotional intelligence and thus to our resilience. We want to be able to allow and learn from even huge waves of feelings so they guide rather than derail our responses to challenging life events and difficult people.
What gets tricky is when we’re feeling and reacting to something now with no sense whatsoever that we’re really reacting to the memory of a feeling from the past.
Besides processing experiences in the moment, our brains store memories of those experiences in long-term memory, sometimes in explicit memory, easily retrieved into conscious awareness, and most often in implicit memory, stored outside of conscious awareness. Implicit memory storage is actually a way the brain is being efficient so we don’t have to be bothered remembering everything that ever happened until it’s important to do so.
An implicit emotional memory is a real memory, but when it comes to consciousness again “out of the blue” it carries no time stamp. We’re feeling something very real, right now, but there’s no sense that what we’re experiencing is a memory. It feels so real now it must be true now. Our over-reacting to something from the past can derail our being resilient now.
A story from Bouncing Back illustrates how this can happen and suggests a way to rewire powerful emotional memories so they don’t deflect our resilience now.
“My client Margaret went into a tailspin one night when Daniel, the guy she had been dating, didn’t call her when he said he would. When she put in an urgent call to me, I thought it was understandable to be disappointed, worried, upset, but Margaret’s agitated panic suggested something deeper was going on. As we talked her reaction through, I asked Margaret when she had ever felt that same kind of panic in her past. After just a moment, she remembered two episodes that happened when she was five years old. Her dad had promised to pick her up from kindergarten and — twice — failed to show up. She had been left alone, no teachers around, too young to get home by herself, helpless and afraid. Daniel’s failing to call when he said he would was enough to bring up all those feelings of helplessness and abandonment encoded in her neural circuitry associated with her dad’s failure to keep his promise. Oh! That made sense. Margaret’s strong reactions now were fueled by her experiences in the past.”
We can recondition powerful emotional memories from the past so they don’t have so much power to trip us up now. I’ll continue the story of Margaret, then offer an exercise below where you can practices this rewiring.
“I asked Margaret to imagine that both times her dad had forgotten to pick her up, she had walked back into the school, and asked her teacher to call her dad. In this imagined re-write, she got her dad to pick her up within five minutes. Pairing the old memory of helplessness with the new “memory” of being empowered, taking action to get the help and response she needed, re-wired Margaret’s experience of herself in the original event. She could remember the previous event now with more equanimity and feeling more resourceful. And when Margaret thought about her experience with Daniel, now, she wasn’t linking it to her previous trauma. The next day she was able to calmly talk things through with him and get their relationship back on track.
Reconditioning previous emotional memories is not always easy, but it is often very helpful in clearing our mind’s reactivity so we can focus on what’s actually needing to be responded to now.
Wished For Outcome
As always, start small. One moment of one memory, so the brain has a chance to reprocess the memory and you have a chance to develop a sense of competence in using the tool.
1. Begin by coming into a sense of presence, aware of being in your own body in this moment, in this place. Bring a sense of kindness and openness to one’s experience, evoking a sense of your own true and deep inner goodness.
2. Begin the exercise by remembering one moment, one small moment, when an interaction between you and another person went awry, and you wound up feeling not very good about yourself, you wound up feeling badly. Stay anchored in your own awareness and your own self-compassion as you evoke this memory. You light up all the neural networks constellating this memory by remembering where you were, who you were with, remembering what you said, and what they said. Remembering what you did, and what they did. And remembering how all of that made you feel, at the time, or even now as you remember the event.
3. Notice how you feel, or felt, and see if you can locate where you feel, or felt, that in your body. The visceral sense of the experience. Notice any negative thoughts you may have about yourself now because of what you experienced then. Let the evoking of this negative experience be as vivid as you can, lighting up the memory so it can be rewired.
4. Then, you create the positive resource that you will juxtapose with this negative memory to do the rewiring, by beginning to imagine a different outcome to this scenario. A different more satisfactory resolution of the event. Remembering, whatever you can imagine is real to the brain, even if this new ending never could have happened in real life.
5. So you begin to imagine something different you might have said. You imagine something different the other person could have said, even if that never could have happened in real life. Let your brain do its own imagining and its own rewiring. Imagine something different you might have done. Imagine the other person doing something differently, even if that never could have happened in real life. Let your imagination create a more satisfactory resolution of the entire event. You can even imagine someone who wasn’t there at the time coming in and doing something helpful.
6. As this new scenario unfolds, let it come to a new more wished for outcome. And light up all the neural networks of this new resolution. Let yourself feel how you feel with this new ending, and where you feel those feelings in your body. Let yourself notice any new more positive thoughts you have about yourself, given this new outcome. Let the experience of this resolution be vivid in its details and vital in your imagination. Strengthen your experience of the thoughts and feelings of this new ending.
7. Then, gently touch back in to the original negative experience. Touch it lightly. And then let it go and return to resting in the experience of the new ending. Then touch into the negative experience again, just briefly; notice any shifts. Then return to the resource of the new positive ending. Touch into the negative again, let it go, and rest in the feelings and thoughts of the new positive ending.
8. Then you take a moment to pause and reflect on your experience of the entire exercise, noticing any shifts.
This technique of reconditioning previous memories does not change what happened, but it does change your relationship to what happened. And it doesn’t re-write history, but it does rewire the brain. You have more bandwidth to focus on whatever needs to be addressed in the current moment.