Have you ever been haunted by something in your past? A nagging memory of embarrassment or shame that you just can’t shake?
Have you every shared such a memory with a close or trusted friend only to hear the famed cliché “You just need to let it go!”
Ahhhh yes…. LET IT GO! If Only….
This advice is usually well intentioned but typically misses the fact that if you could just “let it go” you would have done that by now!
So, what do we do about the past we would rather not remember?
First, we have to understand why we are clinging to a memory in the first place!
Our brain in all its complex glory loves to mull over puzzles it hasn’t yet conquered. And no puzzle is as juicy for our brains as one starting with “How could that have happened???”.
Our brain does not like surprises, especially a surprise that does not end well for us. So, when the undesirable unexpected does happen, our brains #1 job is to get to the root cause and make sure it NEVER happens again. The reason we struggle to let go of painful memories is because our brain hasn’t made sense of them and fears they will recur in the future!
So let’s try giving our brain a little peace! Here’s an activity for you to try at home when you have quiet time to focus.
Get a pen and paper and recall a moment you have been trying desperately to forget. It might be uncomfortable but do your best to push through. Write down as many questions as you can and think of everything that happened?
These might sound something like…
- “How could I…”
- “What was I thinking…”
- “What’s wrong with me…”
- “I am (was) such a…”
Write down all the questions that come to you no matter how irrational or unkind they seem. Next, write down how you felt while doing this first part of the activity. When you are done, put the paper down. Scan your body for any tension or tightness and gently stretch and relax your muscles until the tension subsides. Return to the activity.
Read over the questions you wrote but this time your job is to answer them.
Go back and write down compassionate responses to each question that can help your brain process what happened in a factual and useful way. If you write down harsh or self-deprecating responses, you are likely to deepen feelings of shame or guilt. So, be nice!
Perhaps you wrote, “How could I have been so gullible?”, regarding a time when you trusted someone who later betrayed that trust.
For this part you might write, “I was not stupid, I was choosing to be kind and trusting to others because that is how I have chosen to live my life. I have learned ways to express my own needs better since that time, but I will not let the decisions of others be the reason I live a life of mistrust and regret.”.
Complete answers for all of the questions you have written.
Now how do you feel?
Typically, it can take some time for our brain to replace an old worry with a new rule, but you’d be surprised how quickly this can take place. If you don’t feel a shift, come back to retry the activity later.
Our brain will release its obsession with something when it no longer has questions that need to be answered. So, when you find yourself consumed with the unpleasant, lean into the discomfort, identify the questions that keep coming up, and then give your brain compassionate, reassuring responses that say, “This is what happened and this is why I don’t have to worry about this now. I am fine.”.
*** Note*** Trauma memories, those rooted in perceived or real experiences of physical or psychological harm, can be complex and should be explored with the help of a registered mental health professional.
To learn more about trauma, register here to access an on-demand webinar titled “The Truth About Trauma: An Understandable Intro To Trauma & PTSD” and check out our blog section to learn more about Anxiety, Depression, Parenting, Self- care, & more!
Bonnie J. Skinner, MEd, CCC, RP
B. Skinner Coaching & Psychotherapy