Apparently, my wife and I had a big fight last night. When I woke up this morning she barely talked to me. But I couldn’t remember why.
It was like my memory has been erased by a Neuralyzer from Men in Black. No hard feelings on my end. Like the fight never happened.
Perhaps you are now remembering an argument you had with your spouse or replaying a discussion you had with your boss. It’s not always easy to forget an incident that made you upset.
You probably wished too that your memory could be erased by a Neuralizer. Because, believe me, when sad memories are deleted, you feel much happier.
But if remembering sad moments hurt, why do we choose to rehash unhappy memories?
Why We Love Rehashing Memories
Rumination, the habit of repeatedly chewing sad experiences or conversations, is like getting stuck in the sand. You don’t make any progress. Your whole life gets stuck.
I’m not saying we rehash sad memories on purpose. I do that too. It took me time to realize that ruminating is an ineffective coping behavior. I started to practice how to delete sad memories. Forgetting a bad experience is truly liberating.
Then, why do most people love rehashing memories?
We expect a different outcome. By reliving over and over a story, we tend to believe that things are going to change. Unfortunately, no matter how many storylines you create in your mind, what happened won’t change. What you can change is how you feel about it.
We punish ourselves: If a relationship went south, most people tend to remember the breakup. They go over every word that was said to them, reliving their feelings too. Like watching Battlefield Earth again and again (choose your own terrible movie). Stop torturing yourself. Go and watch another movie.
We let our past define us: If your boss rejected your idea, you feel diminished. If you were betrayed by your partner, you believe that you will be betrayed again and again. Just because something went wrong doesn’t mean you are wrong. One experience from the past does not define who you are. It’s just one memory, not your reality.
We want to discover new insights: Rehashing the most painful experience of your life, won’t make you wiser. True learning is an Eureka moment, a revelation. When you don’t get along with someone but you have to work with him every day, it’s hard to have perspective. By getting some distance from the problem you make room for things to decant. Insights will show up when the right time comes.
We want to look good: After he was fired, a friend of mine, was ruminating different possible versions of a story, trying to make himself look good. We all want to be the heroes of our own stories. That’s natural. But trying to imagine a heroic version of what really happened, will only turn you into a victim. Let go of that deceiving habit.
We believe remembering means caring: When something really mattered to us, we don’t want to let go. We feel like we are minimizing the impact the event had on us. The truth is that you are simply preserving the pain instead of taking care of yourself.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Don’t get me wrong. Reflecting on a bad experience is important. And some people need more time to mourn than others. I’m not promoting that you should live in denial either. The problem is when you can‘t help rehashing past memories. Being stuck in the past doesn’t leave room for new experiences.
As I wrote on this piece, to drive change in our lives, we need to move from a “Stuck” to a “Change” Mindset.
Do We Choose What to Remember?
“Forgetting used to be a failing, a sign of senility. Now it’s a skill that we need to relearn”— James Gleick
You might have a hard time deleting your sad memories. And that’s OK. Understanding how your memories are affected can help you stop rehashing things right off the bat.
Our mood affects our memory accuracy. A happy mood clouds our judgement. We are so happy enjoying a particular moment that we remember it being better than it actually was according to a study by the University of Virginia. On the other hand, when we feel sad, our memory is more accurate: we remember every detail of what hurt us.
How can you avoid being caught in a vicious cycle of sad moods?
The memory of the experience is more important than the experience itself: Nobel prize-winner psychologist Daniel Kahneman, clearly differentiates the “remembering self” from the “experiencing self”. I was watching Patricia Barber, the Green Mill jazz atmosphere was awesome, until a couple arrived and started talking aloud non-stop. The whole experience felt awful. But it wasn’t true. It was just the memory of it that was ruined by one incident.
How can you avoid one minor disturbance ruining your memory?
Even though rumination is harmful, we are addicted to it: the more that you think about your mistakes, hard times or someone that hurt you, the more you become addicted. Rumination only adds to your stress, driving to anxiety and depression according to a Harvard Medical School study.
How can you use awareness to avoid addiction to rehashing?
“Forgetting used to be a failing, a sign of senility”, according to James Gleick author of Chaos, “Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering. Now it’s a skill that we need to relearn, a balm, a safety valve…”
Do you want to forget?
Six Memory Hacks
“If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.”
— Lao Tzu
Paraphrasing Lao Tzu, if your mind forgets, the next day of your life will start in a good place. Check these memory hacks. They’ve been very effective for me. Try them, tweak them, create your own. Share your experience in the comments section.
- Bounce back fast: Many people were shocked about last presidential election. Even though I needed time to mourn too, the next morning I bounced back asking “what can I do next?” The moment you start fighting reality and focus on what you can do, it’s easy to bounce back.
- Empty your cup: Getting stuck to a past breakup won’t allow you to move forward. I always joke that I have very limited RAM memory that’s why I need to erase memories to make room for new things. It’s liberating.
- Help others to let go of their own rehashing: It’s easier to see how others fall into the same traps we are trying to avoid. Helping your friends to stop ruminating after a loss will give you perspective into how to deal with your own losses.
- Live in the now: I purposefully called out myself or others when they get into the “what would have happened?” torture. Exploring hypothetical solutions or reviewing your past decisions with the information you only have now it’s useless. You’ll just feel more frustrated.
- Forget and forgive: Forgiving those who lied to you, doesn’t mean approval. It doesn’t mean that what hurt you didn’t matter either. It’s an effective way to let go. When you are at peace with those who hurt you, you can be at peace with yourself.
- Write how you feel when you are stuck: pen down the experience itself and then capture the emotions associated to it. Focus on differentiating one from the other. The experience is external, the emotion is yours.
Erasing memories is something I practice purposefully to avoid getting stuck.
Practicing these memory hacks, I’ve learned to bounce back, to recover fast. To easily delete unhappy memories, like the argument with my awesome wife, from my memory.
Or maybe it’s just that I have bad short-memory. And, consciously or not, I’m simply benefiting from it.
Remember to share your experience and your own “memory hacks” in the comments section.