How to overcome bad memories

Computer graphic of a DNA strand.

Shiela was walking home when a man with a knife stole her handbag. As the weeks passed she became more and more scared of leaving the house until she lost her job and became a recluse. Years later, she still can’t face the outside world.

As a teenager, Martin was invited to a party where the others told him “no one wants you here! Why were you invited?” Ever since this memory is still coming back to him regularly, even though it was 30 years ago. It makes him angry and upset to this very day.

What does Shiela and Martin have in common? They both experienced a specific event that has affected their life ever since. Such events can be large or small, like Shiela’s mugging, or Martin’s social humiliation. These events are repeated in their minds over and over, still upsetting them, even though decades have passed.

Why? And what can be done?

Why do bad memories not go away?

Bad memories keep coming up again and again because they are actually unsettled disputes.

Bad memories have a lot in common with grudges – they centre around an injustice where someone has either treated you badly or failed to do something they should have done. The “someone” you have the dispute with is usually a person (like a parent or friend), or an institution (like a school), but sometimes your dispute can be with fate, luck, life, God, or even yourself.

For example, if the bad memory is of someone being nasty and shouting at you, the dispute is with that person.

However, if the bad memory is of losing someone in death, the dispute could be with yourself (self-blame), with the hospital, with fate, with God for allowing it to happen, or even with the dead person for leaving you.

These memories are not forgotten because the dispute is not resolved or settled. Yes, your dispute is still on-going, like an argument that has not ended. That’s why many bad memories can still upset you — even if it was 20 or 30 years ago! The “argument” is still happening, even if you’re the only one still arguing.

What stops us from resolving such disputes (and forgetting these bad memories)? Because of one (or more) of these reasons:

1. You don’t understand HOW the dispute really makes you feel

You may only be aware of one or two of the ways that a dispute upsets you. If you don’t know about all the ways, how could you resolve the dispute? It may keep acting in the background, nagging you to resolve it.

When Shiela was mugged she thought it just made her feel vulnerable around men, and that’s true, it did. She thought that if she simply kept her distance from men, she might be able to cope. However, she didn’t realise that because the mugging tapped into another childhood issue, it also made her feel “useless” – like she wasn’t good enough as a wife and mother. So even if she never met another man again, or kept a gun in her purse, it would not address the issue of her feeling “useless”.

  • If you know all the issues that a dispute raised, you can deal with them and settle the dispute.
  • If you don’t know what the issues are, you can’t fully resolve the dispute.

2. You don’t understand WHY the dispute happened

Isn’t it frustrating to be accused of something you didn’t do? Well, similarly, if you are treated badly by someone, and you don’t know why, it can be just as frustrating. Why did he do that? Why does it always happen to me? And so on. These feelings will continue to nag you; and just saying “He was an asshole!” will not help you know why. It will not help you to see things from the other person’s perspective and understand their motivations.

  • If you understand why something happened, it’s much easier to settle the dispute.
  • If don’t understand why it happened, it remains an unsettling mystery, keeping the dispute alive.

3. You don’t understand WHAT you really want in the dispute

Martin was definitely embarrassed when he was insulted in front of everyone, so over the years he has tried to not to be so easily embarrassed, adopting an attitude of “I don’t care what others think of me”. Yet was that really the issue? No! He actually wanted to feel accepted. The insult “confirmed” that he was not acceptable to others. Therefore, trying to “not care what others think” will do nothing to help him feel acceptable.

  • If you understand what you really wanted in a dispute, it is then easier to resolve it.
  • If you don’t understand what you really wanted, you may be trying to resolve the wrong issue.

Ways to overcome bad memories

To overcome a bad memory you must first:

  1. Understand how it really made you feel
  2. Understand why it happened
  3. Understand what you really wanted

But how does one gain this understanding? There are several ways to do it.

Tell another person what happened

  • Another person can help you to see the memory in a new way, and therefore to understand it better. The other person may even point out “obvious” things that you did not consider before. It can also be a great relief to “get it off your chest”, especially if you have been keeping the memory secret. The other person should be a good listener and not judgemental or opinionated.

Write a letter

  • Writing a letter to whomever or whatever is involved in the dispute may help you understand what happened better. Describe how their actions, or non-actions, made you feel. However, do not send the letter. This is just an exercise. It may help you to get the facts clear in your mind.

Imagine talking to them

  • Pretend the party you’re having the dispute with is sitting opposite you. They will sit and listen – without talking back. This may help you to get the emotions “off your chest”.

Imagine things from the perspective of the other person

  • Assuming a real person is involved, write a brief description of what you think the other party’s motivation and thinking was in the situation. Imagine it from their point of view. Could other things have been happening in their life that you were not aware of? Does the other person have their own problems? Perhaps you can “give them the benefit of the doubt”. Could you forgive or overlook their error?

Look at old photos or visit related places

  • Jogging your memory with old photos or locations involved in the memory and dispute may help you to better understand the context of what happened. When viewed in context, aspects of the memory that seemed very important may seem less important now, or you may gain a fuller understanding.

Perform Self-Rewiring sessions on the memories

  • Anyone can perform Self-Rewiring therapy sessions upon themselves at home on a specific bad memory. When beginning a session, you select the option “A specific event” and type a brief description of what happened (see the screenshot below).

Self-Rewiring sessions use various methods to help you understand how a memory made you feel, why it happened, and what you really wanted. A session can greatly reduce the emotional power of a bad memory, or dispute.

You can learn how to perform Self-Rewiring sessions from the free tutorial.