The Problem with Emotional Memory


I rarely take the stance that emotions are something to be side-stepped or disregarded.   Most of the time, I write about how we need to acknowledge and accept our emotional reality, and how we can’t move forward without making peace with our emotional truths. This post, however, is a bit different. This time, I’m talking about how our emotional realities can get in our way, and how recognizing, and then promptly ignoring them can sometimes be the only way to move forward.

In general, I find it helpful to view our emotional responses much like muscle memory. Various circumstances happening over the course of our lives have conditioned us to respond in particular ways. Our emotions are the result of our brains taking tally of our circumstances, registering the impact of what has happened to us, and spitting out an advisory (in the form of a feeling) about how to react. But the trouble with all this data is that it’s based on what has come before.   It’s a good proxy for understanding how we will experience similar situations in the future, but not so great when we’re working through something new to us.

This becomes even more problematic if we have been deeply scarred by life circumstances, and particularly if those occurred in childhood.  When we are accustomed to difficult, painful situations, new conditions, even when they’re good for us, don’t necessarily feel good at first.  For example, for me, certain situations in my childhood shaped me as a person who is constantly on high alert for Bad Things to Happen.  As a result, there’s a part of me that whenever I encounter happiness, I don’t trust it.  I’m waiting for the other shoe, full of bad stuff, to drop.  My brain is trying to make predictions about my future, based on my past, so, when left to its own devices, it queues up sensations of doubt and anxiety, causing me to feel uneasy, and uncomfortable when not much is going on. There’s a part of my brain that can’t imagine a content and easy-going future, because my emotional memory lives in all the years that came before.

This can create a real problem when we’re trying to do something new or different with ourselves, or with our relationships.  For instance, if in a previous relationship our vulnerability was met with hostility or disregard, it’s probably not going to feel too great when we try to be vulnerable with a new partner.  We may feel fear or worry when we try to share difficult things. We may quickly become upset if our partners don’t respond perfectly to our attempts to be vulnerable.  And we may go one step further, and attribute our doubt or fear or anger to something being wrong with the current relationship, or with our partners.

So what do we do? How do we know when to trust our emotional memory and when to ignore it?  How do we know when it’s reflecting our authentic, present experience of the world, or when it’s keeping us stuck in old truths? Unfortunately, we don’t.  Or at least if there’s some easy way to discern it, I haven’t figured it out or read about it in the research.  Our emotional experience is a necessary but flawed system.  To blindly ignore it is to court the death of our souls, but to follow it without questioning is to invite ruin.

My prescription for sorting it out begins with having a deep awareness of your emotional being, both past and present.  I’ve written about that here and here, so I won’t go into it again in this post, except to say that if you aren’t practicing the fine art of being present and curious about your emotional experiences, you are running this race hobbled.

Beyond active awareness, we have to accept that we are making a decision. When I was a teenager, my father told me that “life is about making choices.”  At the time this seemed simple, simplistic even. I mean, obviously life is about making choices.   But, like many things my parents said when I was young, the older I get, the more it rings true.   The solution to the problem of imperfect emotional memory is not to tie ourselves up in knots trying to untangle the lines of present and past emotional experiences—instead, we have to recognize that all of our emotions, and indeed the bulk of their value, is to serve as information for our choices.

Going back to the example of being vulnerable with a partner after having been burned in the past, if I feel uneasy when I bring up difficult issues with my partner, I have to treat that as one data point in my choice about how to navigate this relationship.  It’s an important piece of information that I need to listen to and then decide how I want to handle it.  I have to stock of how this fits into other aspects of the relationship, what I know about my partner, and what I know about myself.  I have to weigh this data so that I can make a clear-eyed decision about how to move forward.

I know, I know, all of this sounds like a lot of work.  And in some ways, frankly, it is.  But I will say, the more in the habit you get of doing this, the easier it becomes. Further, when you are attuned to yourself and understand how your past experiences impact your emotional life, you won’t need to do a dear diary deep-dive every single time you try something new emotionally.   Finally, and most importantly, doing this emotional work up front, can often prevent you have from having to do much more difficult work on the back end.  I mean, sure, dredging up and working through my childhood BS is uncomfortable, but I prefer doing that work over getting wrapped up in a ball of anxiety whenever I feel happy.

 

Our emotional memory is highly valuable in understanding who we are and what we need, but it is an imperfect system.  It can be tricky to discern how much of present emotional experience really reflects the current moment and how much stems from our past. Ultimately, we are best served when we treat this as information, and accept that we are making a choice about what we want to do next.

 

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Erica Turner
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Erica Turner
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