Some time back we were speaking with a divorced friend. As the conversation meandered along she recounted a memory from her marriage as it was going sour. It was a simple thing: a forgotten request for her birthday to pick up her favourite take away on the way home.
As she recounted the story, there was bitterness in her voice. This was still a live issue for her.
Ten years later, remarried and with many more serious things to argue about, there was a sense of embarrassment – seems so silly when the story is retold – who divorces over something like that?
But at the time, it was just one of many, many slights. And of course, in the context of a relationship in meltdown, it had layers of meaning that belie the facts of the incident itself: it wasn’t really about her birthday, and wasn’t that she really wanted that particular type of food.
It was the self-absorption of her husband that led to the forgetfulness.
It was the realisation that she didn’t figure in her husband’s thoughts and agenda.
It was his failure to apologise on realising the error.
It was his dogged defensiveness when she expressed her upset.
It was the dashed hopes of turning the relationship around.
It was the repeat hurt of a never-resolved dispute that piled one on the other over years. And. It. Just. Wears. One. Down.
That single, simple incident became symbolic of everything that was wrong in their relationship. It becomes almost the summary statement of why the marriage was doomed. And it becomes the justification for the choices that followed.
We all have tainted memories like this: hurtful incidents that have become enshrined with negative meaning over years and decades. They are so embedded, that they often become personality defining.
As we retell our story – to others, and to ourselves – it’s like a pothole in the road; its meaning is carved deeper and more permanently with every passing conversation. Eventually the objective facts of the incident are lost. Soon the pothole undermines the integrity of our relationship and the meaning we’ve attached to the incident becomes the script of our self-talk: a drum beat of resentment and indignation that plays in the back of our mind day after day.
Despite our attempts to ‘move on’, these now well embedded memories continue to interfere, making us sensitive to any incident that trespasses too close. We live life ‘primed’ to triggers enabled by our resentments and reinforced by our negative memories. We may be able to bring a measure of self-restraint from reacting vindictively when triggered, but this is exhausting and rarely sustained perfectly.
Like our friend, our emotional attachments to our interpretation of the incident defines who we are today and heavily influences the choices we make. We are not free, and we have not really moved on… our situation may be different in the detail to our friend, but we are similarly stuck.
And who can blame us? To revisit it, to reinterpret it, is to face squarely into our own broken nature and we are flat out just coping right now – there’s no time for the luxury of being self-reflective. It takes courage and energy and an unknown time commitment to do this.
Therapists spend much of their practice helping people process these past experiences to reframe their meaning. It’s often a long and painful process as the person’s psychological defences will frequently resist exposing the memory to an alternative interpretation. For some, the trauma associated with the memory so terrifies them that they are psychologically paralysed when they attempt to approach it and they should definitely only do so with professional assistance.
For more common negative memories (and let’s face it, we all carry them!) one simple yet powerful strategy is the practice of ‘prayer journaling’. Here are the steps we’ve found to be especially helpful:
- Take a few minutes to focus your attention on God’s presence. Use mindfulness, meditative rote prayers like the Rosary, or sit quietly with Blessed Sacrament to still your thoughts.
- Then begin recounting the incident in writing giving attention to uncovering and expressing your emotions. Tell God all about it – what you thought about, what you felt, which of your needs were being frustrated or overlooked. Writing helps you access deeper, subconscious emotions and thoughts.
- Now open the scriptures and allow God’s word to speak to you. Write down one line or phrase that particularly resonates, and then write your response to God – what do you hear God saying to you in the scriptures?
This spiritual dialogue is a powerful way to invite God to speak into your life, to reveal to you how your negative memories might be distorted and how they are impacting your relationships. It’s not a process of forgetting, but of taking proactive control of our future to avoid becoming unconsciously captive to our past. Do this regularly, and you’ll avoid new incidents becoming entrenched negative memories that accumulate over time.
Of course, there are other strategies as well, but personally, we have found that the intervention of divine benevolence to be particularly powerful and effective. These sorts of things are not easy… God cares so why not invite the help?
In some ways, we are all battle-weary travellers. Insensitive comments from loved ones, malicious jibes from associates or simple bad fortune expose us to emotionally damaging experiences. Left to marinate in oppressive self-talk – the personal mantra that we have adopted for our ‘story’ – these myriad experiences begin to unwittingly define our life.
With regular and conscious reflection however, we can choose what meaning we want these experiences to have. Prayer Journaling enables God to assist us to reframe these incidents so that blessing and grace can flow from them into our life.