Why we remember bad things
It’s tempting, according to the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, to erase bad memories, though I suspect most of us know it’s better to make peace with them than to destroy or delete them. Memories of early childhood are usefully viewed as myths or folk tales, not as a cultures objective, obstacles and origins, but on that of an individual. A set of myths that are all positive—well, like America’s—leaves us ill-prepared to recognize and address what needs improvement.
(Early memories are also considered allegories, as are dreams, but that’s a subject for another article.)
For example, a woman’s simple recollection of her mother calling her to the kitchen to lick the spoon as she baked a cake could be an abundance myth. Someone with this memory may not need to remember to take care of themselves. She is likely to use more energy and free time for what I call Lauper’s principle (“Girls just wanna have fun”).
Of course, there can be complications. The same woman might have a childhood memory of being yelled at after asking if the family could give away the new baby. If this is the case, we begin to believe that the myth is still full of them, but of the kind that we find in paradise, that is to say devoid of aggressiveness since this other memory seems to say that the aggression (in the form of sibling rivalry) ruins things. . The individual may be good at snacking or hanging out with friends, but bad at self-care when it comes to competition and ambition.
Now, the point of interpreting early memories isn’t to guess how she handles competition or nibbling. The aim is to shed light on what is happening psychologically when we observe problematic behavior, such as when she gets upset if her friends offer her a game night instead of a wine tasting. Memories can indeed be used to predict behavior, but their power in clinical work is their ability to illuminate. In this example, her annoyance can be seen as the external result of an internal cry within herself for the proposal of a game night arousing the desire to win.
Generally, clinicians find it problematic that a memory carries malevolent forces because these imply their allegorical presence in contemporary functioning. This post is about two exceptions to the tendency of malicious memories to indicate pathology. The first is the memory of the trauma. When something terrible happens, we try to make sense of it by building a narrative around it.
In a traumatic memory, the presence of a death or an earthquake or an abusive character does not necessarily reflect the current psychology of the individual. Rather, memory can portray the meaning of a bad event. The main question in understanding a traumatic memory is whether the malevolent force is manageable rather than whether it is present. (This is yet another example of why it’s not always a good idea to tell trauma victims that it wasn’t their fault, because this attitude also indicates that they couldn’t do anything about it. To do.)
The other type of malicious memory that does not indicate chaotic operation is what I call caveat memory. Like the notation on ancient maps, “There are dragons,” these memories are warnings, cautionary tales of what can go wrong. They often portray sexual and aggressive urges in bad terms, because there are dragons within us, not just at the edge of the cards. For example, the memory of a nearby child killing a frog may solidify the association between aggression and sadism, and it may serve as a warning against direct expression of aggression.
A memory of childhood sexual exploration gone horribly wrong may be similar. A woman remembers masturbating in the bath at the age of 3 and being physically punished for it. As usual, the question is not what really happened – eyewitnesses cannot be relied upon as adults remembering events from a day ago, so we certainly can’t be trusted when they recall events from decades ago when they were children. Rather, the question is what myths are captured in memory and how they illustrate how the person sees the world and treats themselves. This person can punish themselves when they feel sexy. Or, she may use the memory as a traffic sign warning her not to feel sexy for fear of losing her friendly relationships with others.
A homosexual remembers in psychotherapy a time in kindergarten where he kissed a boy and was humiliated for it. A good therapist will invite her to consider some possible meanings in light of their mutual understanding of the internal conflicts they are trying to resolve in therapy. (If they don’t meet regularly to resolve the patient’s internal conflicts, then they are doing something other than psychotherapy.) The most obvious is whether the therapist will react badly if the patient expresses affection. Then comes the question of whether the memory is an allegory representing the patient’s own disapproval of his sexual orientation, represented by those who humiliate the boy in the memory.
Third, by treating it as a warning memory, the patient can hold the memory back to remind themselves that their sexuality—accepted and approved by themselves—is not always accepted and approved by others. In most therapies (i.e. in light of the most common case formulations that organize the therapy’s work), the therapist will want to help the patient relax the warning and make it more specific. to the context. When is it best to postpone sexuality, and when is it best to indulge in it? A therapist who insists that the patient’s sexuality always be defended is like a parent who does not tell a boy who masturbates to do so in his room.
The wholesome nature of certain memories with hostile forces, and the retention of bad memories in general, is yet another way in which psychological health – in an individual or in a society – is not a happy absence of conflict but a energetic, absorbed and welcoming coordination. of conflicting forces.