Bad memories can be extraordinarily burdensome, and in more ways than you might think. If you think some of your memories might benefit from a press of the refresh button, read on!
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My client Nicky went on holiday once, to Sardinia. She went with her boyfriend and she decided that what she wanted to do was find a hotel where they could chill by the pool some days, and a car so that they could pootle around the island on others. Her boyfriend didn't drive so she knew it would be her who would be doing the pootling.
They arrived at the airport at about nine at night and it was dark. By the time they set off for their hotel she was already a little shaken by having to deal with a mistake in the booking with the rental people, and then having taken several minutes to find the reverse gear so that they could leave the car park, so she felt less than confident setting off in a strange place, in the dark, on the wrong side of the road, and with no satnav.
They got lost several times and by the time they finally found the small town where they were staying Nicky was in a state of high anxiety and close to tears. The streets were steep and very narrow, there were no road markings and the locals seemed hell bent on driving her off the road. When they finally got to the hotel, Nicky vowed that she would not drive again. So they stayed all week at the hotel.
'It was an awful holiday,' she said, 'we saw nothing of the island, and the hotel restaurant wasn't even open so we had to go out on foot for all our meals.'
Nicky's conscious memory of this holiday was totally black and she found it difficult even to talk about it. Moreover, the memory of it was blighting her life because now she felt anxious every time she considered travelling abroad.
There is an interesting phenomenon in psychology, that this story reminded me of. It's called 'splitting'.
Splitting is something that happens in the psyche of every baby and is the way that our young minds deal with what seem to be irreconcilable conflicting experiences of our mother or main care-giver. Sometimes mother is kind, loving, and bursting with delicious milk. At other times she doesn't show up, she is cross or ignores us, her breast is dry. This latter experience is bad news for an infant who knows that his/her entire existence depends on this person so what s/he does is to split their mother into 'good mother' and 'bad mother.' It is a defence mechanism aimed at avoiding the possibility that mother is not perfect, not reliable, and that they, the child, are in danger. As we get older we work out that in fact these two mummies are the same person and become able to understand that we are all a mixture of good and bad.
If you look at the psychological literature you will find that the term 'splitting' is viewed as an abnormality, a failure in psychological development, which is typically seen in people with borderline personality disorder. These people have difficulty running relationships, because they alternate between idealising and condemning a person, never able to accept the good and the bad in that person.
So none of us 'normal' people do that, right?
Of course this phenomenon goes on all the time. We used to really like this person, then they hurt us and now we hate them. When people run amok with a gun, people say, incredulous,'he was always such a nice, polite young man', the implication being that they had been misled, he was neither nice nor polite. Even Simon Cowell can cause us problems - often he's incredibly mean, then suddenly he's sensitive and kind. What are our poor primitive brains meant to do with that?
While our rational adult brains know that life is never that simple, we seem to be driven by an inner, irrational need to know clearly if someone or something is either good or bad. Much of our literature is based around this need: James Bond and Goldfinger, Harry Potter and Voldemort, not forgetting, of course, God and the devil. The reason we love these stories is that they are configured in exactly the same way that our primitive brains are. We know that more sophisticated literature can give us an uneasy balance between good and bad, the good sometimes mess up, the bad occasionally do something undeniably good, but it can be strangely unsettling for us.
Once you realise that that is what we do, split the world into good and bad, it is a small step to realising that we do the same thing with our memories. There was that dreadful school we went to, where the teachers were strict and the other children unfriendly. The lousy holiday we had, when the plumbing didn't work and the food sucked. There was the woman who was mean, the man who belittled us, the friend who betrayed us. And yet, with all these experiences there were times when we thought differently. We liked that friend who then let us down, the school until we became unhappy, the man whose opinion we valued. It's just that once we saw the bad we deleted the good things from our consciousness. And we did that to protect ourselves. If we had continued liking the friend, they might have hurt us again. If we continued to value the man's opinion, we might have felt bad about ourselves again. If we accepted that there were some nice teachers at the school, we might open ourselves to disappointment again.
With other experiences we decided all was good. Our mother was perfect, our school was wonderful, that holiday was such fun. Deleted are our mother's actions that hurt us, the school bully, the tummy bug. And we do that to protect ourselves as well. It can be unsettling to consider our mothers were not perfect, that our best friend sometimes hurt us, that we spent a lot of time or money doing something we didn't enjoy.
So on we go with our lives, never bothering to re-examine those memories, assuming that our assessments of them are correct. And we could leave them to lie in peace if it were not for one important thing: we made decisions about ourselves and the world at that time which have run our lives ever since.
That is exactly what Nicky did in the aftermath of her Sardinian holiday, because she never wanted to have those bad experiences again. These are some of the decisions she made:
1. Going abroad is dangerous
2. I can never drive abroad again
3. I can't be trusted to plan holidays
As a result, she felt anxious every time she went away, she was very sensitive to any news she heard about British people having problems while they were abroad, which she used as evidence to shore up her belief that going abroad is dangerous, and she planned holidays around not driving.
Gently, we started to open up the possibility that the holiday was not all bad. Nicky went away to talk to her boyfriend about it. When she came back she told me...
1. Her boyfriend had really enjoyed the holiday and it hadn't bothered him at all that they didn't drive around.
2. The hotel was very pleasant and relaxing, there was a great pool, and they had some lovely meals in local restaurants.
3. She had driven back to the airport, at the end of the holiday, with no problem at all.
She smiled at me, sheepishly.
She went on to review the decisions she had made to something like this...
1 Going abroad is usually safe, providing you take sensible precautions
2 I have driven abroad quite comfortably. I just need to think twice about collecting a car from a strange airport at night.
3. Planning holidays always entails an element of risk. On the whole my holiday plans have been successful.
1 Think of an experience or person in your past that you think of as bad, and take a little time to notice how that memory makes you feel. How long have you been carrying it?
2 Spend a little time putting together the evidence for this negative appraisal. What happened exactly? You may have a tendency to have a blanket, rather than detailed, appraisal of the experience - try to counter that with specifics. Include anything that you did or didn't do, that might have contributed.
2. What decisions do you think you made at the time as to what the experience meant about yourself, the world and life in general?
3. Now do a second appraisal, asking, what else happened at the time that was not bad, and how else could you see the situation? You may find this quite difficult and that you're somewhat attached to your negative view. Get curious about why that might be?
4. Now review the decisions you made. How true are they? Can you replace them with a more realistic appraisal?
5. How does this refreshed view make you feel, and how might your life be different if you believed it?
6. Repeat as required!