A therapist describes a novel way to deal with difficult memories from the past.

By Christopher R. Edgar

It's an uncomfortable secret of our mental lives that many of us still suffer over memories of childhood events. Even as adults, we find ourselves occasionally reliving some embarrassing mistake we made, conflict we got into, or goal we failed to achieve as children. These memories tend to evoke ugly sensations in our bodies—parts of us tense up or tremble, and sometimes we even cringe and cover our faces with our hands. What's more, they distract us from whatever we're doing in the present.

When this sort of memory arises, we often feel ashamed not only of what happened in the distant past, but of the fact that we're mentally replaying the episode today. We attack ourselves for failing to focus on our present-day tasks. We scold ourselves for failing to “get over” events we believe we “should have” moved beyond at this point in our lives. And we feel alone in our suffering, as if no one could ever understand why we're recycling our painful pasts or help us come to terms with them.

I used to be constantly plagued by memories of difficult childhood events. To preserve my sanity and maintain my focus, I started developing a number of techniques to drain my memories of their hurtful emotional charge. I'll share two of the approaches I use here—both of which involve seeing yourself and other people involved in your memories from an empathic and forgiving perspective. Simply shifting my vantage point on my memories in these ways has gifted me with a peace I'd never known before.

Replay the memory with compassionate attention on yourself. The most important technique I use involves replaying my hurtful memories, but this time with compassion and understanding for my own experience of the events involved. When many of us think of difficult incidents from our lives, we focus solely on how other people behaved and felt in those events. We think only about how angry at us they seemed to be, how disappointed they said they were, how dismissively they behaved toward us, and so forth. We pay no attention to what we felt, wanted, or understood in the incidents we keep reliving. When we start looking at a memory again with some compassion for ourselves at the time of the event, the memory ceases to cut as deeply.

I'll give an example from my life. When I was nine years old, my father and I went to a baseball game. I was sitting quietly and watching the game, when a woman in front of me suddenly turned around and said “you know, I've had just about enough of you pulling on my hair.” She proceeded to lecture me about how sick she was of my behavior and how my Dad needed to do a better job of keeping me in line.

Every muscle in my body seemed to tighten, my heart started racing and I was almost certainly shaking. Although I hadn't been pulling her hair, I was so mortified that I couldn't even manage to tell her. Even twenty years later, I regularly relived this incident, along with the sensations I felt as it happened. Nothing I did to dull the pain of the memory seemed to work, I was afraid my mind might keep recycling the episode for the rest of my life.

This was before I decided to try mentally replaying the memory again, but this time with some attention on my own experience during the event. When I viewed the mental movie again with some attention on myself, I was able to recognize that I was just a little kid who didn't believe he'd done anything to hurt this woman and felt frightened when she yelled at him, and I understood how upsetting it must have been for him to have that experience.

Unlike in my earlier reruns of this memory, I took care not to interpret or judge the facts of the incident. I didn't try to come up with reasons why the woman's behavior was wrong, to assure myself that what happened wasn't really so bad, or do anything else to resist or belittle the emotions the episode evoked for me. I simply brought some sympathetic awareness to how the nine-year-old me felt in that moment.

When I did this, I suddenly felt the rigidity in my body that this memory normally created fading away, and being replaced by a warm, tingling, peaceful sensation. This experience of the memory, I realized, starkly contrasted with the way I normally relived it—before, it was as if nine-year-old me wasn't even part of the memory, and the only aspects of it I was aware of were the angry woman and the fact that she blamed me for her discomfort. Even the fact that I wasn't pulling her hair was seemingly irrelevant. She was upset, my old perspective went, and therefore I was bad and deserved to feel unpleasant sensations in my body.

When we relive our painful memories without compassion for our own experience in those events—for how we thought and felt in those moments—we judge our child selves by a perfectionistic standard, and we unquestioningly accept total responsibility for others' actions and feelings toward us. In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Psychologist Alice Miller vividly and unnervingly describes the unsympathetic lens through which many people view their childhood experiences:

They recount their earliest memories without any sympathy for the child they once were. Very often they show disdain and irony, even derision and cynicism. In general, there is a complete absence of real emotional understanding or serious appreciation of their own childhood vicissitudes and no conception of their true need . . . .

Simply putting some attention on ourselves, and our own experience, in the childhood memories that torment us goes a long way toward restoring the emotional understanding for ourselves that we often lack.

The next time you relive a stressful memory from your childhood, I invite you to try this exercise. As you replay your mental movie of the event, try shifting your attention away from the other people and the surrounding environment involved. Instead, place your attention fully on yourself—how you were feeling, how you saw the world, what you were doing, and any other aspects of your own experience you can recall. Don't judge, defend or criticize yourself or anyone else who played a role—just give your child self your complete, compassionate attention. I suspect you'll find this goes a long way toward healing the discomfort your memory used to create.

Recognize the humanity of the others involved. In reliving events where we came into conflict with someone else, we have a subtle tendency to perceive the other person involved as more or less than human.

Some of us tend to see our antagonists as perfect and omniscient. As we see it, they had no problems or uncomfortable feelings until we came along—in attacking or condemning us, they were solely reacting to our behavior, and not any other difficult aspect of their lives. We also cast them as more moral and knowledgeable than us, treating everything they said and did as justified and based on a superior level of understanding. Because we unconsciously think of our antagonists as infallible and godlike, we feel especially shamed by their disapproval, and tell ourselves we “have no right” to disagree with or feel angry at them.

Some of us go to the opposite extreme in our thinking, and see people with whom we had uncomfortable interactions as inferior in every way—and perhaps even as subhuman. If they disagreed with us or put us down, they must have been ignorant, arrogant, immature, and otherwise loathsome. Even when we take this perspective, however, we retain a nagging suspicion that they may have been right, and we ruminate on this, constantly reliving our conflict with them.

Both of these ways of seeing others are methods of avoiding how we actually feel. If we perceive others as superior and tell ourselves we “shouldn't” disapprove of what they said and did, we don't have to experience the upset we may actually feel toward them. If we cast others as inferior and their opinions and emotions as worthless, we don't have to be impacted by their feelings about us.

The problem with defending ourselves against our emotions this way is that, when we don't allow ourselves to fully experience our feelings about an event, we tend to mentally relive the event, and experience accompanying physical discomfort, again and again. This point hit home for me recently when a friend told me about his experience with a memory his mind tended to recycle. He kept mentally rerunning an argument he had with his father, and cringing internally (and sometimes on the outside) when he did.

For a long time, he worked with a therapist on changing his experience of this memory. Initially, when his therapist asked whether he felt angry during the argument, he said “he's my Dad. It doesn't matter how I felt.” Essentially, in his view, his father was perfect, and it was never acceptable for him to feel angry with his father. Thus, he had completely cut himself off from his real feelings about the interaction. Over time, his therapist helped him to understand that his father was, in fact, a human being, with faults and flaws like the rest of us. When he accepted this, he became able to express and let go of his buried resentment toward his father, and the painful memory ceased to trouble him.

When we recognize our remembered antagonists' humanity, and stop portraying them as more or less than human, we develop compassion and understanding for them, and become able to release our longstanding grievances. As we let go of our fear, sadness and anger regarding others, our painful memories lose their ability to hurt and distract us, and eventually fade from our consciousness. Psychologist Bernard Golden aptly describes the importance of staying aware of the humanity of people with whom we come into conflict in Healthy Anger:

The essence of maintaining a compassionate view allows us to empathize with another's weakness, and compassion helps foster forgiveness. . . . It emphasizes equality in our common struggles to meet life's complex challenges. We see others as having motivations, expectations and conclusions that can be realistic or unrealistic. We see them as having goals, hopes, and the range of human emotions. Most important, we can see them as having vulnerabilities.

If you want to work on acknowledging the humanity of the people who are part of your own painful memories, start by replaying a difficult memory in your mind as you usually would. When you come to the point in the episode where you come into conflict with another person, see if you can take your attention off the condemning or insulting words they're using. And, if only for a minute, remove your attention from the judgments you've formed about them or yourself. For just a moment, allow the issue of who was right and wrong to fade from your awareness.

Instead, pay attention to the tone of their voice, the place their voice seems to come from in their body, the pace of their breathing, their body's movements, and other aspects of their appearance and expression. This is just a human being, having a human emotional experience, expressing how he or she feels in a human way. Recognize that, if you—rightly or wrongly—felt the way this person did, and saw the world the way they did, your expression of your own feelings probably would have looked a lot like theirs. With this compassionate awareness comes a willingness to forgive, and to let go of the emotions you've been unwilling to fully experience.

I suspect these exercises will do much to change the ways you experience your painful memories, and to draw you closer to inner peace.

Copyright © 2008 Christopher R. Edgar. All rights reserved.

Christopher R. Edgar is a a success coach with certifications in hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming.  His articles have appeared in ChangingMinds, EdgeLife, Kite, Mystic Pop, New Age Journal, New Renaissance, and The New Sun