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Bad Memories:
What To Do About Them

Good memories show us how capable we are.
They help us to remember shortcuts toward getting things done well.

Bad memories remind us of times when we were
unable to protect ourselves
or unable to take advantage of opportunities.
They help us to feel "stuck" about getting things done.

Learning how to overcome bad memories is a big part of therapy.
Overcoming them helps us to handle crisis and opportunity
naturally, spontaneously, and wisely.

There are four major kinds of bad memories.
Here's how you can overcome each of them.


WHEN ALL IT TAKES IS TIME

Most bad memories are only strong enough to bother us
for a very short amount of time.
If we cause a minor accident by being distracted
we vow to pay better attention from now on.
After a week or so we learn that "from now on" is a very short amount of time
and we return to our old driving habits quickly.

Therapy can help to avoid turning these memories into more troublesome ones,
but otherwise there is no long-term problem for therapy to address.
(There may be a problem for the highway patrol to address, however.)


WHEN WE NEED TO TAKE BACK A VOW

Sometimes we don't overcome a bad memory
simply because we've vowed not to.
This often happens in late childhood or early adolescence
when we are impressed that we have grown into powerful little adults
but we get overpowered emotionally or physically anyway.
At such times we might make the mistake of vowing
that we will "never forget" what happened,
or that we will "get even some day,"
or even that we will stay angry and "hate them forever."

If you have made a vow like this,
give yourself a break and take it back.
The person you are so angry at isn't even bothered by your vow.
But you are bothered by it a lot,
every day that you carry it around!

You deserve better than to carry this burden forever.
If you can't get relief by simply taking back the vow,
your problem is more serious.
(Read onů.)


WHEN WE NEED TO DECIDE TO FORGET

Some bad memories are extremely strong
because the event itself was so awful,
or because we re-experience it too often,
or both.
(The World Trade Center attack is a good example of both.)

To overcome this kind of memory
we need to make a deep decision to forget it.
And we need to back up our decision with appropriate actions
such as refusing to discuss it again
and immediately turning to other thoughts whenever the memory surfaces.

Eventually we will only be able to remember these events when we choose to.
Choosing to forget these events can be comparatively easy
for those who were only shocked by them.
But for those who weren't as shocked as the rest of us
- because such events fit their long-held beliefs about how the world works -
overcoming such memories can be quite difficult.
Their therapy will eventually need to focus
more on how they formed their scary ideas about how the world works
than on the more recent events which reinforced them.


WHEN WE NEED TO CREATE NEW MEMORIES

Some things that happen to people are so horrible
that they re-experience them in traumatic detail for years.
Each re-experience usually only occurs for a few seconds at a time,
but the intense feelings generated by such memories
lead people to make poor decisions
which then cause even more pain in their lives.

Sometimes the person doesn't even know they are remembering anything.
They simply are convinced that they can't handle something
that they know they should be able to handle as a capable adult.
If a therapist investigates why they believe themselves to be so inept,
these intense memories will often surface.

This phenomenon is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
and the memories are called flashbacks.

War is famous for causing these problems,
but childhood abuse causes them much more often.

Successful therapy can replace the earlier memory
with an even stronger new memory
which demonstrates how strong and competent the person is now.

If you think you sometimes have such memories,
don't let your past ruin your future!
For ideas about finding a good therapist
read Are You Considering Therapy?

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Tony Schirtzinger, Therapist (Milwaukee) 

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