I've been doing a lot of internal work lately. Some problems with my closest relationships have suggested I have some seriously deep stuff to work on. During this time several separate friends suggested different books/ideologies which basically say we should revisit old memories to see if something is dictating our current behaviors.
And through it I've discovered this really interesting method that, although I'm not sure my problems have all gone away, has revealed MANY interesting things I wasn't aware of about myself and my life!
Maybe like you, this quarantining has been super hard for me, especially in the last month or so. But I realized that maybe we can use this forced solidarity for something good, and looking deeper into ourselves is a good candidate for that.
Before I tell you about this method, I'll tell you about the three books/ideologies which convinced me revisiting our memories has value.
Attachment theory, introduced by John Bowlby, basically says about 40% of the population either push romantic partners away (avoidant attachment), or need them too much (anxious attachment). And the theory claims that the cause of it happened between you and your primary care giver in the first years of life.
"Emotionally Healthy Spirituality," by Peter Scazzero, says we can't be truly spiritually healthy until we address the psychological needs that we try to get met by manipulating others.
Arthur Janov, who wrote "Primal Scream," says his method of therapy brings people back to traumatic memories and encourages them to fully experience the emotions they had suppressed from that young age. He said after they release their 'primal scream' his patients' neuroses go away.
Also, I've been listening to Malcolm Gladwell's "Revisionist History" podcast and Season 3, episode 4 talks about how malleable memories really are! So it just lends credibility to the usefulness of revisiting, and reframing these memories.
So, all this was enough to convince me I should explore it. Here's what I've been doing, and almost every time I do it, it reveals new things I hadn't realized before about my childhood and current behavior.
With a Counselor Method
The first time I revisited an old memory was with my counselor, and this seemed really fruitful. So if you have a counselor, you can try this with them. He said, "Get relaxed and tell me a significant memory from your childhood."
I recalled a time when my dad was our soccer coach and told us to break into teams: "shirts and skins." I, for some reason, refused to take off my shirt which put my dad in a jam. He took me aside to encourage me it would be okay to take off my shirt. I dug my heels in. I think my dad did great and his response was about the best he could have done in that situation, but when my counselor asked what I was feeling, I said I felt like I wasn't being heard, I was being made to do something scary, and I was embarrassed. Then my counselor said, "Now tell yourself what you wished someone told you in that moment." And I said, "It'll be okay, Rosser. I hear you and I understand. You don't have to do it right now. We can talk about it together." I know my dad didn't really have that as an option, but it was interesting how the exercise sort of reframed the whole memory and inserted safety and love into a memory that probably registered as an isolating one. My counselor said, that is called "Re-parenting."
Another way my counselor said some people do this is to imagine what Jesus would have said if he were in that memory with you.
On Your Own Method
Doing this with my counselor showed me I could do it on my own. And I've discovered a few other tricks which have been surprisingly useful. Here's what I've done.
I clear some time in my schedule. I settle into a comfy chair or lay flat on my back in bed. Then I start to search for memories. I knew talking to my counselor was what kept my mind from wandering so I turn on my voice recorder on my phone. That helps keep me on track, as if someone's listening. Plus it feels nice to have a record of the memories I dig up (and the recordings are fairly small file sizes.)
Then I go digging around in my memories. Sometimes I track them back by how they're connected, like stepping stones.
One way I noticed to do this is to imagine a place I spent a lot of time and walk around that place, asking what memories happened in each room or area. I thought through my old house, room by room and this caused different memories to come to me more easily. Something I realized as I imagined things in each room was that my brothers and I have a richer history together than I remembered. To me, our histories had felt sparse and detached. It makes me love and cherish them more.
I also walked around my old elementary school, and memories in one room led to memories in the next. I remembered old crushes and the longing that all but crushed my little heart. I also walked through one of my oldest friends' house and uncovered so many colorful memories. I remembered feeling insecure around people in my childhood. As I walked through my school I realized that although maybe I have always felt insecure around people, I really was part of a unified body of people that made up the school! And as I revisited the memories in my friend's house I realized I had good friends that were a consistent part of my life (thanks Brian House!)
Sometimes I just go back and let memories randomly come to me, like catching snowflakes. Sometimes one pops into my head before I am done exploring another one. So I mentally put it in the queue.
Sometimes I ask myself questions and let my memories answer them. For example I asked myself, "What do I remember my mother telling me growing up?" And I wrote down her comments as I remembered them. After looking at my list, 80% of them were her being critical of my thoughts. Now, I was a good boy and I think if anyone was an encouraging person it was my mom. So what I learned from this is maybe I hold onto negative critiques of myself far tighter than the positives interactions. And I'm guessing that formed much of my perspective of myself and others. It would explain why I have judged some of those closest to me very unfairly. I think if I can recall more positive things my parents said, maybe it could be part of helping me adjust my behaviors today.
With old Photos
I also found some old photos and I designated time to go through each one slowly. As I looked through them I learned SO MUCH. Before looking back into my memories, I knew my parents loved me, kind of in the boring 'yeah they're my parents, they have to love me' sort of way. But I had remembered feeling isolated in my childhood. And I didn't remember being held very much. But as I looked back at old pictures I saw I was held ALL THE TIME! And as I remembered other memories I realized they were ALWAYS AROUND!
What's more, I got to see how often my grandparents were around and held me and doted on me too. Before that I didn't really have any memories of personal interactions with my grandparents. It reminded me, at the very least, that my family loved me through their constant presence.
As I went through my memories I noticed how isolated I had felt. But as I thought about it, I think my own insecurity kept me from just going to my parents or grandparents and starting conversations or asking for love. I can't imagine, if I had only tried to talk to them or go to them with my arms up, that they wouldn't have bent down and given me their full attention. I was so cute. As I bet you were too!
The other thing I've done with those photos is to try and examine all the details in the photos. 'Oh, I remember that blanket. Oh, I remember that picture on the wall. I remember that sculpture of a walrus. Oh yeah, now I remember sitting on the floor listening to music next to that very walrus!' And boom, more memories and emotions were recalled by examining the details.
You Can Remember Before You Can Remember
There is a thing I've heard from multiple sources which is necessary to do (for expert-level-rememberers, I guess). A lot of our formative memories supposedly happened within our first year (Attachment theory) or 18 months of life. But the tricky thing is those memories don't get stored as concrete visuals or situational details like later memories. They get stored more as feelings and sensations.
So for some of the most formative memories apparently we will only be able to recall "being warm" or "feeling scared," or "feeling like something red is approaching." As I go back through my memories, I've hit an interesting block. I can't seem to 'break into' memories of the first house I lived in. I can't picture the inside at all, I don't think. Even in old pictures I don't recognize anything.
So I've started to explore in a different way. I've been trying to invite feelings and sensations more than memories with visuals or circumstances I can describe. We'll see where it gets me.
Letting Your Heart Speak
Something else I've learned is that I've let my brain dominate my heart, when they should have been working as a team. This showed up in what I've found out as being diagnosable "Relationship OCD." (It's been a real struggle. I'm so deeply sorry to those who I've tried to love). I've learned OCD is a genetic brain structure difference, but doing some of this memory work has revealed some other reasons I've valued head over heart.
In my household growing up my dad was the brains and my mom was the heart. And it worked well; they were both awesome at their roles. It was a traditional household with my dad taking the lead and my mother following. But I think maybe I assumed something inaccurate about this and it worked its way into how I treated myself. I thought the brain was more important than the heart. So whenever my heart was feeling something, my brain worked over-time to solve it and make the feeling go away. My brain sort of thought that it was his job to think away the emotions of my heart. They were at odds with each other, instead of being equal partners. My heart should be more like the fuel of life and the brains should be its vehicle.
But the reason I bring this up is because in this memory recall exercise it is very important to encourage your heart to speak everything it feels. As memories come together, if there is any emotion triggered I immediately stop exploring for a moment and literally ask my heart, "What are you feeling?" And if it is sadness I let it run its course. I know that if I let my brain think things as I'm crying, it can silence my heart in an instant. It's almost like a school nun slapping the desk of a youngster and commanding "Stop crying!" It shuts my heart right down. I've conditioned it to do that.
These are the emotions we need to let come out. The books I listed above all avow that letting yourself experience the old emotions is crucial.
These days, sometimes I start to cry when I'm working, or while on the phone with my family, and I embrace it as much as I can. It's like my body is slowly purging deeply sunk splinters. I don't always understand it, but it feels healthy. I say to myself, "Let it out, little heart. I'm here for you. We'll do this together. It's okay. It's okay. It's okay."
July 25, 2020