By Kusumanjalee Thilakarathna
A young girl recently posed a question, wondering if there was a proven method to forget a memory. Her resolution for the new year was to stop thinking about her ex-boyfriend and any of the memories they made together. Can we really go into the brain and erase memories in an Eternal-Sunshine-of-the-Spotless-Mind kind of way? Is it possible to completely forget about a person or a memory? At a time when we focus on new year resolutions, forgetting unwanted memories is a thought that has visited many of our minds.
A new year signifies a new beginning. Of course, a single strike of a clock isn’t going to change our lives and give us a fresh start; it’s just a symbol of a possibility of a fresh start – a motivation for many new beginnings. This is where new year’s resolutions come in. If we visit our new year’s resolutions, we would see that these resolutions are mostly focused on continuing good practices, changing an undesired characteristic or behaviour, accomplishing a personal goal, or maintaining our health and wellbeing.
The implementation of these mainly requires self-discipline: the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviour in the face of temptations and impulses. If you take a closer look at the way self-discipline is defined, you might be able to recognise how mental health is also key in keeping up with the resolutions.
Those who study the human mind explain how our beliefs arise from our past experiences and how it is the invisible force behind our behaviours and the way we perceive the world around us. The way we look at things, again, shapes the way we experience things. But, unfortunately, not all our experiences are positive. There can be certain memories that we find extra difficult to handle to the extent that it makes a negative impact on everything we try to do. Especially in a post-pandemic setting, these memories we want to forget may mainly fall under grief, trauma, or distress. The negative experiences we commonly shared due to the unstable political situation of the country followed by a financial crisis can also be a major element contributing to the recent negative memories.
There are many reasons why we might want to forget a memory. Similar to the girl with a broken heart, who posed the question about letting go of past memories, some memories can make us feel embarrassed, while others may be more distressing or traumatic. These memories may fade away with time, but it can be distressing for some when certain memories resurface suddenly. Also, for some, especially if they are struggling with an untreated mental health condition, these memories can be very intense, making them relive that moment again and again.
While we tend to forget everyday information, our brains are more likely to store information that is attached to strong emotions. Researchers have long been seeking ways to help people deliberately forget unwanted memories. They are yet to come up with a proven method to achieve this task.
While it is not likely that you’ll be able to erase unwanted memories from your brain completely, you can employ some strategies proposed by mental health professionals to prevent these memories from disrupting your life.
Identify the triggers
When you have a distressing memory, think of the sights, sounds, and feelings attached to the particular memory. Maybe taking a certain route reminds you of a terrible ex who used to live on the route, or maybe a certain fragrance can make you think of a person who is no longer there. Take note of the triggers that bring your memories back.
Once you understand when the memory comes up most often, you can start taking steps to address the issue. While it might be tempting to simply try to avoid those triggers, finding realistic ways to cope when you are faced with your triggers is often a more effective and realistic solution in the long run.
Process your emotions
Instead of trying to avoid any unwanted feelings attached to the memory, let yourself feel them. It might sound counterproductive, but if you want to forget something, it’s helpful to first remember it. Make sure you volunteer to deal with this memory in a psychologically safe environment. After a trauma, wait a few weeks for your emotions to settle and then actively recall your memory in a safe space.
The next step involves learning healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions.
Perfectionism can sometimes make memories seem more distressing. If you need to always be seen as perfect, the memories of past mistakes can make it difficult to move forward. If your memories revolve around the times you have made mistakes, try making mistakes and doing things wrong on purpose. This can help you to get more comfortable with yourself. If you aren’t giving yourself due acceptance, remember that another person will not be able to do that for you.
Talk to a counsellor
A psychological counsellor can help you by providing a safe space to talk about your memories and can teach you new, healthy ways of coping with negative memories. In the long run, this will help you to deal with negative experiences while adopting a healthy lifestyle.
It takes time and practice to go through this process, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you’d like. Allowing painful memories to resurface in a safe environment will allow you to rewrite your memory in a way that reduces the emotional burden. You won’t be erasing your memory, but when these memories revisit you, it will be less painful.