Rule 3: Memories Are Just Thoughts

OK, this one can be controversial, so hear me out.  A memory is merely a thought.  It is a thought about something that happened in the past, which we then pull into the present.  Some of those thoughts are helpful, but others are not.

I am NOT saying that you should ignore painful events from the past and pretend they did not happen.  That is denial.  I AM saying that we all can acknowledge that our memories are not entirely accurate.  That is what I mean in this rule.  Thoughts are always our perceptions and interpretations of reality.  And memories are those perceptions and interpretations brought into the present.

We never have an accurate portrayal of an event.  If you understand what I mean in the last paragraph, you may find my first sentence to be a rather strong assertion.

Here is why some people have a strong reaction to this rule:  people often define themselves by what has happened to them. Some people view the most tragic events as self-defining.  I often hear people say “I am a survivor of sexual abuse.”  Or “my family was dysfunctional when I was growing up.”  Or “we were broke when I was a child.”

Again, I am not saying that these events did not happen, that there is not truth in the events.  It is just that we tend to believe that we:  1) accurately remember those events (we do not), and 2) we cannot let those events go (we can).

So, let’s take those in order.  First, we do not remember events as they happened, but how we interpreted them.  We missed some facts, created other facts, and misinterpreted many facts.  That is just the nature of our memories.  It is neither good nor bad, just how our minds and our brains encode information.

More than that, plenty of research shows that memories are actually quite malleable. In other words, memories themselves change over time.  We interpret memories based on what is going on now.  In other words, we may find ourselves using memories to fit what we want to believe, not with what happened.

A friend of mine in graduate school, in his dissertation, said this:  “we create the past and remember the future.”  I love that!  It gets to the essence of what I am saying.  We would so love to be creating the future and remembering the past, but that is not the case.  We live out our future course partially based on what we believe has happened to us.  And our memories are created in ways that facilitate our current beliefs.

Which leads to the second point:  we hold onto those events.  This is where the real power of this rule comes in.  If we let go of the illusion that we remember events with historical accuracy, then we can accept that we cannot define ourselves merely based on events in our past.  When we act assured of our accuracy of memory, we get to pretend we are the victim or victor in a particular situation.  Not very helpful.

When we can acknowledge that a memory is flawed, we are less tempted to keep pulling it out as proof of who we say we are.

How often do you define yourself by your memories?  How often do you pull out your memories of events as a way to remind yourself of what you believe about both yourself and the world?  This is an invitation to hold those memories a little more lightly.