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How to Learn a New Perspective on Painful Memories


Memories are powerful and play a vital role in developing how people view themselves and how they relate to the world. What we recall is often triggered by recent events and can function as mental time travel. Perhaps equally significant, our recollections can evoke a wide variety of feelings and responses. When memories evoke feelings, such as fear, shame, or sadness, people can find themselves stuck in relational patterns with no apparent way out. As one psychiatrist writes, "Memory is the way past events affect future functioning."¹ Memories have the power to construct the narrative of a person's life--but the brain can change the story.

Explicit v. Semantic Memories

Explicit memories are commonly described in two different categories, semantic and autobiographical. Semantic memories are factual information such as geographic locations, parts of the body, and state capitals. Autobiographical memories are mental pictures or responses to events, such as feeling excited at the sight of the Grand Canyon or getting nervous while giving a speech in school. Autobiographical memories influence the construction of a person's sense of self or value in the world and tend to carry more weight when a person is describing a past event. The input and feedback people receive about their personal value get stored as autobiographical memories. In the big picture, these brief autobiographical memories shape the narrative of a person's life. The result is that the combination of all these experiences and memories can create deep-rooted healthy or unhealthy core beliefs about oneself and influence how they relate to others.

Getting Unstuck

Many people find themselves stuck in relational patterns that are unsatisfying and perpetuate negative self-beliefs. A trained psychotherapist can be a great tool in helping someone work through past trauma and difficult experiences to develop a new narrative that reflects the person's true, God-given value and purpose. Ultimately, it is actually the human brain that has the power to reshape memories through changes in neural networking.

With the brain's neuroplasticity, we are empowered to move beyond painful memories.

Neurobiological research highlights how the brain creates and changes circuits and connections in the neural passages daily. This means that there is hope for moving beyond pain, hurt, and past experiences--we are empowered. The brain's neuroplasticity, or ability to form new synaptic connections, reveals that with a commitment to work through old narratives and effort put into changing old patterns, a new way of life and relating to others is within reach.

Learn more about the influence of memories on identity with the Adulting module from the Relationship IQ Curriculum.

¹Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact To Shape Who We Are (New York: Guilford, 1999).