“Look right here.” Remember the neuralyzer from the movie Men in Black ? Flash it in someone’s eyes and bam, all of their recent memories disappear.
Or maybe you’re more of a fan of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Joel hires Lacuna, Inc., a company that removes memories. Joel desperately wants to forget his former love Clementine.
Who hasn’t wished they had a neuralyzer or Lacuna, Inc. of their own, some days? There are definitely days where I just want a do-over so I can forget the previous day’s events and the emotional pain clinging to them.
Scientists are studying the possibility of memory erasure. Could we take some of the findings in this field and apply them to our lives now?
The science of forgetting the past
Elephants never forget, but you can.
We can update our memories so that we feel less emotional pain! Researchers have studied this a method called “exposure therapy.” In one study, researchers found that strong memories can indeed rearrange themselves if new information is incorporated into the old retrieval (aka, remembered) memory.
Say you’re afraid of dogs, because one bit you when you were a child. Exposure therapy for you might involve first being able to look at a picture of a dog for several minutes without feeling afraid. Then you increase your exposure by standing outside the fence at a dog park. Over time, you feel less afraid of dogs. Your early memory has been disrupted by your new positive experiences with dogs, and your emotional pain released.
The memory that was stored away and then later retrieved (remembered) is updated. The emotional response to these memories is also altered.
Using an IFS lens makes exposure therapy more effective. As you extend curiosity and compassion towards your strong emotions, you dislodge the old memories and give them a chance to update to new. It is a kind and compassionate approach.
I help clients with this all the time. When bad memories are following one of my clients around and making them anxious and depressed, we first identify the different triggers for these memories. Over the course of several sessions I help the client address and process the memories until we’re both confident with the result.
IFS is a great tool for dealing with emotional pain
We can’t change the past but we can change our relationship to it. The IFS model allows us to learn about some of our memories and the sometimes outdated beliefs they hold.
It is a process to learn to trust your Self and sometimes it feels hard. Getting to know them means having to feel those emotions.
So why do it? Why relive the experiences that bring out those strong emotions?
Because you will be unburdened. These emotional wounds are our trauma knots waiting to be untangled. When they are met with calm courage, they can be unburdened of the old, let go of those strong emotions, and updated.
How to update old memories and emotional pain with IFS Self Inquiry
Let’s try an example.
Imagine feeling deeply hurt because you were left out from a social gathering. You’re overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and thoughts about not being good enough. This extreme emotional reaction to a current life event but is also holding other similar memories.
Once you’ve recognized a part of you feels emotionally extreme, find a place to sit in stillness and bring some Self inquiry to your emotional pain. From this body sensing place, begin to follow the emotional trailhead to your memories and experiences that hold beliefs that need to be let go so new ones can come in.
Next you find the pain in your body and describe its qualities. Prompt it with some questions:
- What memories does it give you?
- What emotions is it feeling?
- Where did it get such pain?
- Is it afraid of anything?
- Can it see what happened once or several times during childhood that brought in these kind of hurting feelings?
Then, find this part’s connection to the events in the present.
- What current situation triggers it this time?
- How is the current situation the same as the ones from the past?
- What parts of you come in quickly to protect you and stop the emotional pain?
This would be a great writing exercise. When you write it is easier for the emotional parts to stay unblended and not overwhelm you with emotions.
When these parts burdened with emotions from past experiences are witness and held in a calm compassionate way by you they then can release the emotional pain and update and re-consolidate the new updated information. The emotional trauma knot untangles and you have more abilities to feel positive emotions!
This is done in therapy so if it is too difficult for you consider exploring this further with an IFS Therapist. You can find one at the website www.thecenterforselfleadership.org.
“Elephant” by Flickr user flowcomm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.