Humans have an unbelievable capacity in terms of their memory. Triggers, such as certain smells or environments can often lead us down a memory trail. Pieces of dreams are made up of memories. But what happens when our memories or experiences are harmful? When we harbor resentments and grudges, or when we re-experience a trauma, these are not happy memories. As author Paulo Coelho stated, “Forgive but do not forget, or you will be hurt again. Forgiving changes the perspectives. Forgetting loses the lesson.” Letting go means releasing some of the emotional hold that a memory may have over you, while maintaining the life experiences and memory that help shape who you are, today.
The relationship between emotions and memories are complex. When an experience has emotion attached, positive or negatively, there is a greater chance for it to be stored in the brain structures responsible for long term memories. This is why experiences that are routine or unremarkable are less likely to be “stored” than an experience that was surprising or shocking. Many people are able to remember with great clarity where they were, or what they were wearing on September 11, 2001. That is less true about September 9, 2001.
Though the experience that the memory was created around is unchangeable, interestingly, our memories are. A breakup that was devastating in our youth is reflected back on as “no big deal.” Memories, and the emotions that accompany them, are unreliable. We see this in courtrooms, when a victims memory or experience is considered far less factual than more concrete evidence. We can use this to our benefit when attempting to cope, process, and release the pain associated with some memories. By understanding that our memories can be distorted, a therapist can help a person safely re-experience a traumatic or painful experience with the benefit of re-framing.
An example of this: A young woman came to see a therapist to help process some of the trauma that can from being neglected as a child. While the therapist was clearly not able to time travel and provide the young girl with the care that she needed, she used the benefit of the client’s memory to go back and “nurture” the child version of the client. Using photos and tangible items from childhood, such as clothing and stuffed animals, the therapist helped the client “go back in time” using her memories to let the “little girl” know that she was safe, loved, and cared for. The next session, the client spoke more confidently about her capabilities in present day, and spoke of how shifting her memory from being a victim, to being a nurturer, helped her release some of the resentments that she felt for the caregivers in her life.
It also helps to make it a conscious decision to let it go. Moving the emotions from the feeling to the thinking parts of our brain mean that we are articulating the emotional experience, and then making a decision that it won’t bother us, anymore. It empowers you to realize that this is a choice, that holding on to resentments and past hurts is optional, not inevitable. This is the “forgiveness” part of Paulo Coelho’s quote. It does not mean giving someone a pass to hurt you or mistreat you. But it does mean that you are releasing yourself from that hurt. The next step is to focus on the here-and-now, the present. Mindfulness is an incredibly powerful way of refocusing the mind on the present, and harnessing control over emotions and memories. Letting go is your choice, and having that choice can make all the difference.