Can You Trust Your Memory?

Recently, I was discussing some events from a long time ago with a family member. I was surprised to find out that details I thought I very clearly remembered were incorrect. It got me thinking about the possibility of memory being untrustworthy. How is it possible to be so certain you remember something one way when it actually happened another? Or to be positive of certain people, places, or things, but have that information incorrect, as well?

It’s possible to confuse memories with secondhand information. For example, if a story is told enough times within a family, you might start to create mental images in much the same way you do when immersed in reading a book. Eventually, if asked, you will report that you remember an event or conversation of which you actually have no firsthand knowledge.

Your memory is largely filtered by your experiences, personality, and mindset. If you want something to have happened or to have played out in a certain way, it is possible to convince yourself it did. Also, two people can go through the exact same event together yet remember it very differently later on, because their respective minds are filtering the event through different mental paradigms. You might see an event as inherently positive, while somebody else involved could have a very different perspective on that memory. Additionally, if you have had similar experiences, it is possible to merge the memories of two separate occasions into one without realizing it. It’s also possible to use similar situations you’ve experienced to determine how you feel about a certain memory in a similar context. For example, if you generally had bad experiences at all your birthday parties growing up, your mind might not allow you to remember a positive birthday party experience you had because of your conditioned expectation that your birthday parties are not meant to go well, that something bad “always” happens. Personally, I engage in a lot of maladaptive daydreaming, which is a psychological term for creating a fake, yet very convincing reality in order to escape one’s traumas and disappointments. This kind of daydreaming can go on for hours at a time and seem very real. I have experienced confusion in the past when trying to remember if a certain conversation actually happened or if I had daydreamed it.

Your mind tends to fill in gaps in your memory over time. It can feel frustrating, unbalancing, even scary not to remember an event that happened to you in its entirety. It can feel urgent to remember. It can feel (and can actually be) dangerous to forget. It’s possible that after a while your mind will begin to fill in the missing pieces by itself as to give you an entire story, unbroken, from start to finish. I know there have been times I think to myself, “I used to know this. How could I have forgotten? I was even talking about this not so long ago. Did it go like this? That certainly makes sense in the story and I can see that happening, so I think it probably went like that.” Later on down the line, you won’t even remember that you had assumed that part had unfolded in a certain way. You will come to believe you had always retained the memory that way.

But why does any of this matter? How should the above be applied to living a peaceful, fulfilling life? So many people are holding themselves back because of what they deem to be bad memories of negative events that occurred to them in the past, sometimes in the far distant past. Events or conversations that took place and continue to haunt them until this day. Perhaps a recital they feel went terribly or an important talk with a friend they felt they didn’t handle well. However, as we have seen, many of our memories are simply our subconscious fears and insecurities pretending to be fact. Our memories may or may not have actually taken place. Speaking to other people who were there (if the memory is even real at all), it might be surprising to find out they have very different perspectives on what occurred. So do not allow the past to affect your future, because it might not really even be true reflections of your past. Do not elevate your perceptions and perspectives to the height of unarguable truth. Do not give something that might or might not even be real that kind of power over your happiness going forward. Realize that you are in control of your narrative and that you can choose to interpret life experiences as important or insignificant, fateful or impotent, ruinous or enlightening. All that ultimately exists and all that ultimately matters is the present.

The Thought Patterns Ruining My Life

We are not our thoughts. But we are the thoughts we allow to control our lives. And the thoughts we indulge are the thoughts that create ruts in our minds and eventually become thought patterns. Here are my thought patterns and the ways in which they are ruining my life:

Worrying About the Future

I constantly “borrow trouble”. I worry about what the future holds, including those things I don’t have control over. I worry about things that haven’t happened yet and even about negative outcomes that are unlikely to occur. I build them up so much in my mind that I become sure they are going to happen. If anything close to what I fear does end up happening, I see it as a sign that my worry was justified.

Grieving the Past

I go over and over the past, including mistakes I made and mistakes others made that negatively affected me. I dwell on missed and bungled opportunities. I mentally recreate dialogues from years, even decades, past. I yearn for the more positive, alternative outcomes that could have come to fruition “if only…”. I beat myself up for how I used to think, feel, and behave, even though I was younger, less worldly-wise, and hadn’t had many experiences yet. I remember and obsess over dates I find significant (for example, “In the year 2002, this happened” or “May 5, 2008 was the day that…”). I’ve never learned how to “let go”.

Assuming People’s Motivations

I often assume people have malicious motivations towards me which explain their actions. Instead of assuming they are just busy or forgetful or ditzy, I assume they dislike me, maybe even want to harm me, and that is why they do the things they do or don’t do the things they don’t do. I am the guiltiest person when it comes to black-and-white thinking, and this type of thinking does not lend itself well to being able to see context or nuance in any given situation. I have been hurt and disappointed by so many people, I now suspect everyone of malintentions. I feel enraged over the thought that others would mistreat me when I would never mistreat them. Others’ mistreatment of me evokes obsessive thoughts over the matter, which I often whitewash as righteous anger. It is easier for me to claim the moral high ground instead of admitting I mentally and emotionally hold onto these hurts to an extent that is not warranted and that is actually self-destructive.

Trying to Please Others

I constantly try to please others and “fit in”, even when I don’t immediately realize I’m doing so. For example, sometimes I respond in a politically-correct, socially-acceptable way that doesn’t covey my true feelings. This comes to me very naturally and without forethought. Only afterwards do I realize how I compromised myself. It seems although I generally dislike people, I secretly crave their acceptance. This causes me to feel weak and become irritated with myself.

Internalizing What Others Do to Me

I take what others do to me as a measure of my own worth. Instead of thinking of them less, I think of myself less. Even if I get upset with them, it pales in comparison to the way their actions make me feel about myself. In reality, the way someone treats another person reveals more about themselves than the other person. And when a person treats others poorly it’s often a sign they think of themselves poorly.

Trying to Control Things

I try to control my feelings, circumstances, and environment. These are things that are impossible to control. Feelings arise uninvited, but they are generally based on the thoughts I allow to take up space in my mind. Environment can only be controlled to a certain extent, and circumstances often occur unbidden, unplanned, and unwanted. I know that the most peaceful people are those who can “roll with the punches”, let things “roll off their backs”, and successfully adapt instead of trying to mould situations to fit their desires.

Dreaming of the Future

On the face of it, dreaming of the future doesn’t sound like a negative thought pattern. What could be unhealthful about having goals, being excited for what’s to come, and allowing it to lift my mood? While these things aren’t inherently problematic, spending my time dreaming of what “could be” instead of taking the necessary actions to make it a reality only traps me in a sad, unfulfilling present with a false sense of achievement.

Striving for Perfection

Fear leads me to always strive for perfection. I can’t stand making mistakes. I can barely bring myself to read my past blog posts for fear I realize how awful they all are and delete them. I often don’t start something I really should for fear of not doing it perfectly. Past failures, even from very long ago, continue to haunt me. However, the logical side of me knows that progress can be made alongside failures and that those who don’t try, don’t succeed.

Being Overly Sensitive to Injustice

This is another thought pattern that might not sound unhealthful. However, my sense of justice often clouds my better judgment. I end up struggling too long towards a goal I don’t even want due to feeling I deserve it. Realistically, I know that’s my ego sabotaging my peace and contentment as well as my refusal to move past negativity and to accept myself in whatever situation I find myself.

Have you noticed any thought patterns that steal your happiness away? Have you been working on changing which thoughts you focus on in order to change those patterns and find lasting peace?