How many days has it been since you replayed a scene in your mind where you said hurtful, revealing or politically incorrect words you wish could have been taken back? Possibly you were diligent in your speech but humiliated in front of friends or colleagues?  Or became a victim of an unscrupulous person or scheme? Regardless of the origin, Insane thoughts about what we should have done occur throughout our lives.

No, this isn’t a coaching advertisement, or pitch to attend a “life-changing” event, or a special offer to buy a book that will change your life. Rather, it’s a short three-part exploration of the insane thoughts we repeatedly tell ourselves (Part I), why we do it (Part II), and how to stop or reduce them (Part III).

Enlarging Insane Thoughts

It will be bad enough if our memory is accurate about what happened. If it is, the pain we experienced when it occurred will by itself be excruciating. Unfortunately, our mind isn’t that kind.  Accuracy is a great standard for line editing documents or machining parts for a rocket. It rarely occurs in memory because of the brain’s physiology and our need to rectify what we didn’t want to occur in the past.

These “cartoon clips” come to us as abstracted portions of what happened, remastered as if by a Hollywood digital editor. And, just as any good editor would do, our malleable brain distorts factual moments for impact, substituting drama for truth; pain for subtly.

When a Painful Past Directs the Present

The result? A scene bubbles ups into our consciousness when anything vaguely reminiscent of the event occurs, as it did for a woman I served in hospice. She was rejected by fellow teachers in her first assignment when she was in her early 20’s.

The story lasted for thirty minutes and contained so much detail I felt the hurtful words were directed to me. As I listened, it became evident that the rejection created great psychological damage. The following week, she told the same story. And every week until they died, never leaving out any detail. If anything, with each retelling the events became more elaborate, and the pain grew. She was in her eighty’s and according to her daughter, the story she told sporadically for the last fifty years, now was a regular event.

Choices

For my patient and most people, “What  if…” and “Only if…” internal messages can control portions of our lives with as much control as “The Great Oz,” lurking behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.  There are events in my life that occurred in childhood, as a young adult, and even recently that have me saying “What if…” and “If only I did…” One of the differences between my patient and myself is the degree to which each of us allowed our past to affect our present.

In Part II, I discuss why, despite their efforts to suppress them, these destructive scenes occur. In Part III I’ll suggest some simple changes you can make to minimize their effects.

4 Responses

  1. cathy h arnett

    Stan,
    Thank you for this post. It’s a very relatable one that I am sure innumerable people have faced.
    It also occurs, very frequently, inadvertently in emails, or even text messaging.
    I am a nurse and am very sensitive to how I come across to other people. Though I am no longer active in that field, I find that the more empathetic we are, it seems the more sensitive we are to negative comments and or feedback.
    I will read ” what to do about it” next,but , yes, this is a great post !
    Thank you for sharing it .

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      You’re absolutely right about emails. I’ve heard people interpreting what someone wrote and know they are way off base. Unfortunately, with the ease and noncommittal aspects of email, the risk increases for misinterpretation.

      Reply
  2. P Bradford Cobb

    Interestingly this relates, in a way, to studies I am conducting on dissociative memory loss as related to war veterans experiencing PTSD. Can individuals completely block a traumatic event from their memory bank and If so, can certain triggers, cause these events to resurface?

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      It sounds like an interesting study. I imagine the protocol will be difficult to establish and test, along with problems in establishing control and study groups.

      If the brain selectively stores experiences chemically, I would imagine the circumstances surrounding the experience (needs, fears, history, etc.) provide an initial distortion of what happened. I don’t think anything is “objectively” recorded in the brain–there are too many perceptual filters.

      Then when the experience is transferred from short-term to long-term memory, there’s another chance to modify it. Once stored, it can be retrieved by any number of “memory hooks,” (e.g., loud sounds, smells, etc.). And finally, the effect of the retrieval would be related to the circumstances (e.g. being held by a person you love vs. being in a crowed subway.

      Your question has stimulated many thoughts. Probably, the question you pose related to PTSD has much wider applicability to general concerns about memory. In studies involving the effects of stroke, the conclusion is that damage to the brain doesn’t necessary result in the loss of memories, but rather the pathways to retrieving them. I believe there are similar findings with Alzheimer’s

      Possibly for PTSD, focusing on the pathways to the memories might be important along with if and why distortions of the experience occurred (e.g., why if two soldiers were both in transport truck, why does one soldier experience PTSD years after the experience and the other person looks back and fondly remembers an “exiting” moment in his life?

      Thanks for stimulating my mind Bradford!!

      Reply

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