I married my high school sweetheart right out of college.
After eighteen years of marriage, eleven moves, and two sons, he went to one state, and the kids and I went to another. Ending the marriage felt like a colossal failure that I’d avoided as long as I possibly could.
While there were more than enough painful memories from before the split: screaming matches, physical violence, affairs, and a restraining order, we didn’t stop the madness there. Oh no.
Rooted firmly in our respective corners, now next to our lawyers, every issue, no matter how small, became grounds for a full legal assault. We even had to have lawyers oversee the division of the five paper bags of family photographs. In the years that followed, I became well acquainted with my lawyer’s office and the local courthouse. Naïvely, I’d thought a divorce was supposed to put an end to all the bickering.
After a Divorce-Court ugly trial lasting a week, it was over — or so I thought. I tried to move on with my life. I started dating, making new friends and carving out a single life for myself.
The memories of hurtful times and the ex’s lawyer’s hateful depiction of me in court played on an endless loop in my head and heart. These scenes got added to the mental movie already getting airtime of taking care of my brother as he wasted away and died of AIDs. Then, the documentary of a tumultuous three-year post-marriage relationship and bad break-up got added to the playbill.
With a pill popping incident in 2007, I tried to commit suicide which resulted in a serious brain injury.
While healing from the suicide attempt, I realized that I had been torturing myself with my painful memories. I had been doing it to myself! While this point may be obvious to some, it was a huge revelation for me.
Yes, my brother went through a horrible illness and died. Yes, there was no shortage of ugliness from the marriage and divorce and hurt from the subsequent relationship. All of it really did happen — no denying that — but I was the one keeping the hurt alive and bringing it into my present. If I was doing it, I could also stop it.
It really boiled down to making the decision not to torture myself anymore.
How Re-playing Painful Memories Makes Them Stronger
Because of neuroplasticity, the scientifically proven ability of our brains to change form and function based on repeated behaviors, emotions, and thoughts, the more I dwelled on the sad memories, the more I reinforced them. In your brain, neurons that fire together wire together. Like a fish tale, each recollection adds a little more punch and grows more charged each time you remember it.
At the basic level, a memory is made up of slight shifts in the neuronal pattern that comprises that memory. Every time you recall it, your brain reconsolidates the sequence incorporating and filtering it through who you are, what you know, and your mindset at the time of remembering.
The act of remembering changes a memory. So, as I became more depressed and hopeless and replayed the painful memories, they became darker and contributed to and reinforced the downward spiral of depression in my brain.
Four Ways To Diffuse Painful Memories
The good news is that the reverse is also true. Neural connections that are relatively inactive wither away, and you can consciously influence your brain in a positive way. I made the memories stronger and more painful. I could make them weaker and more loving. Here’s how you can too.
Here are 4 ways to release the painful memories of the past.
1. Pair Positive Thoughts With Negative Memories
By pairing positive thoughts and emotions with negative memories and feelings from your past, you can change their role in your present, and physically alter the memories in your brain. Remember, memory is an active and ongoing process of neurons firing filtered through your present state.
In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson writes:
“To gradually replace negative implicit memories with positive ones, just make the positive aspects prominent and relatively intense in the foreground of your awareness while simultaneously placing the negative material in the background….
Because of all the ways your brain changes its structure, your experience matters beyond its momentary, subjective impact. It makes enduring changes in the physical tissues of your brain which affect your well-being, functioning and relationships.”
2. Actively Forgive Yourself and Others
Extending compassion and forgiveness to myself and others was a necessary step in my healing journey and letting go of the pain. I found solace in the thought: “I was (they) were doing the best that I (they) could with who I was at the time.” This single concept allowed me to find forgiveness that I thought impossible.
Forgiveness is a gift that you give to yourself. You do it for you, not the other person. The receiving individual doesn’t have to deserve, want, or acknowledge it for you to reap the benefits. Research has shown forgiveness to be positively associated with many measures of physical and mental health. To hold a grudge, harbor hostility, resentment or anger creates stress within your brain and body. Stress shrinks your brain, decreases serotonin levels, contributes to depression, and plays a part in almost every disease.
From your brain’s perspective, forgiveness requires making a deliberate decision to move beyond feeling hurt or wronged. It takes consciously shifting your perspective and attention and pairing sad or disappointing memories with more positive, better-feeling thoughts (like my quote above). The practice of forgiving, when done repeatedly, over time actually rewires your brain and builds new neuronal pathways.
After decades of hoarding resentment, grudges, and hurt, I had a lot of forgiving to do. First of all, I had to forgive myself. That was hard one. Forgiveness must be extended to yourself before you can give it freely to anyone else. I began reading and practicing forgiveness meditations and exercises to extend compassion to myself, like I would a friend, for the first time ever in my life.
I sent long emails to the exes forgiving them for “whatever I felt like they needed to be forgiven” and asking for forgiveness for “whatever they felt I needed to be forgiven.” I began to feel lighter and happier. It was as if I had set down weights that I did not even know I’d been carrying around for a long, long time.
3. Reframe Your Thoughts
As explained, you see your memories through the filter of your present thinking. So, if you consciously work with your thoughts and beliefs to change your current perspective, you can view the past differently. For a minute, try to drop your habitual story lines and emotional investment in a memory. The details, who did what, really don’t matter in the end and won’t help you move past the pain. They only fuel your anger, hurt, and sense of injustice. Broaden your perspective, try on different points of view, and try to be objective.
Focus on yourself here. In any situation, the only thing you ever have control over is you. Instead of looking for external sources and pointing your finger there, turn the finger back around to you. Take an honest look at your contribution to the situation and your behavior. Ask yourself what you could do differently going forward and what are the possible lessons or good things that could come from this. To get different results, you have to do something different. Not them. You.
Byron Katie has a wonderful series of exercises she calls “The Work” in which you analyze any situation with the four questions and “turn it around.”
Some philosophies make meditation out to be way too complicated. To me, meditation is simply training to consciously control the mind — not what originates in my mind, but my reaction to it. The goal of meditation is to passively observe what runs through your mind and not identify with it.
In meditation, you are learning to consciously choose your reaction to your thoughts and memories, with the objective being to eventually not react at all. Although you can’t expect to control the thoughts and memories that pop into your head, with awareness and intent, you can choose how you respond to them. Herein lies the ability we all have to be free from the pain of the past and find peace.
On a physical level, a person is altering their brain function by learning to change their response to their thoughts in meditation. Through neuroplasticity, a regular meditation practice strengthens and expands calm nonreactive brain circuits.
So when meditating, you just let the memories and feelings bubble up – the good, the bad and the ugly – without labeling or judging them. It can be unpleasant, scary, painful, and absolutely no fun, but it is good work essential to healing, letting go of the past, and becoming a whole, healthy, happy person.
You have to feel it to heal it.
Debbie Hampton recovered from decades of unhealthy thinking and depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an inspirational and educational writer. On her website, The Best Brain Possible, Debbie shares how she rebuilt her brain and life to find joy and thrive and wants you to know that you can do it too! Quickly learn the steps to a better you in her book, Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain, or go to the edge of sanity and back with her in her tell-all memoir, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: How These Thing Almost Killed And Healed Me.