Look Back, Move ForwardOct 09, 2023
It is valuable to travel to once-familiar places and reminisce. In my experience, it is often necessary to look back in order to move forward.
Memory is a powerful ally. At its core, your memory is a survival tool. If you have had a close encounter with a bear in the past, memory reminds you to look out for bears as you wander in the future. If you ever stuck your finger into a light socket or grabbed a hot pan on the stove or ran into a glass door that you thought was open, there is a very good chance you remember the event. And it is highly probable that you will do your best to avoid a repeat performance.
But memory is so much more than just a way to keep you from repeating harmful errors.
Your brain’s cerebral cortex and limbic system (and other areas) work together to provide you with a rich, nuanced experience of the past. Your first car, your first kiss. Your first swim in the ocean. The sound of your father’s voice or the smell of your grandma’s kitchen (olfactory cues are particularly powerful triggers for memories).
These reimagined experiences are far more than idle daydreams; they are an inseparable part of who we are. They are integral to who we have become.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Memories have much in common with experiences in the present: some are good, some seem to be neutral and some are inarguably negative. Many are downright tragic.
Good memories are treasures to relive, to call upon in dark times. A positive recollection can power us through adversity, add context to an already great experience, and help us be more mindful and compassionate.
Events that seemed to be trivial at the time can prove to be monumentally important when reexamined in the context of more time and life experience. If you ever heard, “I love you” from someone and later realized it was the last time, you can relate.
Negative experiences function to keep us safe in the future but more than that, we are hardwired to keep painful memories “top of mind.” Negative bias is a term that describes the fact that we assign more importance to bad experiences than good ones. For example, people are more motivated to not lose the money they have (a negative experience) than they are to gain more money (a positive experience).
Failure to Recall
The ability to recall past experiences - good, bad and indifferent - illuminates the trajectory of our lives.
But sometimes we look back and find whole periods of time missing. We may remember only a few key incidents from our grade school days. We may not be able to recite the names of our teachers from elementary school.
The experience is not restricted to children. I have worked with many adults who report that they have very little recollection of chunks of time in their college years or at the start of their careers.
My clinical experience is congruent with the school of thought that says we never forget anything, barring physical damage to the brain; we are simply unable to access the memories. What we experience as “forgetting” is actually a failure to recall.
What causes this phenomenon in people with no OBS (organic brain syndrome) or TBI (traumatic brain injury)?
I will leave the psychology debates over “repression” vs. “state-dependent memory” vs. “avoidance,” etc. for another time. The simple answer seems to be that times of great stress create psychological and emotional trauma that blocks recall of memories. This appears to be a protective mechanism that keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by past stressors.
In some cases, the memories of an entire period of time become inaccessible, not just the traumatic events themselves. These “holes” in our memory can be as a drastic as long periods of near-total amnesia, or as subtle as wondering, “Where did the time go?”
Look Back, Move Forward
If you find that a chunk of your personal timeline is missing, one very effective remedy is to physically revisit the area associated with the missing memories.
NOTE: If the area is dangerous or brings you great mental and emotional distress, this advice should be carefully considered. Use your best judgment as concerns your safety and consult a mental health professional, if necessary.
The key is to be as objective as possible and take note of mental images, thoughts and emotions. The first step is to function as a reporter. Allow as little subjective bias as possible. Just record everything that comes to you and try not to assign blame or reward at this stage.
The second step is to then look at each of the notes you took. When the images and emotions come back, see if you can evaluate them in the light of your current experience as an adult. You will likely find that three situations occur:
Variations on a Theme
1. You will experience memories of events that haven’t occurred to you in a long time. Savor these long-lost parts of yourself, even if they seem to be emotionally insignificant.
2. You will recall emotionally charged memories that - even considered in the light of more time and experience - occur to you the same way now as they did then. People you perceived as selfish assholes will still appear that way when you reexamine them. Folks who seemed to bless you with loving compassion will retain that evaluation, even in the light of your reconsideration.
3. There will also be situations that you now see differently in the hard light of increased maturity and life experience. You may see that gestures you once considered to be compassionate were actually manipulative. An action that felt unnecessarily harsh in the moment may be better understood now that you have had to deal with a wider range of life experiences.
Remember, you are trying to access past events in the context and benefit of your current experience. Take it all in and write it down; the processing can come later.
Give It Some Time
The experience may take a long time to process, and you may find that memories come unbidden in the form of dreams or random thoughts. Again, if these experience become a source of distress, talk to someone who can help you navigate them.
With time (and sometimes instantaneously), the recall of missing thoughts and emotions will inform your mindful experience of the present.
All of your memories add something to your current and future life; good, bad or indifferent, and whether your view of them changes or not. You can better understand the person you are now when you fill in the blanks of your life then.
An added bonus for creatives: as personal experience from earlier times become more accessible, you will find a deep well of inspiration for use in your personal and professional life. It’s all “grist for the mill.”
A look back at your life’s context will strengthen your ability to move forward with your life’s purpose.
A Personal Story
I will indulge in a bit of self-disclosure here in the hope that my personal experience may help you with your own journey:
I recently came to realize that I was able only to recall a handful of traumatic events from about a ten-year span of my life (there’s that negative bias again). This period of time was many years ago, in a place I had never before lived, as I was attending two universities and working full-time. I recalled a great deal of chaos and grief associated with specific events, but not much else.
I revisited the area and spent some time in the places that were important to me then. My procedure was to drive to an area, get out, walk around and notice the thoughts, memories and emotions that occurred. It was important to me to not feel pressured of hurried; I didn’t force the issue, I just noticed what came to mind and wrote it down.
The result was a great flood of memories and emotions: names of places and people I hadn’t thought of for years; events - mostly positive (!) - that brought me great joy to recall; many small events that in isolation were seemingly inconsequential but completed a larger picture in context.
I’m still processing, but here are my salient take-away points so far:
- Everything seems so much smaller and closer now.
- So much has changed, to the point it is unrecognizable to me.
- So much is exactly as I remember it.
- I made so many stupid mistakes when I was younger, not as a result of malevolent intent but due to a lack of more experienced advice I could trust. I just didn’t know better. My father died when I was 27.
- I made so many great decisions - a combination of intuition and research - and somehow had the discipline and drive to bring them to manifestation. Many of the things I did in my 20s sustain me, mentally, physically and spiritually, even now in my 60s.
- The single saddest insight (so far) is that in retrospect, my greatest motivating factor was a mixture of insatiable curiosity…and fear. I was terrified that I would lose clarity, my financial stability and my freedom.
- My worldview was entirely too serious, as though life is a challenge that we can somehow survive if we are smart enough and try hard enough.
- Most of the time, these existential fears were mostly sub- and/or unconscious, which, of course, made them much more powerful.
- My anxieties motivated and propelled me to achieve some degree of success. They also reduced whole chunks of my life to a busy, only dimly remembered blur.
- The single most happy/satisfying insight (so far) is that through it all - fatherhood and marriage and multiple degrees and professorships and research appointments and international travel and executive positions and entrepreneurship and all the rest - I had (and have) an unquenchable thirst for life. I am endlessly in awe of this world.
- My respect for the gift of consciousness has sustained me through the darkest moments and has elevated even mundane events to the level of luminous, peak experiences.
- Because there are no mundane events; everything is miraculous.
- It is absolutely necessary to look back in order to move forward, even if the process is sometimes sad and humiliating and terrifying.
- You can’t just think about it. You have to physically go there. Things will reappear that would otherwise remain psychologically subterranean.
- This kind of deep work certainly has the power to heal. But beyond that, if you can intentionally integrate the thoughts and images and memories - good and bad - you will find yourself empowered and emboldened.
- I have always had a belief and strong intuition that I a have a purpose greater than myself. Each time I achieve what I understand as my calling, a greater - and more difficult - tier reveals itself. This journey strengthened that belief and intuition.
- The sense of meaning that I derive from such an understanding of purpose defeats even the most egregious fears.
- And gives me the clarity and freedom I sought in the first place.
I am a creator (musician, writer, live-streamer and podcaster), entrepreneur, counselor and professor.
To learn more about how to use these concepts or to inquire about working with me, you can contact me through my website, the comments section on my Substack or Medium accounts or The Authentic Life Blog page. If you have found value in this article, consider following my Instagram and Twitter accounts. To support this community, you can even Buy Me A Coffee or donate through my Patreon account.
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