“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Will these memories ever go away? This question came from a friend who recently learned that her father was dying. The news led her to reminisce about her childhood – and she was caught off guard when long-gone memories reappeared with unexpected emotional force.
She wrote, “As much as I feel like I have dealt with it…do you ever really fully deal with all the pain and discomfort that you felt??”
Probably each of us have asked this question at one time or another, so it deserves some exploration. If what we want is to live in freedom, in the aliveness of now, we are invited to investigate any experience that takes us away. When we realize that the past affects how we function in the present, we can take a deep and compassionate look – and unravel the knot so we can be free of it.
Memories Are Not the Problem
Memories of past events are not the problem; the problem – and the opportunity – is our emotional reactions to them. I recently experienced a white Christmas in Scotland, which brought back wonderful memories of snowy winters in Pennsylvania, where I grew up. But when I think about my father losing his temper or my best friend who died when we were in high school – my reactions are quite different.
Memories are problematic when we continue to experience emotional residue from them. This happens when the emotional reactions we had at the time the events occurred were not completely finished or resolved. Consequently, they still color our current relationships and views of ourselves, other people, and situations.
Things get complicated as we try to cope with these unresolved feelings. We find ourselves defending and strategizing to deal with them, and we feel confused, overly emotional, and unfulfilled. It’s just like having an elephant in the room that you aren’t willing to see. The fact that the elephant is there affects everything you think and do, yet you are not directly addressing the elephant’s presence.
Emotional Wounds Don’t Exist
Some people describe their unresolved past experiences as an emotional wound. Certainly, the degree of pain that is sometimes experienced feels like a wound.
If this is how you view the reactions to your memories, I invite you to embark on an inner exploration, with laser vision, to see if you can find the wound. A careful look will reveal no such thing. You might see strong, painful emotions, constrictions in your body, or disturbing images in your mind, but no actual wound.
Who you are – your original, natural state – is whole, integrated, spacious, and unaffected by your history. What seems like a wound is, in reality, a story we run in our minds and difficult emotions that lodge in our bodies – nothing more and nothing less.
Telling yourself you are wounded is, first of all, not true, and second, impedes the process to reclaim your natural state of freedom and wholeness.
Why Do I Feel So Bad?
Once we recognize these emotional reactions to past memories, it’s time to celebrate: we have the chance to let go of the ball and chain we have been unknowingly carrying around. Here is how these entanglements develop:
- An event or series of events happen – something traumatic, an ongoing difficult relationship.
- You have an emotional reaction to the event – fear, sadness, anger, disappointment, grief.
- You don’t completely experience the emotions, so they go underground. This could occur for several reasons – the feeling is too painful so you avoid it, you are told it is unacceptable, you don’t know how to deal with it, you don’t have enough of the support you need.
- A world view evolves based on these unresolved feelings. Examples are: I’m not good enough; I need to control other people; I’ll only be liked if I do what others want me to do; I can’t commit to anyone or anything; I need to avoid conflict.
- Our lives end up being fueled by these unexplored emotions and distorted perspectives. They may be active most of the time and define who we are or be triggered by specific situations and people that remind us of the past.
Does this sound familiar?
We have taken a part of our experience, deemed it unacceptable, and banished it from our awareness. If you think of yourself as a handful of precious jewels, it’s like taking the exquisite ruby and burying it in the dirt.
This is the process that breeds addiction, interpersonal difficulties, low self-esteem, chronic stress, and many other problems that interfere with our happiness and satisfaction in life.
The Pathless Path
We know that the emotional residue is gone, that we are free of the power of these challenging memories, in two ways. First, we have the memory without a strong reaction, and second, the areas of our lives that have been held hostage by these hidden feelings begin to flow once again.
As you begin to investigate these emotional reactions, the goal is simply to open yourself wholeheartedly to the exploration. It is completely understandable that you want to feel better. And it is likely that you will feel better as you directly experience these emotions. But this is a side effect.
The only reason to investigate emotions is to know yourself, to lovingly receive what is present in your experience, because it’s there. It is a part of your reality. What happens as a result is not your business. Your job is very simple – to allow your experience to be as it is.
Investigating with the intention of feeling better is not accepting things as they are. With this mindset, you are agreeing to investigate what is happening as long as the experiences dissipate. This bargaining is resistance to what is actually present and ultimately strengthens the emotions.
Steps to Freedom
Now, putting on your explorer’s headlamp…take your time as you go through the following steps. Lean into the memory and its effects on you and know that every moment of awareness is a moment of freedom.
- Tell the story of what happened. If you haven’t already, let yourself remember the events of the past. Rather than thinking about them, tell a good friend what happened or write it down. Know that there will be a last time you tell this story – maybe this is it! Eventually, it won’t trigger you.
- Take responsibility for your reactions. I cannot say this too many times, as it is at the core of realizing happiness and freedom. When you let go of blaming others, you put an end to being a victim. Terrible things may have happened, but your recovery is in your hands only.
- Acknowledge the feelings that could not be expressed when the events occurred. Find the most loving space inside you, and feel the pure terror, rage, or grief without telling yourself a story about them. Bring your attention to your body and experience the physical sensations that accompany these emotions. If this step is very difficult for you, consider talking to a counselor who can hold a space for you to be with these feelings.
- Illuminate your belief systems. See how avoiding these feelings has affected how you see the world. Do you tend to be pushy, passive, withdrawing, melancholy, anxious, or needy? Do you see other people as threatening, controlling, or as objects to be manipulated? These perspectives are the likely effect of unexplored feelings about relationships from your past.
Once the emotional reactions to these challenging memories are seen, they begin to lose their power over you.
Will These Reactions Ever Go Away?
It is absolutely possible for the memories to appear as an occasional whisper in your mind without any associated pain or trauma. Whether or not this will happen for you is not for me to say. What I do know for sure is that every time you recognize and welcome your reactions, you are a little more free of them. If you consistently see them all the way through, they eventually diminish.
My friend who inspired this post was surprised to discover that her feelings were still very strong. Working with painful memories is like peeling the layers of an onion. As the emotional residue is seen and resolved, deeper levels of blocked feelings may be revealed.
Remember that the goal is not to be rid of all the feelings. This is a pathless path – it is going nowhere except right here to what is present in this moment. Your job is just to be with what is.
If you are resolute in your desire for freedom, you may be motivated to make a list of all the memories that still catch you. Become aware of your emotional reactions to all of them and identify how these feelings have influenced the way you see yourself and others.
Be with everything, always, as it is, and you are free…alive…open…one with life.
Clear out all the cobwebs, and you can’t help but shine brilliantly.
Love to each and every one of you….
To deepen in your own exploration, listen to the guided process, Exploring Memories.
image: ThroughMy Eyes