Memories are more than just images from our past. They shape how we think of ourselves in the present and affect the direction our lives will take in the future. If you carry around numerous memories of relationships that ended poorly, you might think of yourself as unlovable. If your strongest memories are of scholastic and career successes, you probably consider yourself smart. True or not, these memory-inspired self-evaluations affect your behavior and your happiness.

Memories That Matter

The most powerful remembrances—what I call "self-defining memories"—come back again and again and pack an emotional punch each time. They relate in some way to issues that we're still trying to resolve or goals that we still hope to accomplish.

Example: Ray, a businessman, frequently recalls a memory from his childhood of his father leaning over his shoulder criticizing his homework. This memory is particularly likely to replay when Ray's boss offers him feedback on his job performance.

If we learn to use such self-defining memories to address shortcomings and pursue goals, negative memories lose power and we feel better about ourselves.

Example: When I was a child, it was important to me that I fit in with the crowd. For years,I relived a memory of the time some boys told me I couldn't be in their club. As an adult, one of my goals was to become more confident of my own worth. I realized I had succeeded when this childhood memory became less frequent and was no longer emotional for me when it did recur. The childhood rejection had lost its power to define me.

Making Changes

Here's how to use our memories to understand and improve our lives…

  • Reevaluate the results. Caroline lived for years with a recurring memory of the day in divorce court when her marriage ended. The memory brought feelings of shame and failure. When I encouraged Caroline to search for something positive that came from that day, she realized it was then that she gained her freedom from a bad relationship. Now the same recurring memory brings Caroline a sense of liberation.
  • Role-play new endings. An older couple told me that they hadn't felt close to each other in years. The memory of one particular incident haunted them both—the wife had reached for her husband's hand during an argument, but he had pulled away.

I positioned the couple iust as they had been seated during that argument years before and asked them to replay the fight. Only this time, I told them to argue from each other's perspective. The reversed roles changed their take on the situation, and when the wife reached out her hand, her husband didn't pull away. They both still remember that old argument, but now the memory concludes with the more upbeat ending we created in therapy.

  • Surround yourself with objects and images that inspire positive memories. If the sight of a painting given to you by an ex-wife reminds you of the failed marriage, replace it with a framed copy of an award you won, so you'll instead flash back to that success.

If the picture on your desk of your family at the Grand Canyon brings back negative memories of the bickering on that vacation, select another family photo. I know one woman who hung pictures of her schnauzer around her home because she had only positive memories of the pet.

  • Don't focus on negative memories. Despite what you might believe, there's little evidence that avoiding bad memories has any downside. Some people find it helpful to wear a rubber band around their wrist to snap when they catch themselves reliving a negative memory—the sharp sensation can yank the mind off the negative path.

Write down a list of positive memories you can turn to when you need a shot of confidence ot a way to block out the negative. Specific memories are better than general ones—recall the time that you won a Little League game with a big hit, not just how much you enjoyed playing baseball as a child.

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