September 11, 2018

Exploring emotional memories

In this exercise you can work on raising awareness of important emotional memories, both memories that feel good, and those that feel painful. Recurrent painful emotional memories are especially important since they may inform you about what you need but aren’t getting.

There are two paths to explore emotional memories. Exercise 1 is about addressing the past and writing down important events, important topics, and important people. Exercise 2 (further down) starts in the present, describing painful conditions you experience today, in order to see if these painful experiences somehow relate to past emotional memories.

Exercise 1 – Retrieving childhood memories

Set aside time for this exercise and make a decision to finish it. In bullet points, write down various memories from your childhood that have made an impression on you, both good ones and painful ones. Don’t be critical in considering if they are important enough.
Write down the memories that come to you. Write down the names of the people who are important in those memories. It doesn’t have to be specific memories, it can also be generalized experiences or recurrent events. If you can’t think of important memories, use the list below to help you get started.

  • Who were you closest to in your upbringing?
  • What was it like to grow up in your family?
  • How were your most important needs attended to as a child, and by whom?
  • What was it like for you in school?
  • Have you been bullied, outcasted or attacked by peers?
  • Have you experienced physical or sexual abuse?
  • Do you remember having been feeling a lot of fear, anger, shame or sadness? In what situations did that occur?
  • How did your parents react when you felt scared, angry, ashamed, or sad?
  • Describe your mother and your father as caregivers?
  • Do you have painful memories related to your parents?
  • Where did you go to get support in your childhood?
  • Do you have good memories of being cared for by someone, inside or outside of your family?

Out of the memories you have written down, select one that you seems important to you to look into right now.

ATTENTION: If you have painful traumatic memories that you have not yet talked to anyone about, it is best to look into these memories when you know that you have available someone you trust and feel safe with. Sometimes unprocessed traumatic memories can be best worked with with a professional mental health person.

We will now explore various aspects of the memory you have selected. Try answering the following questions:

  • What people are included in the memory?
  • What happened?
  • Imagine that you are now yourself at that time. Contact your body: How did it feel to be you right then and there?
  • What do you imagine the emotion was at the time?
  • What would the younger you have needed in that situation?

Put it all together into a story, for example: “I was six years old, it was the first day of school, and I refused to get dressed to go to school. Dad was angry and scolded me. I felt a turmoil in my body and wanted to run to my room and crawl under the covers. I think I was afraid to meet so many new children and adults at once. I had a need for comfort and security from my mum.”

Now that you have explored the memory, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What typical situations today can activate a similar feeling like the one you had then? What does it take to activate this memory today?
  • When this emotional memory is activated, how does it tend to affect you?
  • What do you need when this memory is activated? What can you do to get this need met?

Exercise 2 – Emotional memories that bother you in the present

In this exercise, you’re starting in the present. The goal is to become more aware of how emotional difficulties today might be related to painful emotional memories. For example, if you often feel less worthwhile than others, this might be related to memories of being overly criticized or bullied.

First you need to identify one or more recurrent painful feelings in your life. This might be about feeling unsafe, anxious, jealous, unworthy, ashamed, unjustly treated, hurt, hopeless, stupid, ugly or the likes. Recurrent painful feelings are often fearshame or sadness but these feelings can often be hidden behind secondary emotions like rejecting anger or anxiety and depression.

  • Write down a recurring painful feeling that you are struggling with in your life. Feel free to use more words to describe this condition and how that makes you feel.
  • How do you notice that this feeling is there? How can others notice it?
  • What is it that typically happens to bring about this feeling? Write down various triggers.
  • Is it something someone else does?
  • Is it when some specific subjects are brought up?
  • Is it other people’s feelings that trigger it?
  • Are there specific individuals that trigger it?
  • What is the overall topic in this type of situation? Try to complete the sentence: “I feel this feeling when something happens that makes me
    … feel teased/harassed
    … feel criticized
    … feel overlooked
    … feel alone/abandoned
    … feel controlled or reprimanded
    … feel unimportant
    … feel unjustly treated
    … feel unsafe in my surroundings
    … feel dependent on someone
  • Can you remember any emotional memories, situations, episodes or patterns earlier in your life where you also felt like that?

Now you might also go to Exercise 1 at the top of this page and continue to work on it.

  • If you remember a situation from the past, what would you have needed to happen then?
  • When you experience this feeling today, what do you need? From yourself and from others?