I sympathise, it happened to me too. I can’t remember when, exactly, but I know it did. I can say that I was let down, that I felt betrayed and misused, that I completely lost trust in another person… Yet I can’t remember when it was. It may even have happened more than once. It probably has.
How can I be so certain if I can’t remember?
Because bad experiences are part of life, we are all on a path littered with broken promises and shattered expectations. What’s more, we’ve all contributed our own broken promises and failed to live up to what another expected or demanded of us (but that’s another matter).
Why can’t I remember?
What is remembering anyway? Of course I can recall events in my life that dismayed me, caused me pain and left me feeling the outrage of betrayal, but I can’t summon up the feelings I had then. I can look back and report on events as I understand them to be now, but I cannot re-live them as I experienced them then.
And critically, I cannot relive the pain, nor the feeling the outrage and betrayal that I must have felt then.
For example I can remember (my version of) a moment when – in the unenlightened times before we learned that hitting your children is taboo – I was the target of over-zealous parenting. But as I ‘remember’ this I am reconstructing it from bits and pieces of a story I have carried around with me all my life. I must have experienced pain, but I can’t recall it. It has dissolved in the mists of time.
In the normal course of events we assimilate unpleasant experiences and even forget about them. What we call remembering is really a kind of reporting; we piece together our version and describe what we witnessed and felt. We do this as an observer, and as the thing happened in the past, necessarily, at a distance.
If I was ask you about a bad experience you could surely tell me about is as you remember it now, but you wouldn’t be able to show me the original, full-technicolor version with all the pain anguish and suffering intact. This is how it should be, we are protected from re-experiencing the pain.
But my pain is real!
Some people can recreate a version of events that continues to cause them pain. They continue to cause themselves grief by recalling past events and, for all sorts of reasons, keeping it alive. This is where the avoidable risk occurs.
Confusing events with their impact
When describing a nasty experience to someone we naturally want them to ‘get’ how horrible it was for us when it happened. Not just horrible, but REALLY horrible… etc. We use dramatic effect and exaggeration to convey the experience. Up to a point this is harmless, but it can lead to carrying around stuff that should have been left alone long ago.
Is it possible that, in reporting a past outrage (who did what to whom, the event), I am really trying to convey my current emotional pain, my hurt, (its impact, how it is still affecting me). Because my sense of injustice (or hurt or whatever), is so strong NOW I use dramatic language to convey the intensity of my feelings.
The trouble is, it’s the wrong language, or at least, I’m focussing on the wrong part of the story. Instead of re-telling the sequence of past events, I could more usefully describe its current emotional consequences for me. This is because letting go of the past means accepting what has happened and resolving the emotional residue now. This can take time.
As we struggle inwardly to come to terms with what’s happened we often need to talk about the event. HOW we talk about it determines whether we can find acceptance and set the scene for moving on, or whether we continue to breath life into it by re-dramatising an old story.