Do you experience bad memories that are difficult to handle at times? We all struggle with that to some extent. You may describe recalling these encounters as painful memories or bad childhood memories. You also may wrestle with suppressed trauma or repressed trauma because of tragedies or abuse you had to go through as a child or adult.
These complex past events can make you a more resilient, loving, and decisive person when correctly worked through. However, when not adequately addressed, they can diminish your well-being, causing you to relive painful moments as if they were happening over and over again.
In her “Psychology Today” article entitled 5 Ways to Stop Reliving Painful Memories, Amy Morin shares the following:
“While self-reflection is helpful, rumination is harmful. Dwelling on your problems, magnifying your misfortune, and hosting your own pity party only increase your distress.”
And so, the question persists: “How do I minimize unnecessary and unhelpful stress due to bad memories?” While figuring out how to forget bad memories altogether may not be realistic, you can keep them from controlling your thoughts or ruining your life. Here are some ways to cut through the habit of ruminating or beating yourself up about the past.
Accept Your Past and Make Peace with It
Each of our pasts includes a rollercoaster of events. Every high and low that ever happened to us is there. And no matter who we are, recollections exist we’d prefer to take a “magic eraser” to and wipe out for good. But try as we may, we can’t because what happened is set in stone. It occurred, and there’s no changing that fact.
That’s where ruminating or stressing about these past events becomes especially harmful. If you were abused as a child, you can’t change that fact. Or maybe you lost a lot of money from a bad financial deal or went through a messy divorce. You can’t go back and undo those painful memories either. Still, you keep hoping that stressing over your past will work some good or miraculously change past events even though, deep down, you realize that’s an impossibility.
So, where does that leave you? Where does that leave us all? With only two choices really. You can either exist in the past, repeatedly reliving your life’s worst moments, or you can accept the past and move on from it.
Accepting the past doesn’t mean saying it was OK that bad things happened to you. Instead, it involves acknowledging that you can’t change what took place. It also includes admitting that fretting about the past won’t fix anything but only worsen your present and future.
Making peace with your story involves accepting it even if you don’t understand or appreciate all the pages in your life’s “novel.” You commit to not letting your past hinder you today.
At that point, not only will you face freedom from much of your past hurts, but you’ll be in a far better place to learn from your previous experiences. It’s tough to learn from your past if you spend so much time ruminating or in bitterness over what happened.
Accepting Your Past Isn’t a One-Time Decision
Especially initially, you’ll have to consistently redirect your thoughts to something else when the temptation to stew over your past comes up. It’s not so easy as “I resolve once and for all to make peace with my past.” Instead, it’s a process with plenty of ups and downs, and an intrusive memory can sometimes pay you a visit when you least expect it.
But suppose you continue to let go of bad memories. In that case, the battle will grow more manageable and you won’t have to fight negativity or intrusive memories so often. When a new hurtful memory is born, you’ll also be prepared with some excellent coping habits and strategies.
Become More Aware of Your Thoughts
We’re creatures of habit, and it’s easy to allow whatever flits across our inner thoughts to stay around. The more this happens, the less we tend to question our thinking. We often don’t contemplate whether our internal dialogue is normal or healthy. As a result, we allow ourselves to be held hostage and tortured by whatever happens to be in our brains at the moment.
But the reality is these things mostly aren’t as random as they may seem at first glance. We create them thought habits and condition ourselves to think a certain way often without even realizing it.
For that reason, it’s helpful to become aware of what you think when experiencing painful memories. Do you blame yourself or others? Is there self-compassion and the releasing of bitterness after feeling wronged by others?
Think of What You’d Say to Someone Else in Your Shoes (And Then Say it to Yourself)
We’re often more kind to others than we are to ourselves when plagued by our past. It’s easy to comfort a friend who feels like they did a poor job during a presentation and who now repeatedly struggles with self-blame, for instance. Of course, you want your friend to be released from the heavy burden and hurt they continually relive. But would you extend the same kindness to yourself in a similar scenario?
Many find it difficult to practice self-compassion when facing bad or traumatic memories. If this is a struggle for you, think about what you’d say to someone else experiencing repetitive bad memories.
First, write out your hurtful memory. Next, identify the unhealthy internal response you tend to have as a result of that painful memory. Think about where your answer goes wrong. Does it lack self-compassion? Are you unreasonably hard on yourself, or do you blame yourself for something that wasn’t your fault?
Next, create a better way to respond instead of the ingrained negativity that only leads to more harm. Choose a healing response to your unhappy memory instead. Write out your painful memory, your typical self-defeating response to it but, most importantly, a reply with more self-compassion. Like how you would respond to a close friend in a similar scenario or how you’d hope they would react to your struggles with the past. Then, focus repeatedly on the healthy responses you came up with.
Consider Counseling to Help with Bad Memories
Painful memories can become ingrained to the point that it sometimes feels nearly impossible to stop them. This can understandably be a helpless feeling. If you feel sabotaged by your past but can’t seem to make the progress you need, consider stress counseling.
Mental health conditions can also make this healing process more challenging. That could involve various factors, including depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Your therapist can help you work through evidence-based ways to overcome your past. We all have interesting and sometimes painful pasts, but they don’t have to control our present and future!