As I was moving through my own recovery, working with multiple therapists and coaches, I kept encountering a practice that I completely resisted: going back to where the memory started, to "undo" it or "recreate" it. It felt formulaic, and not unlike the part in Law & Order when they bring in the Asian psychologist and he gets the child to play with a Barbie and all of the sudden the child remembers her brother killed her auntie.
It would go down something like this. I'd tell coach/therapist/doctor of a block or a terror I had, they'd ask me to close my eyes and go back to the first time I felt this way, and my answer of "always" didn't satisfy them. So I'd fish in my mind and normally end up pulling a memory that would make them happy and stop asking me to go back in time. Sometimes I would lie just to get them to stop.
One day back in May, I was beside myself. I had spent hours trying to start my about page on my website, and had crapped away some 3 hours avoiding it, terrified to start. It was the third day in a row spinning my wheels like this on this particular task. I texted my coach, completely paralyzed, completely distressed. She called minutes later, and after explaining my situation to her, she inevitably asked me if I could recall a time when I had ever felt this scared to fuck up. "When was the first time this happened?" I sighed, defeated that we were playing this game again, but also so severely desperate to get past this that I was willing to. So I tried. And this time, I ended up trying my way back to a viable memory.
There I was, 5 years old, Mrs. Thompson's kindergarten class at Centennial Elementary. We were tasked with constructing a flower out of construction paper. I was probably ADHD - definitely a space case - and had missed the instructions or knowing me had most likely talked over her while she was giving them. Mid-construction, there was my teacher, grabbing my art project out of my hands, and holding it up for all the class to see. "This is how NOT to do it. Holly didn't follow instructions." I can still see it like it was yesterday, the only memory left of that classroom besides graham crackers and milk. Being humiliated by my teacher for doing something wrong and shamed in front of 30 of your peers at age 5 will stick with you like a motherfucker.
"Holy SHIT" was all I could say to Zoe. This memory had been with me FOREVER. But until that day, I had never in my life been able to understand why or what it was doing. It had haunted me. It had changed me. It was still influencing me.
Zoe instructed me that I must recreate it and gave me instructions on how to through a meditation. So I went to my meditation pillow, and popped Feist's Caught a Long Wind on my stereo on repeat. I had just bought a war bonnet to aid in these extreme meditation events, so I put that shit on, too. Then I turned in to my meditation.
And there I was, in 1984, current day me and my five year old self. We both had war bonnets on, and were standing in front of my elementary school, leaves falling all around us, everything else still. I told mini me "you know what you have to do" and she nodded in understanding.
She marches back into the room and assumes her position at the desk, begins illegally constructing the flower. There's Mrs. Thompson, grabbing it from her hands, and showing it to the class. And where the first time we did this routine little Holly cowers and folds and drinks in the shame - her self worth and courage and innocence diminished - this new Holly does something entirely different. She stands up, tall and proud, heart forward. She turns her face towards Mrs. Thompson's, and she grabs the flower out of her teacher's hands, holding it in her own, high above her head for all to see. She turns around, a full 360 degrees, meeting the eyes of each of her peers. "Can everyone see?" Holly says, her voice loud and firm. "This is how I did it. CAN YOU SEE HOW I DID IT DIFFERENTLY?" She turns back to Mrs. Thomson, eyes locked, jaw set. She smacks the sheet back down on her desk. She finishes her art.
She claims the space. At age 5. She will not be shamed. There is no wrong. She is not afraid.
In the end of the meditation, we meet again, somewhere near the front of the school, the leaves falling faster. She's wearing her war bonnet still. I look at her, knowing what lay ahead. The divorce. The gay parent. The lost years and the dark years. The drugs and the drinking and the loneliness and the sadness and depths she would face on her knees. The hundred trespasses and violations and failures and heartbreaks. It's almost too much to bear sending her away all alone. My heart breaks all over again. I kneel and meet her eyes, take her arms. She's stronger than I was, but I am still heartbroken for what she will endure.
I take war paint out and I decorate her face. Preparing her for battle.
She looks at me and says "I've got this. Don't worry."
I tell her I know she does. I tell her she has got it better than I did.
She turns away, standing taller and prouder than I ever remember being, chest forward, head back. She marches towards the future and all those things she will encounter, and I walk back to my computer, the fear of making a bad About page completely forgotten. I have more important things to do.
How to rewrite a memory.
You don't need to wait for a block to come up to eliminate a disempowering memory from your past. Or even work with a therapist. If you can call up a painful or limiting memory from your past clearly, most likely it's still with you in some form, and you can do the same type of work or meditation I did above, or follow this practice below.
Maturity means accepting that you created everything in your past. Your history was created by you.
This is a hard pill to swallow. “What do you mean I CREATED the alcoholic parents I had” Or, “There is no way I CREATED a childhood like that.” Well, no, you didn’t create the circumstances of your life (or maybe you did, but that’s for another article). But you DID create an emotion and a belief based on those circumstances.
From birth through about the age of 18, you were a follower (well, except through the teenage years when most of us rebelled like crazy). But now that you’re an adult, you can no longer hang on to the stories of your past. And frankly, if you want to change the emotions you have now, it’s essential to change your belief about the events of your past. Here’s how:
1. Observe Your Past – Think about an event in your life that has you emotionally charged. What gets you all riled up inside emotionally? Now, see that event just as it is – an event or circumstance. For a moment, distance yourself from being part of the event, and simply see the situation as if you’re watching a movie.
2. Know Your Emotions – Notice the emotions that well up in you as you think about that event or circustance you’re watching. Is it anger, sadness, fear, or rage? Are you emotionally charged when you think about how you were wronged, what someone did to you, how people behaved around you, or how you were mistreated?
3. Change The Scene – Obviously, you know the event or situation you’re now watching is in the past, but if it’s an emotionally difficult time, it feels like it’s happening right now, right? So, as you step back, continue to simply watch your “movie” and notice how you feel, change the scene. Imagine that you’re the director of this play, and you have the ability to develop the characters of your play differently than you’re now imagining. Create a new image in your mind of the situation playing out in front of you.
4. Create New Emotional Memory – By changing the scene of your movie (essentially changing your past event in your mind), you have 100% control over how you feel. You will begin to create a new emotional attachment to your history.
You see, your perceptions ARE your reality. For example, instead of thinking “I’m an adult child of an alcoholic”, how about the new thought, “I’m an adult child of a loving, caring Mother?” Yes, she may have in fact be an alcoholic mother, but wasn’t she other things as well? And, doesn’t it give you a different feeling to dwell on those things?
I haven’t known anyone better to rewrite perception of history than Dave Pelzer, author of “Child Called It.” He writes about overcoming severe mental, physical and neglectful abuse at the hands of his mentally disturbed, alcoholic mother. For mere survival, he created a different perception of his circumstances.
Remember, it’s not EVENTS that create such a strong emotion. It’s your PERCEPTION OF THE EVENT. You can create from the events of your past whatever you’d like to create, hence creating a new emotion.