The past is past – when do memories become harmful

Think back, for a moment, on a memory that still stirs up sadness, grief or anger within you. For a moment, revisit the memory, and notice the emotions that you feel.

Consider how the event is in the past, but the emotions and feelings that you are experiencing are in the present moment!

They are not past emotions. They are affecting you right now.

So, when we hold onto a memory, we don’t simply hold onto how the experience affected us then, but we also hold onto how that memory interacts with us in the present moment. We interpret situations, and react to them, not only in light to what is happening in the “now”, but potentially also how that relates to a past memory.

Because of this, our perception of the present may be affected. In fact, even if memories are factually incorrect, they may predicate health issues or even depression or anxiety. The more we dwell on a memory – our interpretation of how things happened and the effect on us, we rehearse and replay it in our mind, and we build stronger neural pathways and connections.

Imagine this like a pathway through the forest – the more often that someone walks along it, the deeper the rut and the groove. The grass does not have the chance to grow back, and eventually there is a path through the woods that anyone can follow easily.

Each time you revisit and dwell on a memory or scenario in your head, you are building this path.

Nonetheless, in the very same way, should you abandon the path, the grass will grow back, and it will be covered over and forgotten. It will no longer be the first thing that comes to mind or a trigger in a given situation. Like all pathways, our neural networks can be rewritten.

They say “time is a healer” – I don’t think it’s time that does the healing!

How are memories harmful?

The greatest harm that memories do is blocking our ability to enjoy and grow in the present. For some, this may show up almost as a paralysis – unable to function in the present, because they are dwelling on problems or memories of the past.

It may be something as simple as increased distress from overthinking. But this can be a hard cycle to break, because it has become a habit. That path through the woods that is regularly followed. And now it’s hard to forge a new path in a different direction through the forest, when you don’t have a path to follow. The easy path calls you to come this way.

But ruminating can be an ineffective coping behavior, the same way that reliving the past will not bring you a different outcome, no matter how many times you play it over in your head! Rehashing it changes nothing.

Many of us are busy punishing ourselves the whole time – a form of torture.

And while we live this way, we allow the past to define the present and the future.

Coaching versus therapy

In coaching, we focus with our clients on the present moment, rather than on the past. So, if you are stuck on a past memory, and it is affecting your present, then a coach will work with you on learning a new way in the present to build new habits.

Principally, because the purpose of coaching is to help the client get from where they are to where they want to be. And you probably don’t want to be living in the past right now.

Even if you consider a sports coach, the focus is on taking the player from their current level of fitness or expertise to the next. There is an acceptance of the past, and everything that made that player what they are today – but the whole purpose of coaching is to build on the past and present, into the future.

So, as a coach, we are not looking at or diagnosing symptoms, but rather looking to empower the client to solve their own problems and challenges. There might be moments when it is appropriate, as a coach, to refer a client to therapy where the past is taking its toll on the present. At other times, it’s enough to to focus on the actions and decisions that the client is taking now, acknowledging emotions that are coming up in the present, and focus on growing through this. The client may choose to focus on the inner work, but ultimately it depends on the client where they are at on their life journey.

For me personally, I did a lot of therapy before I went on to getting coaching. I realised that I had spent a lot of time doing the inner work on healing the past, and that what I needed to focus on was my present growth and building my future. But I also know that I had a firm foundation in the therapy that I did previously, before I jumped into coaching.

What kind of coaching helps build new habits?

Those who know me, know that I love MBraining! To my mind, it brings together the best of ancient wisdom and neuroscience, build on the fundamentals of NLP.

But, if you don’t have access to an mBIT Coach, there are other modalities of coaching which are also amazing for building new habits. For example, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is a great therapy and coaching modality, used to asses and make sense of what is happening now. With CBT you can see how the past is influencing the present, how your thoughts and feelings influence behavior.

Quite often, CBT is used to address specific behavioral challenges (caused by thought processes), and as you learn to control how you interpret and think about your situation and circumstances, you make new choices. You choose a new response. In doing so, you write a new neural pathway, a new path through the woods.

Whatever coaching modality you choose, coaching can assist in challenging your beliefs, your self-worth and in solving problems. The goal of these coaching modalities is to produce new thoughts, leading to feeling different emotions when faced with a repeating situation and thus adopt a new behavior.

They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.

If you are facing a memory, replaying it and rehashing it over and over in your mind – why do you expect a different result than the one you have had regularly until now?

Choosing a new response

If you choose to reconsolidate your memories – you may look at a memory with fresh eyes, from a new perspective. This might include looking carefully at the context of the event, the people, and yourself. Perhaps you will choose to look at it with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, with empathy and understanding. But the moment that you look with a fresh perspective – you change the emotions that you attach to the memory and event.

If you have a habit of dwelling on the past, perhaps you will choose to recognize this. Adopt an awareness of the situations and circumstances in which you start to do this. Notice what it is that you are rehashing and why you continue to replay this memory again. Simply becoming aware of what you are doing will change the experience.

Notice what you focus on – the problem? Or a solution? What are you looking for each time you focus on a painful memory? What do you hope to achieve? And how can you bring that healing into the present moment and experience?

Finally, learn to practice mindfulness. Acknowledge those emotions and feelings. Not as feelings associated with the past, but rather emotions that you are feeling now, in this moment. Don’t dismiss the emotions as being “wrong” and resisting them. Simply become aware of them, and sit with them.

What would you like to change about how you experience your memories?