How to change painful memories

Estimated reading time: 3 mins

You can’t (easily) remove painful memories. Instead, you can change them to be not painful any more, and here is how to do it.

You will find loads of advice online that will tell you ‘how to remove painful memories’ (google it) but these don’t work. Unless you undergo major surgery or treatment, memories don’t disappear. But they do change. Every time you remember something, you actually change it. Hitting the ‘play button’ on a memory is like watching an ever-changing movie over and over again. We pick out the interesting bits (but not necessarily pleasant bits), and fast-forward past the ‘dull’ bits. Each recall reinforces the interesting bits, amplifying their impact and importance.

To the point where our memories are quite different from what actually happened.

So get this: it is possible to change memories and the emotions they provoke.

Like many people, I had painful memories from childhood. The kind of memories that would come back and haunt me and cause me to become melancholy, regretful and sad. I was regretting things I had done as a child. Beating myself up.

I tried to forget them but they wouldn’t go – some became worse as I grew older. This carried on right into adulthood. At a particularly traumatic time in my life, constant recall of these memories were a daily slap in an already heavily slapped face.

My solution was to undergo counselling. I found a wonderful counsellor who helped me look back at those memories and see the situation from an outsiders perspective, and to re-imagine them. To cut to the chase, I saw the painful memories in a very different way, and the amazing thing that happened instantly is that the pain dissolved away. And I mean within seconds. It was that effective, and dramatic.

I can replay those memories – as I am doing right now whilst writing this – and there is no pain. None whatsoever. In some cases, I smile because there are people in the memories who have passed away since.

I am not advocating counselling in this post per se – it might not work for you as it did for me, or have the same immediate impact. Instead, I am sharing my experience – that re-imagining memories change them for good, and for the better. It could do the same for you.

I want to challenge you. You don’t have to believe that this works. Belief in its effectiveness is not necessary for it to work. Skepticism is cool with me. I’ve helped many people through painful memories who didn’t believe they could be resolved, and I have had a 100% success rate.

So find somewhere quiet and private, and prepare to remember a painful memory, but this time, do these things:

  • picture yourself in the memory through the eyes of a passive bystander; see yourself for who you were, the age you were
  • brighten the light – reduce the physical darkness of the mental image
  • cast your minds eye to see many more of the things around you in a much wider area than you normally would do in your memory. What’s around you? Above you? Behind you? Who else is there? Is there a person, or pet you had forgotten?
  • and now the important bit: minimize (or even filter out) the cause of the pain by not looking directly at him, her or it, and instead identify the aspects of the situation that are pleasant to you; focus on these – see them, touch them, experience them; physically engage in the positive aspects of the memory

I am a child of the 70s and 80s. In my re-imagined memories, I see the great toys we had back then; the ridiculous but humorous clothing; candy that you can’t find any more; I can hear great music from the era. The person who caused me pain is instead diminished and ‘greyed out’. I have no doubt overemphasised many aspects of these memories – turning up the contrast of the pleasant features and turned the color off the aspects that caused me pain.

My re-imagined memories are not true memories any more.

I don’t care, because my previously painful versions were not true memories either.

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