Looking into the human inability to forget painful memories and suggesting two coping methods from the author’s personal experience.
It’s a great day to be chilling with your friends, bonding over coffee. Life could not get any better until you see your arch-nemesis walking into the café. And just like that, a black cloud hangs over your head. It has been 18 years, but all the pain of that enmity comes back as if it were yesterday. This ghost from your past has ruined your day by bringing back all those bad memories.
How often does an incident from the past trigger a similar reaction in you? Even with a selective memory, why is it so hard to forget the painful incidences? How is it that one small trigger can bring it all back? And why are many of us just like the ‘elephant that never forgets’?
For a long time, we assumed that the saying made popular in Max Fleischer’s classic: “But an elephant never forgets” was simply a popular myth. It’s used when referring to people with strong memories. But most myths have a human truth at their heart and science has proven this. Research done on African elephants in the wild has proven that they have incredible memories and just like humans*. Elephants are emotional beings that ‘hold grudges against those who’ve hurt them’ **. Hence, this saying is also commonly used when referring to people who do not forget painful memories.
I personally do not wish to be part of the latter category, the elephant that never forgets painful memories, because they are emotionally draining. They hinder one from moving on as the ‘evoked’ emotions affect the present.
So what can one do to be less like the elephant that never forgets?
After reading up on many social studies that offer tips to forget hurtful past incidents, I have come to understand the importance of acknowledging the ‘evoked’ emotions and the triggers behind them. Acknowledgment works like an antidote that will help in being aware of the exact details of a painful past incident instead of having a stunted view of it. And being aware gives the painful past incident less power over us. Being this clear requires courage from some people but this honesty proves to be helpful in the process of forgetting painful memories. An example of such an acknowledgment: “I am aware that I am feeling _________ because of ________.”
The more I read, the more tips I found that help in getting over painful memories, to name a few: the journey of forgiveness, practicing mindfulness, memory replacement and learning to be in the moment.
If you ask me what else worked for me, I would have to say “memory replacement”. You see, I found that linking the triggers to locations and creating ‘happier’ memories instead helped diminish evoking painful memories. For example, in 2008, an unfortunate robbery incident ruined my Paris vacation. Every time I thought of Paris after that, the scary memories would come back and I would feel angry. However, in 2012, I decided to travel back to Paris with friends and have the best time with a carefully planned itinerary in the same locations as the ones I visited in 2008. The plan was a success and now, every time I think of Paris, all I remember are the great times as if the 2008 unfortunate incidents never took place.
In conclusion, I am glad that acknowledgment and “memory replacement” has helped me get over some painful and scary memories and be less like the elephant that never forgets. I hope it also works out for you dear reader.