How to Change the Way You Process Negative Memories


The way we think of past events in our lives is very flexible and subject to change.

Whenever we look back at our life story, it can change based on our perspective and what information about our lives we choose to pay attention to and find important.

We can take this flexible nature of our minds and use it to process negative memories in different ways that benefit us instead of holding us back.

Memories are flexible

Memories are never as picture perfect as we think they are. In fact, every time we recall an event it changes from the last time we remembered it.

A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience illustrates this phenomenon quite well. First researchers gave participants 2 hours to learn the positions of 180 objects on a computer grid. The following day, participants were presented with the same objects at a central location, and were then asked to move them to their original location. On the third and final day, they repeated the same recall test as before.

Interestingly, researchers found that on the third day, participants placed the object closer to the incorrect location they chose on the second day rather than the correct location.

This shows that our past retrieval of memories can influence how we think of memories in the future. We don’t remember the details of the actual event so much as we remember our most recent memory of that event.

As lead research Donna Bridge from Northwestern University says:

    “Memories aren’t static. If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”

She goes on to compare our memories to the “telephone game” many of us have played as kids. In the game, someone whispers a message into someone’s ear, and then the next person whispers it to another person, until it reaches the last person who says the message out loud to the whole group.

Usually this results in a lot of laughs, because by the time the message has reached the last person it has radically changed from what was originally said.

Our minds work in a similar way. Every time we think about a memory it changes a bit, until over time it may become something completely different.

How we can change memories to make them more positive

So now that we know our memories are flexible and subject to change, how can we use this to change negative memories into something more positive?

Before we get started, I should make it clear that the goal of changing our memories isn’t to change the facts behind them. I don’t want you to pretend you got an A+ in Calculus if you really got an F. Instead, the point is to change how you interpret those facts and how you think and feel about the event.

So even if we’ve always remembered an event as being terrible and painful, it is never too late to change our perception to something healthy and constructive. Here are ways we can change how we think about negative memories:

  • Think about the negative event while in a really positive mood. This can make the memory seem less important and less influential over your life.
  • Discuss the negative event with a supportive friend. They can often give you a new perspective to your experience that you had not considered.
  • Try to find something to laugh about in the negative event. Adding a layer of humor is a great way to change the meaning of a particular memory.
  • Go to a new environment to think about the event, like at a beach or park. Giving yourself a comfortable space to reflect on the event can help bring closure and perspective.
  • Create a piece of art or music about the event. This is a very effective way to change how your mind thinks of the event. It’s also a great way to transform something “negative” into something “positive” and creative.
  • Zoom out and see the “bigger picture” behind the event. Remember that your life is filled with many different experiences, and no one single experience can define your life.
  • Move on. Don’t continue to ruminate about the event and beat yourself up over it. That will only make the event seem more and more negative.
  • Write about the event and affirm what you learned from it and why it made you a better person.

These can all be effective techniques to change the way you process negative memories. Try some of them out for yourself and see which ones work best for you.

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