Memory: Blessing or Curse?

I thought about this recently, after a particularly busy day of sessions of clients in my practice. Is having memory a blessing, or a curse?

I was moved by stories of clients who are abuse survivors, with their ability to recall the traumatically abusive incidents that happened to them in detail from various self-indulgent and sick individuals who couldn’t contain their emotionally and physically violent impulses and perpetrated terrible interpersonal crimes. Such minute details – about exactly what was said, what was seen, heard, felt – physically and emotionally – and of course the aftermath of denial, disbelief, dismissiveness, obfuscation, deflecting – making it all even worse. Memory, in those instances, was a cruel tyrant, not letting them forget things that are a re-injury every time they are recalled.

But many years ago, early in my career, I worked at a psychiatric hospital that had a senior citizen patient program. There is nothing quite like being with a group of people with life-long mental illness, including personality disorders, combined with the effects of aging. An old, entitled Narcissist is something to see. But I developed compassion for these patients, who had had to endure the loss of so much – first, their mental health, but over time, their loved ones, their careers, and their sense of familiarity with the ever-changing world. One of their few solaces was memory – which was consistently intact among the group of them – all too ready to reminisce about happier, healthier times, and putting their own personal spin on historical times and events that they were there to see, and I only experienced through history books. Memory, in those instances, was a benevolent friend, who gave them a smooth-paved road to emotional comfort and joy, at least for as long as a moment of reverie might last.

In mental health, there is so much duality. Memory can be a tyrant, or a friend. Our same energetic impulses that can get us in trouble if we don’t manage anger, are the same angry impulses that can set limits and protect us from being abused or exploited by others when we defend ourselves – interpersonally, or politically. Our healthy passions that give us a good appetite and a strong libido, taken to their extremes, can lead to obesity and sexual addiction. Our impulses to act that keep us from languishing and not accomplishing anything, can lead to foolhardiness and impulsivity on their opposite. What are we left with?

We’re left with the responsibility that we must harness our own self-empowerment (my favorite word in mental health) to regulate our memory, our emotions, our impulses, our drives. We have to summon up the things we need to get by in life – our internal resources of courage, resolve, focus, determination, action, patience, and discretion — but we must know how to dial back so that we don’t pay the price of excess. Too much courage, we bully others. Too little, we are victims. Too much action, we exhaust ourselves. Too little, and we languish in the status quo. Too much patience, we lose opportunity. Too little, we lose opportunity as well. Too little discretion, we waste our resources. Too much, and we never get anything done or have any fun outside of our comfort zone.

Think about what balance means for you. What would you like to try to forget, to reduce Memory being a tyrant? What would you like to be sure to recall – often – that helps you to stay inspired, motivated, and positive in your outlook?

What impulses and actions of yours are dormant, and need a little boosting and waking up so that you can harness and apply their energies more effectively?

What impulses and actions of yours are wily and untamed, and need a little “grooming” so that you don’t feel like they’re getting away from you, and making you pay a price you don’t want to pay anymore?

Asking ourselves how we can use our internal and emotional resources better, more efficiently, and more effectively, can help us to reach the goals we set for ourselves, increase our sense of peace-of-mind, and our self-empowerment – to have the life we want.

(My new book, “Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!” is available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple iBook via Smashwords, and soon in hardcover at LuLu.com. My podcast, “Have the Life You Want with Ken Howard, LCSW”, is enjoyed in over 30 countries of the world and is available on iTunes, Zune, and Podcast Alley).

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