Updated: Dec 20, 2021
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hey! Relax. Take a deep breath."—Dory, the fish.
I don't remember my really early childhood. If I close my eyes, scrunch up my face and concentrate really hard, I can conjure up a whole lotta nothin'. My earliest memory is that I am about 10 years old, and my sister calls me inside. I'm one of those kids who came in when the streetlights came on, and until then, I don't think much attention was paid. On this particular day, I recall my sister yelling my name, and when I saw her, I was jolted by the fact that she was crying. She NEVER cried. My grandmother had just died. That's it, my first memory. I recognize this is telling, and trust me, I have done lots of work around it since then because it bothered me tremendously for several years that I didn't remember stuff.
I felt somehow inadequate, broken like I was doing something wrong because I couldn't come up with some good or bad memory to fill in the gaps. I had some stories, but they belonged to others, not me. It was as if they were about a movie, not my own life.
Is Memory an Advantage?
Do you know some people can remember everything about their lives: the food they ate, outfits they wore, conversations they had, and places they visited in explicit detail. Marilu Henner, one of the stars of the 70's sitcom Taxi, has this "gift" called hyperthymesia. Is this really an advantage?
Memory is made up of 3 essential functions: encoding, storage & retrieval. For you to get the most benefit, each of the functions needs to be working, and you need to understand how.
Much of the system works automatically, so it is only by being conscious of the operation that you gain an advantage. This is no different from some of our other systems. You and I think thoughts and feel emotions automatically, for instance. But not every thought or emotion is accurate or in our best interest.
Only by having a conscious awareness of our thoughts and feelings can we stay in our power.
The First Function: Encoding
You see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or sense something energetically and get triggered in some way to pay attention and are now being bombarded with billions of bits of information.
There is so much data getting input to your brain that there has to be an automatic response to organize it immediately for further categorization later.
You label things as necessary for now, like figuring out what these words are on the page you are reading or directions to an appointment. You might not remember these forever unless they become meaningful to you. Maybe something on the page triggers a deep emotion, or the appointment is where you get some amazingly good or bad news in which case the data will get a more significant label when you attach meaning.
In cases where you require it for now it is classified as short term, otherwise, it becomes long term.
The Second Function: Storage
Once something has been processed and labelled short-term or long-term, it gets filed away in your memory banks for storage. Actual short term memory storage is indeed short term, lasting only 15-30 seconds.
Yes, you read that right. Everything else is long term memory, and it is essentially either episodic and related to events or implicit and related to procedures you don't even know you are remembering.
Driving is dependant on implicit memory as you recall all of the minute step by step instructions you learned in your driver's ed classes every time you open the door of the vehicle: adjust your mirrors, adjust your seat, put on your safety belt, etc.
Third Function: Retrieval
You retrieve information in one of 4 ways:
When you recall something, it just pops into your head. You don't need to be prompted or given any cues.
As you recollect something, you remember bits and pieces on your own, and then other data, such as someone else's story, will fill in the blanks for you.
You might be prompted to remember an experience when you re-enter the familiar setting or see a familiar face. You are re-experiencing.
You previously learned something and now can relearn it more easily. You may have grown up speaking a language, and it "comes back to you" when you travel that country.
Is Memory Always Accurate?
Let's recap. The first function of memory is to process the data coming in based on your perceptions, and the second function is to store it as long term based on how meaningful you made it, and the third function is to retrieve it where you will potentially fill in the blanks with other people's stories.
Memory, like all thought, is about perception. It is about the stories we told ourselves at the time and the ones we have told ourselves every time we have re-ignited the memory. It is about the story we are continuing to say to ourselves now. It is also about who we believed ourselves to be when the memory occurred, who we thought the others in the memory were, and who we thought they saw us as.
Memory is not a fact. Studies consistently show that our memories are not reliable, and just as Ebbinghaus revealed in the famous "forgetting curve" "people are unable to retrieve roughly 50% of information one hour after encoding."
How Can Memory Be Useful?
Stop worrying about trying to get it right. Instead, approach memory as an opportunity for self-reflection.
Consider looking back at your past and who you were then versus who you are now but not to beat up on her, scorn, shame, or blame her. Just to see her. The purpose of memory is not to step back into the experience and re-live it all over again.
Stay out of the emotion of it. Stay objective. I normally encourage my clients to feel what they need to feel, heal, release and move forward. But, right now, stay out of the emotion. Right now, you are a detective and looking for a lesson that you can bring forward.
If you start to get triggered, rise above it. Take a deep breath in, close your eyes, and see yourself drifting up and rising to about a foot above the crown of your head. Rest there as you breathe in and out. Watch from there the person you were then, see the resources she had, the beliefs she had about herself, the support she had, and the decisions she made. Is there anywhere or any way that things could have gone differently? Yes or no. Stay objective.
Look at you now. You are not that person anymore.
You are bigger, smarter, have different circumstances and resources. Are there ways that things could go differently now? How would you handle the same event now? Stay objective. How have your beliefs about yourself changed? Could they change? You are not the same person as you were. Are you living in the same way? Do you want to be?
It can be challenging to do this work on your own. Find a friend, therapist or coach that you trust to walk with you through the process.
Use Memory to Live in Accordance with Your Values
You don't have to wait 10, 20, or 30 years before working through memories. When you approach memory as a tool for growth, learning and creating your beautiful life, use it as a part of a daily routine. Make self-reflection an evening practice where you review whether or not you:
Behaved in accordance with your values
Took time to do joyful things
Felt the way you wanted to feel
Shared time with people you wanted to
Took actions that moved you towards your goals
Gave in ways you are proud of
Ultimately, memory acts not as a window to your past, but as a tool now to shape your authentic self.
If you are ready to live authentically then the very first step is to find a coach that you trust and that is a good fit. Click this link for a FREE 30-minute consultation and let's explore the possibilities together.