The memories we all carry are critically important in determining our emotional wellness. Emotionally impactful memories – both positive and negative – are the ones most likely to be retained long term, and the most important. This importance can be summed up as:
Much of who we are is dictated by the sum of our memories;
Those memories shape us in terms of personality and worldview, to what we aspire, and how we think of and relate to others.
It follows then that emotionally negative memories can shape a frightened, distrustful, cynical worldview and relationships with others. Likewise, positive memories have the power to influence the opposite. And while we cannot forget the negative we can take charge of creating offsetting, positive memories.
Making Positive Memories
Consciously maintaining healthy perspective is one of the most valuable skills emotionally healthy people practice. Another is actively seeking experiences that create positive memories to offset the negative in order to create balance.
Negative emotional memories form naturally and without being sought out; traumatic events, poor treatment by or conflict with others, and run-of-the-mill frustrations in our personal and professional lives are inevitable and lead to negative emotional memories. To offset them we have to be deliberate in seeking out positive emotional memories, being mindful of our present in order not to lose the experiences we have, and practice reframing the meaning and impact of negative experiences. Let’s look at each of these three things in detail:
- Create Positive Emotional Memories
Our memories of negative events are easily made and tend to stick around, so much so we begin to isolate, expect the worst, and obsess over all that is wrong to the exclusion of even looking for that which is good. It is critical to break this self-destructive habit. Instead, seek out experiences that are fun, unique, and novel.
Maximize your time with friends and family, travel, take up new hobbies and dust off old ones. Volunteer, coach kids, or moonlight in a job different from your primary with interesting people you wouldn’t normally meet or work with. Take a class or even work toward a degree or certification, or maybe teach something yourself if you have skills or knowledge others would want to learn.
The point is to go out and create positive emotional memories rather than wait for them to find you.
- Be Mindful of Your Present
Mindfulness is “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis” (Merriam-Webster). Though commonly associated with yoga and meditation, you need not be an experienced yogi or limit it to dedicated meditation time.
By practicing mindfulness you learn to lose the noise of what has happened (and how it affected you) and what will happen (and the distraction that carries) and focus on the present, appreciating the moment you are in. And, true, sometimes that moment sucks, but sometimes it is awesome. The problem with constantly focusing on the regrets and frustration of the past and worries about the future is we miss the great, funny, fascinating, and heartening things occurring right now.
- Reframe Meaning and Impact of Negative Experiences
Finding silver linings is a challenging skill to learn, but mastery of it is its own reward. That is not to say you should wallow in a bad situation or accept the unacceptable if you have power to change it, but learning to seek meaning or lessons is a gift you can give yourself.
We all have the power to take responsibility for managing the memories we make and how we allow them to impact us.