Life is made up of moments and memories. Some moments and memories are so special that all it takes is a small sensory cue to take one to a different timeline of one’s life. This is often captured by the expression ‘Madeleine de Proust’ one of the key passages in Marcel Proust book ‘In search of lost time’ when a particular sight, smell, food, a song, or an experience unexpectedly unlocks a past recollection.
For instance, the smell of jasmine flowers reminds me of my grandmother and how fondly she used to place them near her pillow. It’s not uncommon when a simple song triggers a plethora of past memories. No wonder when sometimes I miss my mother near me, I try to do or make something exactly the way she does to intentionally create a madeleine moment and then soak myself in the nostalgia and priceless feelings associated with childhood memories. The reverse is also true. There are events or moments of life thinking about which can make one feel awful.
It could be related to anything in the past like the unexpected loss of a loved one, changing dynamics of cherished relationships, emotionally taxing incidents or the struggles in the present moment that instantly makes one negative. Sometimes when a negative situation stays for too long, it can leave one overwhelmed in a way that the person seems to be addicted to negativity or develops a habit of ruminating. For instance, acting as a caregiver where hopes are not high, clinging to a toxic relationship or sticking with the wrong job because of one’s helpless condition perceived or real. Rumination is continuously getting lost in a thought loop where you eventually end up thinking about that same negative or sad thought or experience.
Why is it that we end up remembering what we want to forget? Perhaps negative emotions can sometimes be so strong that even when an individual has made a conscious thought to not pay heed to it, it keeps coming back. One of the reasons people ruminate is owing to the belief that by ruminating they will probably get an insight into their life or problem. However, it doesn’t work out because in a state of ruminating the person is focused more on the problems and consequences instead of solutions.
The person may perceive it as natural coping mechanism to adapt with the pain, but one has to ponder whether it’s helping one solve a problem or just trapping back in an unhealthy thought cycle. Dwelling on negative thoughts and engaging in self-blame has been associated with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Research by Peter Kinderman professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool found that people who didn’t ruminate or blame themselves for their difficulties had much lower levels of depression and anxiety, even if they had experienced many negative events in their lives.
Also read: Coping with Grief and What-ifs
The question is how to intentionally forget things that only serve to disturb us. Can we exercise influence on our memory? Perhaps the easiest way to forget something is not revisiting it in your mind. There are many theories related to the process of motivated forgetting that suggest that people forget things because they either do not want to remember them or for another particular reason. According to Freud, memories that are likely to induce guilt, embarrassment, shame or anxiety are actively, but unconsciously, pushed out of consciousness as a form of ego defence. Unconscious or repressed memories are exceedingly difficult to retrieve but remain available.
People may resort to ‘repression’ in which they subconsciously push unpleasant thoughts and feelings into their unconscious as an automatic defensive mechanism. Thought ‘suppression’ is also a type of motivated forgetting when an individual consciously attempts to stop thinking about a particular thought. Memories are also forgotten through distortion as per Gestalt theory of forgetting. This is also called false memory syndrome in which a person’s identity and relationships are affected by false memories, recollections that are factually incorrect but yet are strongly believed.
Rehearsing negative memories by ruminating over them only serve to strengthen them, so it’s important to forget certain things to live life peacefully. Apparently, we may never forget things completely but when we stop thinking about them, it often fades away as we remember fewer facts.
If rumination is affecting your personal growth, stop and take notice of the circumstances and triggers that lead you to ruminate. Eliminating the trigger may not be possible always but by practicing mindfulness one can consciously try to respond with an element of awareness breaking the cycle of negative thoughts. This may require consistent practice and conscious efforts but it’s important to check yourself lest negativity pulls you into a trap again. Finding a distraction like going for a walk, playing a game, calling a friend, watching a movie or getting engaged in any activity that breaks the chain can also be helpful. If constant rumination is disabling you and you are unable to focus your attention on other important things of life, seeking therapy can be beneficial. Otherwise meditating can also reduce rumination because it helps in de-cluttering the mind to arrive at an emotionally calm state.
Life is fleeting and made up of a collection of moments. Clinging on to negative experiences will only make us miss out on the beauty of ‘now’. Next time if your answer to this question ‘Do you remember what you want to forget?’ carries away your mind to unpleasant memories and events, change the question itself. Ask yourself – ‘Do you forget what you want to remember?’ Answering it will not only break the thought cycle and distract your mind but transport you to all the beautiful memories and the blessings in the present moment that perhaps money can’t buy but fills the heart with gratitude.
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