Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Click here for part two

Dear Neil: Do you know what it means when someone has recurring—almost haunting—memories? There are a variety of mistakes I’ve made in my life, or faux pas, or decisions I’ve made that were either costly or embarrassing. Almost all of these embarrassments are in the past, but they keep coming back to me in my memory, and therefore I keep reliving events, missteps or slip-ups that I’d rather not think about any longer. It’s as if my mind won’t let me forget my mistakes. But why? Is there anything I can do about this, or am I doomed to wallow in my misjudgments or blunders until I die?

Trying to Overcome in California

Dear Trying to Overcome: We continue to recall painful memories in order hold ourselves accountable for doing better if we were to encounter the same situation again. If we don’t grasp what the memory is trying to teach us, however, or we don’t understand what we are supposed to learn or do differently, we can wind up stuck in negative, helpless or embarrassed feelings over and over again.

“If you are someone who is very concerned about your relationships and making connections with other people, you are likely to have more emotional memories about relationships and intimacy,” says Jefferson A. Singer in his book Memories That Matter (New Harbinger Publications). He continues: “If you are someone concerned with achievement and getting ahead, your memories are more likely to contain emotional scenes filled with images of success and power. If you are someone concerned with making the world a better place and contributing to society, your memories are more likely to contain themes of helping others and social justice. And the more dominant any of these motives or goals are in your life, the more these memories will matter to you. Of course, emotion about these memories works both ways. If you are an achievement-driven person, then a memory about a previous failure will continue to generate great sadness and disappointment in you.”

Singer calls these “self-defining memories.” They are defined as those memories that keep their emotional power because they are linked to goals and desires that are still very important to us. They help you to define how you see yourself and who the real you is. You can distinguish them from other memories because self-defining memories are related to our most important goals and our most central aspirations.

If you’d like to understand what these memories mean, and how you might be able to learn and grow from them, Singer recommends the following exercise: Write down ten different self-defining memories that are at least one year old and that still evoke strong feelings in you today. Use the following list to identify what you feel about each of your ten memories, and rank them from 0 (Not at All) to 6 (Extremely):

Memory # M1 M2 M3 M4 M5 M6 M7 M8 M9 M10
Happy
Sad
Angry
Fearful
Surprised
Ashamed
Disgusted
Guilty
Interested
Embarrassed
Contemptful
Proud

Now look over your memories and the emotions associated with them. Do you see any recurring patterns that could constitute a life script or an unresolved issue in your life? Are your memories generally more positive or negative? Are they filled with anger and guilt, pride and embarrassment? Are your memories more about success, failure, relationships or family? Do you see themes of overcoming adversity, rising to the occasion, bouncing back or learning from a mistake or a disappointment?

I will continue this exercise in next week’s column.

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