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Our Powerful Past: How Memory Shapes Meaning

shutterstock_235483669Here is an example of how to use an apparently “irrelevant” memory to shed light on problems in the present.

Edgar is a survivor. He is proud of his survival skills. He sees life as a disaster waiting to happen. Edgar has survived two marriages, a grim childhood with an alcoholic father and a joyless mother, the death of a sibling and the loss of six jobs. He cannot see what is wrong with such surviving. When his wife tries to make him happy, he “pushed her away,” metaphorically speaking. Survivors have no time for happiness. It is a distraction from the grim, full-time task of staying alive. Happiness and prosperity are luxuries that he cannot afford. On this basis, his behavior in the present seems perfectly logical.

We cannot argue with his logic. We can use Edgar’s early recollections to learn how and why he acquired his attitude that life is dangerous and threatening.

Edgar: “I was sitting on the handlebars of my cousin’s bike. We hit a bump, my foot caught in the spokes. We fell off onto the street. My leg was in a cast for three months. Mother had told me not to ride on his bicycle, I was too little.”

In this memory, Edgar recalls an instance in which survival is an issue and he comes out on top. He had very little power as a child, but he demonstrated to himself over and over that he had the power to survive pain and danger. That is very impressive to a growing child. He never forgot this self-enhancing quality that he had; he built it into his evolving personality.

This approach is not static and unchangeable, it is dynamic. Mistaken perceptions can be identified, revealed and replaced with more appropriate ones.

I do not see the individual as an out-of-control, passive victim of these negative circumstances. He made certain life choices then, he can learn to make new choices now at an adult.

It was not his “fault” that he came to these conclusions. He is not “bad,” or “stupid,” he just feels inferior, “not good enough.” As a child, he felt vulnerable to the scary dangers of life. His survivor role is his way of relieving the pain of his vulnerability.

This approach explains why two individuals can have widely differing reactions to the same event in their past, and why their responses in the present will be totally different as well. Their perception of the event will be intensely personal, as will the conclusions that they will draw from it.

This approach explains why the cold, hard logic of the physical sciences cannot be applied to the absurdities of the human condition. These curious absurd strivings come from the fact we are human. To be human means you are imperfect, which is an admission that you make mistakes. This absurd state leaves us emotionally conflicted. So the feelings we have about our absurdities are kept below our conscious awareness.

This approach is not medical because the patients’ problems are not medical, they are educational. We are formally trained in logical, rational thinking. We all take courses in math and science that prepare us for a world of cause and effect. We are not formally educated in feelings. We learn about emotions from role models, be it our parents, siblings, friends lovers, In counseling, patients undergoes a process of emotional re-education. They are not passive observers, nor is the practitioner passively waiting for the client to dream up his own “unique” solution to the problem. Both are actively cooperating in the process of identifying the mistaken attitudes and effecting their replacement with more appropriate ones.

 Very often, the patient will provide the solution to the problem without even realizing the potential benefit of what he has just said. It is the practitioner’s task to identify these opportunities for change as they come from the patient’s own mouth, and structure a therapeutic situation for him.

Bicycle accident image available from Shutterstock.

Our Powerful Past: How Memory Shapes Meaning

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2014). Our Powerful Past: How Memory Shapes Meaning. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Dec 2014
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