Why can’t we forget the painful past?


By David Joel Miller.

Are there some things you just can’t get over?

Why is it so hard to forget the pain of the past and so hard to remember times when things go well? Your brain is hard at work here, reminding you of your mistakes, not letting you get over the past. Why can’t we forget?

It is as if the brain stores memories in two different ways. Pleasant experiences, our successes in life get filed in boxes somewhere in the back of the brain. They take work to find. Not so with the pain.

Pain is grooved into the brain, great deep gashes in our consciousness. That one argument, that one mistake and your mind just won’t let you forget. The unhappiness just doesn’t want to let you go.

There are good reasons for the brain to store memories that way. By emphasizing pain, keeping it close to the surface where it can be easily found again, your brain is trying to protect you from making the same mistake again. We should learn from our mistakes. Learn from what happened but not be controlled by the past.

This also means that if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol you may not remember the pain, your brain was anesthetized.  

Say you eat a hot-fudge-sundae. You will probably eat a number of those or some similar treat, in your lifetime. Think back on the times you ate one. Can you remember which one was better? How did the tenth one taste? The eleventh?  Pleasure is stored in the brain in a general way.

Unfortunately most of us store our successes the same way. We can’t seem to remember anything positive about our lives. It takes work to find that happy life events file.

What if something bad happens? Say you are driving along the freeway that takes you to work. You have driven this way every day for years. Can’t remember which day was sunny and when was that day you saw the deer up on the hill as you drove by. But one day there is an accident, you see people hurt, maybe killed. Will you forget that day? Not likely.  

Painful memories are stored in extra easy to find files. Sometimes they aren’t filed away at all. They lay there open. You see that accident over and over in your mind. Some small details you may never be able to forget even when you try.

Your mind may remind you of that one day and the crash so much the memories intrude on your sleep. Some people will become so fearful that they will no longer take that freeway. They may decide to avoid freeways all together. They may only use surface streets. Some people give up driving all together. These extreme reactions to trauma take on a life of their own. If the fear and efforts to avoid things that remind you of the event last a long time this may become posttraumatic stress disorder.

If you were in a war zone, were abuse or neglected as a child this makes sense. Treatment for PTSD is available but it is not a one size fits all treatment. Some people need to talk it out, some people get worse when forced to talk about horrific experiences. This calls for professional help.  

But if this constant negative thought is the result of your focusing only on the pain and forgetting the positive then there are many things you can do about it.

In marriages we believe that the couple needs seven or more positive experiences for every negative one. The brain has trouble remembering the good times. For children we tell parents to “catch your child doing something right” you won’t spoil them and they need that much positive attention from you to offset the times you will need to tell them they did something wrong.

What if your parents didn’t tell you that you had ever done something right? How about those who are their own worst enemies and never give themselves a break? Being over hard on yourself is not likely to make you try harder. Constant criticism can cause people to give up and stop trying, even when the blame comes from within.  

Give yourself a pat on the back for anything you do well. Keep a list in a journal of all the things in your life large or small you have done well. Say positive self-affirming things to yourself every day. Post those affirmations in places you will see.

If you can’t remember a time you succeeded, when it is really hard to give yourself credit, ask yourself what would your best friend say? Don’t discount the praise you get. Accept the compliments and praise without discounting it.  

While you may never be able to forget the pain of the past completely, focusing on the positive in the present and future will shrink those old memories.

This post was featured in “Best of Blog – May 2012

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.

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18 thoughts on “Why can’t we forget the painful past?

  1. Our brain remembers bad things — for survival purposes! — and stows good memories farther back into the storage cabinets of our minds? Fascinating — and wow, that explains a lot! David, you never cease to amaze me. Your daily blogs happen to synchronize with my daily moods or challenges. Eerie. And very useful for me. THANK YOU!

    • Thanks Carol for your nice comments. My hope is that the things I write are helpful. Thanks for being one of my very first blog followers and still reading. Keep up your writing.

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  5. I came across this blog by accident while doing some research for a school paper about the pain that crime victims experience. I can not stop crying, and realized that I need help baddly. I have been hidding my pain so well that I have practically fooled myself into thinking that I was happy. My husband is an alcoholic that abuses me psychologically, and sometimes phisically also. I was an only child and lost both of my parents during my teens; dad to a heart attack and mom to kidney failure two years apart. Very often my husband tells me that I am such a loser that I do not even have parents, and that the reason why they died is because they opted for death rather than seeing me become the loser that I am………… I just want to thank you for writing ” Why can’t we forget the painful past?’ It helped me shed some much needed tears, and release some of the pain I am drowning in…..

    • Glad to know that a post was helpful to you. Please – Please – Go for help. No victim should ever believe that they caused their abuse. You should know in your heart that you did not cause your parents death. You husband must feel awfully bad about himself to say those things to you. You do not cause his drinking either.
      Therapy is recommended. Al-Anon can certainly help. Check for a battered woman’s program in your area. Some areas in the U. S. have 211 service that includes referrals for situations like yours. Best wishes on your recovery.

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  14. l believe my life is in danger since i cannot take it anymore everything i see reminds me of my past day and night i need help

    • If you are feeling suicidal and are in the United states, please call or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1/800-273-8255.
      Their web adress is http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ They also have an onlinechat service.
      There are services like this in most other countries , try googling them.
      Most local governments also have crisis centers or you can go to any hospital.
      In my area we have 911 service and they can direct you to the nearest place where you can get help.
      You do not need to go on feeling this way. I very much believe that things can and do get better for people if they just reach out for help.If you can’t find the help you need, call the police and they can get you to a place were you will get help. Best wishes, please stay in touch and let me know how you are doing.

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