Our Memories Are a Part of Us, but They Are Not Us

Silhouette of a Man at SunsetDo you have automatic thoughts that are out of your control? Or maybe you wonder why so many of your problems seem like they’ve been with you forever? These can be the results of a dysfunctional upbringing.

The families we are born into teach us how to think and respond to the world around us. Some of us get good, healthy families. Some of us get adequate families. And some of us get neglectful or abusive families.

Neglectful parenting may include, but is not limited to:

  • Forgetting or refusing to feed the child(ren)
  • Not providing clean or warm clothing for the child(ren)
  • Not meeting the medical needs of the child(ren)

Abusive parenting may include, but is not limited to:

  • Yelling or cussing at the child(ren)
  • Punching or shaking the child(ren)
  • Sexual contact with the child(ren)

Both abusive and neglectful families have their own sets of obstacles to overcome.

People raised in abusive homes may struggle with:

People raised in neglectful homes may struggle with:

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) shows great promise in working through family-of-origin issues. ACT stresses the acceptance of things in our lives which cannot be changed. Many of us are confronted by things which cannot be changed every time we attend a family reunion or even when we log on to Facebook: perhaps a hurtful memory from our past, a mother’s disability, or a brother’s struggle with addiction.

We cannot change the things that happened to us. We cannot fully erase memories or pretend they never happened. Once we are able to accept those things that happened to us, we are free to move on and heal the emotional wounds they left behind.

Healing comes through learning to stay in the present moment and not allowing your memories to constantly reinjure you. Our minds have a way of wandering back to painful memories; that’s normal. But we have the power to grab our thoughts and bring them back to the present. We can take a moment, notice the room we are in, and notice our bodily sensations. In other words, hear what we hear and see what we see.

Healing also comes by reminding ourselves that we are not our memories. Our thoughts and emotions are a part of us, but they are not us. We can change our thoughts. We can change our minds.

There is healing in learning how to detach and separate ourselves from our thoughts. Just because we have a thought does not make that thought true. And just because a thought passes through the mind does not mean we have to have an emotional reaction to that thought.

Healing comes in our ability to figure out what is really important to us in our lives. Maybe it is a strong belief in justice or nonviolence. Or maybe we value animal welfare or human rights.

Finally, healing comes in making life choices based on those things which are important to us. Perhaps our values help us decide where to work, shape our hobbies, and shape whether we choose to volunteer with a like-minded charity.

The research has been pretty consistent that one of the ways to make ourselves feel better is to, in some way, help others. And it is such an empowering feeling to be at peace with yourself that once you learn what truly feeling good feels like, you will never want to go back to feeling badly again.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by K. Michelle Tapia, MA, LMFT, therapist in Winnetka, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kendall

    January 6th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    I often have terrifying thoughts, not really sure why, and I constantly have to to tell myself that this is not reality, it is only the things that I am imagining, so don’t let them consume me because they are not what I am really facing.

  • Shannon

    January 6th, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    Yes those memories of the past have a way of embedding themselves in your brain, but if you have risen above them, then you have and you can become so much better than your past.
    At the same time, they do play a large role in making you who you are and shaping you, but they do not have to be the only things that MAKE you.

  • bruce

    January 7th, 2015 at 3:39 AM

    ACT sounds like it could be the perfect choice of therapy mode for those people who do have issues with their families, their past, and need an innovative way to work through and past much of that.

  • K. Michelle Tapia

    K. Michelle Tapia

    January 7th, 2015 at 9:33 AM

    Hi, Kendall. Those intrusive thoughts can be hard to deal with. Mindfulness (such as you are doing) is a great first step in dealing with them. But, if they cause you too much concern, I do recommend seeking a qualified professional to assist you. All my best to you, Michelle

  • sarratt

    January 8th, 2015 at 3:54 PM

    i wish that more of us could learn that just because you think something doesn’t mean that you have to act on it, or even should

  • Garrison

    January 10th, 2015 at 11:03 AM

    I am not sure how they can not be you if you know that living those memories and experiences are part of what has made you who you are. I just don’t understand how you would be able to separate the two.

  • Amanda P

    January 26th, 2015 at 8:27 AM

    I’ve found great success using family of origin work in the beginning of therapy but then talking about personal responsibility in later sessions. Great read.

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