How to Improve Your Relationships in the Present by Talking about the Past. Part 3:

Remembering the Past in More Detail

An example of over remembering the past in more detail comes from my own experience. In my thirties I did some major work on myself in therapy. One day, during a session, I recalled a memory from my early childhood. I don’t remember what we had been talking about at the time, I just remember my experience.

The Memory: I was three years old. I remember that because we still lived in the house on the farm. We moved from that house before I turned four. My mother, brother and I were standing in front of the wood stove popping popcorn. We were all crying.

That was all there was to the memory. It was not a new memory. Any time I had thought about it I was puzzled. I could not make sense out of it. Why were we crying? We were making popcorn. Popcorn was a special treat in those days. This was not like making popcorn today. Back then, my mother would scrape the small black kernels off the cob, put them into the frying pan and they would noisily POP into fluffy white yummy pieces of popcorn. It was magical, especially to a three year old. So why were we all crying?

By the end of this session nothing more had come from my recalling this memory. I left the therapist’s office and went about my day. But I could not stop thinking about it. I knew – I just knew – that there was something very important in this memory. For the rest of the day I was in my own little bubble.

That evening I made dinner as usual, put the kids to bed as usual and then went to bed at 8:00 pm, earlier than usual. I just wanted to be by myself so I could continue to think about this memory. I lay there in the dark, visualizing the scene over and over. Later my husband came to bed and I pretended to be asleep. I just did not want to be interrupted. I continued to lie there for hours thinking. Finally! At 4:00 am I got the answer.

I had always thought that we were all crying about the same thing. But as the memory became clearer I realized that my brother and I were crying because our mother had just strapped us. I don’t remember what for. (This was the late 40s and spankings were considered part of good parenting. People often quoted the Bible: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”) My mother was crying because she felt badly about what she had done to us. She was making the popcorn to make up to us for what she’d done.

Then the memory all made sense to me. I always thought when my mother strapped us kids that she wanted to do it. What I got from the memory was that she had ‘lost it’ and she could not help herself. I may have been only three but I was there.

I felt a flood of forgiveness for her. I felt relief. I felt a release. I fell into a sound peaceful sleep.

This changed my relationship with my mother in a positive way. I was different with her and she responded to my change with change of her own.

The change in the present did not stop there. Before I had this revelation I was the type of person who was warm and affectionate with family and friends but not with acquaintances or strangers. I did not like people I did not know well to touch me and I did not touch them. In the next days after I experienced this huge shift I found myself spontaneously reaching out and touching others. Also, I found myself liking it when people were physically warm with me. I didn’t think about it; it just happened. I’m not sure why this change occurred, but I liked it. The change has lasted to this day.

It is not always possible to remember more about a past event but it can sometimes happen when people reminisce about the past. In therapy people often do remember more about a past event, especially if they deliberately focus on the past. It also happens that new memories of other events come to mind that shed more light on the original memory.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

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