We tend to revise our old memories as we pass them through the filters of our newer experiences and our present life. We routinely re-write our autobiographies, to reconstruct our memories of the past by creating ''self theories'' of how we believe we were likely to act. Based on our current view of ourselves, we tell it as we expect we would have acted, not as it really happened, as a video recording of it would show. It's strange, but reprogramming your memories is useful. This flexibility of memory can let you systematically create positive memory filters which produce a positive attitude, or negative filters which carve a miserable point of view. It is preferable to consciously determine, to take charge of molding the shape of this flexible, ever changing and evolving memory.
Jot down a brief autobiographic outline. Write just ten brief sentences or paragraphs that describe various parts of your life starting as early in your life as you like, coming back as close to the present as you wish. Do this exercise quickly, without any analysis; that way you get more material from your subconscious. Just get the brief notes down,
You might decide to cover totally separate, un-related experiences spread randomly throughout your life, or consider a specific phase or pattern in your life or time period. Instead of listing ten, you might quickly spin off a few from one summer or six or seven from a phase of your life. By limiting the number you force yourself to be selective as you poke through your memories. Many variations will emerge as you deal with different parts of your life.
Each autobiographical memory list you put together will help you recognize the perceptual filter patterns you use now or that you used before. If you find a list contains lots of negatives, memories that weaken your self esteem or depress you, then your mental filtering system at the moment leans toward the negative. Take a careful look at those old, negatives. Do you have new strengths and more recent experiences that balance the old ones out? Have you grown or changed since then. You can re-write those old negative memories in a more favorable light.
Repeat this exercise regularly, without referring to previous autobiographical sketches. See if your perceptions change. Try to use both positive and negative lenses to dig up memories--negatives, so you can get a handle on them and more positively re-interpret them, positives to counterbalance the negatives and strengthen your positive attitude filter, .
The first time I did a brief autobiographical sketch I remembered a spelling bee in which I won second place, at age eight or nine. I misspelled the word ''o'clock''. Who knows? Maybe my chronic lateness problem started at that point. My self esteem was definitely enhanced. Perhaps it planted the seed of the idea that I could be a writer.
To See Or Not To See; Necessary Blindness and Ignorance
In Vital Lies, Simple Truths, Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes, ''The brain...has the ability to bear pain by masking its sting, but at the cost of diminished awareness.'' He goes on to describe how people selectively, but systematically, ignore parts of their past and parts of their experience that are painful or contradictory, '' creating blind spots; zones of blocked attention and self-deception.'' That way, says Goleman, they seem better able to cope with stress, pain or life's adversity. Also, our body's endorphins and the other internally produced opiates soothe anxiety by letting us deny attention to the stress.
This denial can profoundly affect our entire life. For example, some people who encounter a difficulty in life simply surrender to it; they don't even consider trying to succeed because they're convinced they can't succeed. Sometimes a single past experience can beat them down. They've learned to live with failure and unhappiness, eyes closed to opportunities. They accept it. Some become depressed They stop looking for ways to break out of the misery mold. We call this state learned helplessness, and it is a powerful barrier to future happiness.
Depressed, stressed and fearful people tend to dramatically narrow their viewpoints and abilities to creatively see PE opportunity possibilities. Psychologist Harold Sackheim has observed that everyone has depressed, negative thoughts sometimes. Healthy people quickly move away from that state of mind. Depressed people get stuck there. There are many ways to get stuck.
Of course, people can and do recover from learned helplessness. You must identify any learned helplessness barriers in your life so you can work to get unstuck and go past them. Those barriers can appear anywhere--in your self esteem, ambitions, levels of intimacy, education achievements, in all aspects of thought and performance. Work to replace them with risk-taking and perseverance so you can have your share of happiness. Turn on all your positive experience sensors. Believe in your ability to change, to grow and improve.
Fine Tune Your Happiness Dial
It's unfortunate that few of us have skills for self-searching. Our schools don't teach techniques for systematically collecting information about our own psychological behavior. We learn how to look in the mirror to see if our hair is neat, and occasionally we see our results in tests that evaluate our performance or psyches, but that's about it. After leaving school, except for periodic job performance reviews, we rarely engage in any self analysis. Yet self evaluation is such an essential tool for taking control of your life, helping you to continually re-discover who you are and where you are going. You need to know your strengths, to understand why you get negative or positive.
Explore Your Center
What parts of your identity are most centrally you? I thought of that question as I watched a made-for-television movie recently. It was about a woman, Julia, whose body was mangled in an automobile accident. Her surviving brain was transplanted into the body of a young woman who just had a fatal stroke. Julia's most difficult challenge was to get used to the new body--smaller breasts, a plainer face, a higher, softer voice, dark hair instead of blonde. The doctors argued that, in spite of the changes, Julia was the same person because the brain was the repository of the mind.
What do you think? Would Julia's emotional response patterns, her smile reflexes have been the same in the new body? Would her transplanted intellect have retained her original personality? If such a thing happened to you, would your friends recognize you in the new body? Or would the body exert profound influences on your emotional make-up.