Every second we are alive, our brain functions. At a very basic level it maintains our breathing, our blood flow, our body temperature, and other aspects that allow us to stay alive and thinking. Emotional Memory Management, or EMM, is concerned with the thinking and memory part of brain functioning — and how we can use it to lead happier lives. This article by our Consulting Clinical Psychologist Dr Joseph M. Carver offers a non-technical look at emotional memory and provides practical tips which can help you establish positive control over your emotional memory.
How to Know When A File Is Operating
- When a file is accidentally pulled, the individual will almost immediately stray off the topic of discussion. As a listener, if you get a feeling of “What’s that got to do with this?” — you’re listening to a file. Remember, you can’t argue with a file.
- As a file contains the same information each time it’s pulled, when you hear lectures, comments, or attacks that appear to be a “broken record” — it’s a file. When a file is pulled, the individual will say the same things, feel the same way, and react the same way that you heard before. This is quite common in marital arguments and a listener usually gets the impression, “This is the 25th time I’ve heard this.”
- A file is pulled when the emotional reaction is far above what would be expected from the situation. A husband and wife meet an old boyfriend or girlfriend at the supermarket. Suddenly, all the way home, there’s a gigantic reaction complete with jealousy, suspiciousness, and anger. Somewhere, a file as been pulled.
- Many files begin with, “We’ve talked about this before,” “When I was young…,” and so on. References to the past are almost always related to a pulled file.
- If the listener has the general idea that the conversation doesn’t make sense, you’re probably listening to a file. Teenagers have difficulty, for example, understanding why a simple request for money leads into a long discussion of dad’s collecting pop bottles for money during his youth. The key is the phrase, “When I was your age…”
- If you find yourself thinking about a past trauma or bad situation, you may have an old file out and also be depressed and stressed. When depressed or stressed, the brain becomes our worst enemy, pulling files that have strong negative content and making us relive and reexperience old events. Forty-year old women begin thinking about childhood abuse, a mature adult tearfully recalls memories of a horrible and violent early childhood, or an older male suddenly thinks, feels guilty, and grieves about his experiences in combat (WW II, Korea, Vietnam, etc.). When the brain pulls these old files we know brain chemistry is upset. Look for early morning awakening, increased brain speed, and decreased concentration as additional indicators — but forget those files, they’ve already been emotionally solved and put away those many years ago. The brain is simply playing old Emotional Memory (EM).
Techniques for File Control
- Practice paying attention to how your file system works. If you find yourself in a bad mood, or even happy mood, use the approach, “What file is out?” You will then find the file, what feeling is contained in the file, and be able to have some control over the file.
- If a bad file starts to come out, do something physical before the two-minute emotional release surfaces. If someone mentions a name or you have an event that brings up a bad file, for example, immediately pinch your ear, touch your watch, or do something physical that lets you know a file is out. You may then change files mentally or even verbally. When talking with others, we can verbally change files by stating, “That’s kind of a sensitive topic for me, I’d rather not discuss that.” The physical action helps remind us that we have control over these files.
- Take a bad file and put a funny name on it — the funnier the better. If we have people we dislike or even hate, a funny name is helpful in controlling the emotional content of that file. Common names that might be used are “Bozo,” “Beanie Weenie,” “Air Head,” etc. It is also effective to combine both the funny name and physical action.
For example, if we call a gossip-oriented relative “Sinus Drip”, we can combine the pulling of the file with the name and the physical action of blowing our nose. Again, as the brain will only allow one feeling at a time, the humor and physical action usually is enough to kill the file.
- Many times we go through a series of horrible experiences, often lasting for years. These may include bad marriages, periods of unemployment, traumatic childhoods, and so forth. Place all those files in one mental filing cabinet. Then place a label on the entire cabinet, one that reflects the condition at that time. Some clients have used such labels as, “Wild and rowdy years,” “My misery years,” and so forth. When a file from that period is brought up, instead of focusing on the file and allowing the emotion to surface, the individual thinks to himself, “That file is from my wild and rowdy years, it’s not needed now.” Lumping all files together in one general category decreases the emotional impact and prevents pulling specific files.
- Together with your spouse or significant other, you may train each other to recognize when one file is out. When a file pops out, a simple time-out hand signal, a certain look, or a certain comment may make the other person aware that a file is out at the wrong time. This cuts down many arguments. Using this method, couples tend to stay on-track and discuss their concerns more at length, without being bothered by bad files.
- Looks for “blocks” in communication with others. Often these emotional blocks are actually files being pulled in response to something the other person does. Do they sound like a relative/friend or do they remind you of something or some situation? Make a new file on that person.
- Keep several good and mood-lifting files in close memory. If a bad file is pulled during the day, you then have good files ready to recall — and change your mood. Many people have files about vacations or other happy times to be used if a bad file is pulled. Always follow a bad file with a good file — it keeps your mood up.
- In times of social crisis, create and rehearse a special file to cover uncomfortable questions — a “press release”. During a divorce/separation situation, people frequently ask about your situation. Rather than pull up the “divorce” file, pull up a “divorce public relations” file that states “things are pretty disorganized right now with us. I tell you more as things settle down.” Make the public relations file brief, short and sweet.
- Practice file pulling, especially good files. Look at old pictures of happy times, high school yearbooks, etc. Observe the number of files that are pulled when you do this. It’s amazing how much information your memory contains.
Rule: The Brain doesn’t know if a file is real or imagined!
How can this be? The brain makes files based on information it is given, usually through our senses but sometimes through our thoughts. If we have a sweetheart, being in the same room will give us that warm, romantic feeling. However, looking at their picture and thinking about them will do the same thing — even though they are not present. Even better, simply thinking about them will produce the same feelings (pulling the same file). The brain only reacts to the file or image, it doesn’t care how it receives that image or information, by physical presence, by reminders (pictures), or by “thought”.
Psychologists at the University of Chicago took three groups of basketball players. Group One practiced foul shots each day for thirty days. Group Two was instructed to “imagine” shooting foul shots each day for thirty days. Group Three was instructed to do nothing. When tested, Group One (practicing shots) improved 24 percent. Group Three (doing nothing) had no improvement. Group Two, the group that only imagined shooting foul shots, improved 23 percent, yet did not physically touch a basketball.
Why? As far as the brain knew, both groups that practiced (real and imagined) had shot foul shots daily, but Group Two never missed! Group Two, never missing, was given more emotional confidence by their brain and the brain also memorized the foul-shooting pattern as though they were on the court. In Group One, their brain experienced the hit-and-miss pattern of actual foul shooting which did not build confidence.
Why mention this? We have the ability to build our own files, even when the actual real-world experience is lacking. Using our imagination, we can alter files by imagining new information. If shy, we imagine ourselves in gradually more and more social situations, talking with friends, being in groups, giving talks to groups, teaching, and finally being on Johnny Carson. If we have bad files on certain people, using our imagination, we “add” new information to the file. We really do this everyday. If we are wronged by someone, our anger becomes uncomfortable to the point that we begin imagining how guilty they must feel, how low their life really is, and how they will be unhappy the rest of their days. After our brain works on that file, we eventually feel sorry for them! While the brain does this job for us normally, we need to hurry the process along at times.
Pick a target problem for improvement — then design, imagine, and create a set of files to correct it. If you have problems dealing with your supervisor at work, imagine situations in which you first talk to him, then gradually stand your ground in a business manner. We can create files to help anything from tennis backhand to social withdrawal.
Making New Files
- Since our brain can’t tell real from imagined experiences, practice making new files to replace your old. If shy, imagine or daydream social competency. If uncomfortable around certain people, imagine positive meetings and outcomes with them.
- Depressed and anxious individuals always imagine negative experiences — and the brain changes chemistry because it thinks that experience happened. If we sit down and think that a loved one has died (even though they are in the next room), our brain will make us depressed and we will cry. If depressed or anxious, think the opposite of the brain’s normal disposition — daydream or imagine only positive experiences. It may sound strange but your brain will think your life is better (it only knows what it’s told!) and will chemically lift your mood gradually.
- Pick an area in which your are having trouble. Create/Invent new files to deal with that situation. If uncomfortable around your supervisor at work or your relatives, imagine positive scenes in which you solve conflicts or make adjustments.
- If confidence and self-esteem are low, imagine scenes in which your confidence is increased. Imagine being praised for your efforts, being successful, or finally receiving the acceptance/affection from those who have not provided it in the past.
There are other ways to deal with old files as well.
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