Emotional Memory Management: Positive Control Over Your Memory, Page 5

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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.

Changing, Destroying, and Contaminating Old Files

The brain’s file system, just like the government’s files, can be ruined and changed in many ways. One way to change a bad file is to alter it’s content, to add additional information of your choosing — again, the funnier the better. If you have a file where a parent is scolding you, bring up the file, then add the fact that the parent is only six inches tall, standing on a desk, and shaking his/her little finger at you. We can also take a file, review the content and emotion, and find funny things about the file. With some imagination, we can rewrite a file which contained a fight or argument into something looking like The Three Stooges. If we put laughter/humor in the file, it changes the emotional content.

Files can also be “watered down”. As an example, thinking about bad files while our favorite music plays in the background has a way of watering down a file, making it lose it’s emotional impact.

  1. Remembering hearing a good song for the first time on the radio and falling in love with it. However, after hearing it 100 times during the next month, it loses it’s emotional value.

    Files can be erased by literally boring them to death or a “watering down” procedure. If we have the time and opportunity, we can set aside a time for file destruction. During the particular 15 minutes of the day, we allow ourselves to pull up files and see what’s in them, feel some of the emotion, and practice changing the files.

  2. We can also water down files by pulling them in different situations. If we have a bad file, pull that file when watching TV or video, listening to music, or when resting in the sun on the beach. While the file is out, add observations of your circumstances (the music, scenery, etc.) to the file, a technique that both lowers the anxiety present as well as spoiling the bad file.
  3. Remember that humor is the best way to contaminate a file. If a bad file is out, find everything about the memory that is silly, humorous, or comical. If nothing is, invent something funny about that experience. Rehearse how things might have happened different, in a funnier manner, than we remember.
  4. When a file is out, remind yourself frequently that it is simply a file of your past — Where you’ve been — not where you are. We can watch movies of World War II but we must remind ourselves that we are not currently at war! Self-comments such as “I’m glad I don’t live that way anymore!” or “Those sure were tough times!” are helpful. Compare old files with your current situation. This is helpful in old-file jealousy or suspicion, reminding ourselves that our current partner is not our old partner.

File Control in Special Situations

  • File control is a serious problem in alcohol or substance abuse. Remember: the alcohol and substance (marijuana, cocaine, etc.) automatically create good files due to their action on the brain. Sadly, bad files are created in the abuser’s home/family due to fights, arguments, and hangovers. Therefore, thinking of alcohol/drugs rarely brings up a bad file to make the situation unpleasant. In fact, talking about drinking or using drugs usually brings a smile.

    To combat this situation, those who have problems with drugs and/or alcohol are advised to pull a bad file when confronted with substances. This is a common situation in those trying to maintain sobriety. How many times have we socially heard someone turn down a beer with “No thanks, My wife would kill me! I’d have no job and my children wouldn’t speak to me!”

    That person is using a file with a marital argument in it to kill his previous attraction to the substance. If people pulled up a file on their worst hangover every time they thought of alcohol, we might see a dramatic drop in national alcohol consumption.

  • File control is especially important in marital/family discussions. Remembering our 90-120 second rule about emotions surfacing when a file is pulled, marital discussions on sensitive topics are best controlled by time-out techniques which prevent entire files from being pulled. Couples are encouraged to conduct business meetings with an egg timer! A three-minute egg timer allows each party three minutes to state an issue, then three minutes for the partner, and so on. The three-minute timer prevents “files” from taking control of the discussion if couples stick to the procedure.
  • The filing system works at night too! Dreams are often jumbled as the brain pulls files and puts them together in our dreams. Dreams are actually a time in which the brain sorts its files, at the same time pulling old files. Events during the day are reviewed and combined with old files in our dreams. That’s why we may dream of taking a shower in the middle of downtown Columbus! Dreams only reflect our memory and our mood — they do not actually contain hidden truths, warnings, or other special information.
  • Many individuals have been traumatized by assault, the death of loved ones, illness, hospitalization, arguments, and other emotionally stressful events. Emotional trauma produces a huge file, including the feelings of the event. To make matters worse, those concerned with our welfare after the trauma often feel the need to ask us about it — pulling the file! Trauma victims are encouraged to create several rehearsed answers to common comments and questions, much like the President’s press secretary reads responses from a prepared paper. The rehearsed response or “Press Release” usually prevents the original “bad” file from surfacing, as you are too busy recalling your rehearsed comment. Example:

    Question: “What happened to you the other night?”

    Response: “I guess things got a little out of hand. I’m sorting things out right now and as soon as I have all the details I’ll sit down and give you the story. I’ve discovered it’s better not to talk about it right now but I’m doing ok.”

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Trauma victims will also find that a location or set of circumstances will almost immediately pull a strong file. Be prepared for the “I can’t go back there” reaction, often attached to a work site (where injured), location of the trauma in your community, or activity (“I can stand to drive anymore”).

Importantly, remember that if you have been traumatized, so have the people who care about you! Your presence, phone call, or visit may pull their files about your experience, files containing grief, feelings of helplessness, sadness, emotional shock, and so forth.

This is why many friends/relatives often avoid a trauma victim or depressed friend/relative at first — it pulls their files which contain sadness, anger, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. The traumatized individual can often help by using a rehearsed “file” which sends a signal to loved ones that the situation and condition is being managed.

Feeling Levels Can Pull Files

When we see a friend in town, the brain looks for and pull his/her file. Our emotions work this way also. When we begin to feel a certain feeling or when our “feeling level” reaches a certain spot, the brain searches for anything (a file or memory reference) we may have for that level of feeling. The brain basically asks the question “Have I felt this way before?” If so, pull the file.

This explains why many people can only reach so far in a relationship. As they become emotionally closer, the brain may look for a file reference. Example:

New/current relationship

Strong feelings —– ? (brain looks for a reference, finds the file below)

Memory file: “First Marriage” That file contains strong feelings —-> verbal/physical abuse —-> separation —-> divorce. Pulling that old file in the new relationship puts your emotional and romantic progress at a halt.

When we see what’s in the “first marriage” file, it’s easy to see how the individual would become uneasy, upset, and even defensive in the new relationship. This is why people become “bogged down” in relationships. If we develop odd feelings or attitudes that don’t seem to fit the situation, look for a file that may be out. If you are thinking “Every time I feel this way…” and then predict the future, you’ve got a file out.

Developing a Treatment Plan

Let’s suppose we have a strong Emotional Memory (EM), perhaps the result of an automobile accident, a childhood trauma, a life-threatening experience, a physical assault, a public embarrassment, or something equally emotionally traumatic. We can develop a treatment plan to eliminate the “emotional” part of the memory. We can never eliminate the details of the memory/experience — only brain damage or disease wipes out complete memories. The goal in the treatment of Emotional Memories is to eliminate the emotional component — the part that causes us emotional pain. If the emotional component/part is taken away, we can relate the story without fear of being upset or returning to that mood.

Keep in mind the goal with Emotional Memory (EM): Eliminating the emotional part of the memory. One of the fastest and easiest ways to complete that task is to “water down” the emotional part of the memory. To do this, imagine having a letter saved on a computer word processor. Each time you retrieve the letter — it looks the same, reads the same, and says the same thing. If we pull it up on the computer screen, read it, then save it — nothing has changed. This is what happens when we relate Emotional Memory (EM) events to others without adding to the memory or file.

What happens if we pull up that word processor letter each day? Each time we pull it up on the screen, we add one long sentence to the letter — a sentence that is silly, unrelated to the letter, or just a bit off-base — then save it again. After two weeks we’ve added 14 sentences to the letter and the original letter is now gone. It’s something totally different now. We use this technique to eliminate emotional parts of Emotional Memory (EM).

Technique: Each time we pull a bad Emotional Memory (EM) file, we add something to it. A comment, a joke, a physical gesture, etc. The brain will automatically save the file due to the new/added parts.

Sample Treatment Plan

Event: We have been violently assaulted by someone.

Emotional part of the memory: The emotional component contains fears of dying, a fight-for-my-life feeling, panic, and severe anxiety.

Procedure: Each time we bring up the Emotional Memory (EM) of the event, we add something — the funnier the better. For example: “After that assault, I’ve canceled my scheduled bout with Mike Tyson. I’m just not up to it.” Or, “I’ve decided to market a line of assault-proof underwear. You think JC Penneys would be interested?”Or, “I haven’t had a fight like that since I used my brother’s Beatles albums as Frisbees!” It’s like adding a sentence each time we review the word processor letter — watering down the original content over time. We can make up or imagine part of the event as a humorous addition, for example “I just kept thinking during the attack, my taxes are due!!” The reactions of others to your humor will also be added to the file. This is why a World War II vet can talk calmly about horrible events during the war at the American Legion — he’s discussed it so often, in so many different circumstances, that the emotional part has gone. Only the details remain. In Emotional Memory (EM), we naturally do this technique, commonly known as “getting over it”. This paper just tells you how to do that faster and more efficiently. Any Emotional Memory (EM) can be approached in this manner and “watered down”.


We are a collection of memories — that’s who we are, what makes up our personality, what controls our behaviors, and what often produces our moods. The good Emotional Memory (EM) is a blessing to us, remembering good times during childhood, our favorite songs/events, and old friends. However, we have all collected bad or often traumatic Emotional Memory (EM) files as well. The goal of Emotional Memory Management is to control or eliminate the emotional part of those files. If we can do that, our history of bad experiences becomes just that — history. Those files become a record of where we’ve been and experienced, not something that continues to control our moods and behaviors.

In daily living and especially during times of stress, our memory file system is very important. It is a system that is active every second, works automatically, and can change our mood within two minutes. We have presented the above information with the hope that you can lower your stress and live more effectively by controlling your emotional memory files rather than allowing them to control you! Remember — our emotional file system is like our breathing, it will operate on automatic or we can take manual control. Knowing how the system operates allows us more control over our memories and daily lives.

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