If you can’t be sure your own memories are true, what can you trust? Learn how to trust yourself.
Part of the science world is a buzz with the latest study on false memories. In the world of love, family and relationships, false memories can be bombs. A false memory is not a deliberate lie. But it can be a factual inaccuracy.
The false memory bomb exploded in the world of psychology years ago when a woman said she was sexually abused by her father as a child and her father charged that a therapist induced memories of something that never happened. In a false memory, someone remembers some fact or event that didn’t actually happen.
So if your own memories can be false how can you know what’s true?
- Trust that your emotions tell you something real even though they may lead you to distort the facts.
- Don’t work harder to be unemotional. Work harder at being good at emotion. Stay with your feelings long enough to experience the energy of them, and to know what they’re really about.
- Accept that emotions are a natural part of you. Don’t bury the truth of your life. Be real about what’s inside.
Of course, you don’t want to feel pain but if it’s there, you can end up building lie upon lie if you don’t face it. People who become more able to handle the full range of feelings are capable of greater self knowledge and love. And they may be able to experience and remember with more clarity and accuracy.
Wendy is an example of someone who didn’t want to face the jealousy and hurt she was feeling for weeks. But at a party, she couldn’t focus on anything but her husband’s interactions with other women. She later accused him of being involved with someone else. She recalled every detail of one interaction: How he was standing, what the other woman was wearing, how he gestured and laughed. Her husband said she was nuts. Sure, he talked to other women, no one in particular, he said. He couldn’t even enjoy the party because he knew Wendy was mad at him all night.
Wendy walked into the party with feelings that set her up to see in a certain way.
For weeks, her husband had been staying late at work, paying little attention to her. She hadn’t talked to him, or admitted her feelings to herself. She’d been telling herself that she didn’t care. She hated being “weak.”
But the more she tried to ignore how much she cared, and how hurt she was, the more her feelings took control of the way she saw.
Her husband walked into the party feeling that he couldn’t do anything right by his wife. He said he paid more attention to other women because he felt less on guard with them.
Would a video of the party reveal who had the false memory?
Probably not because the truth of the situation lay in the couples emotions. Each felt justified and neither took responsibility for his/her emotional state. Each experienced and saw through her/his own emotional lens.
Did you ever go through anything similar? Did you and your lover argue endlessly about the facts without either of you owning what you were feeling?
Wendy needed to trust that her own insides were important enough to be real about. That would make her strong and courageous not weak.
Focusing on “false” memory may help us ignore the real problem which is that we often don’t learn to hold and use the energy of our feelings.
Emotions color the way we experience and remember, and that doesn’t mean that we can’t trust ourselves. It means that we’re not machines. Facts can be different than emotional truths. We have to understand emotions better, and not just by naming chemicals and finding the drugs that will change what we feel.
Take the story of Lupe, a Guatemalan woman, who had a “false” memory of a perfect mother. It’s not that her mother wasn’t wonderful in many ways, hardworking, self-sacrificing and responsible. But she wasn’t perfect, and she couldn’t meet many of Lupe’s healthy needs for attention.
Lupe’s needs got buried, as did Lupe’s reaction -- her sadness and feeling of not being important enough-- and then those feelings surfaced in Lupe’s adult love relationships.
Her view of her mother as perfect helped her through a hard childhood in which she had to grow up quickly. Lupe was the oldest of four children. Her mother immigrated to the US before she got pregnant. She worked round the clock, and Lupe grew up hearing her mother described as a saint. Lupe’s mother didn’t have time to give Lupe emotional attention.
Lupe became a high achiever herself, a proud attorney. She came to therapy because her love relationships always broke down. She blamed herself. After all, her boyfriends were always great: hard workers, responsible, devoted. Like her mother.
“I just never feel loved. I’m just too needy.”
Lupe’s memories of how hard working her mother was were real but so were her needs for the kind of time, attention and listening that her mother simply couldn’t give.
Lupe felt guilty and bad for wanting these things.
She had no way of knowing that her needs were natural, even healthy. No child knows that unless it’s a message she gets from her family.
When Lupe grew older, she couldn’t understand where her bad feelings came from so she blamed herself. She kept trotting out her false memory of a perfect mother. Lupe genuinely respected and loved her mother. She also needed more emotional and physical closeness and comfort, and since she couldn’t get those needs met, she buried them.
Lupe had no way of knowing that children’s strong and real needs don’t just evaporate; they often solidify and get buried deep inside. Often those buried needs cause problems later in life.
Lupe told herself she was selfish, babyish and wrong for wanting more than she got. But her desire to feel loved was natural.
Like her mother, Lupe was responsible and hard working and good at what she did. She picked men who had those qualities also. But after the falling in love stage, when she felt safe enough, her underlying truth, her deep unmet needs, came out of hiding.
Lupe had to work hard to uncover and respect her needs for sensitive emotional and physical connection. This took courage, but until Lupe was ready to face these feelings, she was doomed to keep making the same mistake in her love relationships. She kept picking men who couldn’t give her the physical and emotional closeness she needed.
Her false memory of a perfect mother protected Lupe from what was too painful. As an adult, she dealt with that pain.
Lupe still feels that she had a wonderful mother. At the same time, Lupe accepts that she felt neglected. She had no way to reconcile those things as a child.
She had to wait until she was grown, and had suffered enough in relationships, to be courageous enough to feel the truths inside of her. Then she could begin being more real about what she needed.
In many ways Lupe’s story applies to many of us. It’s easier to argue about facts than it is to feel our own hidden truths.
But by feeling those truths we can begin to take charge of our lives.