Emotional memories are powerful. They serve to guide and inform us as we navigate through the present and prepare for the future. If you’ve ever tasted something spoiled, you recognize one of the ways in which emotional memory protects your future decisions. Unfortunately, sometimes we unintentionally apply that same principle to relationships, such as when an emotional memory cautions us and interferes with the pursuit of having love in our life. On the other hand, sometimes our emotional memories inform us of a truth that we do not want to acknowledge, which then can lead to disregarding our feelings in order to maintain a particular belief. When a bad relationship eventually ends, for instance, often it is then safe to acknowledge what had been felt. Even so, we give credit to cognition in saying “I knew it,” when actually we felt it long before we were willing to listen to our emotional messages.
How fortunate that the human mind can summon emotional memories of exciting and unsullied love, pride in endeavors, or joy that was felt at an amazing moment in time. Through daydreams we may muse about the past because we want to re-create a satisfying emotional experience, if only fleetingly. Although remembering an event, a situation, or a person can evoke a shiver of excitement, it can also remind us of the heat of anger or the anguish of grief. When a particular situation, thought, stimulus, or event activates an emotional memory, it can be enjoyable or painful, although it may not be felt as intensely as the original experience of the emotion. Something as simple as a particular time of year or a specific date may trigger emotional memories. Often, when a present or upcoming date coincides with the anniversary of a loss, for example, memories of the loss become consciously or pre-consciously present in our minds.
Anything that is connected to our senses may be a cue that can ignite emotional recall. While visiting an Italian street fair in San Diego, California, for example, my attention became focused on a concession where two elderly Italian venders were cooking and selling sausage sandwiches. Truly, I had no intention of eating a sausage sandwich. Even so, the delicious aroma drew me near, conjuring pleasurable childhood memories of watching my mother cook fresh salsiccia and my fondness for the scent that emanated from the grill. In essence, I became captivated as a result of olfactory memories and imagery that had been activated by the smell. Given the ability of our brains to instantaneously scan an extraordinary number of emotional memories, I also suspect that the aroma, as well as the Italian street fair generally, activated my longing for the mother I had lost early in my life—memories that ordinarily rest comfortably in the recesses of my psyche.
Nonetheless, on its own merits, the aroma of sausages on the grill that beautiful day in San Diego was very enticing. In fact, a flock of seagulls hovering low and above me were allured as well. Unexpectedly, my enchantment was interrupted when one of the seagulls pooped on my head. Clearly, the gull must have had a lot to eat at the street fair. Startle, disgust, distress, and mild shame (embarrassment) must have been apparent in my facial expression as I touched the sizeable puddle of goop in my hair and, of course, became highly motivated to do something about it. The surprised faces of the Italian men cooking sausages turned joyful as they shouted, “E buona fortuna!” (It’s good luck!) and “Acquistare un biglietto della lotteria!” (Buy a lottery ticket!) Together, the three of us laughed.
One could conclude that the vendors’ perception of the situation enabled me to cognitively reframe a negatively perceived event as a fortunate one; however, more than cognition was involved in the reappraisal. The emotional memories that influenced who I became are colored by many experiences of listening to elders in my Italian family, including my mother, make exuberant pronouncements based on their cultural superstitions. Prompted by the prophecies of the two men, my emotional system instantaneously scanned those memories, reevaluated the situation, and triggered joy that commingled with the surprise, disgust, distress, and shame I felt about the poop on my head. The result was laughter. If the situation had instead been reminiscent of past experiences when I had been angry or shamed, my reaction might have been different. I was indeed fortunate, as the experience echoed my positive attachments to my past.
We cannot erase emotional memories, although we can be aware of what activates them and the interpretations we make. In addition, we can alter our current reactions to past and present emotional responses. People who have been in psychotherapy, especially those who have been involved in long-term or in-depth therapy, are often alarmed that a present circumstance or stimulus activates old feelings they assumed had been worked through or extinguished. The fact is that our emotional memories serve a purpose and we really cannot pick and choose which ones we want to keep. Besides, not only can we learn extraordinary lessons from the unpleasant or painful ones, but all of our emotional memories are an important part of who we have become.
Excepted from: Lamia, Mary (2017). What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success. Roman and Littlefield.
Mary C. Lamia, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, as well as professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, whose passion is to encourage emotional awareness. She is the author of Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings and Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings, both of which won the Family Choice Award. She also co-authored The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others and a forthcoming book, The Upside of Shame. A sought after speaker, Lamia has provided commentary for media ranging from ABC radio/television, Fox Network, The New York Times, Woman’s Day, and WebMD, to Real Simple, as well as regular blog posts for Psychology Today and Therapy Today.