I was dead tired and immobile from my strenuous morning exercise. My kids wanted to play basketball. Like a good dad, I complied with their desire for physical activity.
Their friends had come over and I found myself in a full-on workout. I’d like to say I participated like a good sport, but I was miserable the whole time. I’m not a young guy anymore. When the torture ended, I plopped down on the couch to relax.
I sent a quick note to myself. It was a reminder to record this tiring experience in my evening journal. Six hours later I sat down to write in my journal as part of my bedtime routine. Something peculiar had happened during the eight hours that elapsed.
My memory had changed. I no longer thought of it as an experience that overtaxed my body. By 10 PM, I felt satisfaction about my impressive display of athletic prowess.
I was miserable in the midst of my dual morning workout. When the discomfort dissipated, my opinion changed. I felt proud of the accomplishment. Back when I ran marathons, I hated running the last mile of the race. The pain was excruciating. Within a few hours of finishing, that trauma disappeared, replaced by a feeling of elation and pride.
The Memory Exercise
Memories change. So do our interpretations of memories. You can change that interpretation with intention. I’ve been trying an interesting and therapeutic writing exercise the past few weeks. Here’s how it works.
- Think of an event from your past that elicits a negative memory.
- Write down your current interpretation of that memory.
- Write down a new, favorable interpretation of the memory. Force yourself to think of that silver lining.
- Spend time lingering on the new interpretation. Verbalize it to yourself.
Here’s an example to show you how it works.
Remember VHS Tapes?
When I was eighteen years old, I worked at a video rental store. It was my last day of work before I would be leaving for college. A month earlier, the owner told me he could squeeze me in part-time during winter break. Awesome, every college kid could use a few extra bucks.
On my last day of work, he withdrew his offer for winter break work. He said he wasn’t happy with my performance. A customer had borrowed a movie, returned it two week’s late in the overnight box and never paid the late fee. Their credit card charge failed. The owner blamed me and said he wasn’t going to pay me my last check until he received payment for the late fee.
For years, the comment that it was my fault grated on me. I was a failure in my first job. I was only looking at half the picture. I failed to evaluate how I handled myself in that position. Here’s how it played out.
I returned a week later to inquire about my last paycheck. Maybe that late fee came in? I was headed off to school the next day. It was worth a shot.
“What about my final check?” I asked.
What about my $50? I won’t be able to recover that late fee. I would say we’re even.”
“It wasn’t my fault, and since I don’t work here anymore, it’s not my problem.”
“What about my $50?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, but I worked for that money.”
He turned over the withheld check. Apparently, he had prepared for this contingency. I wasn’t aware at the time of the legal requirement to pay me, but I guess he was.
I hadn’t thought about it in years. I now believe it was a pretty gutsy response for my eighteen-year-old self. It changed my outlook on the entire memory.
I’ve tried this for a few other stinging memories. It worked well. There was an experience when I was thirteen years old and my first girlfriend dumped me in front of my friends. I won’t get into that story… but I found the silver lining.