It is a common misconception that the human brain is a locked vault, holding precious memories securely and unchangingly. If the vault starts to fail, these memories escape and you forget things.
The human brain is a much more complex and sophisticated tool than this. Your memories are constantly changing. Your reality is at the mercies of your own perception and then how you interpret the memory throughout the years. For example, in the common “Weapon Focus Effect,” a witness can vividly remember every detail of the gun that was pointed at them but very little of the shooter’s face.
“Great, E,” you may be thinking, “But what can I change about my perception? I am who I am and I saw what saw.”
You can change your memories. Think of a time you said something inappropriate comment and instantly wished you could take it back. Now imagine all of your friends not hearing the remark because they had just seen a shooting star, or someone had just given a particularly loud sneeze. This is probably what happened anyway, right? You still have friends, after all. You should never, never give yourself negative characteristics just because you did something wrong, like telling yourself “I am socially inept” because you said something stupid at a party. Instead, realize how you feel, tell yourself “Oops. I said something stupid. I will learn from that blunder and become a more tactful party-goer because of it,” and forget about it. This is the difference between and optimist and a pessimist, and it is also the difference between a happy person and a person who feels bogged down and miserable all the time.
There is another component to this. In order to train your brain to recall the past in the most positive light, you have to think of your happy memories the most. Only tell stories about yourself that are framed in the rosiest light. Do not repeat stories or use self-deprecating humor that make you feel a little current of bad about yourself. With every neural circuit you connect you train your brain to think or feel something, so practice feeling happy. Try not to think of memories that make you feel horrible.
Of course, there are those events that can’t and shouldn’t be forgotten, like the death of a loved one or other traumatic event. You must feel the intense emotion, move through your stages of grief, and then move on.
“…by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, “All right. I have experienced this emotion. I recognize this emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.”
-Tuesdays With Morrie
You will not be able to avoid embarrassment, grief, shame, regret, or any of the other emotions that come with being human. Nor would you want to. These emotions make us stronger, wiser, more empathetic people. Without them, we would keep making the same mistakes over and over again (see “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which is a movie I highly recommend). But by feeling your emotion completely, telling yourself you have learned from it, and moving away from negative memories and telling the positive ones to yourself over and over, you can rewrite your past to mold a better you with a brighter future.