Many years ago, I read a book about Native American traditions. At that time, there was a mental health crisis known to be happening among the people of the reservations and doctors were trying to solve it. The author of the book, who was Native American himself, had studied medicine at Harvard and so was expected to treat patients in a medical way, with medication. Instead, he chose to tap into his traditions and those of his ancestors and use traditional methods to help the crisis. One such method was one that had travelled down the generations, that of storytelling as a way of making sense of the world. Some of the stories were hundreds of years old but they talked of how people coped with the help of nature and the people around them. These people helped each other by the telling of old stories and they passed them on to their children and so on. Each generation elaborated on or adapted the story for their own situation and times but the crux of the story stayed the same. How could you not feel better when you hear that your ancestors had the same issues and found a way to get through them?
We all tell ourselves stories and it helps us to make sense of things. As time goes on, we sometimes change the story we tell ourselves and others to protect us from the worst of experiences. Politicians are suspiciously very good at such a concept. They can be fighting a political opponent avidly, only to talk in great terms about such opponent when he retires. Countries change their stories around their history to embellish greatness and courage. Successes are remembered, failures assigned to the vaults of history. What we experience is not always what we remember or allow ourselves to recall. We often use this concept in a more negative sense too, convincing ourselves that we were victims of the situation.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize winning psychologist, has done much work on the link between experience and memory. He talked about the “cognitive trap” of confusing experience and memory and that we don’t always remember what we experience and instead “tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of events”. He says, interestingly that “there is an experiencing Self that is in the present and knows the present but also a remembering Self and that is the one that keeps the score”. Kahneman describes the remembering Self as the “storyteller” that sifts and filters through experiences and fits them together in a story to make our lives easier to understand. It also fits these stories into a narrative that makes sense. What usually defines these narratives are big changes in our lives and especially endings. Kahneman says “endings are very, very important to us and we often have trouble making sense of them”.
This is often borne out in the clients I see and how they present the big issues in their lives. One such area where stories are often filtered is when clients talk about their upbringing and relationship with their caregivers. They might describe the most hideous abuse or examples of bad parenting but will always justify this with the common thought that the parents had no tools to parent. This thought fits much easier into a narrative than facing the fact that their parents let them down at crucial stages of their childhood.
Similarly, stories of relationships are often told with a small spin on them to save on facing the guilt and shame that might come up ordinarily. We tell ourselves stories, later when we try to justify why we think we are over that person or that the new person we are with is the “one”. The “honeymoon period” of a relationship is where we filter the narrative the most. Despite sometimes seeing copious amounts of red flags, we still buy into the story that things will change as long as we adapt our behaviour enough. Codependents are especially prone to this.
In the telling of stories, we are protecting the experiencing Self from being overwhelmed. If we can use the remembering mind to filter out anything not to our liking, we will not face hurt, pain, shame and the realisation that the world is sometimes not that fair. When a loved one passes, the first stage of grieving is usually disbelief that the person is no longer with us. Grief is prolonged when we do not allow the grieving process to take its natural course through to acceptance. Those who prefer to subdue such feelings will carry that burden with them as they go on. Before it was stopped by law, many perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors, used memory denial as a defence in court suggesting that the victim didn’t recall properly or has spun the story through the years.
The experiencing Self and the remembering Self can be equated to our conscious and unconscious mind. We often subdue painful experiences in order to protect our present and our story is narrated to protect us. It does, however, not stay subdued for long and will reappear when triggered through such thinking parts as our shame, critical and escape parts of thinking. These are our protectors and their input is designed as such that we do not face our biggest fears by reminding us of them. This comes through in our self-talk and especially when we are berating and shaming ourselves. These subdued parts are remnants of defensive stories we told ourselves as children to protect us from pain and dysfunction.
Our psyche and how we recall experience is a complex one. We risk overwhelming the experiencing Self if we allow too many bad experiences to come through at once. We use the remembering Self to make them more palatable for us. This it duly done and in the end fogs the question concerning the link between experience, memory and the real truth.