Memory reconsolidation for self-affection

by Kaj_SotalaKajSotala.fi2 min read27th Oct 202011 comments

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Last Thursday, I realized that none of the people who ever hurt me did it because there was anything fundamentally wrong with me.

I don’t mean that as in “realized intellectually”, I mean as in “realized emotionally so that in any shame-tinged memory that I could think of, the other person decomposed to their inner pain and what they did to me in reaction to that pain and then it became apparent that it wasn’t really about me”.

The way this happened, I had been doing a lot of meditation / parts work and came to an early experience where I thought someone didn’t care about how he made me feel. Then that got juxtaposed with later memories of how he obviously did care and OH at that moment he just didn’t realize how I felt.

Then later I ended up at the memory an unrelated incident where a close friend said something that hurt and then I realized that wait, her words had nothing to do with anything that I’d said in the first place, she was obviously just projecting an unrelated trauma on me.

And then when I saw see her inner pain and words come apart, something clicked and suddenly I could see everyone’s inner pain and words come apart and then that generalized to everything and all kinds of memories started coming up to get reinterpreted.

The process was significantly aided by seeing Nick Cammarata post the following on Twitter:

… unconditional self love is about editing every single memory you have one by one going as far back as you remember to have affection as the principal component. Once you’ve done this, integrating affection into every moment of life going forward becomes effortless. After all, your brain thinks it’s already been doing that for every moment of its life. Why stop now?

It feels like being able to project compassion towards the me in the memories is an important part of the process: first I remember a shameful memory, then I project compassion at the me in the memory, then that kind of shifts into a third-person perspective where it becomes apparent what happened and I can kind of see people’s motivations in my mind’s eye.

And for that, having spent time with children seems to help. There’s a memory that comes up of me as a child or young adult, where it feels like I’m fundamentally bad. And then I kind of ask myself, if this was [some kid that I know and have spent time playing with], would I think of them as fundamentally bad for having screwed this up? Well of course not, I’d just want to comfort them and tell them that it’s alright and they’ll do better next time. And then I just apply that same feeling of affection and compassion towards myself in the memory. And if I’m older and no longer a child in the memory, then I can just think of some adult I care about and don’t feel judgmental towards.

Right now it feels like this particular move – of going into that space where I can see everyone’s motivations in that way, and forgive myself of past shame – isn’t automatic, but neither was it just a one-time thing. I got back to it this morning and worked on some further memories. It requires me to find the original incident that gave rise to the shame, which I haven’t yet managed to do with every variety of shame that I have. But on the flipside, once I started doing this, several incidents that I had previously totally forgotten about came up for reprocessing spontaneously.

I think there’s something really powerful in that “go through all of your memories until you can feel love and affection towards yourself in every single memory” frame. I had previously been doing memory reconsolidation on the model of “seek past sources of trauma and do what you can to heal the trauma”, but the mindset of “change the emotional framing of your memories so that you are no longer traumatized” doesn’t go anywhere near as far as “change the emotional framing of your memories so as to feel unconditional affection towards yourself at all times”.

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This reminds me a bit of Parental Timeline Reimprinting: https://thewholenesswork.com/core-transformation/video-9/

 

Which involves getting into a core state (e.g. Oneness, Love, Inner Peace), then experiencing your entire life up to now through the lens of that core state.  When doing coaching oftentimes when someone has a breakthrough /realization/feeling etc I'll often use the reimprinting process to make sure that they integrate this with all their memories.

Yeah, I noticed the resemblance too. For some reason I never found PTR intuitive to work with, though, despite trying it several times.

I think one difference is that most versions of timeline reimprinting that I've heard imply that you're supposed to go through your entire life in chronological order, but I can't just tell my brain to "retrieve all of my memories from age 8", so I mostly end up with some memories that feel most prototypically associated with specific ages but aren't necessarily very relevant for that core state. Whereas here I don't have any particular expectation of getting it all on one go or in a linear order, I just sit down and work with whatever memories come up on that particular sit.

Also I think I never really properly got how the whole "imagine what your parent would have been like with this core state" bit was supposed to make things feel different.

There is a memory reconsolidation technique in the book Embrace The Unlovable by Amyra Mah (a book recommended by PJEby a long time ago) that does exactly that :

  • Pick a memory, or an aspect of yourself that you consider problematic
  • As you breath out (and pull in your belly), focus on that memory / aspect of you while mentally saying "I see you" (this activate the schema)
  • As you breath in (and relax you belly), imagine breathing love while mentally saying "I love you" or "I send you love" (so you're flooding this schema with love)
  • You keep looping on that for as many breath as necessary. At some point the memory will not feel like a problem anymore, it will even feel pretty good in most cases.

I find this very effective. More effective than the way it's done in IFS, because you keep alternating between activating the schema and "mismatching it with love", so it really forces the brain to update.

The only difficult part for someone who's not used to things like Metta meditation is to actually create the feeling of love. She has other exercices in the book to train on that particular aspect. I wouldn't recommend reading the whole thing though as there is a lot of non-sense outside of that particular technique.

Last Thursday, I realized that none of the people who ever hurt me did it because there was anything fundamentally wrong with me. I don’t mean that as in “realized intellectually”...

 

Huh.

Ok, maybe this is like reversing advice, but that seems like quite a thing to realise. Even on an intellectual level. Unless “fundamentally” is doing a lot of work. I mean, suppose I got into an argument with a family member where I said something abrasive which they took personally then said something hurtful to me. Is this not about me being abrasive? Is being abrasive not something (fundamentally?) wrong with me?

I would say that "being abrasive" may be something wrong that you did, but it's not something fundamentally wrong with you. This is a little tricky, but I'll try.

The distinction is one of actions being wrong versus people being wrong. In either case, you may feel bad because you were abrasive, but the "object that the badness is associated with" is different.

If something that you do is wrong, then it's possible for you to change that in the future. You were abrasive, but you recognize that it was wrong to be abrasive, and as a result you may do something so as to not be so abrasive in the future. Once you change your behavior, you can stop feeling bad, since the feeling-bad has achieved its purpose: causing you to act differently.

But if what you are is wrong, then the feeling of badness is associated with what feels something like "your fundamental essence". It's not just that the abrasiveness was bad, it's that the abrasiveness was a signal of something that you are, which remains unchanged even if you manage to eliminate the abrasive behavior entirely. So even if you do succeed in changing your behavior and the people that you hurt forgive you, you may continue to feel bad over once having behaved that way. In which case the feeling of badness isn't serving a useful purpose anymore, you are just feeling generally bad for no reason.

Also, "realizing that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with me" doesn't directly eliminate guilt. As I understand it, guilt is a feeling that you've wronged someone and need to make reparations. That's about actions rather than your character. What's eliminated is something like shame, which I understand to be the feeling of there being something wrong with you. Interestingly, I feel that eliminating shame may make the guilt easier to deal with productively: since there's often a concrete approach for dealing with guilt (apologize and make reparations until the other person forgives you), you can focus on just making that happen. But because shame is a feeling of fundamental badness that can't really be dealt with, the only possible reaction is to try to suppress it or avoid it. Which means that if something that you did causes you both guilt and shame, the shame may cause you to flinch away from thinking the whole thing, and then you can't do anything that would help with the guilt.

On a functional level, both my intuition as well as my cursory look at relevant emotion research suggest that one of the functions of shame is related to a fear of moral condemnation. Suppose that you say something abrasive, and you also live in a society where abrasive people are generally looked down upon, and where it's hard to be forgiven for abrasiveness. Shame, then is something like rolled-up metacognition: it acts as a judgment of "if other people found out that I have been abrasive, they would judge me harshly" and motivates you to do things like hide or deny your past abrasiveness, or at least punish yourself for it before others do.

But subjectively, shame usually doesn't just feel like "I need to hide this so that people won't judge me", it feels like there's a fact of the matter saying "I am bad for having done this thing". "I am bad" is the brain's social-punishment machinery acting on the person themselves. Even if it is genuinely the case that you have done something that you would be better off hiding from others, it's better to do that without your social punishment machinery kicking in. Because as the linked article covers, your punishment machinery doesn't actually care about finding solutions to problems, it just cares about punishing you:

You can want to end death, disease, and suffering, without rejecting the reality of death, disease and suffering.

Moral judgment and preferences are two entirely different and separate things. And when moral judgment is involved, trade-offs become taboo.

When Ingvar was procrastinating, and felt he should do his work faster, his brain spent absolutely zero time considering how he might get it done at all, let alone how he might do it faster.

Why? Because to the moral mind, the reasons he is not getting it done do not matter. Only punishing the evildoer matters, so even if someone suggested ways he could make things easier, his moral brain rejects them as irrelevant to the real problem, which is clearly his moral failing. Talking or thinking about problems or solutions isn’t really “working”, therefore it’s further evidence of his failing. And making the work easier would be lessening his rightful punishment!

So when moral judgment is involved, actually reasoning about things feels wrong. Because reasoning might lead to a compromise with the Great Evil: a lessening of punishment or a toleration of non-punishers.

This is only an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

The truth is that, when you switch off moral judgment, preference remains. Most of us, given a choice, actually prefer that good things happen, that we actually act in ways that are good and kind and righteous, that are not about fighting Evil, but simply making more of whatever we actually want to see in the world.

And ironically, we are more motivated to actually produce these results, when we do so from preference than from outrage. We can be creative, we can plan, or we can even compromise and adjust our plans to work with reality as it is, rather than as we would prefer it to be.

After all, when we think that something is how the world should be, it gives us no real motivation to change it. We are motivated instead to protest and punish the state of the world, or to “speak out” against those we believe responsible... and then feel like we just accomplished something by doing so!

And so we end up just like Ingvar, surfing the net and punishing himself, but never actually working... nor even choosing not to work and to do something more rewarding instead.

Thank you for the comprehensive answer!

How does this apply for physically painful trauma? I understand that the broader process should work, but I'm curious if you could guess what frame would be the most helpful for such trauma.

Hmm, interestingly I don't feel like any physically painful experiences have given me significant trauma, even though I've had broken bones a few times etc.

I think this is because I've generally felt socially supported during those times, and confident that the experiences will eventually pass: my impression is that a feeling of helplessness plays a big role in whether a physically painful experience gets interpreted as traumatic or not. So in principle giving your past self affection and a feeling of being safe and supported could also help with that. At least that would be my guess based on my limited experience.

Thanks for the reply. Feelings of helplessness sounds about right, and I think you may be right about giving your self the feeling that you are being supported. Only, people with severe chronic pain often suffer from anxiety and depression as well. It seems like it would be a hard battle getting their brains to recognise those aforementioned feelings. 

It can definitely be very difficult, yeah.