This is the twelfth part of a lengthy article by Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., called Emotional Memory Management: Positive Control Over Your Memory. The link to the next segment is included at the close of this segment.
File Control in Special Situations
- File control is a serious problem in alcohol or substance abuse. Remember: the alcohol and substance (marijuana, cocaine, etc.) automatically create good files due to their action on the brain. Sadly, bad files are created in the abusers home/family due to fights, arguments, and hangovers. Therefore, thinking of alcohol/drugs rarely brings up a bad file to make the situation unpleasant. In fact, talking about drinking or using drugs usually brings a smile.
To combat this situation, those who have problems with drugs and/or alcohol are advised to pull a bad file when confronted with substances. This is a common situation in those trying to maintain sobriety. How many times have we socially heard someone turn down a beer with “No thanks, My wife would kill me! I’d have no job and my children wouldn’t speak to me!”
That person is using a file with a marital argument in it to kill his previous attraction to the substance. If people pulled up a file on their worst hangover every time they thought of alcohol, we might see a dramatic drop in national alcohol consumption.
- File control is especially important in marital/family discussions. Remembering our 90-120 second rule about emotions surfacing when a file is pulled, marital discussions on sensitive topics are best controlled by time-out techniques which prevent entire files from being pulled. Couples are encouraged to conduct business meetings with an egg timer! A three-minute egg timer allows each party three minutes to state an issue, then three minutes for the partner, and so on. The three-minute timer prevents “files” from taking control of the discussion is couples stick to the procedure.
- The filing system works at night too! Dreams are often jumbled as the brain pulls files and puts them together in our dreams. Dreams are actually a time in which the brain sorts its’ files, at the same time pulling old files. Events during the day are reviewed and combined with old files in our dreams. That’s why we may dream of taking a shower in the middle of downtown Columbus! Dreams only reflect our memory and our mood – they do not actually contain hidden truths, warnings, or other special information.
- Many individuals have been traumatized by assault, death of loved ones, illness, hospitalization, arguments, and other emotionally stressful events. Emotional trauma produces a huge file, including the feelings of the event. To make matters worse, those concerned with our welfare after the trauma often feel the need to ask us about it – pulling the file! Trauma victims are encouraged to create several rehearsed answers to common comments/questions, much like the President’s press secretary reads responses from a prepared paper. The rehearsed response or “Press Release” usually prevents the original “bad” file from surfacing as you are too busy recalling your rehearsed comment.
Question: “What happened to you the other night?”
Response: “I guess things got a little out of hand. I’m sorting things out right now and as soon as I have all the details I’ll sit down and give you the story. I’ve discovered it’s better not to talk about it right now but I’m doing ok.”
Trauma victims will also find that a location or set of circumstances will almost immediately pull a strong file. Be prepared for the “I can’t go back there” reaction, often attached to a work site (where injured), location of the trauma in your community, or activity (“I can stand to drive anymore”).
Importantly, remember that if you have been traumatized – so have the people who care about you! Your presence, phone call, or visit may pull their files about your experience, files containing grief, feelings of helplessness, sadness, emotional shock, and so forth.
This is why many friends/relatives often avoid a trauma victim or depressed friend/relative at first – it pulls their files which contain sadness, anger, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. The traumatized individual can often help by using a rehearsed “file” which sends a signal to loved ones that the situation and condition is being managed.
Feeling Levels Can Pull Files
When we see a friend in town, the brain looks for and pull his/her file. Our emotions work this way also. When we begin to feel a certain feeling or when our “feeling level” reaches a certain spot, the brain searches for anything (a file or memory reference) we may have for that level of feeling. The brain basically asks the question “Have I felt this way before?” – If so, pull the file.
This explains why many people can only reach so far in a relationship. As they become emotionally closer, the brain may look for a file reference.
Strong feelings —– ? (brain looks for a reference, finds the file below)
Memory file: “First Marriage” That file contains strong feelings —-> verbal/physical abuse —– separation —– divorce. Pulling that old file in the new relationship puts your emotional and romantic progress at a halt.
When we see what’s in the “first marriage” file, it’s easy to see how the individual would become uneasy, upset, and even defensive in the new relationship. This is why people become “bogged down” in relationships. If we develop odd feelings or attitudes that don’t seem to fit the situation – look for a file that may be out. If you are thinking “Every time I feel this way…” and then predict the future, you’ve got a file out.
Strong>Developing a Treatment Plan
Let’s suppose we have a strong Emotional Memory (EM), perhaps the result of an automobile accident, a childhood trauma, a life-threatening experience, a physical assault, a public embarrassment, or something equally emotionally traumatic. We can develop a treatment plan to eliminate the “emotional” part of the memory. We can never eliminate the details of the memory/experience – only brain damage or disease wipes out complete memories. The goal in the treatment of Emotional Memories (EM) is to eliminate the emotional component – the part that causes us emotional pain. If the emotional component/part is taken away, we can relate the story without fear of being upset or returning to that mood.
Keep in mind the goal with Emotional Memory (EM) – Eliminating the emotional part of the memory. One of the fastest and easiest ways to complete that task is to “water down” the emotional part of the memory. To do this, imagine having a letter saved on a computer word processor. Each time you retrieve the letter – it looks the same, reads the same, and says the same thing. If we pull it up on the computer screen, read it, then save it – nothing has changed. This is what happens when we relate Emotional Memory (EM) events to others without adding to the memory or file.
What happens if we pull up that word processor letter each day. Each time we pull it up on the screen, we add one long sentence to the letter – a sentence that is silly, unrelated to the letter, or just a bit off-base – then save it again. After two weeks we’ve added 14 sentences to the letter and the original letter is now gone. It’s something totally different now. We use this technique to eliminate emotional parts of Emotional Memory (EM).
Technique: Each time we pull a bad Emotional Memory (EM) file, we add something to it. A comment, a joke, a physical gesture, etc. The brain will automatically save the file due to the new/added parts.
> Treatment Plan:
Event: We have been violently assaulted by someone.
Emotional part of the memory: The emotional component contains fears of dying, a fight-for-my-life feeling, panic, and severe anxiety.
Procedure: Each time we bring up the Emotional Memory (EM) of the event, we add something – the funnier the better. For example: “After that assault, I’ve canceled my scheduled bout with Mike Tyson. I’m just not up to it.” or “I’ve decided to market a line of assault-proof underwear. You think JC Penneys would be interested?” or “I’ve haven’t had a fight like that since I used my brother’s Beatles albums as Frisbees!” It’s like adding a sentence each time we review the word processor letter – watering down the original content over time. We can makeup or imagine part of the event as a humorous addition, for example “I just kept thinking during the attack, my taxes are due!!” The reactions of others to your humor will also be added to the file. This is why a World War II vet can talk calmly about horrible events during the war at the American Legion – he’s discussed it so often, in so many different circumstances, that the emotional part has gone. Only the details remain. In Emotional Memory (EM), we naturally do this technique, commonly known as “getting over it”. This paper just tells you how to do that faster and more efficiently. Any Emotional Memory (EM) can be approached in this manner and “watered down”.
We are a collection of memories – that’s who we are, what makes up our personality, what controls our behaviors, and what often produces our moods. The good Emotional Memory (EM) is a blessing to us, remembering good times during childhood, our favorite songs/events, and old friends. However, we have all collected bad or often traumatic Emotional Memory (EM) files as well. The goal of Emotional Memory (EM) Management is to control or eliminate the emotional part of those files. If we can do that, our history of bad experiences becomes just that – history. Those files become a record of where we’ve been and experienced, not something that continues to control our moods and behaviors.
In daily living and especially during times of stress, our memory file system is very important. It is a system that is active every second, works automatically, and can change our mood within two minutes. Our office has presented the above information with the hope that you can lower your stress and live more effectively by controlling your emotional memory files rather than allowing them to control you! Remember – our emotional file system is like our breathing, it will operate on automatic or we can take manual control. Knowing how the system operates allows us more control over our memories and daily lives.
Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Psychologist
Credit: This handout was written by Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist. It is provided as a public service and can be reproduced as needed. Dr. Carver is in private practice in Southern Ohio.