How many times do we hold on tight to our beliefs and
experiences when they do not serve us well? Memory baggage? Forget about it
June 9, 2002
Ever meet someone new and then instantly dismiss him or her for a stupid reason? If so, chances are good that you have "Memory baggage." This mental luggage is packed in the subconscious from experience, influencing and sometimes unnecessarily sabotaging present and future situations. Relationships, jobs and general views on life can all be unnecessarily weighed down by this extra burden.
I like the Zen philosophy of emptying the mind's clutter so one can start clean. Well something like that. The point was demonstrated most dramatically during a workshop I attended.
A woman was asked to tell of her past abuse. By the end of her heart-wrenching story, the whole room was in tears. Afterward, the facilitator asked her if she was willing to let that experience go. Of course she wanted to get away from that.
But his stipulation was that she could no longer tell her "story" as an excuse for her current life situations. She could no longer use it as a reason to shut people out, gain empathy, harbor hate for certain people or otherwise influence future relationships. If she were to move on to a better life, she had to unload this weight.
This change was a risky venture into the unknown. Surprising her listeners, she honestly admitted that she was not yet ready to give it up.
How many times do we hold on tight to our beliefs and experiences when they do not serve us well?
I had my own chance at trying out the Zen way when a high school classmate e-mailed me. Staring at my computer, I could feel my body chemistry change from normal to defensive. I still related this person to my single most humiliating high school experience (as if I had only one to choose from)."Cliff" was a lettered athlete in the popular crowd, a tennis-tanned golden boy. His smile could sell toothpaste. He sat in front of me in business class, a cool, charming senior who wowed me easily with his flirtation. I wasn't exactly in his league. I hung mid-pack with the brainy crowd, and even though I was on the pompon squad, I was a mere sophomore.
Because I thought Cliff liked me, I asked him to the homecoming dance. This was high school social suicide for three reasons.
One, girls didn't ask guys to homecoming. (Their only chance was asking them to the "Turnabout" dance.) Two, you didn't ask above your rank, especially two class years up. And three, he was Mr. Popular - he already had his pick of the school.
Cliff told me that he wasn't sure what his plans were for the dance and that he'd "get back to me in a week." I passed the week, overprocessing every possible detail of our conversation. When it was clear that I wasn't going to get an answer by waiting, I asked again in the most inopportune high school setting - a crowded lunch room.
Sitting with his group of popular friends, he informed me that he had made other plans. As I turned from the table, I could hear the entire male regiment break out into hysterical laughter. I walked away, gathering what was left of my shredded ego.
And now, sitting with this simple e-mail, I needed to let the past go. The fact was that Cliff probably had no significant memory of this event or even understood that I still had strong memories attached. But now I could dump the childhood baggage and act like an adult. If I dropped my own "story," I might reconnect with an old school friend.
And so I did. I decided to purge my bad feelings. It wasn't the first time my heart got crunched, I told myself, and it certainly wasn't going to be the last.
Most people don't give up their pasts that easily. Our histories are what make us who we are, but they don't have to cloud our outlooks permanently. It is much easier to purge individual experiences when they no longer serve a healthy purpose.
In my own attempts at changing old patterns, I just take it one experience at a time, trying my best. I don't always succeed, but the little victories do strengthen my emotional progress.
Over the years, my mom has out-workshopped me and has one thing in her "wisdom bag" worth noting here. As a counselor and healer, she lets people tell their stories once. The next time they come up, she calls them on it, helping them see that they are using the stories as a crutch on which to walk from one life experience to another. As she constantly reminds me, the person who supposedly "wronged" me in the past, or still shapes my negative thinking, is usually long gone and puts no further energy into the encounter.
But for all of us, hanging onto our stories like that, especially retelling them over and over, is like feeding the Audrey II plant from "The Little Shop of Horrors." The plant, like our own held-tight emotions, grows and grows until it needs to eat its host entirely to insure its survival. It all starts innocently and, you guessed it, voluntarily.
So, the next time you find yourself hauling cumbersome memory baggage, do what the airlines do. Lose it.